The Best Shoulder Workouts for More Muscle, For Strength, For Beginners, and More


Training the shoulders may not be at the top of the list for most lifters. It doesn’t even make the list at all for some, and they skip it entirely. But the shoulders (a.k.a. the deltoids or delts) can serve a vital role in many goals.

Whether you want to add more muscle, get stronger, or if you’re only now starting your journey into the iron game, a systematic approach to shoulder training is best. Formulating a solid and effective plan will take some careful consideration of function.

Breaking down the shoulders into separate-but-connected parts, and training them accordingly, is the optimal path for the greatest progress towards fulfilling your specific goals. Below are four options for shoulder training specific to the goals of building muscle, dumbbell-only training, beginner workouts, and pure strength.

The Best Shoulder Workouts

Shoulder Workout for More Muscle

If more muscle is the goal, your ego needs to take a hike. Building muscle isn’t entirely about lifting heavier weight for more reps. Yes, progressive overload is a part of the more-muscle equation, but form and function are imperative to your success, especially when it comes to training the shoulders.

Your focus should be on controlling the weight, avoiding any cheating to move the weight up, and getting maximum fiber recruitment and blood flow. 

The Wide Delt Workout

Many lifters invariably start each shoulder workout with a heavy overhead press to take advantage of increased strength levels early in the session. However, those same lifters would benefit from starting with work for common weak points or overlooked muscles.

Credit: WorldStockStudio / Shutterstock

This more effective approach will help to balance out shoulder mass and pre-exhaust the area, facilitating a greater training effect without the need for super-heavy weights — which can create stress on the joints and, elicit poor form, and shift the focus to strength-building. 

Bent-Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise

  • How to Do It: Grasp a pair of dumbbells and bend at your hips until your upper body is nearly parallel to the floor. Allow the weights to hang straight down, just above your feet. Avoid rounding your lower back. Raise the dumbbells up and out to the side with your palms facing the floor during the movement. Keep a slight bend in your elbows and keep the weights in line with your head. Squeeze your rear deltoids (back of the shoulder) in the top position and then return under control. 
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15
  • Rest Time: 30 to 45 seconds between sets.

Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise

  • How to Do It: Stand with a pair of dumbbells held at your sides, palms facing your body. Keep a slight bend in your elbow and a tightly braced core. Raise the weights out to your sides until you reach shoulder-height. Return slowly to your sides.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15
  • Rest Time: 30 to 45 seconds between sets.

Machine Shoulder Press

  • How to Do It: Sit in a shoulder press machine and grasp the handles with either a pronated (palms forward) or neutral (palms-in) grip. Adjust the seat or handle to begin the movement around ear-level. Press up until just before your elbows lockout, then return back down.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15
  • Rest Time: 30 to 45 seconds between sets.

Cable Face Pull 

  • How to Do It: Attach a rope handle to a cable pulley set around eye-level. Grasp the rope with your thumbs near the end stoppers and step back with your arms extended in front of you. Pull the rope towards your forehead. Keep your elbows up and out to the sides, in line with your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulders back and return slowly to the stretched position.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15
  • Rest Time: 30 to 45 seconds between sets.

Shoulder Workout with Dumbbells

Effective shoulder training shouldn’t be reserved for those who have the latest state-of-the-art technology, the most current training machinery, and the most plush workout environments.

Man in gym performing shoulder exercise with dumbbells
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

With just a simple set of dumbbells, anyone can build an impressive set of deltoids without needing any flashy equipment.

Dumbbell-Only Delt Training

Below is a basic dumbbell workout covering all the important bases needed for any solid plan. It hits each deltoid head — front, side, and rear — and utilizes a few unique planes of motion, setting you up for a great workout without the traditional (and expensive) gym equipment.

Seated Dumbbell Press

  • How to Do It: Sit on a seat with a back pad and grasp two dumbbells. Bring them to shoulder-level with your elbows angled slightly out to your sides. Press the weights up and in, ending up directly over your head. Stop just before your elbows lockout. Return the dumbbells down to the starting position slowly and under control. 
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets.

Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise

  • How to Do It: Stand with a pair of dumbbells held at your sides, palms facing your body. Keep a slight bend in your elbow and a tightly braced core. Raise the weights out to your sides until you reach shoulder-height. Return slowly to your sides.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets.

Standing Dumbbell Upright Row

  • How to Do It: Stand with a pair of dumbbells resting on the front of your thighs with your palms facing your body. Maintain the same hand position while raising the weight up, leading with your elbows. Keep the weights close to your body. Stop when the dumbbells are at shoulder-height. Your elbows should always be slightly higher than your hands. Return down under control. 
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets

Seated Dumbbell Front Raise

  • How to Do It: Sit on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand hanging at your sides with your palms facing each other. Keep your arms straight and raise both dumbbells up and inwards, making a slight curve from your sides up to eye-level. At the top, the dumbbells should be close together but not touching. Reverse the movement and lower the weights to the bottom. 
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets.

Shoulder Workout for Beginners

With the overwhelming amount of information on the web, it’s tough to discern what works and what doesn’t (about everything, let alone shoulder training).

It also seems that everyone has an opinion about how beginners “should” start out whether it’s with the barebones basics, diving right into some complex program, or using something in between. But rest assured, shoulder training doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, all that confusing.

The Basic Beginner’s Shoulder Workout

A beginner’s routine shouldn’t be too complicated, and that’s especially true for the shoulders. The deltoid complex is made up of many smaller muscles that work in concert to function through many planes of motion. Additionally, it can be a vulnerable area when trained incorrectly.

Man in gym performing barbell shoulder press
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Beginners need to simply focus on practicing proper form and working the muscles through a full range of motion without worrying too much about loading heavy weights. 

Seated Barbell Shoulder Press

  • How to Do It: Sit on a bench with a padded back grasping a barbell a bit outside of shoulder-width. Begin with the bar held just in front of your chin and push the bar straight up. Once it passes your head, push the bar slightly back so it’s directly overhead and allow your head to travel between your arms. After locking out overhead, lower the weight under control to the starting position. 
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets.

Wide-Grip Barbell Upright Row

  • How to Do It: Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip six to 12 inches outside of shoulder-width. Stand with the bar resting against your thighs. Pull the weight up by bending your elbows. Lead the movement with your elbows, keeping them higher than your hands. The bar should travel up your body until it reaches mid-chest level. Lower the bar back down slowly. 
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets.

Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise

  • How to Do It: Stand with a pair of dumbbells held at your sides, palms facing your body. Keep a slight bend in your elbow and a tightly braced core. Raise the weights out to your sides until you reach shoulder-height. Return slowly to your sides.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12
  • Rest Time: 60 seconds between sets.

Shoulder Workout for Strength

Building strong shoulders isn’t as simple as hoisting heavier weights with your current routine. It’ll take a bit of a paradigm shift. The goal should be to lift heavier, but only with the right exercises.

Man performing heavy barbell shoulder press
Credit: MilanMarkovic78 / Shutterstock

Stronger shoulders are the hub of all upper body movements. A strong and stable shoulder girdle has the ability to support many of the bigger lifts such as bench presses, rows, pull-ups, and deadlifts

The Strength-Building Shoulder Workout 

Take a different approach to strength here. You’ll need to think about big compound movements, developing some speed strength, and using exercises that can add more foundational stability. This plan is designed to do just that. 

Standing Push Press

  • How to Do It: Stand with a barbell at shoulder-height, holding the bar slightly outside of each shoulder. Begin with a stable core, flexed glutes, and slightly bent legs. Begin the movement by straightening your legs to provide a little push. Capitalize on this assistance by also pressing powerfully overhead. Lockout the weight directly above your head. Brace your core again before controlling the weight down to the starting position.
  • Sets and Reps: 4 x 5
  • Rest Time: Two minutes between sets.

Hang Clean

  • How to Do It: Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip a bit wider than your shoulders. Bend slightly at your knees and hips, allowing the bar to travel down your thighs. Forcefully straighten your entire body while pulling the bar up in a straight line towards your chest. Once it reaches chest-level, quickly bend your knees to drop your body down while fully bending your arms to “catch” the bar on the front of your shoulders. 
  • Sets and Reps: 4 x 5
  • Rest Time: Two minutes between sets.

Farmer’s Walk

  • How to Do It: Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells and allow them to hang by your sides. Find a straight path and begin by walking as far as possible while carrying the weights. Keep your arms slightly bent and your shoulder blades pinched back to maintain strong, safe posture. One complete round trip — from your starting point, going out as far as possible and returning to the starting point — is one “rep.”
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 1
  • Rest Time: Two minutes between sets.

Muscles of Your Shoulders

The shoulders, or deltoids, are one muscle composed of three separate heads.

Bodybuilder flexing shoulder and back muscles
Credit: Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

Each head contributes to overall movement, but their anatomical position allows each to be a larger contributor during certain movements, making the shoulder a relatively complex muscle group.

Anterior Deltoids

The anterior deltoids, or front delts, are in front of the shoulder above your biceps. They connect your upper arm to your clavicle. They primarily raise your arm upwards in front of your body..

Lateral Deltoids

The lateral deltoids, or side delts, are located on the central section of the shoulder and are most commonly associated with the “wide shoulder” appearance. The lateral delts connect your upper arm to the acromion process on your shoulder blade. Lateral delts are significantly recruited to move your arm out to the side.

Posterior Deltoids

The posterior deltoids, or rear delts, connect your upper arm to the flat portion of your shoulder blade. They play a key role in moving your arms backwards, especially during pulling or rowing exercises. Because several muscles of the upper back also perform a similar function, the rear deltoids often require (but don’t often receive) specifically targeted training.

How to Warm-Up Your Shoulders

Skipping a warm-up isn’t good for any body part. Sure, you may quickly warm-up your legs, chest, or back, but many lifters have no good reason for simply jumping right into shoulder training without prepping them for the work to come.

The shoulders are a complex, multi-angular group of muscles that require a proper warm-up specific to their needs. Since their function is to lift the arm to the front, side, and back, it’s best to give these movements attention.

A Complete Shoulder Warm-Up

  • Face Pull: Attach a rope handle to a cable pulley set around eye-level. Grasp the rope with your thumbs near the end stoppers and step back with your arms extended in front of you. Pull the rope towards your forehead. Keep your elbows up and out to the sides, in line with your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulders back and return slowly to the stretched position. Perform two sets of 10 reps.
  • Standing Dumbbell Press: Stand with a pair of dumbbells at shoulder-level with your elbows angled slightly out to your sides. Flex your abs and glutes for total-body stability. Keep a slight bend in your knees. Press the weights up and in. At the top, the weights should be directly over your head with your arms locked. Return the dumbbells under control down to shoulder-level. Perform two sets of 10 reps.
  • Band Pull-Apart: Stand with your arms extended in front of your chest, with a palms-down grip on a resistance band. Keep a slight bend in your arms while pulling the band apart until it touches your chest. Hold for one second before reversing the motion under control. Perform two sets of 10 reps.

Well-Rounded, Well-Built Shoulders

No matter if your goal is muscle growth, more strength, or if you need an all dumbbell option or you’re a beginner there’s a shoulder workout designed just for you. Choose a plan, execute with razor-like focus, and finally reach those goals for better shoulders.

Featured Image: Aleksandr Lupin / Shutterstock

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