5 Shoulder Exercises Backed By Science That Will Help Reach All Three Deltoid Muscles

Shoulder Exercises
Five of the most effective shoulder exercises you can do. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Shoulder exercises are not only a good way to buildup so-called “cannonball delts,” but they also help prevent one of the most common sports injuries, a torn rotator cuff. As with any muscle group, to gain strength in your shoulders, you have to know them inside and out. Three major muscles found in your shoulder area include the anterior (front) deltoid, medial (side) deltoid, and posterior (back) deltoid. When putting together your shoulder workout routine, make sure you include exercises that successfully hit all three of these muscles. This means the right distribution of compound and isolation exercises. Here are six strength-training exercises that are worth adding to your next shoulder routine:

“For the generalized public a shoulder workout should primarily include rotator cuff strengthening exercises,” Wil Colon, physical therapist at the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at NYU Langone Medical Center, told Medical Daily in an email. “One of the biggest hazards or mistakes made by people when performing shoulder workouts is neglecting to also strengthen the rotator cuff - a set of 4 small muscles which serve to stabilize the shoulder joint. Weakness of the rotator cuff muscles will eventually lead to shoulder injury especially when involved in performing heavy upper body exercises. Strengthening of the rotator cuff can be done with 3-4 simple exercises and should be performed with relatively light weights.”

1. Overhead Barbell Press/Military Press

The overhead barbell press is the mainstay of any efficient shoulder workout routine and is considered by many to be the most important compound exercise for building upper body strength. While this exercise focuses mainly on the anterior deltoid, it also incorporates both the medial and posterior deltoids for a well-rounded shoulder movement. When performing a proper overhead barbell press, either standing or sitting, start with the barbell at around the height of your chest and palms facing forward. With your grip shoulder width apart, press the barbell over your head to a position slightly in front of your body before locking your arms. In a slow and controled motion, allow the barbell to descend back into the starting position. If standing, keep your feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent.

“Most types of overhead barbell exercises are performed incorrectly - these should not be performed behind the head with heavy weights,” said Colon. “Performing this type of exercise behind the head alters the position of the scapulae (e.g., shoulder blades), limiting their ability to rotate - which, in turn, may cause impingement of the rotator cuff and injury.”

2. Side Laterals to Front Raise

Now that we’ve covered the most important compound exercise for your shoulders, let’s take a look at an effective isolation exercise. Side laterals to front raises is a combination of two movements that target both the anterior deltoid and the medial deltoid. Start off with your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, with dumbbells in hand and down at your sides. Keep your elbows slightly bent while lifting both arms to the side of your body without raising your shoulder up toward your ears.

When the dumbbells are parallel to your shoulders, swing them in front of you while keeping yours arms extended before lowering the weights in front of your body. Repeat the routine in reverse by lifting the weights in front of your body and swinging them to the side. Make sure all of your movements throughout the exercise are made with full control.

3. Arnold Dumbbell Press

Traditional dumbbell presses can become boring and often lead to a complacent workout routine. Add a little variety to your shoulder day by throwing in some Arnold dumbbell presses. Creator of the Arnold press, the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger, realized that he could increase his shoulder growth by adding a literal twist to dumbbell overhead presses.

Start off by holding two dumbbells in front of you with your elbows facing away from your body and your palms facing in toward your body. Press the dumbbells up while swinging your elbows back. Without allowing your arms to lock, make sure that you end with your elbows facing the side and palms facing away from your body before bring your arms back to their original position.

4. Incline Barbell Front Raise

Incline barbell front raises are an underutilized shoulder exercise that can help you bust through the dreaded strength-training plateau. By isolating your anterior deltoids, this simple but effective movement makes cheating hard because you are seated throughout the exercise. Start off facedown on a 45-degree incline bench with a barbell down in front of you.

Using an overhand grip on the barbell, make sure your grip is shoulder width apart. From the starting position with the barbell out in front of your chest and arms down toward the floor, lift the weight up until it’s just above the crown of your head. Hold the barbell at its highest moment before lowering back down in a controled motion.

5. Barbell Shrugs

There’s an ongoing discussion among gym rats who can’t decide if trapezius workouts are better on back days or shoulder days. As many of you may know, barbell shrugs are the quintessential trap workout, but should you work them into your back workout routine or your shoulder workout routine? Similar to shoulders, traps are divided into three distinct areas, including upper, middle, and lower traps. Barbell shrugs, which target your upper traps, tend to get incorporated at the end of an effective shoulder routine.

Start off with your feet shoulder width apart and back straight. Hold the barbell at thigh level with your palms facing in. Raise your shoulders up toward your ears and stop at the highest point for a moment allowing your arms to drop back to the starting position in a controled motion. 

Join the Discussion