Humans are bipedal animals thanks to our upper body capabilities. The shoulder muscles are a significant element in upper body strength, so if you're interested in putting together a fitness routine that targets them, you've come to the right place. We cover some of the exercises you can use to condition shoulder muscles wherever you are in your fitness journey. You can do these movements in the comfort of your home or at a well-stocked gym. Be sure to get the green light from your doctor or relevant health professional if you have a chronic health condition or are recovering from an injury before you embark on a strength training program.

Anatomy of the shoulder

The shoulders have the distinction of being the most mobile joints in the human body. Shoulder muscles facilitate the lifting and rotating of the arms. The main shoulder muscle groups you need to know about are the rotator cuffs, the delts, and the scapular muscles, which include the rhomboids, traps, levator scapulae, and serratus anterior.

The four rotator cuffs stabilize the top of the upper arm bone and keep the shoulder in its socket. The scapular muscles perform this job, too.

Guide to Shoulder Workouts: Building Strength and Stability


Benefits of strong shoulders

Shoulders are often overlooked in the average person's fitness routine, but their strength and stability are integral to continued mobility and enhanced sports performance. They allow you to drive a car, reach the top of a shelf, brush your hair, and lift, push, or pull various objects. Of course, they play a huge role in athletic movements such as tennis backhands and throws.

Working on your shoulders can improve your posture. Plus, the fact that shoulders are super mobile means they're also the least stablejoints, so injuries are common. Preventive, proactive shoulder workouts should reduce the likelihood of injuries.

Bodybuilder showing his back and biceps muscles, personal fitness trainer. Strong man flexing his muscles


Essential shoulder exercises

Key shoulder exercises include the push-press, military press, and rear delt row. Here's how to do a dumbbell push press. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inward and stand straight with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Bend your elbows to lift the dumbbells to shoulder height for your starting position.

Bend your knees and hips a little. Now, extend your hips and knees while extending your elbows to press the dumbbells above your head until your arms line up with your ears. Lower the dumbbells to the starting position and repeat the movement. Do between 8 and 12 reps in a set.

Stability ball exercise. Studio shot over white.


Workouts for beginner lifters

Beginners can start conditioning rotator cuffs with wall slides. Stand and face a wall. Bring your elbows to 90 degrees and press them and your forearms into the wall. Engage your core and slide your arms up above your head in a slight Y shape. At the top of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together if you can to lift your hands off the wall just a little and pulse a couple of times. Do 3 sets of 8 reps with short breaks between each set.

You can incorporate dumbbell front raises and reverse flys into beginner upper-body strength routines as well.

physiotherapist helping man exercise with dumbbell SARINYAPINNGAM / Getty Imaes


Intermediate to advanced techniques

When you're ready to take your muscle-building exercises up a notch, try the Arnold press or the upright row. The latter targets the delts and upper traps and you can do it with dumbbells or a barbell. Hold the dumbbell with an overhand grip, shoulder-width apart, and arms extended. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

Once you're in this starting position, bend your elbows outward and upward to lift the barbell to your chest before extending your elbows to return to the starting position. You can combine the upright row with a shoulder press. Do between 8 and 12 reps in a set.

Fit man exercising at home with hand weights in his living room.


Incorporating equipment

If you're doing wall slides as deltoid exercise activations and you're looking for more of a challenge, you can loop a resistance band around your wrists while you do the movement. When you're at the gym, you can use a plate to do bus drivers for better shoulder stability.

Fully extend your arms and lift the plate so you can see through the hole. Rotate the plate to the right and to the left in a slow, controlled manner, almost like you're turning a steering wheel. Do this for as long as you can until you build up to a minute.

woman foam rolling her back or shoulder


A routine for home and gym

Well-balanced fitness routines often comprise two or three days of strength training separated by days of rest to give muscle groups a chance to recover or cardio days to boost your aerobic fitness.

If you're lifting twice a week, it's a good idea to split your workouts into chest, arms, and shoulders on one day and legs, back, and abs on the other. Or you can do a dedicated shoulder workout with front raises, Arnold presses, upright rows, lateral raises, and reverse flys, for example, to work rotator cuffs and different parts of the delts. Build up from 8-rep sets to 12-rep sets. You don't have to do multiple sets to start seeing results.

home workout


Safety tips and injury prevention

Proper form is essential to get the most out of your workouts and prevent shoulder or other injuries. Research what perfect form looks and feels like for each exercise you're considering adding to a workout, and check your form in a mirror. Use evidence-based sources from qualified health professionals for advice about best practices. For wall slides, for example, you'll want to avoid touching the wall with your head and chest.

Keep your neck and back straight in a neutral position, and don't shrug your shoulders. In addition, inhale and exhale as advised during various movements. Never push through pain, and never increase the weight you're lifting too quickly.

Senior man suffering with shoulder pain during workout Sneksy/ Getty Images


Monitoring progress and adjusting workouts

Vary the order of your exercises to prevent plateauing, achieve balanced development, and keep things interesting. Progress to a higher weight when you can do 12 reps comfortably—the movement should get more difficult as you do more reps, but you should stop when you think you're still able to do 2 or 3 more reps. If you're bodybuilding, you can track your shoulder gains with a good old measuring tape around the body or in a straight line.

Get someone to take progress pictures for you, pay attention to whether your body feels different in your clothing, and compare exercise performance at the beginning of a routine to when you're 6 to 12 weeks into training.

tracking progress


Supplementing with nutrition

If building muscle mass is what you're after, you're going to go nowhere slowly if you don't complement your training with an increased protein intake. A balanced diet comprises all three macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats), and you'll need to consume enough calories to reach a positive caloric balance that exceeds what your body needs when it's sedentary.

You can use this calculator to get an idea of how many calories and how much protein you require as an active or very active individual. Consume a protein supplement after workouts to maximize your gains.

Histidine rich food with structural chemical formula of essential amino acid histidine. Natural food sources of histidine include high protein foods like eggs, dairy products, meat, nuts, seeds.


Expert insights

Consult with qualified fitness professionals such as physical therapists for ideas on how to best combine isolation exercises, compound movements, and heavy presses for progression toward your goals. In general, avoid quick direction changes and too-quick movements.

Get your muscles nice and warm before workouts by doing dynamic stretches or 5 to 10 minutes of aerobic exercise such as jumping jacks and skipping, and cool down with static stretches. Keep your shoulders safe with this golden rule—ensure you can always see your hands when you're looking straight ahead and doing exercises with weights. In other words, avoid barbell and dumbbell exercises that go behind the head or neck.

Doctor applying a continuous glucose monitor sensor on patient's arm. Obese, overweight man is at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Concept of health risks of overwight and obesity.


Wrapping it up

Comprehensive shoulder training has numerous benefits, and muscle tone and definition are just a couple of them. By integrating exercises like wall slides, push presses, rear delt rows, and bus drivers into your fitness regimen, you're also setting yourself up for better posture, fewer upper body niggles, and more strength and stability for functional movements such as putting luggage in the overhead compartment on a plane. Focus on proper form to ensure your shoulder workouts are not counterproductive.

father and son showing biceps fizkes / Getty Images


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