Best Exercises for Shoulders

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 17, 2021
4 min read

The shoulder is a complex, ball-and-socket joint that's more prone to injury if neglected during your workout regimen. Three muscles control the shoulder joint: the anterior, the medial, and the posterior deltoids.

Many people focus on the anterior (front) ones because that's what you can see the most. But neglecting the other two can lead to shoulder mobility problems and injuries in the future. During your workout, you'll need to do multiple shoulder exercises to hit each muscle.

Many shoulder exercises suggest using dumbbells. If you don't have dumbbells at home, you can use:

  • Milk jugs filled with water or sand
  • Unopened soup or vegetable cans
  • Unopened plastic water bottles
  • Unopened or sealed paint cans
  • Bags of apples, onions, or potatoes
  • A pail or a bucket filled with sand

The number of reps you should do depends on how much weight you're using and what your goals are. This is true for any shoulder exercise. Keep in mind that:

  • Using an extremely heavy weight with which you can only do three to five reps builds force but not muscle growth.
  • Using a medium weight with which you can do eight to 10 reps builds force and muscle growth.
  • Using a light weight for 15 to 20 reps builds muscle growth but not force.

This exercise focuses on the anterior and medial deltoid. To do this press:

  1. Take your favorite pair of dumbbells and stand with your feet at hip's width distance.
  2. Tighten your core and make sure your knees have a slight bend.
  3. With one dumbbell in each hand, bring your hands up to form a 90-degree angle. Your elbows will be slightly below your shoulders and your hands — while holding the dumbbells — will be in line with your ears. This is your starting position.
  4. Press your hands up until your arms are straight.
  5. Bring them back down to the starting position and repeat.

Some variations of this shoulder press include:

  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press: This is the same arm movement, but sitting down.
  • Tempo shoulder press: Do the same movement, but much slower.
  • Dead stop shoulder press: Perform the same movement but hold it at the bottom of the press.

This exercise works all three deltoid muscles. It is named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famed bodybuilder, actor, and politician.

  1. Start by sitting down. Put your arms in the same starting position described for the dumbbell shoulder press. Your arms should form a 90-degree angle with your elbows slightly below your shoulders and your hands — while holding the dumbbells — in line with your ears.
  2. Press up and straighten your arms, similar to a shoulder press.
  3. Bring your arms back down to the starting position.
  4. Rotate your arms inwards, bringing the dumbbells to meet in front of you. Do this while keeping your arms at the same 90-degree angle. The dumbbells will be in front of your face.
  5. Rotate your arms back to the starting position and repeat.

This exercise targets the posterior deltoids.

  1. Start seated on the front edge of a bench. If you're at home and don't have a bench, you can use a chair with a firm seat.
  2. While holding your dumbbells, rest your arms at your side so that the dumbbells are slightly below your legs and bend your torso over your legs. If you're flexible enough, your torso can rest on your legs.
  3. Raise your arms out to the side. When you finish this movement, your arms should be at shoulder height.
  4. Make sure to keep your back flat and keep a small bend in the elbows while doing this movement.
  5. Slowly and with control, lower your arms back down to the starting position and repeat.

Push-ups are a full-body exercise that targets the anterior deltoid. However, it also works your core, other arm muscles, and leg muscles. Here's how to do them:

  1. Start on an exercise mat or on the floor.
  2. Place your palms flat under your shoulders. Tighten your core and then place your feet together straight behind you so you're in a plank position.
  3. Slowly lower your body to the floor.
  4. Make sure to keep your head and spine in line. Work your core so your hips don't sag or lift. Your body should move in one line.
  5. Lower your chin to the mat or floor while your elbows go outwards.
  6. Press upwards back to the starting position while maintaining your body in that line position.

Push-up alternatives include:

  • Incline push-up: Place your hands on a bench or a wall and do the movement from there. It's a great way for beginners to start building the muscles needed to do the full exercise later on.
  • Bent knee push-up: This one is also useful if you're having a hard time doing the full exercise. Do the same movement, but keep your knees on the floor.