Best Exercises for Stronger Shoulders (U.S. News and World Report)

Posted: Oct 27, 2023 in In the News

This article originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report on October 27, 2023.


Best Exercises for Stronger Shoulders

By Cedric X. Bryant

Keep your shoulders strong and healthy by reading about the best exercises for stronger shoulders, including a sample shoulder workout routine.

The deltoid muscles of the shoulder are among the most important muscles used in everyday life. Whether you’re pushing a lawnmower, lifting a child out of a car seat or placing a carry-on bag into the overhead bin on an airplane, the deltoids are hard at work. Broad, strong shoulders can also make a person feel fit and confident, one of the many benefits of exercise.

Shoulder Anatomy

The shoulder is a complex ball-and-socket joint, just like the hip joint. In fact, the hip and shoulder are the only two places you'll find a ball-and-socket joint in your body. These special joints are capable of a variety of movements in all directions, which makes targeting the surrounding muscles more challenging.

A well-designed strengthening program must work each of the three sections of the deltoid muscle in various ways.

Many exercisers tend to focus on the anterior deltoids, which are the muscles on the front of the shoulders. Classic shoulder exercises like front and overhead shoulder presses mainly challenge the anterior deltoids. While some people focus on these exercises for aesthetic purposes, the other two sections of your deltoids are just as important to consider.

The middle deltoids, located on the sides of the shoulders, and the posterior deltoids, located on the backs of the shoulders, are sometimes neglected in classic shoulder exercises. This can result in muscle imbalances, a common cause of shoulder pain or injury.

If you're experiencing shoulder pain with your current shoulder exercises, you may want to find out whether you're effectively targeting all of your deltoid muscles. Adding a few new exercises to your gym routine could help you strengthen the neglected middle and posterior deltoids. If you're just starting lifting weights, you can get off to a good start by following a comprehensive routine.

Popular Shoulder Exercises

While there isn't one exercise routine that can keep you perfectly healthy, pain-free and mobile, some exercises activate muscles better than others.

To determine which exercises most effectively target the shoulder muscles, research supported by the American Council on Exercise looked at 10 exercises commonly performed by both recreational lifters and athletes:

  • Dumbbell shoulder press. This standing exercise involves holding dumbbells and pushing the weight up from your shoulders until your arms are fully extended above your head. You'll bring the weight back down to your shoulders and repeat, with your forearms facing out towards the front the entire time.
  • Push-up. A classic exercise that will also work your abs and biceps in addition to your shoulders, a push-up starts in a plank position with your arms extended. Lower yourself with control and then raise back up.
  • Cable diagonal raise. Using a cable machine, hold the handle with one hand and raise it from the opposite hip upwards to the point where your hand is in line with your shoulder. Lower the handle with control and repeat.
  • Dips. Start facing towards the dip machine with your arms extended. Lower your entire body, bending your arms behind your body. Raise back up.
  • Dumbbell front raise. Holding two dumbbells with your arms straightened, raise them from your sides out in front of your body until your hands are in line with your shoulders.
  • Battling ropes. The large ropes that you'll find at some gyms can be used to work out your shoulders. Holding the ropes at arm's length, alternate swinging each up and powerfully swing it back down to hit the ground.
  • Barbell upright row. Start by holding a barbell at your waist, knuckles facing forwards. Bend your arms, bringing the bar up towards your chin, then repeat.
  • Bent-arm lateral raise. While standing, hold a dumbbell in each hand, elbows tucked at your waist, dumbbells vertical so that the insides of your forearms are facing each other. From this position, bring your elbows up and out so that your hands, forearms and upper arms are all in the same plane as your shoulders, with the dumbbells now horizontal.
  • 45-degree incline row. Lean your body against a bench angled at 45 degrees, keeping your feet on the ground. Hold two dumbbells and extend them out in front of you, palms facing down. Bring the dumbbells back towards your body and repeat.
  • Seated rear lateral raise. In a seated position with your chest angled slightly towards the ground, hold two dumbbells at your sides. Raise them up, pressing your shoulder blades together. Then lower back towards your sides.

On testing day, the researchers measured how intensely the three deltoid muscles were working during each of the 10 exercises.

Best Exercises for Stronger Shoulders

In this study, the classic dumbbell shoulder press caused the anterior deltoid to work hardest. However, that doesn't make it the best shoulder exercise because the other two muscles of the shoulder are just as important.

The 45-degree incline row and the bent-arm lateral raise yielded the best results for the middle deltoid muscles.

The seated rear lateral raise and the 45-degree incline row activated the posterior deltoids the best.

Because of the complexity of the shoulder joint and the wide variety of movements it is capable of performing, there is no single exercise that most effectively targets all three portions of the deltoid muscles, which is why a balanced approach and comprehensive shoulder workout routine is vital.

Best Shoulder Workout

The workout below features the three most effective exercises for the shoulders identified in this research. As a whole workout, these exercises address the anterior, medial and posterior portions of the deltoid muscles.

As always, warming up and staying flexible are also important for daily functioning of the shoulder muscles. This routine begins with warm-up exercises that focus on shoulder stability and mobility.

For the conditioning segment of the workout, compound sets are used to target the different portions of the deltoid muscles. This approach involves performing two or more exercises for the same muscle or muscle group in rapid succession with little or no rest between sets.

Shoulder workout warm-up

Perform each of these exercises for one set (8 to 15 repetitions total).

Shoulder workouts

Perform each exercise (8 to 15 repetitions) with little to no rest between exercises within each paired or compound set. After completing the two exercises in a compound set, rest for two to three minutes. Perform each compound set two to four times before moving onto the next compound set.

Set 1:

Set 2:



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