Whether your goal is to rock that new sleeveless dress or just perform everyday activities with ease, training the shoulders is an important part of any well-rounded exercise routine. Defined shoulders are a sign of strength, help to improve posture and can boost self-confidence, but strong shoulders are about so much more than just appearance.
Most upper-body activities involve your shoulders to some extent. Every time you lift a heavy bag of groceries out of the car, pass a tray of food across the dinner table or put a box on the top shelf of the garage, you're engaging your shoulder muscles. In order to prevent injury and optimize functional ability, you need to train the shoulders for mobility, stability and strength.
The shoulder is comprised of four joints and can move in all three planes of motion. As a result, the shoulder is one of the most mobile but least stable joints in the body. This contradiction explains why shoulder injuries are so common and why focusing on developing and maintaining strong shoulders with proper mobility becomes so important. Years of poor posture, decreased range of motion as we age or even a simple fall can all lead to shoulder pain and chronic discomfort.
It's important to include a variety of shoulder exercises in your workout program to develop stability and mobility, while simultaneously getting you ready to show off your shapely arms in your favorite tank top. Add a few of these exercises to your full-body strength routine, using an amount of weight that's challenging but still allows you to complete the last repetition with proper form. Start with one to three sets of each exercise, eight to 12 repetitions per set, and after a few weeks, swap in a few different moves for variety and a continuous challenge.
Sculpt Your Way to Sizzling Shoulders
Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
Paul Searles, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at the New York Sports Science Lab, recommends this move to target the rear delts. "When done properly, you not only get great shoulder development but also develop isometric strength in the posterior chain, which will help [you] maintain good posture throughout the day," Searles explains. "To perform the bent-over dumbbell reverse fly, grab the dumbbells with your pinkies all the way to the end of the bottom of the handle. Tilt your hips back to hinge into the bent-over position, while maintaining a flat back which should feel like you're stretching your hamstrings. With your palms facing each other, raise the arms out to the sides until they are parallel with the floor. Lower the weights down but stop with your hands outside your legs to keep tension on your shoulders."
Dumbbell Side Raises
"The deltoid, a.k.a. shoulder muscle, has three parts: front, side and rear," explains Dani Singer, the director of Fit2Go Personal Training. "With the shoulder press, you’re only targeting the front. On top of that, the front needs the least work, as you're already hitting it with most chest exercises."
If you want to build symmetrical, shapely shoulders, Singer says you should actively target the side and rear of the deltoid, instead. For the rear head, he suggests the bent-over dumbbell reverse fly (as described above). For the side head, Singer recommends dumbbell side raises. "Holding a dumbbell in each hand, raise your arms out to your sides [and up] to shoulder height. Pause for two seconds, then slowly lower down. You should feel this burning the side of your shoulders after a few reps," he describes.
Down Dog Pushups
Stephanie Lincoln, founder and CEO of Fire Team Whiskey, prefers non-traditional exercises to target the shoulders. One of her favorites is down dog pushups. "Get into a traditional downward-facing dog yoga position. While keeping the hips lifted and legs as straight as possible, slowly bend your elbows, keeping them close to the body, and lower your head toward the ground," she instructs. "Go as far as you are able, then extend back to straight arms." To progress the level of difficulty, Lincoln recommends elevating your feet with a small step or box to execute the move with more resistance.
"Ultimately, shoulder L-raises are a great exercise when you are rushed to squeeze in a workout," says Matt Weik, owner of Weik Fitness. Weik explains that this exercise allows you to work the anterior and medial deltoids all at once, giving you a great bang for your workout buck. In general, compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time are a time-saving option for your workout plan.
"With one dumbbell in each hand, raise one arm to the side until it's parallel with the ground, while the other arm lifts the dumbbell out in front of you to the same level. When done at the same time, [this motion] creates an “L” or right angle," he explains. "Alternate sides with each repetition."
I's, T's and Y's
"I's, T's and Y's are some of the most basic shoulder exercises," says chiropractor Alex Tauberg. "When done correctly, they can help build the deltoid muscles, in some cases preventing or rehabbing an injury. Select a set of dumbbells that you can lift overhead without too much difficulty," he says. "Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms down by your sides. For 'I', bring your arms straight up in front of you to shoulder level. For T's, lean forward slightly, keeping the spine in a neutral position and lift the weights outward. Your arms and body will form a 'T.' To perform the "Y" exercise, Tauberg instructs patients to stand tall, bringing the arms out in front, slightly to the side, slowly lifting up overhead to form a Y with the arms and body. Do one to three sets of each exercise before moving on to the next.
Single-Arm Band Pull Apart
Yoga and Pilates expert Kristin McGee's favorite exercise to target the rear deltoids and shoulders is the single-arm band pull apart. "It's my favorite because it works many angles of the shoulders, the rear deltoids the medial delts and the scapula all at once," she explains. "Isolating one arm at a time really helps you focus."
"Hold a resistance band in front of you with hands shoulder-width apart," she explains. "[Using your right arm], pull out to the side while squeezing your deltoids and pressing the tops of the shoulders down." Complete all your reps on one side, then switch to the other arm. This move can be performed in a standing or supine position depending on your preference.
Lincoln considers this to be the number one exercise for building the muscles around the shoulders, which results in stronger shoulders overall. "Don't be intimidated by pull-ups," she encourages. "You can use an assist band to help you complete the pull-ups with proper form [in the beginning]. If you do not have an assist band, use a chair to help you start at the top and lower yourself down as slowly as you can, [a variation that is referred to as} a negative pull-up."
No matter your goals, shoulder exercises are an important part of a balanced strength training routine. By adding a few of these shoulder exercises to your regular workout, you'll stand taller and feel stronger.
What are your favorite exercises to strengthen and define the shoulders?
More From SparkPeople