Your shoulders have some of the hardest-working muscles in your upper body - whether you’re pounding out the push-ups or burning up your back with dumbbell rows, you’re going to struggle if you haven’t got the shoulder strength to make it through.
Boulder shoulders also look good, a key component of the classic V-shape torso that bodybuilders and, let’s be honest, most of us, are aiming for. But given how much they do, it should come as no surprise that the shoulders are complex.
They’re made up of a range of muscles of different sizes that all work together, so isolation exercises are not what you’re looking for here. Instead, compound movements are your ticket to shirt-busting shoulders, and we’ve collected eight of the best shoulder exercises below.
In strength training, compound exercises are the opposite of isolation exercises - instead of targeting one joint or muscle group, you’re working a range of muscles at the same time.
This has major benefits for your functional fitness, as most movements in sports and the real world require multiple muscle groups to work together. Whether you’re scoring a touchdown, climbing a cliff-face, or just carrying the groceries home, you’re going to be using a large number of different muscles and motions at the same time.
Compound movements are also a hugely effective way to get the most out of your workout routine. Using multiple muscle groups allows you to push harder and lift heavier, helping you to build strength fast, keep your heart rate high, and burn up your body fat.
Strengthening families of muscles rather than attacking them individually is also a great way to prevent injury. When all your muscles are prepped, ready, and used to a wide range of motion, they’re better able to stabilize each other and deal with the unexpected.
So what are you targeting in your quest for stacked shoulders? A lot more than just your delts. Your shoulder muscles are made up of two main groups - extrinsic muscles, which reach from your torso to your shoulder bones, and intrinsic muscles, which connect your upper torso (the shoulder blades and clavicles) to your upper arm.
These two groups each contain a range of muscles you’ve probably heard of, even if you didn’t pass pre-med. The extrinsics include:
Traps (trapezius): A triangular muscle that lets you lift your arms.
Lats (latissimus dorsi): A big ol’ muscle that reaches from your shoulder across your back, important in arm rotation.
Levator scapulae: These muscles reach from your neck down to your shoulder blades, and help lift your shoulder blades.
Rhomboids: These muscles sit between your shoulder blades in your upper back, and help you pull your shoulder blades back.
And the intrinsics…
Delts (deltoids): when most people think of a shoulder muscle, it’s the delts that come to mind. These muscles sit on top of your shoulders and have three main muscle fibers - anterior, middle, and posterior. Targeting all three is the key to supersizing your shoulders. Pretty much every shoulder exercise will work your deltoid muscles, which are involved in lifting and rotating your arms.
Teres major: a muscle connecting your upper arm and upper back, pulling your arm towards your body.
Rotator cuff: this group of muscles and tendons surround the shoulder joint and prevent your arm from falling out of its socket. Rotator cuff injuries are common, but compound shoulder exercises are a great way to prevent them.
Now you’ve got the lowdown on what you’re working, let’s get moving. The exercises below are eight of the best shoulder exercises for building strength. They use simple equipment or none at all, so are great for both gym days and home workouts.
A variation on the standard shoulder press with a Schwarzenneger twist. Named after the man himself, this compound exercise equally attacks all three parts of the delts while also recruiting stabilizing muscles in your back and core.
Incline dumbbell rows are a great way to hit your medial deltoids, while also engaging your lats, upper back muscles, and biceps. They’re an effective way to build muscle in the shoulders as part of your upper-body or back workout.
Start with a light dumbbell weight to get comfortable with the movement, and increase the weight once you can reliably complete the exercise with good form.
The T-bar row is a compound exercise that really fits the bill. T-bar rows work almost every shoulder muscle, hitting the lats, traps, rear delts, rhomboids, and teres major.
On top of this, T-bar rows will strengthen your biceps, triceps, hamstrings, glutes, and core as they work to stabilize your movement, bringing you a full-body workout in just one move.
The standard deadlift is a classic compound exercise for building strength and muscle in your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, upper back, abs, and working the medial deltoid, posterior deltoid, rotator cuff, and teres major.
To really grow those boulder shoulders, combine straight-leg deadlifts with bent-over rows. This will amp up the workload for your posterior delts, infraspinatus, and teres major and minor, giving you shoulders of steel.
The seated one-arm dumbbell press is an incredible way to build muscle mass in the shoulders, but good form is critical.
Lifting heavy with bad form is a great way to get injured, so make sure your movements are slow and controlled and you are using a full range of motion. This movement challenges your anterior deltoid, medial deltoid, and chest.
Front raises are an incredibly effective way to build massive shoulder and upper chest muscles, giving you the torso-toppers you’re after. They’re also a great move for building core strength and training shoulder flexion, so will improve your lifts and upper-body workouts.
No tech, no tricks - this exercise is pure bodyweight, so you’ve got no reason not to do it. With pike push-ups, the main action is in your posterior delts and tris, but they’ll also grow your traps, lateral delts, and serratus muscle.
Doing this exercise with your feet raised on a bench or mat can be used as part of a progression into handstand push-ups.
The king of compound exercises and a great way to impress everyone around you, the handstand push-up is just plain cool. Keeping your body upright while performing a push-up works your entire body and demands insane strength, stabilization, and balance, challenging every muscle from your toes to your fingertips.
Most of the heavy lifting is done by your shoulders, pecs, and tris, making this a great way to build upper-body mass. A handstand push-up will also burn up your core and glutes, as they work overtime to stabilize you. Unless you’ve been doing these for years, you’re going to want to ease into your first handstand push-up.
Start by doing pike push-ups with your feet on a raised surface before moving into wall-supported handstand push-ups. If you’re really ready to put your strength and balance to the ultimate test, a freestanding handstand push-up is as hard as it gets.
Building up to this can take months or years, so it’s best to aim to perfect your wall-supported handstand push-up first. These will give your shoulders a massive challenge while being a lot more accessible for those of us who aren’t (yet) superhuman.
To complete a wall handstand push-up:
We get it, you want to go heavy and hard to short-cut shoulder strength, but even the bulkiest shoulders need some caution and care. Because your shoulders are already doing so much, amping up their workload can easily lead to overtraining and injury.
A badly-planned shoulder workout can also create imbalances in which the shoulders are pulled out of place, which doesn’t look or feel good. And given all that the shoulders are involved in it’s critical you keep them healthy, as a shoulder workout that ends badly can bring all your strength-training plans to a halt. If you can’t lift your arms, you’re definitely not lifting any weights.
That said, a good shoulder workout can take your upper-body workouts to the next level, so it’s worth putting the time in to plan your shoulder sesh. Follow the principles below to bring the stacked shoulders of your dreams within reach.
Principle 1: Keep It Broad
An amazing shoulder workout includes a range of exercises that avoid overworking any one muscle - a great reason to use compound exercises. Even with compound exercises, no single move will target every muscle in the shoulders, so mix them up to keep every muscle in the game.
Principle 2: Bend, Don’t Break
As your shoulders are already active in most upper-body exercises, targeted shoulder workouts should be less frequent than leg or back day. If you really want to build shoulder size you will need to lift heavy, but keep those exercises to a low number of reps once a week, and make sure you choose a weight that you can handle.
Lightweight shoulder exercises can be done more often, but watch how your body feels to avoid shoulder strain. Even with lightweight exercises, give yourself rest days so your shoulders can recover. Aim to rip up shirt-sleeves, not your rotator cuff.
As with any exercise, good form is critical when you’re working your shoulders, so choose weights that allow you to maintain that form throughout your set. Getting a trainer, friend or just a mirror on side can also help you to check that you’re moving right.
If you feel any pain, stop what you are doing and get a fitness or medical professional to help you assess and improve. And make sure to warm up beforehand, cool down afterward, and give your muscles the nutrition and rest they need if you want more gain and less strain. Using those principles and the exercises above, you can bulk out your shoulders safely.
So that’s the secret to shoulders that the Rock would be proud of - compound exercises that send your muscle-building into overdrive, careful pacing, and giving your muscles the nutrition and care they need to grow.
Mixing shoulder-shredders into your weight-training and cardio will fast-track your shoulder gains, fire up your functional fitness, and leave you standing head and shoulders above the rest.