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Best Shoulder Exercises - How To Get Big Strong Broad Shoulders In 5 Easy Workout Moves

Updated on June 25, 2013

The Main Shoulder Muscles - The Deltoids

Do you want a pair of big, strong shoulders? Of course you do. A broad set of shoulders is one of those physical attributes that gets you noticed - and the best way to get them is with a weight training regime that includes adequate nutrition and rest along with targeted exercises. And included below are the best shoulder exercises with free weights that cover all the shoulder muscles.

The main shoulder muscles are the deltoids, the name coming from the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, Delta, which has the shape of a triangle. The deltoids come in three groups: medial, anterior, and posterior deltoids, or middle, front and back. You have to work these groups from different angles, using different exercise moves, to make sure you work all the muscle fibres and achieve equal development all around your shoulder joint. The good news is that the deltoids respond well to focused workouts.

It pays to target all three regions - medial, anterior and posterior deltoids - to ensure you build stable and strong joints that aren't injury prone.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Dumbbell lateral raise targets the medial deltoids.
Dumbbell lateral raise targets the medial deltoids.

The Best Shoulder Exercises...

Are listed below:

Barbell Upright Row
Dumbbell Side Raise
Bent Over Lateral Raise
Bent Over Rows
Standing Military Press

You can target your anterior deltoids with the single-arm dumbbell front raise, but remember that these muscles at the front of your shoulder get most of the exercise they need when you do the bench press, so don't work them too hard.

To perform the single-arm dumbbell front raise, lift a light dumbbell in each hand, straight up in front of you, one at a time, from a start position at the hip, to eye level at the top. Then lower it under control. Keep the rest of your body still. If you have to arch your back, you're using too much weight. Go for three sets of six reps.

Barbell Upright Row

Grip a weighted EZ bar (it's easier to use for this move than a straight bar) with your hands close together and pull the bar up to just below your chin, allowing your elbows to flare out as wide as possible. With a narrow grip, upright rows target all three deltoids.

Dumbbell Side Raise/ Side Lateral Raise

The dumbbell side raise works the medial deltoids and will make your shoulders broader. Nature may have given you short clavicles, but you can increase your shoulder width by working the medial deltoids with the dumbbell side raise, also known as the side lateral raise. Take two dumbbells that you can lift easily and raise them from the sides of your body to shoulder height on either side. Then lower the weights to the start position.

If this is a struggle, use a lighter weight. When you perform this exercise, you should be able to lift the dumbbell freely, and feel the pull in the top of your shoulder joint. Don't swing the weight in any of these exercises. If you use its momentum, you're not using the muscle. Keep the motion slow and controlled in both directions, to make sure the muscle really has to work.

Bent Over Lateral Raise, Bent Over Rows

The bent over lateral raise will do the same thing for your posterior deltoids. This is really just the first exercise done seated and bending forward, with your chest resting on your knees. In this instance you're lifting the dumbbells from below your thighs to be level with your shoulders.

Bent over rows target the posterior deltoids too, but you use a barbell. Pick a weight you can manage, and stand bent over, with legs slightly bent and a straight back. Grip the barbell with an overhand grip and pull it to your chest by bending your arms before letting it fall back. Keep your back straight and tensed throughout, and don't use too much weight. This exercise also works the forearms and triceps.

The posterior deltoids can end up neglected, which can lead to postural problems if your anterior deltoids are too well developed. Make sure you balance out your shoulder development by using these two moves.

Standing Military Press

The standing military press is an essential part of your workout. Keep an eye on the amount of weight you use, and keep correct form. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, and perhaps the most complex, and as a result is particularly prone to injury and wear - but these simple guidelines will keep you safe and free from injury.

First, never lift more weight than you can handle. Good general advice, and especially important when it comes to your shoulders. The only injuries I've ever had that forced me to stop training involved lifting too much weight in the shoulder press and bench press, and in each case the weight involved wasn't much more than I'd been lifting with no problem at all. The margin between your training zone and an injury that takes weeks to get over can be a thin line. If you experience any pain in your shoulder, stop and use a lighter weight.

To perform the standing military press, clean and press a weighted barbell, then allow it to settle on the anterior deltoids. If that's a struggle, you're not going to be able to press it safely, and should take some weight off the bar. If you're not comfortable with the barbell behind your head - and some of you with previous shoulder injuries might hesitate to try that - it's okay to perform the standing military press with the barbell in front of your face.

If you're sure that you can safely lift and lower the barbell, push it up smoothly to lockout, then let it gently back down to rest on your shoulders. Feel those shoulders working. Repeat for three sets of six. Lower the bar to the ground between sets.

Alternatively, use dumbbells, one in each hand, and start with them by your shoulders. Press upwards to full extension, either both arms together or one at a time, and lower in a controlled manner to the start position. You can do this while seated, which will help support your lower back, but the standing position gets results faster precisely because it's harder.

Dumbbell Shrugs? I dunno.

Dumbbell shrugs are easy. Sly Stallone calls these 'I dunno's' in one of his books. Take two of the heaviest dumbbells you can manage and let them hang in your fists at arm's length. Then... shrug. A lot. Like someone keeps asking you a question and you don't know the answer. 'I dunno. I dunno.' Keep the movement straight up and down, and don't rotate the joint. Think of dumbbell shrugs as calf raises for your shoulders, where you're going for as many reps as you can manage before the lactic acid build up makes it too hard to carry on. Do two sets of as many reps as you can manage, with a brief rest in between.

5 Shoulder Exercises on YouTube

I searched for some appropriate shoulder workout videos on YouTube, and this is one of the best I found in terms of keeping good form.

Many of the others were a nightmare of poor form, exercising with too much weight, and armchair expert syndrome in the comments. In short, accidents just waiting to happen. When you're working a delicate area like the shoulders, get a little picky about the advice you take.

The same goes for the Amazon listings I researched. Most of the books I found were compilations of stretching exercises, that got some pretty bad reviews, and their main focus was on giving general advice about shoulder injury rehabilitation, while staying vague enough to avoid lawsuits.

Best advice? Find a gym trainer who knows what they're doing and ask for some one on one tuition for a shoulder workout.

5 Shoulder Exercises

How To Get Big Shoulders

When it comes to building muscle mass, barbells and dumbbells work. The extra effort and coordination you need to balance free weights while you're using them forces your muscles to work harder. Which means you force the muscle fibers to adapt - so they have no choice but to grow.

Remember, in all of these shoulder exercises, use a weight you can manage and go for three sets of six to ten reps. Follow the simple safety rules - don't lift more weight than you can safely handle, and don't work through pain - and you'll be fine. The best shoulder exercises are the ones that work to build muscle over time, and don't leave you with a frozen shoulder.


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  • jbrock2041 profile image

    jbrock2041 5 years ago from Park City, UT

    Good hub. I like how you spoke about form a lot. It's so important to remember it's not about quantity but about quality moves.