We test and review fitness products based on an independent, multi-point methodology. If you use our links to purchase something, we may earn a commission. Read our disclosures.

They call ‘em boulder shoulders.

You know what we’re talking about– perfectly-sculpted shoulder muscles that look and feel like solid rock. By working a wide array of shoulder exercises into a well-rounded strength regimen, you can build these bad boys and beautifully accentuate the natural musculature of this prominent upper body muscle group.

RELATED: A Pumped-Up Back and Shoulder Workout

That’s why we’ve put together a list of some of the best shoulder exercises available, suited for beginners and experts alike, so you can start building rock-solid shoulder muscles and build a physique that would even elicit a raised eyebrow from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson himself.

Are you ready to layeth the smackdown on this shoulder muscle workout? Just bring it!

Understanding Shoulder Anatomy

Well-developed shoulders give a person a strong, confident appearance but, as they say, it’s what’s on the inside that counts; and there is a lot going on with your shoulders on the inside!

Shoulder muscles are broken down into two main categories:

  • Extrinsic shoulder muscles include the upper, middle, and lower trapezius and levator scapulae. They elevate, depress, and retract the shoulder blades.
  • Intrinsic shoulder muscles include the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles. They maneuver the humerus within the shoulder joint, allowing you to move and rotate your arms.

To maintain healthy shoulder function, and the wide range of movement the shoulder joint enables you to perform, it’s important to stretch and strengthen the surrounding muscles. 

RELATED: Kettlebell Trap Workout

Best Shoulder Exercises

Incorporating shoulder workouts into your routine increases your muscle strength, size, and endurance, improves the strength and function of the shoulder joint, and reduces your overall risk of injury.

Here are our picks for the best shoulder exercises.

1. Barbell Overhead Press (Military Press)

Why it’s great: The military press is a shoulder workout staple, providing activation in your traps, delts, and triceps. Plus, using one of the best Olympic barbells makes it easier to progress to heavier weights and optimize the muscle-building potential.

How to do it:

  1. Unrack a loaded barbell in the front rack position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your elbows pointed forward. 
  2. Press the bar overhead until your arms are locked out.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.

2. Dumbbell Overhead Press

Why it’s great: The dumbbell overhead press is the same basic movement pattern as the barbell version, but you’ll get a greater range of motion and use more stabilizing muscles. You’ll also activate muscles in your lower back, glutes, and core.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height using an overhand grip.
  2. Press them overhead until your arms are locked out.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.
standing dumbbell press

3. Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

Why it’s great: The standing dumbbell overhead press is a great compound lift, but taking a seat really isolates the shoulder muscles to supercharge your results. Plus, the backpad of the weight bench provides spinal support, reducing your risk of injury.

How to do it:

  1. Sit down at the end of a bench or in a sturdy chair.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height using an overhand grip.
  3. Press them overhead until your arms are locked out.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat as needed.
seated dumbbell shoulder press

4. Arnold Press

Why it’s great: If anyone knows how to get boulder shoulders, it’s the famous former bodybuilder Arnie himself. His trademark exercise, the Arnold press, puts a literal spin on your classic dumbbell overhead press to increase the activation in your front delts and upper arms.

How to do it:

  1. Stand while holding a dumbbell in each hand. The weights should be curled to the shoulders with your palms facing your body.
  2. Press the weights overhead while rotating the dumbbells. You want to finish with the dumbbells overhead, arms fully locked out, and your palms now facing away. 
  3. Slowly return to the starting position, rotating as you bring the weights down.
  4. Repeat as needed.
Arnold Press

5. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Why it’s great: Shoulder presses provide activation in the shoulders and some other adjacent muscle groups, but raises are more of an isolation exercise, making them more specialized. Lateral raises mostly target the lateral deltoids, but you get some activity in the front delts and upper traps too.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your arms at your sides, elbows slightly bent, and a dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Raise your arms outwards until they are at shoulder height. 
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.
dumbbell lateral raise gif

6. Dumbbell Front Raise

Why it’s great: Front raises focus the anterior delts, which are notoriously hard to hit save a few other chest and other shoulder exercises. They also hit the pecs, helping you also get gains in the chest during your shoulder workout.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your arms in front of your body, elbows slightly bent, and a dumbbell in each hand. You want your palms facing the body.
  2. Raise your arms upwards until they are at shoulder height. 
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.
dumbbell front raise

7. Rear Delt Raise (Reverse Fly)

Why it’s great: Reverse flyes not only target the often-overlooked rear delts, but the rhomboids and upper back as well, making them an excellent addition to any all-encompassing upper body workout routine.

How to do it:

  1. Bring your hips back, keeping the lower back and core braced and tight, and lower your chest towards the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a slight bend in the elbow. Let your arms fully extend towards the floor. 
  2. Pull the dumbbells outward to the side, pinching the shoulder blades at the end.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.
reverse fly gif

8. Z Press (Seated Barbell Press)

Why it’s great: The Z press is funny in that it looks like you fell on your butt but decided you’d just press a barbell overhead while you’re down there. However, this positioning helps enhance strength, stability, posture, as well as reinforcing proper scapula movement.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight and torso tall. Have a workout partner hand you a loaded barbell or set the J-hooks of a rack to the appropriate height in advance so you may unrack from this height.
  2. Brace your core and press the barbell overhead until the arms are fully locked out.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.
Z Press

9. Cable Face Pull 

Why it’s great: The cable face pull targets the rear deltoids and upper back muscles, improving posture and reducing the risk of shoulder injuries. It also helps to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, which are important for maintaining shoulder stability.

How to do it:

  1. Set the cable machine at shoulder height with a rope attachment.
  2. Grip the rope with an overhand grip with your thumbs up and step back until your arms are fully extended. Engage your core and glutes with your shoulders down and chest up. 
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the rope toward your face. 
  4. Pause for a second, then slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat as needed.

RELATED: The Best Cable Machines

Man doing cable face pull

10. Y Raise

Why it’s great: The Y Raise is a great exercise because it targets the upper traps and rotator cuff muscles, which are important for maintaining shoulder stability and preventing injuries. It also helps to improve posture by strengthening the muscles of the upper back.

How to do it:

  1. Set an incline bench to a 30- to 45-degree incline and lie on your stomach, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your arms straight with only a slight bend in the elbow.
  2. Retract your scapulae by pinching your shoulder blades together, then lift your arms up and out at about a 45-degree angle, forming a “Y” shape.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.
y raise

11. High Pull

Why it’s great: The high pull is an explosive movement that hits various shoulder muscles, namely the rear delts, traps, and upper back muscles. It’s also versatile and can be performed with a dumbbell, kettlebell, single arm, or both.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a weight in front of your body.
  2. Dip down by pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly.
  3. Pop up using your hips, knees, and ankles while simultaneously pulling the weight up to chest height. Squeeze your shoulder blades and trapezius at the peak position.
  4. Control the weight’s descent to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat as needed.

RELATED: The Best Kettlebell Cardio Workout

barbell high pull

12. Internal/External Rotation With Dumbbells

Why it’s great: The internal/external rotation with dumbbells target those ever-important rotator cuff muscles, helping build shoulder stability and mobility. 

How to do it:

  1. Stand with a dumbbell in one hand held in front of your body. Your elbow should be bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Slowly rotate your arm, bringing the dumbbell out to the side of the body.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as needed.

RELATED: The Best Dumbbells

dumbbell internal and external rotation

Final Thoughts: Best Shoulder Exercises

Shoulder exercises help you build a formidable frame and give you a strong appearance, but the benefits go far beyond aesthetics.

A 2022 review published in Sports (Basel)1 described the benefits of shoulder strength training as “improvements in static and dynamic muscle function, bone strength and formation, joint range of motion, joint stability, and athletic performance while decreasing injury risk.” 

Strong shoulders help athletes generate more torque during a throw, help weightlifters create more force during overhead lifts, and help ordinary people perform everyday tasks with ease.

Try some of our shoulder exercises in your next upper-body workout!

FAQs: Best Shoulder Exercises

How can I build big shoulders?

A comprehensive shoulder workout, incorporating exercises like those we listed above, helps develop big shoulders, but, if you’re going to focus on one muscle group over another, focus on the deltoids. 

Mixing a well-balanced workout routine with proper nutrition is often the best way to get these results. When in doubt, consult a certified personal trainer or other fitness professional.

What muscles make your shoulders bigger?

The deltoid muscles are the most prominent muscles in your shoulder, making them largely responsible for your shoulders’ appearance and shape. You’ll contribute to bigger shoulders working your anterior deltoids and posterior deltoids, but the lateral delts are the largest and, therefore, among the most important to focus during your shoulder strength regimen.

Working adjacent muscles including the trapezius, lats, triceps, and biceps will help contribute to an overall larger upper body physique as well.

Do you have to lift heavy to get big shoulders?

Not necessarily.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research2 observed a similar increase in muscle size in the sets of four reps, eight reps, and twelve reps. With this in mind, you can build mass even while lifting light weights.

That said, the same study acknowledged that “the increase in muscle strength is lower with the 12RM protocol than the other protocols.” For size, you can vary the rep scheme and lift lighter, but, for strength, lifting heavy for less reps is the way to go.

RELATED: How Many Reps To Build Muscle

Should I train shoulders every day?

It’s generally ill-advised to train the same muscle group everyday without giving the muscles time to recover from the exercise.

Instead of hitting the shoulders day after day, support your success by resting them for approximately two days between sessions. More importantly, listen to your body and give yourself extra time to recover if you really need it.

References

1. Seguin RC, Cudlip AC, Holmes MWR. The Efficacy of Upper-Extremity Elastic Resistance Training on Shoulder Strength and Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports (Basel). 2022;10(2):24. Published 2022 Feb 14. doi:10.3390/sports10020024

2. Kubo K, Ikebukuro T, Yata H. Effects of 4, 8, and 12 Repetition Maximum Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Volume and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2021;35(4):879-885. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003575

Further reading

TUT Trainer Tower Review 2024: A Unique Functional Trainer for Your Home Gym Cover Image
TUT Trainer Tower Review 2024: A Unique Functional Trainer for Your Home Gym

The TUT Trainer is a minimalistic functional trainer. In our TUT Trainer Tower Review, learn why this unique equipment could be a good fit for your home gym. Read more

Get Pumped Up With The 8 Best Cable Back Workouts Cover Image
Get Pumped Up With The 8 Best Cable Back Workouts

Our in-house certified personal trainer came up with these cable back workouts for those looking to increase strength and muscle mass. Read more

Best Meal Replacement Shakes (2024): Dietitian-Approved Options To Satisfy Your Hunger Cover Image
Best Meal Replacement Shakes (2024): Dietitian-Approved Options To Satisfy Your Hunger

The best meal replacement shakes offer balanced nutrition and actually taste good. Here are our top picks. Read more

What Muscles Do Squats Work? The Holy Grail of Compound Exercises Cover Image
What Muscles Do Squats Work? The Holy Grail of Compound Exercises

We know squats are one of the greatest exercises of all time, but just what muscles do squats work anyway? Find your answers here! Read more