Strong shoulders are the unsung heroes of the upper body: they’re powerful, mobile, and can be highly attractive in tank tops and strapless dresses. They’re also one of the most frequently used muscle groups in the upper body. “Whenever you do anything with your arms — push, pull, lift, press — you’re going to engage your shoulders,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., and Openfit’s senior fitness and nutrition content manager. That means you’re using your shoulders not only during targeted shoulder workouts, but also during upper back workouts, arm workouts, and even daily activities like stretching, carrying groceries, and lifting up your toddler.
Your shoulders are also two of the most versatile joints in the body with the greatest range of motion, Thieme says. “But that unparalleled mobility also makes them vulnerable to injury,” he explains. That’s why it’s so important to actively strengthen your shoulders by regularly doing shoulder exercises. To help you get started, we pulled together a list of some of the best moves.
Before you dive into a shoulder workout, it’s helpful to understand the different parts of the shoulder muscle. There are two layers of musculature to the shoulder: the rotator cuff and the deltoids. Both parts of the shoulder are important, but they serve different functions.
“The muscles that stabilize each joint are those of the rotator cuff — the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis,” Thieme explains. “But it’s the deltoids — the muscles on top of the rotator cuffs — that give shoulders their shape and drive most shoulder movements.” There are three parts of each deltoid — the anterior (front), lateral (middle), and posterior (back).
How to do Shoulder Workouts at Home
“Building stronger shoulders is just as easy to do at home as it is to do in a gym, and you don’t need a ton of equipment,” Thieme says. You can use your bodyweight, but it helps to have resistance bands and/or dumbbells. “Dumbbells and bands increase the variety of exercises you can do, and thus can potentially accelerate your results,” Thieme explains.
Miami-based physical therapist William P. Kelley, C.S.C.S., ACT, recommends doing targeted shoulder workouts two times a week, and spreading the days out so your muscles have a chance to rest. You can work out your shoulders more than twice a week, but keep in mind that your shoulders will also be engaged during many chest, back, and arm exercises, and even HIIT or pilates, Kelley says.
If you want to specifically increase shoulder size, you need to do movements that use multiple angles to hit each part of the deltoids. “The rotator cuff muscles are too small to really add size and volume and contribute to the aesthetics of broad shoulders,” Kelley says. The best shoulder workouts will include a variety of moves to work your rotator cuff and deltoid muscles so you can build strength, stability, and mass.
10 of the Best Shoulder Exercises to Do at Home
To do these shoulder exercises from the comfort of your home, all you need is a pair of weights or a resistance band. Start with lighter weights, and lift progressively heavier ones as you become stronger.
1. Diving dolphin
Benefits: This engages your anterior deltoids without any equipment. Kelley explains that it’s also great for enhancing shoulder stability, since it utilizes the shoulders in a closed-chain movement, meaning your hands and feet are in a fixed position throughout the exercise.
- Start in a forearm plank with your elbows under your shoulders and your feet hip-width apart.
- Walk your feet in towards your arms about eight to 12 inches so your hips are lifted slightly toward the ceiling. This is the starting position.
- Lower your hips and keep your body in a straight line as you drive your shoulders forward to hover over your wrists.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position, and repeat.
2. Plank raise tap crunch
Benefits: “This bodyweight move is another good closed-chain exercise for shoulder stability,” Kelley says. The plank crunch part of the move is also great for working your core.
- Start in a straight arm plank position with your shoulders stacked above your hands and your feet hip-width apart.
- Extend your right arm forward, then place it back down into the plank.
- Extend your right arm to the side, then place it back down into the plank.
- Keep your body in a straight line as you reach your opposite (left) arm under your body, pull your right leg toward your core, and tap your right foot with your left hand.
- Return to the plank position.
- Do all of your reps, and then repeat on your opposite side.
3. Dumbbell lateral raise
Benefits: This move is an excellent way to target your middle deltoid, Kelley says.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your side, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Raise your arms to your sides until they’re level with your shoulders. Keep your palms facing downward.
- Slowly lower your arms, and repeat.
4. Reverse fly
Benefits: Although primarily an upper back exercise, this move also engages the posterior deltoid, says Kelly.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Bend forward at the hips until your chest is almost parallel with the ground. Allow the weights to hang straight down at arm’s length, palms facing each other. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your back flat, raise your arms out to your sides until they’re in line with your body. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat.
5. Military press
Benefits: This moves targets the entire deltoid muscle and is excellent for muscle growth, Kelley says. It also works your triceps, traps, and pectoral muscles.
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Step one foot slightly forward in a staggered stance.
- Bring your weights to shoulder-level, with your palms facing forward.
- Extend your arms straight above your shoulders. Keep your back straight and engage your core.
- Slowly lower the weights back to shoulder level and repeat.
6. Clean squat press
Benefits: A slightly more complicated, but very effective move, the clean squat press is a total-body exercise. “It’s especially good for the shoulder because it allows you to safely use momentum to power through some extra reps,” says Kelley.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Lower into a squat, keeping your arms at your sides.
- Simultaneously stand up and curl the weights from the hanging position to the “clean” position (shoulder-height with your palms facing each other).
- Without pausing, drop back into a squat, and then stand up as you press the weights directly above your shoulders.
- Lower the weights back down to your sides as you lower your body back into a squat.
- Continue repeating the entire sequence.
7. Arnold press
Benefits: This dumbbell exercise works both the middle and anterior parts of the deltoid, Kelley says. The rotational movement is also great for improving shoulder stability.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Engage your core. Keeping your back flat, bring your weights to shoulder level, with your forearms in front of your chest and your palms facing back. This is the starting position.
- Rotate the weights so that your palms face forward as you press the weights directly above your shoulders.
- Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position, and repeat.
8. Scarecrow press
Benefits: The scarecrow press — a variation on the traditional shoulder press — is a good way to challenge your rotator cuff musculature, Kelley says.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, assume a staggered stance and raise your arms out to your sides with your elbows bent 90 degrees. Your upper arms should be in line with your shoulders, and your hands should point toward the ceiling. This is the starting position.
- Bring your forearms together in front of you, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
- Press the weights directly above your shoulders, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
9. Shoulder press with straight leg kick
Benefits: This move provides all the benefits of a standard shoulder press, such as engaging your deltoids and your chest, while also helping to improve balance, core stability, and hip mobility, Kelley says.
- Stand tall holding a weight in front of each shoulder (palms facing each other) with your elbows tucked and your feet hip-width apart.
- Extend your arms straight above your shoulders.
- As you lower the weights back to shoulder level, raise one leg straight out in front of your body.
- As you lower your leg, press the weights back overhead.
- Lower the weights again, this time raising your other leg straight out in front of your body.
- Continue alternating legs with each rep.
10. Alternating lunge with lateral and front raise
Benefits: This compound move is a killer total-body exercise, Kelley says. The lateral raise targets your lateral deltoids and your traps while the front raise targets your anterior deltoids. You’ll also be working your core and hammering your quads and glutes as you rotate and lunge.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Keeping your back flat and your core engaged, raise your arms straight in front of your chest, palms facing each other.
- Lower your arms, pivot to your left, and lower yourself into a lunge position (rear knee bent 90 degrees, front thigh parallel to the floor) as you raise your arms straight out to your sides, palms facing down.
- Lower the weights as you stand back up, and then pivot back to center to return to the starting position.
- Repeat the entire sequence, this time pivoting to your right.
- Continue alternating sides.
How to Use Nutrition to Build Better Shoulders
As with every muscle group, exercising your shoulders requires proper fuel. “Eating a healthy diet with sufficient amounts of protein will facilitate muscle recovery and growth,” Thieme says. “Studies show that consuming protein — particularly whey protein — immediately after you work out can help maximize muscular gains.”