Working your shoulders should be an important part of your training routine. Not only for looks – because bigger shoulders will create the ideal V of a strong upper body and narrow hips, but also because the shoulder is one of the most moveable, and therefore, unstable joints in your body.1
With a large range of motion, and many working parts, it’s critical to ensure that you keep your shoulders strong, flexible, and conditioned to handle stress through strength training.
You want to choose exercises that work the muscle groups forming your shoulders as a whole for the best results, including mobility and stability, not just mass. We asked our experts what their first choice exercise is to build bigger shoulders so you can incorporate some or all of these great moves into your workouts to keep your shoulders in top shape.
1) Seated DB Military Press
I’ve personally gotten the best gains not from lifting super heavy weight, but lifting moderately heavy weight for more reps and increasing the volume of exercises I do for my shoulders. In fact, surfing/swimming may be the best exercises I’ve done as they are relatively low resistance but high volume. My shoulders literally swell up.
But in terms of a strength training exercise, I would go with seated DB Military Press with strict form and moderate weights. Also consider supersets, or even tri-sets, of shoulder exercises like DB Military Press superset with seated lateral raises. This is more of a bodybuilding type of approach, but the muscle stimulation is deep and it works.
– Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT
2) Single-Arm Kettlebell Press
I really like the single-arm kettlebell shoulder press. When performed properly, it’s a movement that requires total body tension. This is because the shape of the bell displaces the weight, thereby forcing your body to work harder to stabilize. Specifically, your rotator cuff has to work really hard to stabilize your shoulder. In one exercise, you get a great shoulder workout at the same time that you improve shoulder mobility and stability.
3) Standing Barbell Shoulder Press
I love the seated dumbbell shoulder press, or the standing barbell shoulder press, for building size in the shoulders. I think the standing barbell shoulder press should be a staple for anyone looking to gain strength and size in their body. It incorporates a lot of the musculature just to stabilize yourself, while the seated shoulder press can be more beneficial to continue to grow your shoulders when you’re more tired or want a less overall physically demanding exercise.
– John Levya, CSCS, CPT
4) One-Arm Dumbbell Press
For those with healthy shoulders and the ability to press overhead, the one-arm dumbbell press is easily one of the best exercises to build bigger shoulders as well as overall total-body strength. Let me explain. When you press two dumbbells overhead, your lower body must support the load of both dumbbells but when you drop one of those and just press one overhead your body only needs to support the weight of that dumbbell. What this means is you should be able to press a heavier load overhead. When it comes to strength and muscle growth, this is a no-brainer. You also get the added benefits of doing asymmetrical work (training one side at a time), forcing your core muscles to stabilize and work harder to press. Since you have to technically do double the reps you would if you were pressing two, you are increasing time under tension (TUT) which is another sneaky way to increase muscle growth.
You can do them standing, seated or even kneeling to increase the challenge to your core. Make sure you don’t rely on your lower back (don’t arch), or jut your head forward to press the weight overhead. Maintain a neutral spine and keep your chin tucked. Your arm should end up next to your ear when the dumbbell or kettlebell is overhead.
– Stephen Bergeron, CSCS, CPT
5) Arm Bar
Fortunately for me, I don’t have to work very hard to get my shoulders to build muscle, so I’m not the best person ever to ask for shoulder building advice. This is because as a dancer, I’ve spent most of my life doing a high volume of overhead arm-lifting which, even without weight, can increase the muscle tone somewhat, making it more easy for my shoulders to hypertrophy with conventional resistance exercises.
However, all this arm-overhead action now makes my shoulders cranky when I do exercises like barbell or dumbbell presses, and even bench pressing. My go-to exercise shoulder exercise is generally some form of one-arm overhead press, but to keep my shoulders stable and healthy, my favourite exercise these days is the kettlebell arm-bar which helps to improve both shoulder and core stability. This helps you to earn the right to press overhead with the goal of building better shoulders, while avoiding the pain so many of us experience with overhead exercises. I like to hold each side for 5 to 8 deep breaths.
– Monika Volkmar, Owner/Founder of The Dance Training Project