Shoulder exercises should be an integral part of any gym routine, because building strength and improving mobility in your shoulders will help with a range of other exercises. And of course, if you’re physique training, wide shoulders are a key part of a V-shaped torso.
If you’re hoping to sculpt cannonball shoulders then check out these excellent exercises recommended by Jim Crossley, co-owner of F45 Kingston (opens in new tab), and Keith McNiven, founder of personal training company Right Path Fitness (opens in new tab). We’ve thrown in a few of our favourites, too. There are shoulder exercises suitable for all levels of gym-goer below, from beginner classics like the dumbbell overhead press up to advanced moves like the handstand press-up.
Beginner Shoulder Exercises
“This is a good exercise for increasing shoulder strength and stability,” says Crossley. “Choose some light dumbbells to begin with. Hold them just above your shoulders with your palms facing forwards. Raise your arms straight above your head.
“When lifting the dumbbells don’t move your back and in particular don’t allow your lower back to arch. This move can be done standing or seated on a bench with a back for support.”
Alternating dumbbell front raise
“Stand with a slight bend in your knees, holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms facing you,” says McNiven. “Lift the left dumbbell in front of you until your arm is slightly above parallel to the floor, keeping a slight bend in your elbow and the palm of the your hand facing down. Then lower the dumbbell under control back to the start. Repeat with the right dumbbell.”
“From a standard press-up position walk your feet towards your body, raising your hips and keeping your legs straight,” says Crossley. “Your body should be in an inverted V-shape. Then perform a press-up by bending your arms to move your head closer to the floor. “
“You can vary the difficulty and the load on your shoulders by moving your feet closer in or further out, and it can also be done with feet elevated on a box to increase the difficulty.
“This is a challenging bodyweight shoulder exercise in its own right, and a good way to build the strength required to do a handstand press-up.” (See the advanced exercise, if you dare.)
Barbell upright row
“Hold a barbell in front of your waist with an overhand grip and your hands shoulder-width apart,” says Crossley. “Lift the bar to chin height by raising your arms so your elbows finish above the bar.”
Minimal movements can result in impressive gains if you pick the right kind of minimal movement – like the barbell shrug, which is a highly effective exercise for building muscle in your upper back and shoulders. Your traps are the primary muscle targeted by the exercise, but your shoulders and other upper back muscles also benefit from the move.
Hold a barbell in an overhand grip with your hands positioned just outside your thighs. Shrug your shoulders straight up and hold the elevated position for two to three seconds, then lower them under control. You can also do the move with dumbbells or kettlebells if a barbell isn’t available.
Plate ground to overhead press
This CrossFit standard is a great way to practise the movement of a medicine ball slam but with greater control – especially since if you rush this exercise you’re liable to smack yourself in the face with a weight plate.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart in front of a weight plate standing vertically on its side. Hinge at the hips and bend your knees to lower and grasp the sides of the plate, thumbs on the face furthest away. Keeping a straight back throughout, drive your hips forwards to stand up and lift the plate overhead. As you bring your hands past your face, rotate the plate using your wrists so your thumbs are underneath it as you press it above your head. Reverse the movement to the start and touch the plate on the floor before you start the next rep.
Intermediate Shoulder Exercises
“Adding dumbbells to your shadowboxing routine is brilliant for the shoulders,” says McNiven. “Choose relatively light weights as you’re going to be doing a lot of reps, and hold them vertically at shoulder height.
"Push one dumbbell forwards, extending your arm fully and twisting the dumbbell to a horizontal position. Bring it back as you push the other dumbbell forwards and start to build up speed. As your experience increases, you can add in different shadowboxing moves.”
Dumbbell lateral raise
“Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your waist with palms facing each other and a slight bend at the elbows,” say Crossley. “Lean forward from your hips a little and bend your knees slightly. Raise your arms to the sides until your elbows reach shoulder height.”
“Hold two dumbbells in front of your shoulders, with your elbows bent at 90° and your palms facing your chest,” says Crossley. “Move your elbows out to the side while raising the dumbbells and rotating your arms so that you finish with the dumbbells overhead with palms facing forwards.
“The Arnold press works both the front and side of your shoulders.”
“This is a classic shoulder-building exercise,” says Crossly. “Start by holding a barbell in front of your neck with an overhand grip. Press the bar overhead until your arms are fully extended. Do not let your back arch when you press overhead.”
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Battle rope slam
"Battle ropes work your shoulders as well as your pectorals and are great for mobility and conditioning," says McNiven. “There are many exercises you can try. A couple of good intermediate battle ropes exercise are slams and uppercuts.
“For slams, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent, holding a battle rope in each hand. Raise the battle ropes simultaneously above your head and slam down as hard as you can. Do this exercise for 60 seconds, then move on to another exercise like battle rope uppercuts [see below].”
Battle rope uppercut
“As the name implies, you mimic an uppercut punch while holding the battle ropes. Use the same stance as with slams. Uppercut to one side and then the other. Build up speed throughout the 60 seconds of this exercise.” If you need a few technique pointers, check out our guide to using your gym’s punching bag.
Bottoms-up kettlebell press
This exercise strengthens your rotator cuff – the muscles and tendons around the shoulder joint. It’s an area of the body you need to pay attention to if you enjoy working out, because the shoulder can be prone to injury, and strengthening the rotator cuff can help you avoid that. And since this is an overhead press exercise, you’re also getting benefits for your general shoulder strength.
Hold a light kettlebell upside down so the ball is above the handle. Press the weight above your head, keeping the kettlebell in the same position and holding the handle firmly to keep it stable. The instability created by the position of the kettlebell works your rotator cuff.
90/90 external rotation
This exercise also focuses on your rotator cuff muscles. Start either standing or on your knees and extend one arm to the side so it’s parallel to the floor, then bend at the elbow so your forearm is pointed at the ceiling. You’ve now created the two 90° angles in the exercise’s name, at the shoulder and elbow. Rotate your arm forwards until your forearm is parallel to the ground, then rotate back up. You can use a resistance band or a cable machine to increase the difficulty once you’re familiar with the exercise – but remember it’s a protective move for your rotator cuff muscles, not one where you’re aiming to set a new one-rep max every week.
90/90 internal rotation
This is another rotation move you can do to protect your shoulders. Stand side-on to a cable machine, holding the handle in the hand nearest the machine. Alternatively you can use a resistance band, standing side-on to the anchor point. Keep your arm against your side and raise your forearm so it’s parallel to the floor – the machine will be pulling your arm away from your body. Pull against the cable and take your forearm across your body, then slowly rotate your arm to return to the starting position.
Need to blow off some steam? Fancy giving your shoulders a test? Want to work on your power? The medicine ball slam ticks all three boxes.
If you can, use a slam ball – a type of medicine ball designed to absorb the impact of landing so it doesn’t bounce or roll away. Stand with the ball on the ground between your feet. Squat down and pick it up with both hands, then push up explosively through your heels raising the ball above your head and going into a triple extension – up on your toes with your arms extended towards the ceiling. Now the moment you’ve been waiting for: slam that ball with all your might into the ground just in front of your feet.
If you want to up the cardio demands of this move, aim to catch the medicine ball right after the slam – even a slam ball should have a tiny amount of bounce.
Another great slam exercise, the rainbow slam introduces some rotation into the movement to work your muscles from different angles. As well as the shoulders, the rainbow slam is great for your core, chest and arms, and will quickly send you into a higher heart rate zone, making the move a fine addition to any HIIT workouts you’re planning. You can slam a medicine ball or a sandbag, and you can also do a version of the move with free weights: just control the descent instead of slamming them down, unless you are actively trying to destroy the floor.
Stand with a medicine ball on your right-hand side. Squat down to pick up the ball from the floor on your right side. Lift the ball up and over your head, rotating through your torso so you can slam it down on your left side. Then squat, lift and slam in the opposite direction.
Advanced Shoulder Exercises
“Start by either kicking up into a wall handstand or walking your feet up the wall into a handstand with your face to the wall,” says Crossley. “Your body should be in a straight line and close to the wall with your feet pointed upwards and your arms shoulder width apart. Bend your arms to lower your body towards the floor, then press up to return to the starting position.”
“This is the same as the overhead press, but your starting position is with the barbell behind the neck, rather than in front, which makes it a more challenging exercise,” says Crossley.
“This is an isometric hold that will challenge your shoulders and arms,” says Crossley. “Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms fully extended to the sides and your palms facing the floor. Hold the position for as long as possible.”
This compound exercise will do wonders for your shoulders and the supporting muscles, helping you to develop into a better lifter. You can use either dumbbells or a barbell for the move. Dumbbells will ask more of your supporting muscles, so pick a lighter weight than you normally would. You can go heavier with a barbell, but use caution – shoulders are easily injured.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing out slightly. If you’re using dumbbells, hold the dumbbells by your shoulders with your palms facing. For a barbell thruster, rest the bar on your upper chest in line with your shoulders using an overhand grip, palms facing away. Squat down with the weight still resting on your shoulders, then explode up and use the momentum to press the weight above your head. Once your arms are straight and above your head, you’ve completed a rep. The start of the next rep comes as you begin to lower the weight. Don’t pause – go straight into the squat.
This advanced exercise works your body harder than the standard overhead press by making it more difficult to keep your balance, meaning your control of the weight needs to be on point. Load up a barbell with a light weight on it – you’ll be surprised how quickly this weight will feel heavier once you start pressing. Hold the barbell at chin height with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and stand with your feet together like you’re standing to attention. Brace your core keep your elbows pointing forwards as you press the bar overhead, then lower under control.
This full-body exercise is one of the most effective ways to spend your time in the gym, since it works multiple muscle groups while also raising your heart rate. The shoulder muscles are worked especially hard during the second half of the move where you throw and catch the ball. Start facing your wall with a medicine ball held in front of your chest in both hands. Squat down, then drive back up and use your momentum to throw the ball against the wall. Catch it after it bounces off and go straight into the next rep.
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