The 20 Best Shoulder Exercises for Upper-Body Strength

The 20 Best Shoulder Exercises for Upper-Body Strength
Presented by Spartan Training®

Training your shoulders can feel like a constantly uphill battle. If you've been hitting the same weight on lateral raises for years, you know what we mean. But strong shoulders are crucial for crushing obstacles, especially anything involving pushing movements. If you want to build strength in your upper body, these are the 20 best shoulder exercises to add to your training plan. 

The shoulders are a widely misunderstood muscle group. While the muscles that make up the shoulders are generally thought of as “small” muscles, together they’re actually the largest muscle group in the upper body. And because they contain a ball and socket joint, they also have more freedom of movement than any other joint besides the hips. Your shoulders are involved in all arm movements.

They’re also important from an aesthetic standpoint: Broad, muscular shoulders are perhaps the most important visual cue of a strong, athletic build. It's important to keep in mind that strength and mobility should not be thought of as completely separate. After all, a good strength workout trains a muscle through its full range of motion.

Personally, shoulders are my favorite muscles to train. Here are 20 of the best exercises for bigger, stronger, more mobile shoulders.

MORE: 12 of the Best Bodyweight Exercises for Functional Strength

What Are the Best Exercises for Shoulder Strength and Mobility?

1. I, Y, Ts 

The I,Y,T is actually a series of three closely-related exercises that, when performed together, build shoulder mobility in all directions. This can be performed with dumbbells, resistance bands, or resistance tubes — similar to TRX bands. (The following directions will cover the dumbbell variant.)

How to do an I,Y,T

  1. Lay prone on an incline bench with a pair of light dumbbells in your hands.  Begin with your hands hanging down.
  2. For the I, bring your hands slowly up in front of your head with your arms straight, then back down.
  3. For the Y, bring your arms slowly up up at a 45º angle (think: the Y in YMCA) then back down.
  4. For the T, bring your arms up straight to the sides, then back down.

2. Prone Swimmer

The prone swimmer is an arm and shoulder mobility exercise, moving your arms and shoulders through their full range of motion and your wrists through part of their range of motion. It is especially useful for people who have trouble reaching behind their back.  

How to do prone swimmers

  1. Lay on the floor with your toes and forehead against the floor and your heels pointed into the air. You may want to put a rolled up towel under your forehead for comfort.
  2. Clasp your hands behind your head.
  3. Unclasp your hands and reach forward over your head, hands down.
  4. Slowly swing your arms out to your sides, keeping them straight.
  5. Rotate your hands upward, bring them further down, and clasp them behind the small of your back. 

MORE: The 30 Best Exercises for Functional Strength and Mobility 

3. X Plank

A more difficult variant on the front hand plank, the x plank has you spread your feet out wide for a less stable, more challenging position. This position effectively puts more weight on your glutes, hamstrings, and abs, but it also forces your gluteus medius and outer thighs to help stabilize your body for a more well-rounded lower-body exercise.

How to do an x plank

  1. Get into a standard front hand plank position.
  2. Spread your feet apart, so your lower body is in an x position.
  3. (Optional) If you have great upper-body endurance, move your hands an inch or two up and out to the sides, so that your upper body is also in a bit of an x position. (Note that a small change in position here equates to a big difference in difficulty level.)
  4. Hold as long as possible. If you can go over two minutes, spread your hands and feet wider next time.

4. Pike Push-Up

The pike push-up is a push-up variant that works your shoulders more than your chest by working at a steep incline. It’s your go-to shoulder exercise when no equipment is available.

How to do a pike push-up

  1. Get into a standard push-up position.
  2. (Optional) Place a pair of foam blocks under your hands so your head can go below the level of your hands.
  3. Scoot your feet toward your hands, pushing your butt up into the air.
  4. Slowly lower your head to the floor, then push back up.

5. Plank Up-Down

Front planks come in two slightly different variations: the hand plank and the forearm plank. Both provide fairly similar workouts, with the difference being that arm planks work the arms more, while forearm planks are harder on your quads and abs.

Both get fairly easy after a while, however, and only work the front of your abs.  The plank up-down provides a harder, iso-lateral workout by having you transition constantly between the two.

How to do a plank up-down

  1. Get into a standard hand plank position.
  2. Rest your left forearm on the floor, then your right forearm, so you’re not in a forearm plank.
  3. Hold for three seconds.
  4. Place your left hand on the floor, then your right hand, so you’re now in a hand plank position.
  5. Hold for three seconds.

Note that you have two ways to adjust the difficulty here: changing the number of reps or the length of the holds.

6. Hand-Release Push-Up

Hand-release push-ups are pretty close to normal push-ups, except you lift your hands off of the ground for a moment at the bottom of each rep. This forces you to use a full range of motion without relying on momentum, and builds a bit of shoulder blade mobility in the process.  

How to do a hand-release push-up

  1. Get into a push-up position, with your palms at shoulder width.
  2. Lower yourself to the floor (as in a push-up), until your head touches the floor.  
  3. Lift your palms slightly off of the floor, pushing your shoulder blades back.
  4. Return your palms to the floor and push back up.

7. Half-Kneeling Banded Upright Row

The upright row is an upper-back, trapezius, and bicep exercise that builds strength in the “lifting things upward” movement pattern. The banded version is easy to do at home or while traveling.

How to do a half-kneeling banded upright row

  1. Get into a half-kneeling position, i.e. on one knee.
  2. Take a short fit loop band (if it’s long you can double it up) and place the center of it under your front foot to hold it in place.
  3. Lean about 10º forward at the waist and grab either side of the band with your palms facing down.
  4. Slowly pull the band up to shoulder height, then lower it back down.

8. Tall-Kneeling Single-Arm Dumbbell Upright Row

This is another upright row variant which can be performed either at home or at a gym.  Unlike other upright row variants, it is unilateral– working one side of the body at a time.  This allows it to take advantage of “bilateral deficit,” the phenomenon whereby the body is stronger at unilateral vs bilateral movements.    

How to do a tall-kneeling single-arm dumbbell upright row

  1. Kneel down, holding your thighs vertical rather than resting on your feet.  Hold a dumbbell in one hand.  
  2. Bend forward about 10º at the waist.
  3. Pull the dumbbell straight up to shoulder height, then slowly lower it back down. 

9. Standing Dumbbell Upright Row

Now we get closer to standard upright rows. However, unlike barbell upright rows, standing dumbbell upright rows allow each arm to move independently and each shoulder to rotate as needed, making for a more natural movement. This keeps the joints safer while working more of the small support muscles.

How to do a standing dumbbell upright row

  1. Stand with your feet a few inches apart, holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Begin with your arms hanging in front of you.
  2. Bend forward about 10º at the waist.
  3. Slowly pull the dumbbells straight up to shoulder height while exhaling on the lift. Then, slowly lower them back down, inhaling as they lower.

10. Tall-Kneeling Dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is primarily an anterior deltoid isolation movement. Because the front of the shoulders are involved in most upper-body pressing movements, they don’t need a lot of isolation work. However, when you want to focus on them, the tall-kneeling variation has the advantage of limiting your ability to “cheat” by rocking your body, while still allowing for full range of motion.

How to do a tall-kneeling dumbbell front raise

  1. Kneel down, holding your thighs vertical rather than resting on your feet.  Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms down.
  2. Slowly raise your arms forward, keeping them straight until they’re extended straight out in front of you.
  3. Even more slowly, lower your arms back down.

MORE: Shoulder Power: 3 Workouts to Enhance Strength, Posture and Athleticism

11. Tall-Kneeling Banded Overhead Press

The overhead press is your go-to shoulder exercise, working the anterior and medial (side) deltoids, as well as the triceps. Banded overhead presses take advantage of accommodating resistance, making the exercise easier where you’re weaker and harder where you’re stronger. Once again, the tall-kneeling position limits cheating.

How to do a tall-kneeling banded overhead press

  1. Kneel down, holding your thighs vertical rather than resting on your feet. 
  2. Take a compact or fit loop resistance band and place the middle under your knees, holding the ends in each hand. Begin with your hands held next to your shoulders.
  3. Slowly press your hands upward, allowing your shoulders to rotate naturally.
  4. Slowly lower your hands back down to shoulder level.

12. Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Arnold Press

The Arnold press is a shoulder press variant that allows the shoulders to rotate through the movement, making it more natural and safer on your shoulder joints.  The half-kneeling, single-arm variant — once again — takes advantage of bilateral deficit while limiting your ability to cheat. Plus, the half-kneeling position engages your core more.

How to do a half-kneeling single-arm Arnold press

  1. Kneel on one leg, holding the dumbbell in the hand on the same side as your rear leg. Keep your torso pointed forward.
  2. Begin with the dumbbell held in front of your shoulder and your palm facing you.
  3. Slowly press the dumbbell upward, allowing your shoulder to rotate outward so that when your arm is fully extended, your palm faces outward.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbell back down to shoulder level, rotating your shoulder inward.

13. Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

The seated dumbbell overhead press is an overhead press variant that uses dumbbells to provide superior tissue stress distribution compared to barbells. Because dumbbells allow more freedom of movement, your shoulders can move in a way that is natural to them, placing more stress on your muscles and less on your joints. 

Sitting down limits your ability to cheat and helps delay form breakdown, but at the expense of not involving the lower body, and limiting the involvement of the back and abdominals.

How to do a seated dumbbell overhead press

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet spread wide for stability.
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells over your shoulders, oriented left to right.
  3. Press the dumbbells overhead until your arms are almost straight. The dumbbells should end up close to each other, but not hit each other.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells back down until they’re just above your shoulders.

14. Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The lateral raise is your go-to exercise for isolating the medial deltoids, or the sides of your shoulders that are responsible for raising your arms to your sides and pushing them straight up. The standing dumbbell lateral raise allows slightly greater range of motion compared to the seated version, while also involving the torso muscles in stabilizing your body.

How to do a standing dumbbell lateral raise

  1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Hold a pair of light dumbbells at your sides, resting against your outer thighs.
  3. Slowly raise your arms to your sides, keeping them almost — but not quite — straight, until they are held horizontally out to your sides. (Your arms and torso should form a T shape.)
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to your sides.

Note: Do not raise your arms above horizontal, as this causes you to lose control of the weights. In fact, if you can even do so, the dumbbells are probably too light.

15. Standing Dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is your go-to anterior deltoid isolation movement. Unlike the tall-kneeling front raise, a standing dumbbell front raise will allow you to cheat a bit by rocking your body. While this is usually undesirable, it can be beneficial — in small amounts, of course — if it’s near the end of your workout, you’re fatigued, and still want to squeeze out a few more sets. This is also useful when performing supersets with an overhead press variant to post-fatigue the anterior deltoids.  

How to do a standing dumbbell front raise

  1. Stand with your feet a few inches apart, holding a pair of dumbbells in each hand. Let your arms hang in front of you with your palms down.
  2. Slowly raise your arms forward, keeping them straight until they’re extended straight out in front of you.
  3. Even more slowly, lower your arms back down.

16. Dumbbell Sit-Up to Single-Arm Overhead Press

The sit-up is a staple core exercise that works the frontal abdominals and quads, while the overhead press is your staple shoulder exercise. Combining the two not only provides the benefits of both movements, but it also engaged the obliques — the sides of your abdomen — in stabilizing your torso.  

How to do a dumbbell sit-up to single-arm overhead press

  1. Lay in a sit-up position with a dumbbell in one hand, held in front of your shoulder.  
  2. Sit up, keeping your feet on the ground as much as possible. At the same time, press the dumbbell upward.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.

17. Standing Dumbbell Push Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is a great shoulder exercise: It works your anterior and medial deltoids as well as your triceps, and using dumbbells gives your arms full freedom of movement. This provides a better workout while allowing your joints to move in a natural manner.

Like all pushing movements, the hardest part is at the beginning. The dumbbell push press helps you get over that initial hump by using your lower body to assist you in getting started.

How to do a standing dumbbell push press

  1. Stand with your feet at hip width, holding a pair of dumbbells just over your shoulders that are oriented front to back.
  2. Quickly squat down just a few inches, then pop your body back up.
  3. As you come up, explosively press the dumbbells upward.
  4. Return to the starting position quickly, but not quite as quickly as you pressed upward.

MORE: The 10 Best Exercises for Your Chest

18. Standing Single-Arm Push Press

This is a single-arm dumbbell push press variant that takes advantage of a bilateral deficit to allow you to lift about 10–20% more weight. The asymmetry also forces your oblique abdominals to assist in stabilizing the torso.  

How to do a standing single-arm dumbbell push press on the right side

  1. Hold a dumbbell in your right arm in a shoulder press position, oriented front to back, with the back end resting on your shoulder.  
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. 
  3. Quickly bend your legs slightly, dropping just a few inches.
  4. Quickly straighten your legs and push up.
  5. Quickly return to the starting position.  

19. Two-Kettlebell Racked Hold

A rare isometric exercise, the two-kettlebell racked hold builds strength-endurance in your arms and shoulders, and — to a lesser extent — in your back and abdominals, which will be used to stabilize your body.

How to do a two-kettlebell racked hold

  1. Grab a pair of matched kettlebells, one in each hand.
  2. Stand with your hips shoulder width apart.
  3. Hold the kettlebells such that the handles are in front of your clavicle, the main body of the kettlebells are in front of your shoulders, and your elbows are in front of and slightly to the sides of your lower ribs.
  4. Continue holding as long as you can.

20. Single-Arm Dumbbell Thruster

The single-arm dumbbell thruster effectively combines a shallow squat with a single-arm dumbbell shoulder press. In addition to being two exercises in one, the momentum from the squat helps you get over the most challenging part of the dumbbell shoulder press — the bottom of the movement — so that you can use a bit more weight and squeeze out a couple more reps than you otherwise could.

How to do a right single-arm dumbbell thruster

  1. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand just over your shoulder, oriented front to back. Stand with your feet hip width apart. Hold your left arm in front of yourself and slightly to the side for balance.  
  2. Drop into a squat, low enough that your thighs break parallel.
  3. Rapidly go back up and straighten your knees until they’re straight, but not locked. At the same time, press the dumbbell upward until your right arm is straight. 
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