Our shoulder muscles are the biggest in our upper bodies (study). They’re 50% bigger than our chests, lats, and triceps. And they’re 300% bigger than our biceps. No surprise, then, that building bigger shoulders is one of the best ways to improve our appearance and general strength (study). What makes our shoulders tricky, though, is that they’re made up of three different heads—the front delts, side delts, and rear delts—each of which performs different functions.
In this guide, we’ll go over the best exercises for your front, side, and rear delts, and then how to combine them together into an ideal shoulder workout.
How to Train Your Shoulders
There are three different heads of your shoulder muscles. Each head is responsible for a different type of movement, so each one benefits from a different type of shoulder exercise.
The front delts can be trained with pressing movements, such as the overhead press, making our shoulders bigger. The side delts can be trained by raising our arms out to the sides, like with the lateral raise, making our shoulders broader. And our rear delts can be trained by pulling exercises, such as the barbell row, making our shoulders rounder. With just those three exercises, we have a full shoulder workout.
In the rest of this article, we’ll dive deeper into the details, talking about all of the best exercise variations, set and rep schemes, and shoulder workouts. But keep in mind that training your shoulders will always come down to pressing overhead, raising your arms to the sides, and them some sort of pulling movement, such as a row.
The Best Shoulder Exercises
The Best Front Delt Exercises
The front delts are the biggest heads of our shoulder muscles, and they’re involved in quite a few compound lifts, ranging from push-ups to the bench press to the overhead press. As a result, they tend to grow quite big whether we train them directly or not. Still, it helps to know which exercises are best.
- The overhead press, done with a barbell or dumbbells, standing or seated, is a great all-around shoulder exercise. It works your front delts the hardest, but it will also train your side delts quite well, as well as a number of other secondary muscles.
- The push-up is a great front delt exercise, especially if you use a standard shoulder-width grip. It becomes even better if you raise your hands on push-up handles or weight plates, doing deficit push-ups instead.
- The bench press works the front delts quite hard, especially if you lift in lower rep ranges (4–8 reps per set) or use a narrower grip.
- The incline bench press works the front delts even harder. With a low incline (e.g. 30 degrees), your upper chest will do more work. With a higher incline (e.g. 45 degrees), your front delts will start to take over.
- The landmine press is a great front delt exercise for people with cranky or inflexible shoulders, given that it requires less range of motion than the overhead press and has freer movement at the shoulder joint than the incline bench press.
If we look at a recent muscle activation study that compared a few popular shoulder exercises, the overhead press showed higher front delt activation than the lateral raise and bench press (as measured by EMG). This makes it a great lift to build your shoulder routine around.
The study used a seated machine press, whereas I favour the standing barbell overhead press. Not only does the standing overhead press work your front delts incredibly hard, but it’s also a good exercise for your side delts, triceps, traps, upper chest, serratus, and abs.
If you can’t do the barbell overhead press, though, that’s perfectly fine. You can do a dumbbell or machine press, either seated or standing. Or you could build your shoulder workout out of the incline bench press, close-grip bench press, push-up, or landmine press. Just keep in mind that because those exercises don’t work your side delts, you’ll need to do more lateral raises to balance them out.
Finally, you’ll notice that we don’t include front raises or any other isolation exercises for the front delts. Those lifts have poor strength curves and they don’t stimulate as much muscle growth as the bigger compound lifts. But the main reason we don’t use them is that they aren’t needed. Our front delts are already our limiting factor on incline and overhead presses.
The Best Side Delt Exercises
The side delts are the second biggest of our shoulder muscles, and they aren’t worked very hard by most compound lifts. It’s common for them to lag behind our front delts, and so they often benefit from isolation lifts.
- The overhead press is the main compound lift that works our side delts, but even then, they aren’t always worked hard enough to maximize their rate of muscle growth.
- The upright row does work our side delts hard enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth, but it’s common for them to cause pain in the shoulder joint. If they don’t hurt you, they’re a great choice. But if they grind your shoulders, it’s best to pick another lift.
- The lateral raise is the best exercise for our side delts. They don’t fully isolate them, given that our upper traps will work equally hard, but they are our limiting factor, ensuring that they get the majority of the growth stimulus. Lateral raises are also easy to do, safe, and cause barely any overall fatigue.
If we go back to the EMG study, we see that the overhead press and lateral raise are great at working our side delts, with the lateral raise reaching slightly higher muscle activation levels. EMG research isn’t perfect, and it tends to favour exercises that work our muscles harder at shorter muscle lengths, which is the least important part of the range of motion for stimulating muscle growth. So I wouldn’t read into this too much. My main takeaway here is that both the overhead press and lateral raise are great exercises for our side delts.
We’re already doing the overhead press as our main shoulder lift, so to add a bit of extra variety into our shoulder workouts, we can use the lateral raise for our side delts. The lateral raise works our side delts, upper traps, and forearm extensors. It also works our front and rear delts, but not necessarily enough to stimulate much muscle growth.
The reason we’re choosing the lateral raise is that it’s simple, it’s safe, it’s easy to recover from, and it works our side delts better than any other exercise. If you do a few quick sets at the end of your workout, maybe even drop sets, then your side delts will be taken care of.
The only problem with the lateral raise is that the strength curve isn’t great. The lift is quite easy at the bottom of the range of motion, where we want it to be the hardest, and it’s quite hard at the top, where we want it to be the easiest.
One way to solve that problem is to change the angle of pull, either by lying on your side or standing next to a cable stack. You might notice that it makes your side delts more tired and sore, and it may indeed improve your muscle growth. On the other hand, it can make the exercises more finicky.
Another way to improve the lateral raise’s strength curve is to lift with a more explosive tempo, trying to accelerate the weight through the range of motion. The more force you put into the weight at the bottom of the movement, the harder the bottom portion becomes (which is good), and the more momentum you’ll have to assist you at the top (which is also good).
The Best Rear Delt Exercises
The rear delts are the smallest of your shoulder muscles, and just like the front delts, they’re worked quite hard by the big compound lifts. The difference is that while our front delts are worked hardest by pressing movements, our rear delts are worked hardest by pulling movements.
- Barbell rows are one of the best exercises for our rear delts, and often train them hard enough to fully bulk them up. To work your rear delts harder, use a wider grip and row the barbell to your sternum.
- Chin-ups also work our rear delts, although typically slightly less than barbell rows, putting more emphasis on your lats and traps instead. Still, they give your rear delts extra work.
- Face-pulls are an amazing lift for working your rear delts and external rotators, which can help you build muscle and improve your posture.
- The rear-delt fly is a great isolation lift for your rear delts. Your mid traps will be worked as well, but your rear delts will be your limiting factor, and so they’ll get the majority of the growth stimulus.
Going back to that same shoulder EMG study, we see three different shoulder exercises doing a poor job of stimulating our rear delts. The lateral raise works moderately well, but I’d expect to see even better shoulder activation from pulling movements.
If your workout program includes some chin-ups, rows, and deadlifts, then your rear delts probably won’t need any extra attention. But if you notice that they’re lagging, you can train them directly by adding in the face pull or reverse fly.
How Many Reps & Sets to Do
Most research shows that doing anywhere from 4–40 repetitions per set will stimulate muscle growth. But the lower end of that rep range (4–6 reps per set) tends to be less efficient, stimulating less muscle growth per set, whereas the higher end (20–40 reps per set) needs to be taken closer to failure, our cardiovascular fitness often limits us, and it’s excruciating. As a result, the easiest and most efficient way to stimulate muscle growth is to do around 6–20 reps per set (systematic review).
Where this gets tricky is that each lift benefits from a slightly different rep range:
- With the bigger compound shoulder lifts, such as the incline bench press and overhead press, it’s often better to do fewer reps, especially since there’s research showing that heavier sets tend to do a better job of activating our shoulders. That’s why doing sets of 6–12 reps per set is usually best, and going as low as 4–5 reps is fine. (An exception to this is the barbell row, which turns into a hip and lower back exercise in lower rep ranges.)
- With the smaller isolation lifts, such as lateral raises and face pulls, we’re working less overall muscle mass. The lifts are easier on our cardiovascular systems, and bringing them into higher rep ranges is less painful. Plus, keeping them lighter tends to make them safer. So with these smaller lifts, it’s usually best to do 10–20 reps per set, and doing as many as 30 reps is fine.
So, overall, if we’re trying to build bigger shoulders, we should be training our shoulders at least twice per week, with at least 3 sets per workout. And since our shoulders aren’t trained fully by any single lift, that means doing at least 3 sets for our front delts, side delts, and rear delts.
The Shoulder Workout
Okay, now let’s put this together into an ideal shoulder workout. We’re trying to do at least 4 sets for our front delts, side delts, and rear delts, and we’re trying to do that at least twice per week. Our front delts are worked perfectly by compound pushing exercises, such as the overhead press. Our side delts are worked similarly well by overhead pressing but benefit from some extra lateral raises. And our rear delts are worked moderately well by lateral raises, but rows and chin-ups work them even harder.
Here’s one example of an ideal shoulder workout:
- The overhead press: 4 sets of 6 repetitions (4×6) for the front and side delts.
- The chin-up: 4×6 for the rear delts (and entire upper back).
- The lateral raise: 3×12 for the side delts.
That takes care of one of your shoulder workouts. It trains the front and side delts perfectly, but it only works the rear delts moderately hard. That’s okay, though, because we still need a second shoulder workout:
- The bench press: 4×8 for the front delts (and chest and triceps).
- The barbell row: 4×15 for the rear delts (and entire back).
- The lateral raise: 3×12 for the side delts.
This shoulder workout trains the side and rear delts perfectly, but it’s a bit easier on the front delts. You could put more emphasis on your front delts by using a close-grip or incline bench press, but I’m assuming that you also want to bulk up your other muscles, so I’m trying to choose more versatile lifts. And the bench press might not be totally ideal for your front delts, but it’s the best chest exercise there is.
With that said, there are many different ways of working out your shoulders. For example, if you use a 4-day push/pull workout split, you could train your front and side delts during your push workouts (with the overhead press and bench press), then train your rear delts during your pull workouts (with rows and chin-ups). That would stimulate just as much shoulder growth.
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