Illustration of a bodybuilder working out his shoulders with the lateral raise exercise.

The Shoulder Workout Guide: The Best Exercises & Methods

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.

Illustration of a bodybuilder who built bigger shoulder muscles with shoulder workouts.

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.

Diagram showing our shoulder muscles and how to train them.
The three heads of our shoulder muscles.

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.
EMG graph showing muscle activation in the front delts from various shoulder exercises, with the overhead press being the best.

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.

Illustration of a man working out his shoulders with the overhead press.
The overhead press is the main shoulder exercise.

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.

Diagram showing the muscles worked by the overhead press.
The overhead press works a wide variety of muscles.

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.
Graph showing side delt muscle activation in various exercises as measured by EMG.

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.

Illustration of a bodybuilder doing the lateral raise to work out his shoulders.
The lateral raise is the best exercise for the 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.

Diagram showing the muscles worked by the lateral raise shoulder exercise.

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.

A lateral raise done by lying on your side to improve the strength curve.
The lying lateral raise.

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.
Graph showing the best exercises for working our rear delts as measured by EMG.

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.

Illustration of a man doing a bent-over barbell row to build muscle in his upper back.
The barbell row is a great rear delt exercise.

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.

When it comes to how many sets to do, most research shows that 3–8 sets per workout is ideal (study) and that we should train our muscles 2–4 times per week (meta-analysis).

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.

Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these shoulder workouts into a full workout program, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, you’ll love our full programs.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 65 pounds at 11% body fat and has ten years of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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6 Comments

  1. Farhan Hussain on December 22, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Shane, it is interesting to know that deltoids are bigger than many apparently bigger muscles in the upper body.

    Will you please elaborate on the criteria on which deltoids were compared with other muscles? For example, based on volume size maybe? Otherwise, lats are generally considered the largest muscle in the upper body based on its area, but lats are a thin layer actually.

    • Shane Duquette on December 22, 2020 at 2:33 pm

      Hey Farhan, yeah, you’ve got it exactly right. I’m talking about total volume, not just area. Our shoulders are the biggest muscles in our upper bodies, then our chests, then our lats, and then our triceps. (And our quads and glutes are way, way bigger than any of our upper body muscles.)

      • Farhan Hussain on December 23, 2020 at 12:49 am

        Thanks for sharing this, Shane. It appears quite surprising at first that many of bigger looking muscles are actually smaller than the smallest looking muscle.

        Anyway, Shane, graphz on EMG in this article about middle deltoid activation show that lateral raises are only slightly better than overhead presses. I avoid lateral raises as they bother my shoulders. But I do lots of heavy overhead pressing. Will I get almost same level of middle deltoid development?

        • Shane Duquette on December 23, 2020 at 8:25 am

          I think if you’re doing plenty of overhead pressing, it’s okay to skip out on the lateral raises. You can still build big shoulders. With that said, if you adjust your lateral raise technique, you can probably find a way of doing them without any shoulder pain. But you don’t need to. You’re right. Overhead pressing can be enough for both the front and side delts 🙂

          • Farhan Hussain on December 23, 2020 at 10:28 am

            Ok, Shane. I shall reconsider lateral raises with some technique adjustment. Thanks.



          • Shane Duquette on December 23, 2020 at 12:37 pm

            Sweet 🙂

            And if they keep feeling bad on your shoulder joints, just yank them back out.



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