Why: This one should be done with no weights at all—and before every shoulders workout. Why? “One of the key things to keep in mind when training shoulders is you need to have the requisite mobility in the shoulder to press overhead,” says Chris Cooper, a personal trainer and co-owner of Active Movement & Performance on Long Island, NY. “If that is lacking, it could cause potential problems for the shoulder joint.”
How: Stand against a wall, arms at right angles, pointed up like football goal posts. Slowly, slide your arms up straight overhead, then back to right angles, keeping your forearms and backs of hands against the wall (if you can).
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Free Weights Overhead Press
Why: The overhead press—hold weights at armpits and press straight-up overhead, with narrow or wide grip—is pretty much the go-to move for front and middle delt building. “Using a dumbbell or kettlebell allows for more freedom of movement with the press, and isolates each shoulder, so if one is weaker than the other, you can work on that,” Cooper says. It also works the core, especially if you do one side at a time. Falcon likes Arnold presses (which start with neutral grip and end with fingers facing forward).
“Done together, alternating, or single-arm, these presses are fantastic for building mass in the shoulders,” he says. “This exercise allows for full ROM, and internal and external rotation in the shoulder joint, making this a very complete exercise.”
Why: The gold standard in heavy lifting for the shoulders, a barbell overhead press is often better used as a progression to the free weights (the opposite of what’s typical), once you’re able to get the full range of motion—that is, getting that bar all the way overhead. “The barbell is the perfect tool for being able to load and press a large amount of weight,” says Cooper. “This can overload the shoulder muscles, and cause them to grow.”
Why: Need a safer alternative for lifting heavy if you have limited overhead mobility? Cooper suggests using the “landmine,” which allows you to press a larger load overhead than you could with free weights, in a movement pattern that is kinder to tight shoulders. Do it half-kneeling (bring up the knee opposite your working arm), which works the core and allows you to get under the weight.
This cable move hits both the rear delts and the back. You’ll use a rope attachment at chin-level to, in essence, perform a wide-elbow row while standing up (with soft knees, please). “I prefer this exercise over high barbell pulls, as it hits the posterior delts brilliantly, and is a bit easier on the rotator cuff,” Falcone says. “It also doesn’t leave much room for cheating.”
Also known as “reverse flyes,” you’ll do these by straddling a bench and leaning your chest on the inclined back, then raising dumbbells out to the sides (sort of like your arms are wings). “A great exercise for maintaining optimal posture, this exercise targets the posterior fibers of the shoulder,” says Cooper. “Most people are very anterior-delt dominant from doing lots of presses, so these work to counteract that.” Definitely an essential if you want healthy, well-rounded shoulders.
How: Check out our video instructions for the bent-over lateral raise, which is the same basic exercise, except bent over instead of on a bench.
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Single-arm Lateral Raise
Why: Doing a lateral raise with one arm at a time can potentially even out any muscle imbalances. Furthermore, “it’s a great middle-delt isolator that also works your core,” says Falcon. Watch your form carefully, switching to a neutral hammer grip and scaption if you have rotator cuff issues.
Why: By switching up your body angle—lying face-down on a bench or even a stability ball—the overhead press movement becomes much more about your rear delts as well as your core (rather than your front or middle delts, which it targets when standing upright). “This one definitely involves a bit more strength and stability, but adding moves like this to your mass routine only leads to greater gains,” Falcon says.
How: Lie on the floor face-down with (light) dumbbells in your hands. Extend your arms parallel to the ground (“over your head,” if you were vertical instead of horizontal). Make sure not to let the dumbbells touch the ground. Bring them back to your shoulders. That’s one rep.
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Trap Bar Shrugs
Why: “No one can deny that a nice pair of upper traps only highlights the delts,” says Falcon. “I like these because I think that maintaining a neutral hand position is easier on the shoulder when working with heavier weights.”
How: Load a trap bar (sometimes also called a hex bar), step inside it, and deadlift it to stand up. Then shrug your shoulders up, and lower them down with control.
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Front + Lateral Raise
Why: Independently, front raises (lift dumbbells straight in front of you, stopping parallel to the ground) and lateral raise (same idea, but arms go to the sides) are great for targeting the front and middle delts, respectively. As a combo, “I like how alternating between planes provides just enough muscle confusion to keep the shoulders screaming,” says Falcon. To make sure those shrieks aren’t because of rotator-cuff irritation, keep your hands in a hammer grip (thumbs up) and narrow your lateral raise slightly from 180 degrees (so you can see your hands in your peripheral vision), in what’s known as “scaption.” Also, no matter what you see all those gym rats do, go lighter than you’d expect to start and make sure you go to full range of motion—no cheating.