When it comes to building a boulder shoulder, there are 2 fundamental movements you’ll be performing: presses and raises. While this may sound simple (and to some degree it is), the sheer amount of variation to choose from is endless- which is why made this guide.
In this guide, we go over the 15 best exercises to effectively build shoulder mass. We cover what it is, how it works, and most importantly how to do them safely. Before we run you through our crash course, let’s understand the different muscles in your shoulder and how they differ.
Your shoulder is made up of 3 different muscles, otherwise known as ‘heads’.
To build a rounded set of shoulders, you’ll need to train all three heads equally. This can typically be done with a compound movement. The first head is your posterior deltoid, which is your rear shoulder. The second head is the medial deltoid or side of your shoulder. Finally, the third and most commonly trained muscle is the anterior
The simple truth is if you don’t work on all three parts then you won’t develop well-rounded shoulders. While this can at first
1. Seated Bench Dumbbell Press
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Press, Isolate| Gear: 2 Dumbbells| Target: Shoulders, arms
If a competition were to be held for the most popular shoulder exercise, we’re willing to bet the classic dumbbell press would take first all day long. It is the reason why, after all, most incline benches are seemingly taken by dudes and dudettes pressing these weights around into the air. In all seriousness, this exercise shines best at isolating and building out shoulder muscle.
Seated Bench Dumbbell Press Directions
Place a dumbbell on each side of the bench. Sit into the bench and plant your feet into the floor past hip-width. Lean over one side at a time to grab the dumbbell and let them rest vertically on your thighs. Next, lean back into the chair and ‘kick’ the dumbbells into the air and position them so that they’re in line with your shoulders. Your palms will be facing away from the body.
Then, with a slight arch in your back, exhale and press the weights up until your arms are fully extended. Try to leave a few inches of space between the dumbbells and not let them collide. Pause at the top and hold this pose for a second to focus on squeezing your shoulder muscles.
After you’ve really engaged your shoulders, inhale and slowly reverse the movement. While lowering the dumbbells, don’t bend your elbows down lower than your shoulder. When finished with the exercise, place the dumbbells on your thighs instead of letting them drop to the floor.
Pro Tips: The most challenging part of this exercise is form. This is especially true for people with ectomorph body types who don’t have a lot of meat on their bones, so take it slow and keep it light the first few times until you’ve gotten the hang of it and are totally comfortable.
2. Incline Bench Barbell Press
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Press, Compound | Gear: Incline bench, barbell | Target: Shoulders, arms
Among the best-known shoulder exercises is the incline barbell press. Unlike its flat angle chest building cousin, you won’t be at a naturally mechanically advantageous position while lifting the barbell. Instead, your body will have to lift it using less muscle and different muscle groups.
Incline Bench Barbell Press Directions
Because the incline bench is more difficult to lift on than a flat bench is, we suggest stacking the barbell with considerably less weight than you usually would on a flat bench. Let’s begin.
Start by adding your desired amount of weight onto the racked barbell. Sit into the chair with your feet planted firmly into the ground past hip-width and your back slightly arched. With your head in line with your spine, take your arms and grip the barbell above you at shoulder-width. Your palms should be facing out and your chest should be out. This is your starting position.
Exhale and lift the bar from its rack and, with your arms fully extended, bring it over your pecs. Slowly lower the bar and resist it on the way down until it’s almost contacted your chest. Your elbows should not be flared out. Breathe in and fully extend the bar back up. Rack when done.
Pro Tips: This exercise is best performed with a spotter for increased safety. Like all of the movements here, pay attention to your form and start with lower weight than you’re used to.
3. Face Pull
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: High Pulley, Rope| Target: Shoulders, light back
Don’t let its name put you off. Of the many different exercises at our disposal, we opted to include face pulls because of how great of an isolator it is. The main targets are (expectedly) your shoulders, but it also recruits some of your back muscles to aid balance and stability.
Face Pull Directions
Find and attach a rope to an adjustable weight-stack or dual cable pulley machine. Ensure the pulley is set to the highest position, or at least matching shoulder height. Set your desired level of weight, grip the rope with both your hands (separated) and step back until your arms are fully extended and there’s natural tension. Your back should be slightly arched and feet at hip-width.
This will be your starting position. Exhale and pull the rope back to your face. Once the rope has wrapped around your head (on each side), pause for a second and squeeze your shoulders. You may now inhale and slowly reverse the movement to return to your initial starting position.
Pro Tips: Keep your arms parallel to the ground at all times throughout the exercise. Remember to set it the machine to a weight that’s moderately comfortable but not too heavy or light.
4. Incline Bench Dumbbell Row
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Compound | Gear: 2 Dumbbells | Target: Shoulders, middle back
If you haven’t already noticed, when it comes to (effective) shoulder exercises there’s a pattern: benches. In this case, we’ll be going over an unorthodox way of using one to build shoulders.
Incline Bench Dumbbell Row Directions
Place two dumbbells of equal weight behind the headrest of an incline bench. Lie into the bench with your chest out and back arched. Extend your legs comfortably behind you and use your toes as support. Lean your arms forward and grab the dumbbells- palms facing each other.
This will be your starting position. Start the movement by breathing out and retracting your shoulder blades to pull the dumbbells up to your sides. Your elbows should slightly flex back behind you with the movement but not flare out to the sides. It’ll look like a ‘V’ with your torso.
Raise the dumbbells until you feel a moderate level of tension or until they’re parallel with your sides. When you’ve reached the top of the movement, pause for a second and squeeze your sides before inhaling and slowly returning to the bottom starting position. Repeat as desired.
Pro Tips: In practice, this exercise feels great and is easy to get used too. Remember to start with a low weight and take it slow to get an accurate idea of where you are physically first.
5. Wide-Grip Cable Upright Row
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolate | Gear: Cable Machine, flat-bar | Target: Shoulders,
This exercise is among the more ‘controversial’ shoulder fitness exercises. How your body will respond to this exercise is largely dependent on your body type. If you have or had shoulder injuries in the past, you may want to skip this one. Otherwise, you might really like it.
Wide-Grip Cable Upright Row Directions
Before you can start the movement you’ll first need the proper form. Attach a straight bar to a weight-stack pulley set in the lowest position. Adjust the weight until it’s at a moderately comfortable level and not too heavy. Hands facing in, grab the bar past shoulder-width with a slight bend at your elbows and stand up straight. This is where you’ll start the exercise.
To begin, exhale and engage your shoulders to slowly raise the bar until it’s just under your chin. As you lift the bar, keep it next to your body. Done properly, your elbows won’t dip below your forearms and your chest will be out. Hold the bar at the top for a moment and squeeze.
Inhale and slowly lower the bar down to the starting position the same way you brought it up.
Pro Tips: Unless you’ve got years of experience, you should start on low weight and work up until you find a balanced level that doesn’t impede form and is relatively comfortable. If the movement doesn’t feel right, stop and lower the weight or simply skip it altogether.
6. Incline Bench Press
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolation| Gear: | Target: Shoulders, upper chest, triceps
The incline bench press is undeniably a workout staple when it comes to building boulder shoulders and a stronger chest. Unlike its flat cousin, you don’t have the mechanical advantage of just pushing up and thus need to use more power to drive the bar into the air.
Incline Bench Press Directions
Find an incline bench surrounded by a safety cage or rack. Bring a barbell over and set it into a position that’s equal to arm’s length. Add your desired weights. Lie back into the bench with your back and spread your knees past shoulder-width. Arch your back slightly, bring out your chest and retract your shoulders. Grab the bar using both hands slightly past shoulder-width.
This will be your starting position. Inhale, keep your wrists straight (not bent) and bring the barbell over your torso at arm’s length. Slowly lower the bar to your sternum until you’ve nearly touched your chest with the bar. Exhale and reverse the movement to bring it back up.
Pro Tips: While more difficult than a flat bench, the incline bench is a much better alternative for those prone to injury or sensitive joints. Just use lower weight and maintain a good posture throughout the entire movement. It’ll also help greatly to have a friend spot for you just in case.
7. Cable Front Raise
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolate | Gear: Cable Machine, Flat Bar | Target: Shoulders
One of the best exercises to train your anterior and lateral delts is the front cable raise. You’ve likely seen the at your local gym due to its popularity. And, compared to upright rows, it’s a lot easier on the shoulders and is less likely to cause impingement (with proper form and weight).
Cable Front Raise Directions
Attach a flat bar onto a cable machine set on the lowest height setting and adjust the weight to a moderately comfortable level. Face away from the machine and stand up straight at shoulder width. Grab the bar at hip width (palms facing inward) and bring it up to the front of your thighs.
This is where you will begin the exercise. Exhale and use your shoulders to raise the bar out in front of you at arm’s length. Your elbow may be slightly bent. Once the bar is high enough that your fists are parallel to your head, hold this spot for a second and contract your shoulders.
Next, inhale and reverse the exercise. Slowly return the bar and arms to your original starting position. Repeat this movement as many times as necessary for your set. Keep your chest still.
Pro Tips: Try to avoid moving around as you execute the movement. Keep your chest out, back straight, and use your shoulders to do the lifting. Your forearms will only be used for stability.
8. Flat Bench Cable Reverse Fly
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Bi-lateral Pull, Isolation | Gear: 2 Cable Machines | Target: Shoulders
Cable Reverse Fly Directions
The first part of performing cable reverse flyes is setting up- and it needs more than most. Find a dual-cable stack machine and position both pulleys high up. Then, set a flat bench in-between both handles. Grasp the right pulley with your left hand and the left pulley with your right hand.
Now, lie back into the bench with your arms extended. Your chest should be out, feet on the floor, elbows slightly bent, and knuckles pointed up. The cables should intersect above the top of your chest and form an “X” next to each other. This will be your starting position.
Exhale and steadily pull the cables laterally to the sides of your torso until your arms are parallel with the floor. Once there, hold this position for a second and
Once finished, you may now inhale and slowly return to your first starting position.
Pro Tips: Take the movement slow and try to focus on not excessively squeezing your blades together. This is mainly an issue for those who extend their arms farther than their sides. Also, you don’t need a D-Handle or stirrup for this exercise. Simply pull the pulley hook itself.
9. Standing Military Press (Barbell & Dumb)
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Compound | Gear: Barbell, Rack | Target: Shoulders, arms, sides
One of the best exercises to help build your shoulders is the classic military press. This exercise targets your anterior and lateral delts but also uses a number of assistive muscles including your sides, arms, glutes, and chest to name a few. Check out the few simple steps.
Standing Military Press Directions
Find a squat rack and position a barbell in it at about chest height. Add a fairly comfortable amount of weight (plates) on the barbell. Then, with your hands facing forward, grip the barbell. Your arms should be past shoulder-width and angled up to form an “L” relative to your torso.
With most of your body ready to lift, bend your knees slightly to lower your body and, with your hands on the barbell, hold it steady near your clavicle. Then, lift the bar from the rack and take a half-step back. Make sure your feet are firmly planted at shoulder width. Now bring the bar out slightly in front of your head. Your arms should be parallel to the floor. This is how you’ll start.
Bar in hand, exhale and slowly press it up until it’s above your head. Your arms should be locked and, as mentioned before, form an “L” at the top. Once at the top, hold this position for a second and squeeze your shoulders. Inhale and slowly return to the initial position. Repeat as desired.
Pro Tips: It’s important to remember not to flare your elbows. Keep your elbows locked, chest out, and back straight. Use a moderately comfortable amount of weight and focus on engaging your shoulders to lift the bar. Try not to hyperextend your arms beyond a mild stretch either.
10. Arnold Press
Difficulty: Intermediate | Force: Push, Compound | Gear: 2 Dumbbells | Target: Shoulders, sides
Named after gym titan and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (AKA the Terminator), the ‘Arnold Press’ is one of the best ways to build a strong set of shoulders. Its main focus is on both your anterior and lateral deltoids. It also uses the biceps, sides, and triceps to boot.
Arnold Press Directions
Find and sit on a flat bench with a dumbbell resting on each of your thighs. Lift the weights to your upper chest. Your elbows should extend forward and arms appear to curl the weight straight up to the ceiling with your palms facing in. It will look like a “V”. Ensure your chest is sticking out, knees are spread and back is slightly arched. This will be your starting position.
With the dumbbells held in front of you, exhale and lift them up as you rotate your hands until they’re fully facing forward at the end of the movement. Once the dumbbells are at arm’s length above you (not hyper-extended), hold this position for a second and squeeze your shoulders.
Inhale and slowly reverse the movement until you’ve returned to your original starting position.
Pro Tips: Performing the Arnold Press can cause shoulder impingement if you’re not careful with your form. If at any time you feel pain or a ‘
11. Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Raise, Isolation | Gear: 2 Dumbbells | Target: Shoulders, sides
Dumbbell lateral raises are among the more simple, safe and effective shoulder exercises. They also just so happen to be one of our personal favorites. They’re great for isolating both your anterior and lateral deltoid and recruiting part of your side to help assist the exercise.
Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise Directions
Standing at shoulder-width, pick up a pair of equally weighted dumbbells and let them hang down at arm’s length next to your sides. The palms of your hands should be facing each other.
This will be your starting position. Exhale and laterally extend the weights out from your sides until the palms of your hands are either at shoulder height or are parallel to the floor. Once your hands are at the top, pause for a second and engage your shoulders.
Inhale and slowly lower the weights back to the starting position,
Pro Tips: Control the movement and keep it steady on the way down. Make sure to resist the weight (gravity) on its way down and try to use as little momentum as possible.
12. Alternating Front Dumbbell Raise
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Raise, Isolation | Gear: 2 Dumbbells| Target: Shoulders, assistors
Odds are you’ve probably seen this exercise being performed at your local gym. Like exercise #11, it shares simplicity but differs slightly in terms of which groups are used. While 11 only uses 3 muscle groups, front dumbbell raises also make use of your chest for added stability.
Front Dumbbell Raise Directions
Grab two dumbbells and stand at shoulder-width with your back straight. The dumbbells should hang at arm’s length by your thighs with the palms of your hands sideways facing behind you.
Take note, this is your starting position. Exhale and raise the dumbbell in your right hand up and out until it reaches shoulder height without rotating your wrists. Your elbows should be slightly bent and chest completely still. Once at the top, hold for a second and engage your shoulder.
Inhale and slowly lower the weight to the starting position while resisting its momentum on the way down. Finally, repeat this movement except with your left arm to complete one full set.
Pro Tips: Many people- ourselves included – find it useful to raise both dumbbells at the same time at the end of every set. Try it out, you might like it.
13. Single-Arm Lateral Cable Raise
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Raise, Isolation | Gear: Cable Machine | Target: Shoulders
This simple 2-step exercise is one of our most treasured movements, and with good reason. In addition to isolating your anterior and lateral deltoids, it also targets your serratus anterior- a muscle beneath your chest (sides). You can choose to use a handle or just pull the cable itself.
Single-Arm Cable Lateral Raise Directions
Start by setting a cable-stack machine to the lowest possible height configuration. You may attach a D-Handle now if you prefer, but it’s not necessary. Adjust the weight to a level that’s moderately comfortable to use. Align the (non-working) left side of your body next to the machine. Using your left arm, hold onto it at shoulder-height to help stabilize your body.
Next, reach over and grab the pulley using your right hand and hold it at arm’s length by your thigh. Your back should be straight and feet at shoulder width. This is your starting position.
Exhale and, with a slight elbow bend on your right (working) arm, laterally raise the pulley out and up from your sides until it reaches shoulder-height. Your body should look like a ‘T’. Do not raise your hand past shoulder-height. Hold this spot for a moment and engage your shoulder.
Inhale and slowly lower the pulley back to the starting position the same way you came up, resisting it on the way down. Repeat as many repetitions desired and then switch arms.
Pro Tips: The hardest part about this exercise is getting into the correct form because it takes 10 seconds longer than most others. Beyond that, stay straight and you’re good.
14. Wide-Grip Barbell Upright Row
Difficulty: Intermediate | Force: Pull, Compound | Gear: Barbell | Target: Shoulders, sides, back
There are two possible variations for a wide-grip upright row. You can either opt to utilize a smith machine which is more stable and friendly on the joints (our recommendation), or you can use a free barbell. Both are great, however, the latter is a little more difficult to use.
Wide-Grip Smith Machine Upright Row Directions
Set the barbell’s height to your waist, or slightly past arm’s length. Next, add your desired amount of weight. Stand up straight at shoulder width and face the barbell. Take both hands and grab the bar slightly past shoulder-width. Your palms should be facing down and away.
This will be your starting position. While maintaining a straight back, bend your knees slightly, exhale, and pull the bar straight up to the top of your torso. Try to keep the bar as close to your body as possible. At the top, pause and hold it for a second before slowly lowering it down.
Pro Tips: As you lift the barbell, remember to keep your elbows higher than your forearms. They perform the motion, your arms are merely there to grip and stabilize. And, as with any exercise, focus on keeping your form straight. Your back should be stationary- not swinging or leaning.
15. Reverse Pec Deck Machine Flye
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: Pec Deck | Target: Rear deltoids (shoulder), back
When it comes to shoulders it’s usually a good idea to include a warm-up set. This helps loosen things up and get the blood flowing. To us, there’s no better exercise
Reverse Pec Deck Machine Flye Directions
Adjust the locking mechanism of the bars to the farthest spot in front of you. If necessary, move the seat’s height until the top rests square against your torso. Sit into the pec deck with your chest and plant your feet on the floor at hip width in front of you. Your back should be straight and head forward. Grasp the bars with your hands with your palms facing each other.
Your arms will be at the correct height when they’re at arm’s length in front of you and parallel to the floor. This will be your starting position. Exhale and pull the handles back around to your sides until the palms of your hands are facing out. Hold this position for a second and squeeze.
Inhale and slowly return to your original starting position, resisting momentum on the way back.
Pro Tips: As you perform this exercise, try to imagine you’re ‘pushing’ out the bars out as you pull them back (but don’t