10 Exercises to Work Your Shoulders to Exhaustion


Building shoulders that impressively stretch out a T-shirt isn’t a simple proposition. A whole bunch of muscles make up the upper torso, dominated by the front, middle, and rear delts, and because they’re responsible for movement in multiple directions, you have to train them accordingly. That means working overhead and sideways, as well as concentrically, isometrically, and ballistically.

To get the strength and definition you’re after, top trainers Josh Holland of NYC’s Zoomtion Fitness, Eric Emig of St. Louis’s Evolution Fitness, and Jesse Jones of Basecamp Fitness in West Hollywood share their favorite exercises for blasting the shoulders, with a bit of core and chest thrown in for good measure.

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Pike or Handstand Hold

Isometric exercises tax the endurance in the most subtle of ways: by requiring you to hold them and not move a muscle. Which, ironically, is a lot of work. To attempt the pike, stand with your back to a wall about one large step’s distance away. Place your hands on the floor right in front of your toes, then walk your feet up the wall into a pike position, pressing your arms and back straight and pulling your head in between your elbows. Level two is to walk up the wall and walk your hands close to the wall so you’re in a handstand facing the wall. Hold whichever pose you chose for 15 seconds to start and work up to a minute, taking a short break between each try, going for three rounds.

Holland says: “I love this one because it displays proper shoulder mobility and muscular stability. This also translates to being able to lift things overhead.”

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Arnold Press

Made famous by Mr. Schwarzenegger, the rotating shoulder press works both your front and side deltoids and the rotator cuff. Grab some heavy dumbbells or a band with handles (which Holland likes). Stand with soft knees and hold the weights or the band handles (band looped beneath your feet) in front of your forehead, elbows at 90 degrees and palms facing you. Slowly open your your arms wide so elbows are still at right angles but hands are now facing out, squeezing your shoulder blades together, and do a military press, arms overhead. Reverse the pattern. That’s one rep. Try Emig’s favorite scheme of 12 reps, rest; 10 reps; rest; 8, rest; 8 for four total sets.

Emig says: “Arnolds are great because they work the muscles through a large range of motion with a great stretch at the bottom. If done with good form and a slow lowering of the weight, they will light your shoulders on fire.”

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Plate Circles

Grab a weight plate (25 pounds is good to start) and stand back against a wall. Start by holding the plate down at your waist, and slowly trace a circle clockwise, as large as you can with both arms straight, out to the side, up overhead, and around back to your waist. Do six reps each direction, rest a minute, then repeat, going up to four sets.

Emig says: “This move provides constant contraction of deltoids throughout the entire movement for incredible burn and pump.”

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Lateral Raise with Rotation

The lateral raise is the workhorse exercise for the middle delts. Holding dumbbells, begin with your hands by your hips. Raise your hands straight up and out to the side, so your palms are parallel to the ground. Rotate your arms so your hands turn thumbs up. Rotate back, and lower down. Do 10 to 20 reps for three sets, with a short break in between.

Holland says: “Adding the rotation targets and strengthens the rotators of the shoulders. I like this to be heavy when I do it, so I would suggest 25 or even 30 pound dumbbells, or even with resistance bands, which creates intense tension throughout the whole range of motion.”

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Bent Over Single Arm Cable Laterals

Lower the cable trolley all the way to the bottom. Load it with enough weight that 12 reps will be tough to do. Stand sideways so your body is parallel to the machine, hinge down at the waist and grab the handle with the hand that is further away from it. Holding the bent-over position with a flat back, pull the cable out and away from the machine, elbow slightly bent, to full range of motion without allowing your waist to twist. Slowly control the weight as you bring your arm back to start. Do 12 reps, rest a minute, then 10 reps, rest; 8 reps, rest; 8 reps.

Emig says: “It isolates the rear deltoid with a tremendous stretch for full-range development. The core also gets some great stabilization.”

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Jab and Cross Punches

You don’t have to land on a target to benefit from fisticuffs. The speed and power generation for throwing a good punch come from coordinated effort of the hips and core, but the shoulders control the trajectory of the action. Stand in a boxer’s stance, nondominant foot forward. Put up your dukes to your chin, and alternately jab with your nondominant hand and cross with your dominant. Keep a fast pace for a minute, rest for 30 seconds, then get back at it. Do up to four times through. Too easy? Add light weights.

Jones says: “The delts and traps create the power to throw hard punches. And who doesn’t like throwing punches after a bad day?”

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Push Press

By adding a power element to the overhead press, you can put up more weight, which also means that you have more to control on the downward portion of the move when more strength is developed. Rack up a barbell as heavy as you can control for 12 reps. Bend your knees and hinge back your hips slowly, then explode up out of your lower body to press the barbell above your head. Lower the weight back to the start position. Do as many reps as you can in one minute. Rest for a minute, then repeat, up to four times.

Jones says: “Using coordination and power to build shoulder strength? It’s on! This is my favorite one to go heavy on.”

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Jumping Jacks with Medicine Ball

Grab a heavy medicine ball (around 20 pounds). Hold it in front of your chest, feet together. As you jump and jack your feet out wide, push the ball up and over your head. Lower the ball as you jump your feet back together. Go fast and furious for one minute. Take a short break just long enough to catch your breath, then go again, for up to four sets.

Jones says: “Any time I can bring the heart rate up and get shoulder burn, I’m in! You can strengthen up your shoulders and work on explosion with this easy-to-find dynamic piece of exercise equipment.”

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Wall Ball Shots with Medicine Ball

Tossing a ball overhead improves power throughout the shoulders and strength and stability throughout the core and lower body. Grab a soft heavy medicine ball in the 14-to-24-pound range. Stand about three feet away from the wall, facing it. Hold the ball at your sternum, and do a half-squat. Stand up quickly, using the momentum from the legs to launch the ball up and in a soft arch as high against the wall as you can. As you catch it, soften your knees so you’re ready to go again. Aim for 20 reps, rest, then go again for three rounds, total.

Holland says: “It’s a full body exercise that displays explosive power and is really good for the shoulders, plus trains the ability to control the catch and your timing.”

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Pushup/Shoulder Press Ladder

Place a pair of dumbbells on the ground in front of you (10 pounds will do). Come into a straight-arm plank with hands on the dumbbell handles and do a nice deep pushup. Place your knees down and stand in a tall kneel, bringing the weights with you, and perform a shoulder press. Weights down, do two pushups, then two shoulder presses. Repeat until you get to 10 and 10 for 55 total reps.

Holland says: “This is just a great way to burn out the shoulders plus the chest. It requires a bit of mental fortitude because it seems easy at first but gets exponentially tougher each round.”

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