March 5, 2018In Exercises, TrainingBy Sean Lerwill8 Minutes

For some reason building a decent set of shoulders often seems to be at the bottom of people’s list. Abs, pecs, arms and these days legs (thankfully) all come first. The thing is, a decent set of shoulders can really set a physique aside. Shoulders fill out a t-shirt or a suit nicely and help to broaden the shoulders giving the appearance of a smaller waist. Equally, as the arms and pecs get bigger from all those curls and presses, the shoulders can actually appear smaller. A decent set of shoulders is then even more important.

The idea behind this blog on the five exercises for building shoulders is to make sure you don’t start behind the curve. Make the effort to train the shoulders now, fill out t-shirts, look better in a suit and really rock a vest on holiday.

Spoilt for choice

To be honest, there are a whole host of shoulder exercises that are worth mentioning. So much so, that this has been the hardest top 5 blog post to write. This is partly due to the push and pull nature of shoulder exercises and the fact that the shoulders can be exercised in a number of planes. However, this is a top 5 blog and I decided to keep to just 5. I also decided that big compound movements were better than smaller isolation movements. That meant, that although I rate them as exercises, face pulls, rear delt cable flies and cable lateral raises all missed the list… they are goods though so look them up. Wink.

1. Overhead/military press classic. Keep the back and core strong to avoid using the chest, lower slowly over the eccentric portion of the exercise and work to failure. For military press keep the feet together, for overhead press spread the base. Seat options of overhead barbell press are also a good option as are dumbbell variants.


For me, this is the best exercise to add in if you are only going to do one shoulder exercise in an all over body session or as the first exercise in a shoulder or push day routine. The king of shoulder exercises, if you will.

2. Dumbbell Lateral raise

This exercise is superb, if done correctly. And I guarantee 99% of you reading this DON’T do it correctly. Performed properly on its own it’s superb, part of a triset or compound set after an overhead exercise or upright row, it’s even better.

To get it right, take a much lighter dumbbell than you usually do. No, even lighter. Now, lean forward and raise them up so they are parallel with the floor, hold for a 1 count (see why we needed them light) now lower on a 3 count but not all the way to the body, around 10cm from the body stop and raise them over a 2 count. As you raise them, keep the body still. Don’t do that little leg/body pop thing people do for momentum. Slow, controlled and steady to make this one really work the shoulders and not the traps.

3. Arnold press it was good enough for Arnold, it’s good enough for you. Press from a palm facing position to an overhead position. Do this seated or standing, both utilise the benefits of this rotational shoulder press, which is that all three heads of the deltoid should be hit at once.

It’s important to extend fully at the top and tuck the elbows into the sides at the bottom. To do this you may need to take the weight down or the reps down. That’s not a problem, better to perform the exercise correctly to avoid injury and to maximise your training;

4. Upright row

I’ve always been a fan of the upright row, it’s one of those exercises that feels good. You can feel it hitting the shoulders. It’s also a very different pulling exercise due to the opposite direction from all other pulls. Like the lat raise, don’t go too heavy. Better to go light and be able to lift slow and steady. I’m amazed that I still see people popping their body to gain momentum to get the weight up instead of losing their ego, lowering the weight and lifting properly so the muscle they are targeting are actually doing the work!

Try hands at different widths along the bar or use dumbbells. The exercise was always performed with a straight or EZ bar with hands close together in Arnie’s day, but this isn’t actually great for the shoulder, so experiment with a wider grip. If you have any sort of shoulder problem, utilise dumbbells or kettlebells. Not only does this separate the arms so they can work independently but also allows subtle movement to allow the shoulder to move more naturally.

5. Push press push press may seem like the exercise that goes against what I’ve been saying about using body pop and momentum to get a weight up, and in a sense it is, but its a legitimate exercise that can really take your shoulders forward.

If you’ve read my post on the 5 best exercises for improving pull-ups, you’ll know that we are all stronger in the eccentric (lowering against gravity) phase of an exercise. Often we can control a weight for an exercise we can’t actually lift. We can use this to our advantage by training in the eccentric phase. For pull-ups we jump up to the bar. For push press we use the legs to pop the weight overhead. Now the shoulders are stabilising and controlling a larger weight than normal from a straight-arm position. If you now control this down the bottom position over a 2-3 count over the eccentric phase you are truly affecting the muscles.

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If you have weak or small shoulders, you only have yourself to blame. if you spend too much time curling, bench pressing or squatting, then your shoulders just aren’t getting enough time. Put some of these exercises into your regime or follow a bodybuilding style split that will see them get the attention they need.