Shoulder moves are often thrown into “upper-body day” or full-body workouts, but the best shoulder exercises definitely deserve some love all on their own.
That’s because shoulder strength is essential for nearly every type of movement, Scottsdale-based trainer Ramsey Bergeron, C.P.T., a health and wellness coach, tells SELF.
“Shoulder strength is critical in allowing us to experience life the way we know it,” he says. “Any time you move, lift, or adjust anything with your arm, you’re activating your shoulder muscles.”
Even sports that are considered primarily fueled by lower-body strength, like soccer or running, use shoulder muscles for momentum, balance, and stability, says Bergeron. Plus, there are the zillion daily tasks you do that require them, like brushing your hair, getting a glass down from the shelf, and tying your shoes—even simply standing up involves your shoulders, he says.
How the best shoulder exercises work your entire shoulder
So what are the best ways to work those shoulder muscles? Before we get into the best shoulder exercises, it helps to understand a little more about the shoulder itself. First of all, the shoulder joint is a ball-and-socket joint, making it much more complex than an elbow or knee, which are both hinge joints, Bergeron says. Hinge joints operate in one plane of motion—the sagittal plane—allowing back-and-forth movement like flexion (curling a dumbbell) and extension (like straightening your leg out in front of you while seated). Ball-and-socket joints are multiplanar, meaning they operate in all three planes of motion—sagittal, frontal, and transverse—allowing front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational movements.
Because the shoulder joint has a much greater range of motion than other kinds of joints, it can be more challenging to keep your muscles structurally stable in each plane of movement, says Bergeron. And stability is important to help prevent injury, particularly in those valuable shoulder joints, when you’re lifting heavy weights or even just carrying your groceries in from the car.
What helps? Working your shoulders from different angles. Your shoulders are made up of three heads, or points of attachment. Your anterior, or front, deltoid is responsible for internal rotation—like swinging a tennis racquet forward—and pushing objects away from you when it recruits your pectoral muscles. Your lateral deltoid, the middle part of your shoulder, helps raise your arms to the side and assists with reaching. And your posterior deltoid, in the rear of your shoulder, helps with external rotation, like when you load your arm to throw something. Your rear delts work with other back muscles to pull your shoulders back and down, in their proper alignment, as another way to help prevent injury—and counteract the scroll-scroll-scroll rounding of your back as you’re looking at your phone.
How to implement shoulder exercises into your workout
The best shoulder exercises, then, will be a mixture of moves that hit all three heads of your shoulder and operate in various planes of movement.
So while incorporating more shoulder exercises into your routine is important, it’s also key to make sure you’re choosing a balance between moves that work your front, middle, and rear delts. And the good news is, doing so doesn’t mean adding another hour onto your session—a little weight goes a long way, and even bodyweight upper-body exercises can be a boon to shoulder-building, Bergeron says.
“If you’re doing shoulder-specific exercises like lateral dumbbell raises or external rotations, it doesn’t take a lot of weight at all to get an effective workout,” he says. Quality of reps is key with these moves, so really make sure your form is on target and you’re feeling the muscles in your shoulders working. In some cases, you may have to use less weight than you think—if you overload some shoulder moves, like lateral raises, for instance, your upper trapezius muscles might start to take over instead.
Looking for some shoulder inspiration? Check out some of the best shoulder exercises below to add to your routine.
Demoing the moves below are Rachel Denis (GIFs 1-4), a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting; Cookie Janee (GIFs 5-6), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; Amanda Wheeler (GIF 7), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength; Nathalie Huerta (GIF 8, 11-13), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland; Hejira Nitoto (GIF 9), a mom of six and a certified personal trainer and fitness apparel line owner based in Los Angeles; and Lauren Leavell (GIF 10) is a NASM-certified personal trainer and barre instructor.