Shoulder gym workouts: 5 exercises for toning up

Tone up with the best shoulder gym workouts for all - including a step-by-step guide, plus expert tips on what not to do

Shoulder gym workouts
(Image credit: Getty)

Incorporating a range of shoulder gym workouts into our fitness regimes is something we should all be doing.

Why, we hear you ask? Having strong shoulders, which are known as your deltoids, will not only benefit your posture, but they can make completing everyday tasks easier. From lifting heavy objects like the best adjustable dumbbells to playing sports – whether you’re pushing, pulling, or lifting, our shoulders are the driving force behind these movements.

Plus, it’s long been documented that the later in life you keep exercising, the more lean muscle mass you’ll preserve as you age. And a report in the journal, Clinical Features confirms this. Given that most shoulder exercises involve raising and lowering weight, these movements will help to prevent your upper body and joints from becoming frail. Which is always a positive!

So dig out your weights and reap the many rewards training your deltoids can bring. Keep scrolling to find out the best shoulder gym workouts to add to your workout regime. Plus info on how the muscles in your shoulders are developed, and tips on how to stay injury-free.

Shoulder gym workouts: what you need to know

Your shoulders are made up of many muscles, all of which play an important role. As Online Coach and Personal Trainer, Nathan Rawlings, who has more than 12 years experience in the industry, explains: ‘There are three major muscles in the shoulder. This includes the anterior deltoid (which is in the front and is used when pressing), the middle deltoid (which is in the side and is used when lifting), and the posterior deltoid (which is found in the back, and is the muscle used when pulling). Beneath them are a number of smaller rotator cuff muscles which stabilize the shoulder.’

So how are these muscles developed in the shoulders? The process where the body builds muscle is called muscle hypertrophy. Exercise – like lifting heavy weights - causes mechanical trauma on your muscle fibers. This might sound like a bad thing. But when building muscle, this is what you want. As a result, cells around the fibers knit together the damaged fibers which in turn strengthens them, as well as increases muscle mass. And the process of building muscle in your shoulders is no different from building muscles elsewhere in your body. For more on that, see our feature on how to build muscle

Shoulder gym workouts: common mistakes to avoid

Our shoulders are made up of a ball and socket joint. As stated in the 2021 book Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Shoulder Muscles, our shoulders have the most extensive range of motion in the human body. That’s because these muscles can perform abduction, adduction, flexion, extension, and internal and external rotation. But with all this movement, comes the increased risk of injury.

So, to avoid doing yourself mischief, Rawlings recommends:

  • Warming up properly. He says: ‘As there is so much movement available in the shoulder it’s important to mobilize and activate the muscle properly, not doing so will result in injury, most likely in the smaller rotator cuff muscles. Use bands, dowels and small weight plates to run through each movement you plan to do in that session.’
  • Loading the shoulders when doing chest exercises. Rawlings explains: ‘Compared to the chest, the shoulders are relatively small. In the gym, I see a lot of people with flared elbows when performing press-ups and bench presses. To save your shoulder health, tuck the elbows in slightly to create an arrow shape from elbows to head.
  • Stop swinging. Rawlings tells us: ‘To grow and develop any muscle you need to create tension and use good form. In particular, when performing lateral raises do not swing your dumbbells. Pick a lighter weight and control the movement and feel each rep. Focus on bringing your elbows up to shoulder height at most and at the bottom, leave a small gap between the hands and body generating time under tension.’

Shoulder gym workouts

(Image credit: Getty)

5 shoulder gym workouts to try out

Ready to start working on your shoulder gym workouts? Here’s Rawlings top shoulder gym workouts to help you tone up your top half.

1. Arnold Press

‘I love the Arnold Press because it also works the posterior delts as well as the middle and anterior,’ Rawlings says.

How to do an Arnold Press:

1. Sit upright on a bench holding dumbbells under your chin with your palms facing you.

2. Bring your elbows to the side and as you do, turn out the dumbbells 180 degrees, pressing them over your head.

3. Reverse the sequence rotating the dumbbells on the way back down again.

2. Face Pulls

‘This is great for working on posture and pulling your shoulders back into their natural position,' Rawlings adds.

How to do a face pull:

1. Use a rope attachment on a cable machine and set it to about head height.

2. Holding onto the end of the rope pull your elbows back so your hands come next to your ears.

3. Hold for a second before slowing returning to the start.

Shoulder gym workouts

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Barbell Upright Row

According to Rawlings, this is a great way to work the middle deltoid and an easier alternative to lateral raises.

How to do a barbell upright row:

1. Place the barbell in front of you and hold it in the middle with both hands close together

2. Keep the bar close to the body and focus on raising your elbows just past your shoulders, bringing the bar up just beneath the chin.

4. Kettlebell Clean and Press

The Kettle Bell Clean and Press is the triple threat of all shoulder gym workouts. As Rawlings says: ‘This is a great overall shoulder exercise that requires rotation, pulling, and pushing from the shoulder.’

How to do a kettlebell clean and press

1. Depending on your level of fitness, you can use one or two kettlebells for this.

2. Start with the kettlebell in-between your feet, squat down, and hold the kettlebell with your thumb facing through your legs.

3. As you stand up quickly pull and rotate the kettlebell into the clean position, thumb in the middle of your chest, with the kettlebell resting on the outside.

4. From there, press the kettlebell above the head fully extending the arm.

5. Reverse the sequence back down to the floor keeping the kettlebell close to the body the whole time.

5. Bus Driver

This is a great shoulder exercise for your rotator cuffs – and ideal if you’ve got minimal weights to play around with.

How to do a bus driver

1. Grab a weight plate with hands on either side in front of you.

2. Lift the plate up to head height and twist the plate 90º each way before lowering again, repeat for 8-12 reps.

Becks Shepherd

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer with more than 7 years of experience in the field. She writes health and lifestyle content for a range of titles including Live Science, Top Ten Reviews, Tom’s Guide, Stylist, The Independent, and more. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. 

Health has been a big part of Becks’ lifestyle since time began. When she’s not writing about the topic of health, she’s in the gym learning new compound exercises. And when she’s not in the gym, she’s most probably reading.