Every time you hoist something over your head, whether placing an object on the top shelf or you’re working out with weights, you’re using your shoulders to do so. Broad shoulders are synonymous with strength, and the shoulder muscles, known as the deltoids, are a very important muscle to train.
Below, you can find a series of shoulder exercises using both dumbbells and a barbell to help you get started training your shoulders correctly. If you don't already own some, check out our pick of the best adjustable dumbbells.
Just remember to keep the weights light at first, as holding heavy objects above your head poses an inherent safety risk.
Best shoulder exercises
This classic exercise is performed standing up, rather than bent over. It works similar muscles to the rear lateral raise, but is a little easier on your back. Breathe in before you lift, then breathe out as you raise your arms. As you lower the dumbbells, breathe in again.
- Stand up tall with your feet hip-width apart. Pick up a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and hold them together, just in front of your body.
- Raise your arms out to the sides until they’re level with your shoulders, keeping them straight throughout the movement. Pause for a moment, and then slowly return to the starting position to complete one repetition.
Alternating lateral raise
This is the “raise” equivalent of the alternating dumbbell row. It’s a good option if you’re getting bored of the classic lateral raise. Try lifting one dumbbell as you lower the other for a more dynamic, fastpaced workout.
- Stand up tall with your feet hip-width apart. Pick up a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and hold them together, in front of your body. Raise your right arm out to the side until it’s in line with your shoulder. Pause, and then slowly return to the starting position.
- Repeat the raise movement with your left arm, pause, and then return to the starting position.
Scaption (front raise)
This exercise offers an excellent workout for the shoulders, particularly when performed with medium to heavy dumbbells. You can also try it with the dumbbells held at your side, rather than straight out in front, for a slightly different workout.
- Stand up tall with your feet placed shoulder-width apart. Pick up a pair of medium to heavy dumbbells with an overhand grip and let your arms hang down in front of your body. Your knuckles should be facing away from your body and the ends of the dumbbells touching each other.
- Simultaneously raise both arms straight in front of you, until your hands are level with your shoulders. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position to complete one repetition.
Barbell shoulder press
The barbell shoulder press is a weightlifting classic. Many people perform it sat down in order to protect their back. This also allows them to lift heavier weights. We recommend doing it stood up, using a light or medium-weight barbell.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Pick up a barbell with an overhand grip, placing your hands shoulder-width apart. Lift up the barbell and hold it at shoulder height, just in front of your body.
- Your core should be pulled in, with your abs braced – as if you were expecting a punch in the stomach.
- Push the bar up above your head, straightening your arms in the process. Pause, and then return to the starting position to complete one repetition.
Dumbbell push press
Try this variation on the shoulder press, which adds in leg movement to create a much more dynamic exercise.
- Stand up straight, with your knees slightly bent and a pair of dumbbells held at head height. Your elbows should be bent and your upper arms in line with your shoulders. Dip down by bending your knees further in an exaggerated manner.
- Simultaneously push up hard with your legs and raise the dumbbells above your head. Pause, and then slowly return to the starting position.
The Cuban press is a classic weights exercise that’s always popular with gym fanatics and fitness experts. It can be a little tricky to get the hang of at first, and to confuse matters there are multiple variations. This is a simplified version that should prove easy to understand for beginners and experts alike.
- Pick up a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and hold them down by your sides. You should be stood with your feet roughly hip-width apart.
- Lift the dumbbells to chest level, twisting your wrists in the process so that the dumbbells are turned side on, and your knuckles are parallel to the floor.
- Keep lifting until the dumbbells are held at shoulder height. Your upper arms should move back slightly during the process.
- Push up into an extended shoulder press position by extending your arms straight above your shoulders.
- Pause, and then lower the dumbbells to shoulder level, so that you’re in the starting position for a classic shoulder press.
- Rotate your arms at the elbows to bring the dumbbells back down to chest level.
- Lower your arms until the dumbbells are back at thigh level. Twist your wrists to return the dumbbells to their starting position by your sides, and complete one repetition.
Why are shoulder exercises so important?
Like every other muscle and joint, it’s important to practice shoulder exercises for the benefits strength and mobility will provide in later life. A study in the journal Clinical Features (opens in new tab) fund if you keep exercising into later life, it’s possible to preserve lean muscle mass as you age, keeping you physically strong. Given most shoulder exercises involve raising and lowering weight, they’ll prevent your upper body and joints from becoming frail.
When first getting started on shoulder exercises, your best bet is to purchase a set of dumbbells. Because dumbbells aren’t joined together like a barbell, it takes more control to lift them up and slowly lower them back down again. In fact, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (opens in new tab) found using dumbbells to perform a shoulder press demonstrated the more activity of the deltoid muscles. However, it’s a trade-off: with a barbell, you’re able to lift more weight overall.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.