The Ultimate Shoulder Workout Routine
WRITTEN BY GARETT REID | NSCA, CSCS, CISSN, M.S.E.S.S
Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush Institute; April 21, 2023; Edited
Every guy wants boulder shoulders. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that one of the primary goals of most bodybuilders is to build massive delts, as it plays a huge role in overall aesthetics.
Unfortunately, while jacked shoulders are a goal for many, a lot of lifters struggle to actually build fully developed delts. Some guys don't know how to effectively train the shoulders; others avoid performing too many shoulder exercises as it's not a huge body part, like the legs or back, and some simply forget to find a designated spot for them in their workout split.
Hey, it happens.
But no matter what bucket of shoulder-training neglect you find yourself in, the good news is that it's all going to stop after reading this article. We're going to give you all of the resources you need to train your shoulders effectively.
With the help of our programming tips and killer shoulder workout, you've got everything you need to build the boulder shoulders of your dreams.
Table of Contents
The Ultimate Shoulder Workout Routine
Training Variables for Your Shoulder Workout
Shoulder Muscle Anatomy & Function
Benefits of a Shoulder Workout
Drawbacks of Shoulder Day Workouts
Equipment Options for Shoulder Day
7 Best Shoulder Exercises
How to Continue Progressing Your Shoulder Workout
Alternative Exercises for Shoulder Day
How To Switch Up Your Exercises
THE ULTIMATE SHOULDER WORKOUT ROUTINE
We're getting into it right away! After the routine, we'll go through everything else you need to know, including important programming tips, training variables, and ways to continue progressing.
This shoulder workout routine utilizes heavy loads, high reps, and compound and isolation exercises to hit every variable.
SHOULDER DAY PROGRAMMING TIPS
Programing your shoulder workout is pretty simple. As it's a body part exercise, you will most likely use this with a bro split style of training.
A workout schedule could look like this:
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Shoulders
Day 6: Arms
Day 7: Rest
Another possibility is that you could emphasize your shoulders for a period of time. To do this, hit every other body part 2 times a week and then add a specific shoulder day. Remember, that you're still training your shoulders with chest and back exercises, so you're giving your delts extra volume.
If I had to pick, this is my preferred setup as it allows a higher frequency for every other muscle, while still focusing on your shoulders.
Day 1: Upper Body
Day 2: Lower Body
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Upper Body
Day 5: Lower Body
Day 6: Shoulders
Day 7: Rest
If you're going with this option, I'd recommend running it for 4-8 weeks, and then swapping in a different body part for your shoulder day. So, in two months, you could include a back day workout in place of your shoulders routine.
THREE TRAINING VARIABLES FOR A SHOULDER WORKOUT
In order to make the most of your shoulder workout and effectively train your delts, you need to focus on a couple of different variables.
Here are the top 3 to keep in mind.
1) TRAIN ALL MOVEMENT PATTERNS:
The shoulder is a complicated muscle in that it has 3 different heads that all have unique functions (we'll talk about this more in the next section). Therefore, you need to hit the deltoids from all directions to optimize your training.
To do this, you'll use an array of movement patterns. Also, remember that you hit your anterior and posterior deltoids with your back and chest, so it's important to emphasize lateral delt exercises in your training.
2) USE A RANGE OF LOADS:
Like all other muscle groups, use an array of reps. You may find this surprising, but for a shoulder workout, this generally means using heavier loads.
Often, lifters do the opposite, using light weights to train their shoulders. For example, people rarely perform heavy triples (3 sets of 3 reps) on the overhead press.
So, if you're currently only using light weights, throw some heavier weights in as well to optimize muscle growth.
3) TREAT THE SHOULDERS AS A PRIMARY MUSCLE:
The shoulders are often thrown in with the arms, almost as an afterthought. In reality, your deltoids are extremely important for performance and aesthetics, which means they need to be treated as a primary muscle.
You wouldn't toss a few quad exercises in at the end of an arm day, would you?
This means making your shoulder exercises a priority when you're fresh and using progressive overload when you train them.
Even if you don't have an exclusive shoulder day, work your shoulders first on your upper body workout or pressing day. If you want bigger shoulders, you must prioritize them.
SHOULDER MUSCLES ANATOMY & FUNCTION
Before we go any further, let's review the shoulder muscle anatomy and its functions. The shoulder muscles are technically known as the deltoids, and there are 3 deltoid heads. The deltoid heads work in unison, but each also has its own independent functions.
The anterior deltoid head sits on the front of your shoulder joint and inserts onto the clavicle. Its primary unique function is to facilitate shoulder flexion, which is when the arm moves upward in front of your body. In addition, it aids with medial rotation.
In the average lifter, the anterior deltoid is usually the most developed of the three heads. This is due to it being trained heavily during pressing movements, like the chest press.
The posterior deltoid sits opposite the anterior deltoid on the rear side of the shoulder joint, inserting onto the spine. It's used in most pulling exercises to pull the arm back.
The lateral deltoid sits on the shoulder's lateral side (outside) between the posterior and anterior deltoid heads. It also inserts onto the scapula but at a region known as the acromion process.
Its primary function is to raise the arm laterally, as seen in the oh-so-popular lateral raise.
Out of the three deltoids, the lateral deltoid is generally the most underutilized, so make sure you're including specific exercises that hit it directly.
While not your shoulders, I want to quickly mention your traps. This is mainly because your traps work together with your shoulders to stabilize your shoulder blades. Further, aesthetically, the traps and delts highlight each other if both are well-developed.
You know what that means, right? Do your trapezius exercises!
FOUR BENEFITS OF A SHOULDER WORKOUT
If you currently aren't prioritizing your shoulders, these 4 benefits will instantly convince you to give them the attention they deserve!
1) INCREASE OVERHEAD PRESSING STRENGTH:
One of the reasons guys don't train shoulders, especially the overhead press, is it tends to be a pretty weak movement pattern and muscle group for most lifters.
The overhead press is notoriously tricky due to the biomechanics, and because of this, many lifters just tend to avoid it. But, remember, your shoulders will always be weak if you don't train them.
And while the overhead press may progress slower than some lifts, you can improve your weight used during the shoulder press if you really focus on it. Along with your added muscular strength will come accompanying muscle gains as well.
2) IMPROVE SHOULDER STABILITY:
If we think about it, the shoulder provides a base to move our arms, which enables us to perform a wide range of movements, including throwing, pulling, swinging, or any other arm motion.
The point is that in order to perform daily and lifting tasks optimally, your arm needs a stable base. That stable base is your shoulder.
Imagine this: You are trying to pull a heavy table, but you're wearing socks on a slick floor. Sounds frustrating, right? Like it's going to make pulling that heavy table really hard to do?
This same idea applies to shoulder stability. You need a solid base in order to perform well in the gym, sports, and everyday life.
3) IMPROVE AESTHETICS:
Bigger shoulders. Broader shoulders. A more defined V taper.
Need I say more?
Big, broad shoulders are one of the most defining features when it comes to men's aesthetics. But, you can't get them unless you train them. And, I mean seriously train them.
4) DECREASE INJURY:
The shoulder joint is a common area for injury. In athletes, it usually comes in the form of overuse injuries or improper mechanics.
Regardless of why it happens, a stronger shoulder can handle the abuse much more effectively than a weak one.
Further, better biomechanics using proper form combined with improved shoulder mobility, in which the shoulder works through a full range of motion, all contribute to a healthier shoulder.
POTENTIAL DRAWBACKS TO CONSIDER
The main drawback I want to point out is overtraining. If up until today you've treated your shoulders as an accessory muscle, a big shoulder day could leave you feeling sore.
Remember that you also train your shoulders with a back workout and chest workout, so your shoulders are going to get a lot of volume. Just be mindful of how you feel and your performance.
BEST EQUIPMENT TO USE FOR SHOULDER DAY
When going to the gym, you have a plethora of equipment options to choose from, all of which will work to build up your shoulders.
Here's a list of my favorite pieces of equipment for shoulder day.
The barbell is going to be used for your big, primary exercises. Using both arms to move the same implement is more stable and allows you to push the big weight. Ideally, use the barbell for exercises such as the push press and overhead barbell press.
I also like using the barbell for landmine shoulder presses and throws.
A dumbbell shoulder workout is fantastic, as a dumbbell requires more muscle activation and additional help from stabilizing muscles. This is because the load is controlled by only one support, the arm holding the weight.
Fun fact: Studies have shown that a dumbbell press requires more muscle activation than a barbell press¹.
3) CABLE MACHINE:
When performing isolation exercises, I prefer using the cable machine over dumbbells as it allows a smooth, consistent force from any angle.
The cable machine is my go-to for exercises like the lateral raise and upright rows.
7 BEST EXERCISES FOR A SHOULDER WORKOUT
Now let's look at the best shoulder exercises and how to perform them correctly.
1) PUSH PRESS:
The push press is your primary shoulder exercise. It's a powerful move that uses explosiveness to propel the load upward, which should allow approximately 30% more weight than a standard shoulder press.
While you're using body movement to get it up, you must still lockout at the top and then lower the load in a controlled manner.
How to do a Push Press:
Rack a barbell on a squat rack so it's slightly lower than shoulder level.
Grab the bar with an overhand grip that's slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. When the bar rests on your body, your thumb should be touching the outside of your shoulder.
Stand under the barbell and allow it to rest on the middle of your chest, above your clavicle and two anterior delts. Your elbows should come under the bar to create this shelf.
Allow your grip to loosen some. While you aren't letting go, as in a front squat, you don't want strain to be placed on your wrist.
Unrack the barbell and step backward. Stand tall with feet shoulder-width apart. At this point, the load should be resting on your body, not being held in your hands. This is your starting position.
To begin the movement, you will first perform a small dip with a slight bend in your knees. You should dip less than one-fourth of a squat, only a few inches, to create power.
Once you hit your dip depth, extend your hips by creating a powerful "pop." This will generate force that will travel up your body and throw the barbell up, with your legs straight.
As the barbell is propelled off your body, you will then begin to push with your arms until they are fully extended overhead. Hold your arms straight for a few seconds, then lower the barbell in a slow, controlled motion.
2) BARBELL FRONT SHRUG:
Remember when I said you need to work those traps? You can do that by performing shrugs. Even though the traps aren't your shoulders, they work with your delts to improve your performance and aesthetics.
Plus, it gives your shoulders a little break after doing the push press.
How to do a Barbell Front Shrug:
Set up a squat rack so you can place a barbell at thigh level. Load the barbell.
Face the barbell and grab it with an overhand grip, shoulder width apart. Stand up with the load with feet shoulder-width apart.
Let the load pull your shoulders down and forward. Brace your core muscles and shrug by first pulling your shoulder blades back, then driving your shoulder joint to your ears.
Hold the load here for 3-5 seconds, before slowly lowering the barbell to your starting position.
3) SITTING DUMBBELL PRESS:
Next on the list is the sitting dumbbell press. The benefit here is that sitting provides a more stable base and allows you to use more weight.
Plus, you have already done a standing overhead press with the push press, so it's good to throw some position variety into the mix.
How to do the Sitting Dumbbell Press:
Set up a chair or bench and dumbbells. Before you sit down, do a clean to bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders.
Sit in a chair or on a bench with your feet flat on the ground. Be sure your back is straight. Don't lean back and focus on sitting nice and tall with each shoulder blade slightly retracted. Your palms should be facing outward.
When ready, tighten your core muscles and push the dumbbells overhead in a slight arc until they meet.
Slowly lower the dumbbells to the original position.
4) CABLE MACHINE UPRIGHT ROW:
The upright row tends to have a bad rap, but that's because it's done incorrectly and often with a barbell. This is why I like to perform this movement with a cable machine, and ideally, a rope attachment, as it allows more movement and can mitigate any impingement issues.
What's incredible about this movement is that it trains the lateral delts, traps, and entire upper back at the same time.
Pro Tip: Don't worry about your hands during the upright row. Impingement occurs when you try to keep your hands high, so let them hang low. I promise, their height does not affect the movement.
How to do a Cable Machine Upright Row:
Set up a cable pulley system with a straight bar, EZ bar, or rope attachment on the lowest setting.
Grab the attachment with your thumbs facing down, standing tall.
Begin the movement by pulling your elbows to the sky.
As you pull up, focus on keeping your upper arms still. Once your elbow hits shoulder height, there's no need to go higher.
5) CABLE LATERAL RAISE:
The cable lateral raise is a classic exercise that builds your shoulder caps. In fact, the lateral cable raise is probably my favorite isolation movement, as it allows lifters to focus 100% on the lateral delts.
Always train this move using high reps until failure.
How to do the Cable Lateral Raise:
Set a cable on the lowest setting with a single-hand attachment.
Stand next to the cable so that one of your sides is farther away from the cable, so the cable must cross your body.
Grab onto the machine with your closest hand to add stability; some find that leaning away also helps.
Make sure you're far enough away that your far hand crosses your body to grab the handle, which optimizes your range of motion.
Keeping a slight bend in your elbow, lift your arm out to the side in a large sweeping motion.
Lift your arm outward but pay attention to your elbow height. Keep your elbow above your hands at all times. Once your elbow hits shoulder level, slowly lower the load back down.
6) FACE PULL:
The face pull is awesome. In fact, I program the face-pull for both back workouts and shoulder day because it trains both, and it is just that great of an exercise.
It's generally considered one of the top exercises to improve shoulder stability, mobility, and overall strength. However, many lifters mess this exercise up, so pay attention to the instructions.
How to do the Face Pull:
Set up a cable pulley with a rope attachment so it's slightly above head level.
Grab the rope so that your thumbs are facing toward your body. Get in a good stance with your knees slightly bent.
Lift your arms and let them come forward with your shoulder blades pulled forward.
Keeping your elbows high, drive your elbows back so that your hands start coming toward your face. At about the halfway point, separate your hands and externally rotate them as far as you can.
Ideally, the movement should end with your arms aligning and making a U shape. Slowly lower the load.
7) BARBELL OVERHEAD PRESS (FINISHER):
The barbell overhead press is an excellent finisher to completely exhaust your shoulders. Don't overthink this move.
Just pick up an empty barbell and perform an overhead press until failure, whether it's 2 reps or 20 reps, do one set, and then pat yourself on the back for a shoulder day well done.
Note: Follow the same form as the picture is showing, but don't add weight plates.
How to do a Barbell Overhead Press:
You don’t need to rack the barbell, just bring it up to your shoulders.
Grab the barbell slightly wider than shoulder width apart with your elbows directly under the bar.
Keeping your elbows under the barbell, drive the barbell overhead until fully extended with straight arms. Don't let your torso lean forward.
Lower down and repeat until failure.
HOW TO PROGRESS YOUR SHOULDER WORKOUTS
In order to progress, you're going to use progressive overload just like you would with any other muscle group. But how you progress may look a bit different.
Again, if you've never seriously trained your shoulders and your overhead press is weak, you will need to make small jumps in weight. However, many gyms only allow a minimum 5-pound jump (2 x 2.5-pound plates), while others only allow a 10-pound jump (2 x 5-pound plates).
This is way too much for the majority of people.
So, instead of focusing on increasing weight each week, you will also utilize increasing reps. For example, if you do the push press 3x5 at 50 pounds one week, the next week, you can perform 3x6.
Or, if you're confident you can make the next weight jump, that's another option. This will just be dependent on how you feel, and the weights you have access to.
I do want you to start with light weights for your overhead pressing exercises. You have plenty of time to progress, and starting light will ensure consistent progress while strengthening and preparing your stabilizing muscles and shoulder stability for larger loads.
You will use reps and load for your other exercises too, but instead of specified loads, use RPE. While the overarching goal is to increase your load, working until failure is more important, assuming you're increasing the load over time.
WHEN TO PROGRESS YOUR SHOULDER DAY WORKOUT
Depending on where you are with your training, you could follow this workout for up to 3 months before needing to change it up. For lifters who are intermediate-advanced or advanced, following a program for 4-6 weeks is usually a good time frame.
ALTERNATIVE EXERCISES FOR A SHOULDER WORKOUT
I only listed a total of 7 exercises above, but you have a ton of great shoulder options. Here are some other shoulder exercises that I frequently use.
Shoulder Press with Swiss Bar
Machine Shoulder Press
Kneeling Single Dumbbell Press
Landmine Press (Single and Double)
Barbell Shoulder Press (Seated Position)
Looking for more inspiration? Check out our articles on the best cable shoulder exercises or these barbell shoulder exercises.
HOW TO SWITCH UP YOUR EXERCISES
Once your training begins to stall, it's time to switch things up. This is relatively easy to do as you'll simply swap out exercises with similar biomechanics. Here's an example of an exercise substitute for each of the moves included in the original plan.
Push Press Seated Barbell: Overhead Press
Barbell Front Shrug: Farmer Carry
Sitting Dumbbell Press: Arnold Press
Upright Row: Reverse Fly
Cable Lateral Raise: Front Raise to Lateral Raise
Barbell Overhead Press (Finisher): Dumbbell Push Press (Finisher)
Remember, variety is the key to overall growth as long as it's done in a structured manner.
BUILD YOUR BOLDER SHOULDERS WITH THIS ROUTINE!
It's time that you stop envying the massive shoulders of other guys at the gym and build your own. While shoulder training might be a bit discouraging when you first start, as the lifts may be less than stellar, you'll likely advance quite quickly following this program.
Your overhead pressing should increase dramatically, and you'll reach a point where you're no longer embarrassed to thrust a bar overhead. In fact, you may look forward to it, knowing other lifters are now enviously looking at your perfect form and heavy weights.
Trust me, once you start putting up a weight that others are using to bench, people are going to watch you. Oh, did I mention your shoulders will be massive?
Saeterbakken, A. H., & Fimland, M. S. (2013). Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. Journal of strength and conditioning research. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873