Way too many guys in the gym focus too much on their flat bench press. Only a handful of guys who walk around the gym sport some truly respectable shoulders, but shoulder strength is crucial to building a functional body.

Shoulder width is determined mainly by genetics just like your height is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a nice pair of powerful shoulders. To achieve such a goal, you must get stronger on the best shoulder exercises.

Strength and muscle growth go hand in hand. Although you can maximize your shoulder size by also incorporating higher-rep, lower-weight training (and by higher-rep, I’m talking the 8-12 range, not the 15-20+ range), about 80% of your muscle growth is going to depend on your strength.

Shoulder development is also vital for women. Although your goal may not necessarily be to build broader shoulders, shoulder strength is crucial to functionality and mobility.

Just like guys still need to train their legs in the gym and not just their upper bodies, so too should ladies train their arms, chests, and shoulders for the sake of creating strength throughout the entire body.

The Best Shoulder Exercises

1. The Military Press

The military press is an extraordinary compound lift for developing an insanely functional body.

It requires strong shoulders and triceps, but you must also possess the proper core strength to prevent injuring your lower back. Engage your core and glutes when you perform this exercise.

I recommend you start in the 6-8 rep range and do not try to progress too quickly. If you start to feel yourself using your lower back to push the weight rather than your shoulders and triceps, humble yourself, and lower the weight!

2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Another great compound exercise is the seated dumbbell shoulder press.

The military press can be a little difficult to progress on once you hit a strength plateau because it depends on more than just your shoulder and tricep strength.

The seated dumbbell shoulder press takes out some of the muscle groups required to work the shoulders and triceps, as long as you can kick the dumbbells up into position.

You still need to engage your core, but your ability to progress on this exercise does not depend on your ability to bear such a massive load on your shoulders.

3. Seated Shoulder Press

I am not the biggest fan of the seated barbell shoulder press, but it is certainly an option.

The benefit of using a barbell rather than dumbbells is that you can slowly adjust the weight in smaller increments.

Dumbbells typically increase in increments of 5 pounds, and this can be a significant jump in weight, primarily when you work your way up to lifting some heavy dumbbells.

However, bearing a heavy load with a barbell while seated in an upright position can put much pressure on your lower back, so make sure you squeeze your core even though you’re sitting down!

Isolation Shoulder Exercises

You can use a myriad of different isolation exercises that target the shoulders. Dumbbell lateral raises, cable lateral raises, and bent over lateral raises are my favorites.

For isolation exercises, we want to work in a higher rep range of 8-12 as opposed to the compound lifts that we typically work in the 5-8 rep range. Your rest time should also be shorter.

1. Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Dumbbell lateral raises are great because dumbbells are typically the most accessible in the gym.

I am not a fan of using cable machines because I usually have to wait for them to open up. I do not want to spend any more time in the gym than I have to, so I like using dumbbells.

They are also convenient because you can work both arms at once, whereas the cable machine I recommend you work your lats individually.

2. Cable Lateral Raises

For the cable lateral raises, you keep constant tension on your muscles, which is great for muscle development.

I recommend that you work each side individually. The first reason is that it is easier to find a single cable machine that is open rather than two open spots where you can work both sides together.

The second reason is that you can fix imbalances if you have any (i.e., if you are stronger on one side than the other).

3. Bent Over Lateral Raises

Bent over lateral raises are great for hitting the upper back a little with the shoulder action.

I like using dumbbells for these for the same reason I mentioned above for dumbbell lateral raises. You could also do these on the cable machine.

Bend over so that your torse is at an approximate 45 angle, hold the dumbbells slightly below your knees, and raise them to form a “Y” in a motion that is much like pouring two pitchers of water (or lemonade, or iced tea, or whatever your heart desires!).

Below are some of my favorite shoulder workouts to help you develop shoulders that make you look like you’re continually wearing shoulder pads.

Sample Shoulder Workouts

Shoulder Workout A

Military Press:

155 lbs: 5 reps (rest for 3 minutes)

140 lbs: 7 reps (rest for 3 minutes)

125 lbs: 8 reps (rest for 3 minutes before next exercise)

Dumbbell Lateral Raises:

20 lbs: 11 reps (rest 1 minute)

20 lbs: 10 reps (rest 1 minute)

20 lbs: 9 reps (rest 1 minutes)

20 lbs: 8 reps (rest 3 minutes before next exercise)


Shoulder Workout B

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press:

85 lbs: 6 reps (rest 3 minutes)

75 lbs: 7 reps (rest 3 minutes)

65 lbs: 8 reps (rest 3 minutes before next exercise)

Cable Lateral Raises:

15 lbs: 12 reps (rest 1 minute)

12.5 lbs: 12 reps (rest 1 minute)

10 lbs: 12 reps (rest 1 minute)

7.5 lbs: 12 reps (rest 3 minutes before next exercise)


Shoulder Workout C

Seated Barbell Shoulder Press:

155 lbs: 6 reps (rest 3 minutes)

140 lbs: 7 reps (rest 3 minutes)

130 lbs: 8 reps (rest 3 minutes before next exercise)

Bent-Over Lateral Raises

17.5 lbs: 12 reps (rest 1 minute)

17.5 lbs: 11 reps (rest 1 minute)

17.5 lbs: 10 reps (rest 1 minute)

17.5 lbs: 9 reps (rest 3 minutes before next exercise)

Building big shoulders is not rocket science. Although some people try to make it sound astronomically complex, the reality is that you just need to build strength on your compound shoulder exercises.

You don’t need to do fancy drop-sets, use muscle confusion, or incorporate any other kind of weird trickery. Just hit your shoulders a couple of times per week and focus on strength and intensity.

To learn more about compound lifts and proper strength training, check out the Axle Fit Course!

I cover everything you could possibly need to know about creating an enjoyable and sustainable workout routine.