Basic and Advanced Shoulder Muscle Exercises

The Basics-Shoulders:

The shoulder muscles consist of an anterior, medial and posterior head and all three comprise a relatively small muscle group. These muscles can be trained to execute great feats of strength and endurance nonetheless, and a complete training program will make them bring out definition and roundness.

Compound movements are always recommended. Pressing movements will incorporate the use of all three deltoid muscles to some extent as long as good form is maintained.

In addition to compound pressing exercises, isolation work such as traditional and suspended flyes and arm raises are valuable for targeting specific areas pertinent to a sport or activity.  For example, the rear deltoid raise is practiced by power lifters to improve shoulder stability in the bench press.

Strengthening supporting muscle structures such as the biceps and rotator cuff muscles helps prevent injury, and for this reason we have listed several exercises with Indian Clubs (or Clubbells,) Kettlebells and those designed to affect rotator cuff musculature specifically. When done properly, rotational strength training with clubs or kettlebells can help improve range of motion in the shoulder joint.

(For more detailed explanations of these exercises, click here: Well-Rounded Shoulders )

A combination of exercises is recommended. At the minimum, choose a compound movement and an isolation exercise, or a 'pre-hab' exercise for the rotator cuff.

For seasoned athletes, choosing three or four exercises for a workout provides the volume and multiple planes of movement needed for continued progress.

Compound Exercises:

  • Military Press or Front Press, Seated or Standing: This is done with a barbell. The exercise affects the entire shoulder complex to some extent. Use a wider grip with the elbows out to place the emphasis on the middle and anterior (front) deltoids; use a shoulder width grip to emphasize the anterior deltoids and the uppermost (clavicular) region of the pectorals.
  • Behind-the-Neck Press: Same as Front Press, but lowering the barbell behind the head.
  • Dumbbell Press-As with the Front Press, keep the back straight whether standing or sitting, and keep the tension on the deltoids.
  • Sots Press: Using kettle bells (you could also use dumbbells,) this is a great way to ensure the shoulder muscles are doing all the work. To get into position, one or two kettlebells can be cleaned to the shoulders or snatched overhead. From a full squat, perform the presses. A photo borrowed from Mike Mahler ( demonstrates proper form:  

Whether pressing in a standing or seated position, tighten the abdominals to maintain a straight back and initiate the movement from the deltoids. Avoid leaning back to get the weight up.

For handstand or steep decline pushups, hand position changes alter the muscles worked as with the grip on a barbell.

  • Bent Press: This is an excellent compound exercise involving one arm at a time and either a kettlebell or dumbbell. An advanced version involves a barbell. Proper execution demands contracting the lats, tightening the core and using a moderate weight at first. To start the bent press, the weight is cleaned to one shoulder, the feet are placed at approximately 45 degrees, toes pointing away from working side.
An old school exercise demonstrated with old school tools!

Push the body away from the weight while straightening the arm. Aim for the 45 degree angle created by the feet. When the arm is straight, press up to standing and repeat.

  •  Upright Rows: Performed standing with a barbell or dumbbells.
Arnold demonstrates a heavy upright row

  • Front Barbell Raise: An effective, but less common exercise, which is usually performed with dumbbells. Use a light barbell and strict form. Emphasizes the anterior deltoids.

Isolation Exercises: *Most exercises considered 'isolation' movements involve more than one deltoid muscle and typically the trapezius and/or rhomboid muscles of the upper back. However, they tend to involve less weight and less recruitment of the core and lower body. The path of the isolation exercise makes it easier to place emphasis on one part of the shoulder as well.

Typical isolation exercises include:

-Front, side and rear lateral dumbbell raises

These exercises can be mimicked on a suspension trainer as seen below:

Shoulder Exercises with a Suspension Trainer: Here are three great TRX shoulder exercises that can be scaled easily to the level of the user. Try all three=1 repetition for 10 reps or more, your shoulders will burn!

The TRX "Y" Deltoid Fly:

The "T" Deltoid Fly:

The "W" and "A" exercises are coming soon, but you can imagine the "W" by doing a "Y" but bending your elbows and not going overhead.

Muscle Knowledge

While MosLadder is all about finding unusual equipment or practicing unconventional exercises,  sometimes the basics are going to get the job done best. Everyone should have a basic understanding of how the body works and what muscles are being used when they perform certain movements.

For a great book that illustrates this, literally, check out:

That said, in these pages you will find basic exercises like the bench press, squat and deadlift, but you will also find Clubbell Mills, Rock Tosses, Farmer's Walk's and "Wall-Up's." Use all the exercises with attention to perfect form and long-term consistency and progression. Hard, smart work gets results!

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