Building Strong and Beautiful Shoulders: is Your Shoulder Workout Balanced?

Building Strong and Beautiful Shoulders: is Your Shoulder Workout Balanced?

Who doesn’t want strong shoulders that look toned and defined in a tank top? Having a shapely set of shoulders not only looks spectacular – it helps you stand taller and look more confident. Defined shoulders also make your waistline look smaller in contrast – but they don’t come for free. To get a commanding set of shoulders, you have to train them, and your shoulder workout must be balanced.

Shoulder Workout: Shoulder Structure and the Importance of a Balanced Workout

We think of our shoulders as being the muscles that define the top of our arms, particularly the deltoids. At the most basic level, your shoulders are a joint, the most mobile in your body and also the one most prone towards injury. The shoulder joint is actually composed of four joints – the glenohumeral joint, acromioclavicular joint, sternoclavicular joint, and the scapulothoracic joint. The one we typically think of as the shoulder joint and also the one that’s most unstable is the glenohumeral joint, where your upper arm, or humerus, fits into the socket formed by your scapula, or shoulder blade.

Because the glenohumeral joint is so unstable, it’s reinforced by tough ligaments and is stabilized by a group of four muscles called the rotator cuff muscles. Reinforcement and stabilization are critical since the high degree of mobility, a shoulder would easily dislocate if not firmly held in place.

A set of larger muscles makes up your shoulders, giving them the ability to move in a variety of different ways. Shoulders are one of the parts of your body capable of circumduction, the ability to move 360 degrees, forming an arc. The largest muscle and the one most people focus on developing through resistance exercise are the deltoids.

Well-developed deltoids are what make your shoulders “pop” and help you avoid that weak, sloping shoulder look – but don’t forget about the smaller muscles that make up your shoulder called the rotator cuff.  When you strengthen the rotator cuff muscles that stabilize your shoulder joints, you lower your risk for a shoulder injury. Plus, it’s nice to have strong shoulders for all of the functional movements you do in everyday life.

Shoulder Workout: How Balanced is Your Shoulder Training?

Most shoulder exercises work your deltoids, but your deltoid is a large muscle with three separate heads. These are heads are referred to as the front or anterior deltoid, middle deltoid, and rear or posterior deltoid. These three heads move your shoulder in different directions, so for balanced shoulder strength and aesthetically pleasing shoulders, you need to target all three heads. Keep in mind you can’t isolate a single head of the deltoid muscle, but you can place more emphasis on a particular set of muscle fibers.

Most people focus more on the anterior delts and less on the middle and posterior delts. You’re hitting your front and to a lesser degree your side delts when you do shoulder exercises like the seated barbell press and upright rows. Incline barbell front raises, Arnold presses, and military presses also mainly target your anterior delts. Yes, you want to work your deltoids but not to the exclusion of your lateral and posterior delts.

If you’re looking for attention-getting deltoids, don’t ignore your lateral deltoids. They’re located on the side of your shoulder which means to develop them will make your shoulders look wider and your waist smaller. As mentioned upright rows and seated barbell presses activate the lateral delts to some degree, but you’ll target them more with lateral raises, both seated and standing.

On to the posterior or rear delts. Did you know this is often the weakest head of the deltoids? No wonder. Too many people focus on working the part of the deltoid they see in the mirror, the anterior delts, rather than the posterior deltoids.  Rear delts need love and attention too, especially if you want balanced shoulder development and shoulders resistant to injury. An effective way to target your rear delts is to do incline dumbbell flies while lying face down on an inclined bench. Bent over rear delt raises and rear delt rows are other exercises that closely target this head of your deltoid muscle.

The muscles most people target least are the rear deltoids. One way to stop neglecting your rear delts is to begin your shoulder workout with exercises that target that particular head. Then move to the lateral and then anterior delts. Hit the rear delts while you’re still fresh or consider training your posterior delts on days you work your upper and lower back – just don’t neglect them!

Shoulder Workout: Don’t Forget about Your Rotator Cuffs

Although your rotator cuff muscles are mainly stabilizers, they also help to rotate your arm medially and laterally and one, the supraspinatus, helps abduct or raise your arm overhead. Because of their role in stabilizing the shoulder joints, you need strong ones. Include rotator cuff strengthening exercises in your routine, ones that emphasize internal and external rotation against resistance using dumbbells, a wall, or resistance bands. Keep the resistance light, 3 to 5 pounds, when working the small rotator cuff muscles and focus on using pristine form. Exercises involving horizontal rotation also help to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles. Try this one:

Pick up a light weight in each hand.

Stand with your elbows flexed at 90 degrees at shoulder level with weights in hand.

Holding your elbows fixed, externally rotate your hands until they point to the ceiling.

Bring them back down and repeat.


What good is it to have shapely shoulders if you end up with a shoulder injury? Strengthen your rotator cuff muscles and it’ll help you avoid a painful dislocation or rotator cuff tear.

The Bottom Line

Work those shoulders – but make sure your shoulder work is balanced. Don’t focus so much on your anterior deltoids that you neglect the other two heads of your deltoids and your rotator cuffs. Another way to balance your shoulder workout is to follow each pushing exercise with a pulling one. Most people do more pushing exercises than ones that pull and this can lead to muscle imbalances. Always be mindful of your form to avoid a painful shoulder injury that could keep you on the sidelines for weeks or months.



OrthoInfo.com. “Common Shoulder Injuries”

Oxygen Magazine. July 2011. “Make Your Shoulders Pop”

WebMD. “Shoulder Problems and Injuries”

Medscape.com. “Shoulder Joint Anatomy”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Problems Caused by Rounded Shoulders and How to Correct Them

Correcting Shoulder Muscle Imbalances

The Most Common Weight Training Injuries and How to Prevent Them

Shoulder Training: Why It’s More Important That It Be Balanced

Hunched Shoulders – What Causes Them and How to Correct Them?

The Most Common Fitness Training Injuries & How to Prevent Them

Weight Training and Shoulder Injuries: The Importance of Strengthening Your Rotator Cuff


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