Research Reveals the Most Effective Shoulder Exercises

Research Reveals the Most Effective Shoulder Exercises

Training your shoulders has multiple benefits. Well-defined shoulders accentuate your waistline and make you proud to show your arms in a tank top or a sexy little evening dress. But the benefits of strong shoulders go beyond appearances. Strong shoulders are important for the functional activities you do every day like lifting, reaching, pushing and pulling. Think how many times you use your shoulder over a 24 hour period – to do simple things like household chores and to reach for things on a shelf.  Plus, you use them when you weight train. That’s why you need strong, healthy shoulders.

Your shoulder joints are a ball-and-socket joint. This structure gives them a wide range of motion but it’s a joint that can be unstable and prone towards injury. In fact, your shoulder joints are the most movable joints in your body. Unfortunately, some of the most common injuries weight lifters experience involve the shoulders. Training your shoulders using weights helps keep them strong, free of injury and looking their best. Have you ever wondered which shoulder exercises are most effective?

 Best Shoulder Exercises

The American Council on Exercise researchers set out to identify which shoulder exercises best targeted each part of the shoulder. They recruited 16 healthy males to perform shoulder exercises with EMG electrodes placed on various regions of their shoulders including the anterior, medial and posterior portions. EMG measures electrical activity when a muscle contracts.

Based on the EMG measurements in this study, the anterior deltoid was activated the most by shoulder presses using dumbbells. For the medial deltoids, the most “bang for the buck” came from doing bent arm lateral raises and 45-degree inclined rows. For posterior deltoids, your time might best be spent doing seated rear lateral raises.

What Type of Shoulder Presses Are Best?

What does this study suggest? To target your anterior shoulders, shoulder presses are best. This leads to another question: should you do them seated or standing up for the greatest benefits?  With dumbbells or barbells? Fortunately, a study looked at this issue.

This study compared various approaches to doing shoulder presses while the lifters had EMG electrodes attached to their muscles to measure muscle activation. A group of 15 men who had been training for 5 years performed the exercises. The results showed shoulder activation was greater when the exercise was performed with dumbbells rather than barbells. Shoulder activation was also greater for shoulder presses in a standing position relative to a seated one. Like the previous study, this study showed shoulder presses are an effective exercise for targeting the anterior deltoid muscles and preferentially target this portion of the muscle over the medial and posterior part of the shoulder. So, if you want to increase the size of your anterior deltoids, the part you see when you look in the mirror, make sure you’re doing standing dumbbell presses using dumbbells.

The Importance of Balance When Doing Shoulder Exercises

Some people focus too much on their anterior deltoids when training their shoulders. Developing this part of the shoulder is rewarding because it’s the part you see when you look in the mirror. Weight trainers are least likely to focus on their posterior deltoids. Such skewed training isn’t a good idea. It’s important to target all portions of the deltoid muscle for symmetry and balance and to work the rotator cuff muscles to prevent shoulder injuries. Strong rotator cuff muscles assist in exercises like dumbbell presses where you move your arms above your head. They also help stabilize your shoulders during rotational movements and help maintain overall shoulder stability. People how play sports that involve lots of overhead movements, including weight lifters, are at greater risk for rotator cuff injury.

Why is working your shoulder in a balanced manner so important? If you have strong, developed anterior deltoids and weak medial and posterior deltoids, it can destabilize your scapula and contribute to injury. Imbalance can also lead to postural problems and a rounded shoulder appearance. Another way to reduce your risk for shoulder injuries is to balance “pushing” exercises with “pulling” exercises. When you do shoulder presses (pushing), balance it out with bent-over rows (pulling). Most people focus a disproportionate amount of time to pushing exercises.

Doing a balanced array of “push” and “pull” exercises and targeting all three regions of the shoulder (anterior, medial and posterior) can even help you build definition. When you focus too much on building the anterior deltoids and too little on the medial and posterior portions of your shoulders, you may limit your overall growth. Your body has ways to ensure you don’t become too unbalanced.

The Bottom Line

Now that you know which exercises target which parts of the shoulder best, make sure you’re working each part, not just focusing on your anterior shoulder. By doing so, you’ll maximize growth and develop greater resistance to injury. Remember, if you injure a shoulder, you’ll have problems doing other exercises as well – so keep your shoulders healthy.

Have fun working your shoulders! The reward will be more definition, greater functional strength and an upper body that looks great in everything from a bathing suit to an evening dress.



ACE Fitness. “Dynamite Delts: ACE Research Identifies Top Shoulder Exercises”

Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 5 – pp 25-28 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31822ec3e3.

Fitness Science. “Shoulder Press Effectiveness: Dumbbells or Barbell and Seated or Standing, Which is Best?”

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. 27 (7): 1824-1831.


Related Articles By Cathe:

The Best Exercises for Broader Shoulders

Problems Caused by Rounded Shoulders and How to Correct Them

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

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

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

Common Shoulder Problems: Keeping Your Shoulders Healthy When You Lift Weights

The Most Common Weight Training Injuries and How to Prevent Them

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

What Are Stabilizer Muscles and Why Are They Important?


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