The shoulders are the calves of the upper body.

They’re small, stubborn muscles that, when underdeveloped, screw up the “aesthetics” of everything you’ve got going on above the waist.

Now for the good news: if you follow the shoulder workout routine in this article, your shoulders will get bigger, stronger, and more defined over time. 

It probably won’t happen as fast as you’d like but, as they say, good things come to those who wait. 🙂

In this article, I’m going to give you the absolute best shoulder workout routine for building shoulder mass. It’s evidence-based, effective, and time efficient, and has helped thousands of people build an impressive pair of shoulders.

The Best Shoulder Workout Routine

Building strong, wide shoulders isn’t complicated.

It mostly comes down to getting stronger at overhead pressing and then using isolation exercises like side and rear lateral raises to round out your shoulder development.

To do this workout, you’ll need a barbell, a squat rack or power cage, and a selection of dumbbells. Thus, it’s best to do this workout in a gym (or a well-equipped home gym).

Barbell Overhead Press: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps

Barbell Overhead Press

Set a barbell in a rack at the same height as your upper chest. Grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you. Unrack the barbell and take a small step backwards with each foot, keeping your wrists stacked over your elbows, and your elbows tucked close to your sides.

Plant your feet just outside of shoulder-width, arch your upper back enough so the bar is directly over your midfoot and your head is slightly behind the bar. Take a deep breath into your stomach and tighten your core muscles, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can, and push the bar off your chest toward the ceiling. Once your arms are straight and your elbows are locked out, reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

 

While sitting on an upright bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. Hoist the dumbbells up so you’re holding them just above your shoulders with your palms facing away from you, giving them a little nudge with your thighs. 

Press the dumbbells straight up over your head until your arms are straight and your elbows are locked. Then lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your back straight and your core tight, lift the dumbbells out to the side until your upper arm is parallel to the floor. You don’t have to keep your arms perfectly straight—having a small bend in your elbows is normally more comfortable.

Reverse the movement to return to the starting position. 

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

 

Whether standing or seated, bend at the hips so that your upper body is as close to parallel to the ground as possible. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and while keeping your back flat, lift the dumbbells out to the side until your upper arm is parallel to the ground. You don’t have to keep your arms perfectly straight—having a small bend in your elbows is normally more comfortable.

Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

FAQ #1: How do you avoid injuring your shoulders?

Many people would have you believe the shoulders are weak, fragile joints that need to be babied, and that the slightest deviation from perfect form in the gym is likely to end in injury.

This isn’t true.

Shoulders are very tough and respond well to heavy weightlifting, but using incorrect form over time can irritate them (which is also true of any other joint). 

Thus, always make sure you use proper form and gradually increase the weights over time as you get stronger. And if a particular exercise still irritates your shoulders even when using proper form, swap it out for another one.

Recommended Reading: The 7 Best Ways to Fix and Prevent Shoulder Pain

FAQ #2: What is shoulder impingement? 

Shoulder impingement syndrome is a condition where tendons and other connective tissues get pinched between the bones of the arm and shoulder joint. 

While shoulder impingement syndrome can occur during any sport that involves lots of arm movement, weightlifting isn’t a common culprit.

What does cause shoulder impingement? It varies from person to person, but the main factors are:

  • Sports that force you to use an awkward shoulder position, like swimming, tennis, and baseball.
  • Repetitive use—repeating the same arm movement over and over again, especially with the arms overhead (think painting a house all day).
  • Poor mobility, which makes it harder to retract the shoulder blades and fully extend the upper arms. 

FAQ #3: How often should I train my shoulders? 

Twice per week tends to work best for most people, but you may want to do more than this.

If you want to develop a particular muscle group, a good rule of thumb is to train it twice per week with about 10 to 20 total sets per week (for instance, five sets split between two workouts). 

People who’ve been following a proper strength training program for less than two years should aim for 10 to 15 sets per week, and those who’ve been training properly for more than two years should aim for 15 to 20 sets per week.

You can try to fit all of these sets into one workout, but you’ll probably find that the quality of your sets begins to suffer as you get deeper into a long training session.

That’s why it’s better to divide your sets over two or even three workouts. 

If you’re doing around 10 sets per week, doing one dedicated shoulder workout like the one in this article and one workout that trains the shoulders as well as another muscle group (such as your chest, for instance) is ideal.

If you’re doing closer to 20 sets per week, you’ll probably want to do one dedicated shoulder workout and include several shoulder exercises in two other workouts throughout the week to meet your set goal. 

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