Sculpt and Define Your Shoulders
A set of sculpted shoulders is a beautiful finish to a toned upper body. Increasing the stability and strength of your shoulder muscles will also enhance your functional movements while preventing injury.
Ladies, you need to understand that strength training isn’t just for men. It’s actually the key to overall fitness for women. Lifting weights will not make you bulk up like a male bodybuilder; you don’t have the right hormones to support that kind of muscle development. Strength training for women will tone and define your body while encouraging the caloric burn necessary for fat loss, a top priority for many women. For this reason, you’ll find that in addition to some classic shoulder isolation exercises, some of the best shoulder exercises for women below are full-body exercises, combining upper body and lower body work to burn maximum calories.
Read this article to learn all about basic shoulder anatomy including the rotator cuff, deltoids, and traps, exercise tips and guidelines, and the best shoulder exercises for women, complete with detailed descriptions and videos.
Jump to the Videos of the Best Shoulder Exercises or continue reading to learn more.
Basic Shoulder Anatomy
The shoulder muscles most commonly associated with shoulder exercises are the deltoids. The deltoids are the rounded muscle that caps your shoulder joint. The upper trapezius is the muscle which sweeps from the back of your neck across the top of your shoulder. Although the deltoids and traps are the shoulder “show muscles” that we tend to talk about a lot in shoulder exercises, you need to know that there is A LOT more going on in the shoulder area than just deltoid and trapezius action.
The Rotator Cuff
The shoulder area houses the rotator cuff, a group of four commonly injured shoulder muscles that you should definitely read up on. Check out our Rotator Cuff Exercises Article to learn about rotator cuff anatomy as well as effective exercises you can do to strengthen your rotator cuff and prevent injury.
To further deepen your knowledge in this area, read Vince Del Monte’s article on the best shoulder exercises to prevent injury: https://www.askthetrainer.com/shoulder-exercises-to-prevent-injury/
For our purposes in this article, though, we will focus on the deltoids and the trapezius, which are the visible shoulder muscles most people like focus on during shoulder exercises.
Deltoids: Lateral, Anterior, and Posterior
The deltoid rests atop the ball-and-socket shoulder joint. Originating broadly along the lateral clavicle and scapula, the deltoid converges to insert into the deltoid tuberosity, a rough portion of the upper humerus. Although each deltoid is technically one muscle, it is separated into anterior, lateral, and posterior portions performing slightly different functions. The anterior deltoid is the portion of the deltoid closer to the chest muscles, while the lateral deltoid is the middle portion, and the posterior deltoid is the part of the muscle toward the back.
The main function of the deltoid is to raise the arm laterally (shoulder abduction). The different portions perform slightly different additional functions based on their location. For example, the anterior deltoids assist in flexion and internal rotation of the arm at the shoulder, while the posterior deltoids help to extend and externally rotate the arm at the shoulder. Visit the Deltoids Anatomy Page for a complete list of each portion’s functions.
The different portions of the deltoids often synergize with the muscle group they neighbor; the anterior deltoid gets a workout during chest exercises, and the posterior deltoid is activated during many back exercises.
Since the anterior and posterior portions of the deltoid are effectively targeted by other upper body exercises, the lateral deltoid needs to be your priority when you do a dedicated shoulder workout. Many of the best shoulder exercises we will go over directly work the lateral deltoids.
The trapezius is a large diamond-shaped muscle covering the rear aspect of the neck and upper back. Like the deltoid, the size and diversity of function of the trapezius require it to be split into three portions. The upper portion of the trapezius originates on back of the skull and neck, extends across the top of the shoulder toward the deltoid, and inserts into the lateral third of the clavicle. The main function of the upper trapezius is to elevate the scapulae, or shrug your shoulders upward.
For more information on the trapezius, including anatomy details and the best trapezius exercises, check out our Best Neck and Upper Back Exercises for Women page. The article you’re reading now is more dedicated to the deltoids, however, some of the best shoulder exercises for women also activate the upper traps, and I will be sure to tell you which exercises do so in their descriptions.
Exercise Tips and Guidelines for the Best Shoulder Exercises
Since the shoulders tend to get a lot of work during chest workouts and back workouts, you will either want to do your shoulder exercise either on the same day as chest and/or back as part of a full upper body workout, or with 48 hours of rest between chest or back workouts if you are doing a weight training split. Don’t do a full-on shoulder workout the day after a chest or back workout, as you may be overloading your shoulders and increasing the risk of injury.
During all shoulder exercises, it’s essential that you stabilize both your shoulders and your core to prevent injury. Failure to stabilize during shoulder exercises may subject your rotator cuffs and lower back to extreme forces, increasing your risk of injury. To protect the shoulders, keep your shoulder blades retracted, or pinched toward each other, never letting them round forward. Try to draw your shoulders back and down as if you were trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets. Stabilize your core by engaging your core muscles; draw your navel in toward your spine with your deep abdominal muscles while contracting your lower back and glutes as you lift and lower the weights.
For those of you who list weight loss as a top priority in your exercise program, you will want to perform the best shoulder exercises for women from a standing position. Standing while lifting free weights encourages greater caloric burn than lifting while sitting. It’s especially important to stabilize your core while performing standing exercises since your muscles must support all of your body weight plus the added resistance instead of relying on a bench for assistance. That being said, if you are lifting heavy weights in order to add bulk to your shoulders, you may want to sit on a bench with back support for some of the exercises.
It’s tough to give recommendations about how much weight to use since everyone’s fitness level is different. The correct amount of weight will make your muscles fail, or become fatigued, during your desired rep range. For example, if you are looking to tone your muscles and increase muscular endurance, you will want to use the amount of weight that will make your muscles fail within 12-20 reps. If you are looking to add mass, use heavier weights that will make your muscles fail within 6-12 reps. The best rule of thumb for shoulder exercises, and indeed any strength training exercises, is to start low and add weight as needed. This decreases your chance of overloading your muscles and connective tissue.
To learn more about how to structure your strength training workouts, including those in which you’ll do the best shoulder exercises for women, check out our Weight Training Section. Must-reads include Sets and Reps, Weight Training Set Structure, and Weight Training Volume.
Best Shoulder Exercises for Women
Without further ado, here are some of the best shoulder exercises for women, complete with accompanying videos. Make sure that you have read and understood the above information on shoulder and core stability before attempting shoulder exercises, and watch the videos carefully to observe proper form.
The Lateral Raise is the best shoulder exercise for isolating the lateral deltoids. If you read the anatomy section above, you’ll understand why targeting the lateral delts should be a priority in your shoulder workout.
The Lateral Raise is very often performed incorrectly, with straight arms lifted directly out to the sides. To perform a Lateral Raise more effectively and safely, bend your elbows ever so slightly and angle your arms slightly in toward your chest as you raise them rather than straight out to the sides. This is called a “scaption”, and it will help to take excessive stress off the joint while still delivering all the benefits of the exercise.
To correctly perform a Lateral Raise, stand with feet shoulder width apart with the dumbbells grasped by your sides, palms facing in. Raise your arms upward to shoulder level, remembering to bend your elbows a bit while doing a slight scaption.
The Arnold Press is a great exercise for overall shoulder development, addressing the anterior deltoids, lateral deltoids, and trapezius.
Perform the Arnold Press while standing or seated as shown in the video. The Arnold Press is essentially an overhead press with a twist (or two twists, to be more precise). You’ll be rotating the dumbbells as you press and lower them to activate different portions of the deltoid. Start by holding the dumbbells close in to shoulders with your palms facing in. Rotate your palms outward as you begin to press up. When you reach the top of the movement, bring the dumbbells together to activate the trapezius if desired. Some women like to avoid overworking the traps since they can lend a rounded appearance to the shoulders. To focus on the deltoids while omitting the trapezius work, avoid letting the weights come together at the top of the movement. Rotate your palms back inward as you slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The Dumbbell Shoulder Press is a classic shoulder exercise that is great for working the lateral deltoids along with the trapezius.
To perform a Dumbbell Shoulder Press, stand with feet shoulder width apart. Bring the dumbbells up into position by holding your arms like a goalpost with palms facing outward. From this position, press the dumbbells straight up in the air. Bring the dumbbells together at the top to work the upper traps, or keep them apart to isolate the deltoids. Slowly lower the dumbbells down into the starting “goalpost” position to complete the rep.
Shoulder Exercises Combining Upper Body and Lower Body Work
As an added bonus, I have included two of my favorite full-body exercises which activate the shoulders along with the lower body, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. The following exercises are excellent choices for women looking to lose weight and/or increase functional strength. Since multiple muscle groups are activated, these two exercises are great calorie-burners. You can perform these exercises in addition to the shoulder isolation exercises above, or you can choose use exercises like these to replace isolation exercises entirely if you’re not overly concerned with isolating your shoulders. Watch the videos carefully to observe proper form.
Step Up Shoulder Press
Step Ups work the lower body while improving balance and coordination. You can make Step Ups do double duty by combining them with a Shoulder Press. Basically, you’ll step up onto a plyometric box or other step-like surface while pressing the dumbbells upward as you do in a Dumbbell Shoulder Press. Remember to ground your whole foot on the box as you step up rather than favoring the heel or the toe. Watch the video to see how to perform the Step Up Shoulder Press safely.
Walking Lunge Shoulder Press
An even more advanced version of the shoulder press combining shoulder work, balance training, and the lunge exercise in one fabulous move. Since so many muscles are activated, this exercise is a calorie killer.
If you would like to increase the challenge of your shoulder workout or full-body workout, try the Walking Lunge with Shoulder Press exercise. Watch the video to observe appropriate form and tempo.
The Bottom Line
If you want to sculpt a set of defined shoulders to accent your fabulous upper body, the exercises covered in this article are a fantastic starting point. A set of sculpted shoulders is not only a great finish to a superb physique, you are going to be increasing the stability and overall strength of your shoulders which will enhance day to day movements and help prevent injuries.