The shoulders are a complex muscle group that plays an important role in upper body stability and movement. Shoulder issues are common for women, especially those who work in an office setting and spend hours hunched over a computer.
Shoulder exercises can improve your mobility, strength, and muscle definition, helping your upper body look and feel great. Here's everything you need to know about your shoulders and the best shoulder workouts for women.
What Every Woman Needs to Know About the Shoulder
Before developing a shoulder workout routine, it's helpful to understand the various parts and functionality of this muscle group.
The Shoulder Joint
The shoulder is comprised of three main bones: the scapula, the clavicle, and the humerus. Two joints connect this structure together and allow for movement in the arm and upper body. The acromioclavicular joint connects the clavicle and scapula, and the glenohumeral joint connects the scapula and the humerus.
While both joints play important roles, the glenohumeral joint is the main area of focus when working out. The glenohumeral joint is essentially what connects your arm to your torso, with your humerus acting as a ball and the scapula acting as the socket. If you've pictured a Barbie with its arm popped off, you wouldn't be wrong.
Within this socket, cartilage and soft tissue soften the connection to allow for smooth movement. This collection of muscles and tendons is called the rotator cuff— a term most people become familiar with when they sustain a shoulder injury.
Rotator cuff injuries are precisely why it's vital to understand what your shoulder is doing before diving into a workout. These injuries are easy to sustain and challenging to recover from. When doing a shoulder workout, proper form and controlled movement are essential for good shoulder health.
Furthermore, incorporating adequate warm-up and mobility exercises will support functional movement and prevent shoulder pain as you pursue your goal of toned shoulders.
The Shoulder Muscles
To plan a shoulder workout that promotes strength, mobility, and definition, you should also familiarize yourself with the various muscles that make up your shoulders.
Your shoulder muscles include:
Your deltoid is your largest shoulder muscle, named for its triangular shape. The deltoid muscle creates your shoulder cap and is often the focus when trying to build sculpted shoulders. This shoulder muscle is often segmented into three distinct parts when doing a targeted workout: the anterior deltoid, lateral or medial deltoid, and posterior or rear deltoid.
One of the four rotator cuff muscles, the infraspinatus is located at the back of your shoulder. This muscle is responsible for raising and lowering your upper arm.
The supraspinatus is another of the four rotator cuff muscles. While the supraspinatus is small, it plays a vital role in stabilization and arm abduction. You can find this muscle along your back at the top of the shoulder blade.
The third muscle in the rotator cuff is the subscapularis, which covers the anterior portion of your scapula. This triangle-shaped muscle is responsible for rotating the humerus.
The final component of the rotator cuff muscles is the teres minor, the smallest muscle in the group. This muscle assists with shoulder rotation, adduction, and extension, and is located at the front of your body, connecting your shoulder to your chest.
The teres major is located at the back of the shoulder. This muscle works in conjunction with your lats to adduct and rotate your arm.
In addition to these major muscles in the shoulder, your pecs, triceps, lats, and biceps all play a role in shoulder stability, flexion, and rotation. Taking the time to understand basic shoulder anatomy can help you troubleshoot shoulder pain and protect this incredibly complex set of muscles.
Before we begin, a strong shoulder should be built on a strong back. Remember to build a plan that enhances your back strength as you work on perfecting those shoulders. To build a strong back one machine that gives you many benefits is the GHD machine, found in most CrossFit gyms. It can help build the full posterior chain. Here are 5 exercises on the GHD machine that will ensure you have a rock solid posterior chain.
Best Shoulder Workouts for Women
Building strong shoulders is about more than muscle tone and definition. Functional movement and being strong and stable throughout the entire range of motion are essential for longevity.
Rushing through the movements and focusing on getting sculpted shoulders rather than overall strength and mobility is a direct route to shoulder pain and time off from training.
Here are some of the best shoulder workouts for women, categorized by muscle-building, strength-building, and mobility.
Shoulder Workouts to Build Strength
While building strength will help you develop sculpted shoulders, these exercises play a functional role in your body. By engaging in these exercises, you'll become stronger and more powerful.
Keep in mind that while men tend to gain upper body strength quicker than women, there's no scientific reason why women can't do the same exercises. When you do shoulder strength exercises, you'll start to see corresponding muscle gains and confidence.
Overhead Barbell Press
The overhead press is a foundational accessory movement for any upper body workout. Often considered one of the most effective exercises for building shoulder strength, this shoulder press works the anterior delts with support from the medial deltoid muscles, triceps, and back.
- Rack a barbell at shoulder level.
- Position yourself in front of the barbell with feet shoulder width apart.
- Grab the barbell at shoulder-width with your wrists stacked and knuckles facing up.
- Unrack the bar, tuck your pelvis and brace your core.
- Keeping your knees locked, push the bar overhead until you reach full extension. As you complete the movement, your head should come through your shoulders to a fully erect position.
- Lower the bar in a controlled fashion (allowing your head to naturally move out of the way) to complete the rep.
Keeping your knees locked throughout this movement makes it a strict or military overhead press. Using your knees to push the movement changes the exercise into a push press, which takes the focus off your shoulders.
Do overhead presses once per week for sets of 5-8 reps.
Seated Dumbbell Press
The seated dumbbell press replicates the movement of the barbell overhead press with a few key differences. The use of two dumbbells helps train shoulder stability while the seated position makes it harder to cheat your reps by shifting to a push press.
- Grab two dumbbells and sit on a bench with a straight back and tight core.
- Lift the two dumbbells to shoulder height with your palms facing forward and knuckles to the sky. Your arms should be bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Brace your core and push the dumbbells upward until your arms are extended. Do not let them connect.
- Lower your arms back to 90-degrees using slow and controlled motion to complete the rep.
If you're using a heavy weight, work with a spotter to help you get in position and avoid injuries.
Do seated dumbbell presses 1-2 times per week for sets of 5-8 reps.
Upright Barbell Row / How to Upright Row
Barbell rows are another foundational strength training lift that works the upper back and shoulders. By shifting to an upright position, the shoulders become the primary mover rather than an accessory muscle. The upright barbell row targets the anterior delt, medial delts, and traps.
- Grab a barbell with a wide grip to ensure deltoid engagement.
- Stand tall with your shoulders back and the barbell resting at arms' length.
- Brace your core and pull the barbell upward, keeping your elbows above your wrists and the bar close to your body.
- When you reach full extension, slowly lower the bar back to starting position to complete the rep.
You can alter this exercise by using a resistance band or dumbbells instead of a barbell.
Do upright rows once per week for sets of 5-8 reps.
Plate Press Out
The plate press out is a simple shoulder exercise that packs a punch. This workout scorches your deltoids while activating your triceps, chest, and traps. All you need for this exercise is a weight plate.
- Grab a weight plate with your hands at ten and two.
- Stand upright with your shoulders back and the weight plate against your chest.
- Keeping your elbows tucked, push the plate straight out in front of you until your arms are fully extended.
- Pause, then pull the plate back to your chest to complete the rep.
The key to this movement is not to let the plate dip and maintain a path that's parallel to the floor. You can take this sexy shoulder exercise to the next level by incorporating a figure-8 motion when your arms are fully extended.
Do plate pushes 1-2 times per week for sets of 5-8 reps.
Read Also: At home strength training workouts for women
Shoulder Workouts for Muscle Definition
Using isolation exercises can help you build defined, sculpted shoulders. While these exercises will impact your strength as well, they consist of more targeted, accessory movements than strength-centric exercises.
Dumbbell Front Raise
Like many bodybuilding exercises that focus on muscle definition, you'll want to drop the weights for dumbbell front raises. This must-do workout for toned arms targets the anterior and medial deltoid muscles while engaging the chest and biceps.
- Grab two dumbbells with a pronated (overhand) grip.
- Stand tall with your shoulders back and core tight. Your dumbbells should be resting against your thighs.
- Twist your dumbbells so that your palms are facing each other and slowly raise them until you reach shoulder level. Your arms should be fully extended.
- Pause, then slowly lower to starting position to complete the rep.
The key to this movement is control— the slower you lower the dumbbells, the better the burn in your deltoids. While this shoulder exercise is traditionally completed with a pronated grip throughout the movement, the twist better protects the shoulder muscles and reduces compensations that shift the focus from the delts.
Do dumbbell front raises 1-2 times per week for sets of 10-12 reps.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
As the name implies, this muscle-building workout targets the lateral deltoid. This isolation exercise is excellent for building toned shoulders.
- Grab two dumbbells with a pronated (overhand) grip.
- Stand tall with your shoulders back and core tight. Your dumbbells should be resting by your sides.
- Maintaining a slight bend in your elbow, slowly raise the dumbells upward until you reach shoulder level. Your arms should be extended to your sides and parallel to the floor.
- Pause, then slowly lower back to starting position.
As with front raises, slow and controlled movement is essential to get the most out of this workout. Alternate lateral raises with front raises for a killer superset that will end your shoulder workout with a bang.
Do dumbbell lateral raises 1-2 times per week for sets of 10-12 reps.
Face pulls are one of the most effective workouts for building shoulder strength and definition. Form is key in this challenging workout, which primarily focuses on the rear deltoid while also engaging the rotator cuff muscles. This workout is best performed with a cable machine.
- Set up the cable apparatus with a dual rope attachment at chest height. You may need to adjust it to slightly above your chest, depending on your stature.
- Start by gripping the ropes with a pronated grip and stepping back into an athletic stance with your arms fully extended.
- Keeping your chin tucked, pull the ropes toward you, allowing your elbows to bend outward.
- Pause, then slowly release back to starting position to complete the rep.
You should feel this exercise at the back of your shoulders. If your neck extends or you feel like you're pulling forward, drop the weight. You can also perform this exercise with a resistance band secured to a rack.
Do face pulls once per week for sets of 10-12 reps.
Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly
The dumbbell rear delt fly is another effective shoulder exercise for targeting the posterior delts and making that shoulder definition pop. Form is essential for targeting the shoulders and ensuring the back muscles don't take over.
- Grab two dumbbells in an overhand position.
- Stand with your legs at hip width, allowing your knees to bend slightly. Bend forward to approximately 45-degrees with a slight hip hinge while maintaining a straight back.
- Twist your arms to a supinated position as you bring the dumbbells together in front of you with your arms fully extended to achieve the starting position.
- Raise your arms to their respective sides. As you lift, twist back into an overhand position as you allow your elbows to bend. At the top of the movement, your forearms should be parallel to the floor.
- Pause, squeezing the muscles in your back, then reverse the movement in a slow and controlled manner until you reach starting position. That's one rep.
The shift between supinated and pronated positions are the secret to hitting the rear delts effectively. Avoid swinging motions, which cause create compensation with your back muscles. If you struggle to maintain form or don't feel the exercise at the back of your arms, consider using an inverted bench to support your weight.
Do dumbbell rear delt flys once per week for sets of 10-12 reps.
Read Also: Best Elbow Sleeves for CrossFit
Shoulder Workouts for Mobility
You aren't truly strong unless you're strong throughout the entire movement with good form. As shoulders often bear the brunt of training injuries, incorporating shoulder mobility exercises into your workout routine is a must. Doing so will prevent injuries that could keep you out of the gym and derail your shoulder sculpting efforts.
CARS— A.K.A. Controlled Articular Rotation— are commonly used by physiotherapists and functional movement specialists to improve range of motion and strength throughout an entire movement.
- Start in an extended kneeling position, creating a straight line from your knees up to your shoulders.
- Engage your core and extend one arm in front of you.
- Make a fist with your thumb facing upward, then start to slowly rotate your arm upward and back as though you're doing an arm circle.
- As you hit upward extension, you'll reach the end of your shoulder range of motion. When you do, rotate your arm to continue the circle without bending your elbow.
- When you reach the starting position, reverse the movement. Two full circles equal one rep.
Slow and steady wins the race in this exercise. The more tension and control you maintain throughout the movement, the better the results.
Do 5-10 shoulder CARS per side on rest days and as a warm-up before your upper body workout.
Scap Pull-Ups and Push-Ups
Scapular pull-ups and push-ups are some of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises for mobility. Use these as a warm-up before your upper body workout to help activate your scapular muscles.
How to do Scap Pull-Ups:
- Grab a pull-up bar at shoulder width using a pronated grip. Allow yourself to hang with full extension.
- Tilt your head back slightly and pull your shoulder blades together in a shrugging motion, which should cause your chest to lift slightly upward toward the bar. Your arms should still be fully extended.
- Pause in this position for up to three seconds, then release back to hanging. That's one rep
How to do Scap Push-Ups:
- Start in a full plank position with your arms stacked under your shoulders.
- Brace your core and pull your shoulder blades together in a shrugging motion. Your arms should remain fully extended.
- Pause for up to three seconds, then release without letting your hips or torso sag.
These two bodyweight shoulder exercises support shoulder stability while engaging the back. Remember that the shoulder muscle group interacts with your biceps, triceps, and back muscles— doing compound exercises that hit more than one muscle group is an effective way to build shoulder strength.
Do sets of 5-10 scap push-ups and pull-ups as a warm-up before your upper body workout or as an accessory exercise in supersets.
Read Also: The ultimate Dumbbell Tricep Workouts
The prone ITWY is a must-do mobility exercise for any shoulder workout routine. Women who work at a desk all day will love the effects of this movement and the resulting impact on their shoulder mobility.
- Lie on your stomach on a mat or bench with your arms at rest.
- Extend your arms in front of you in an overhead position with your palms facing each other. Slowly lift your arms until you reach the end of your range of motion. Pause for three seconds and release. That's the I position.
- Extend your arms to your sides with your palms facing forward. Slowly lift your arms until you reach the end of your range of motion. Pause for three seconds and release. That's the T position.
- Keep your arms out to your sides and bend your elbows with your palms facing down. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, raising your arms until you reach the end of your range of motion. Pause for three seconds and release. That's the W position.
- Extend your arms diagonally in front of you, midway between the I and T position. Slowly lift your arms until you reach the end of your range of motion. Pause for three seconds and release. That's the Y position.
Work through this series of positions 5-8 times before each upper body training day for an effective shoulder mobility workout that will keep you training for years to come. Alternatively, incorporate this movement into your post-workout mobility routine.
Single-Arm Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press
The single-arm bottoms-up kettlebell press is a classically deceptive exercise that looks much easier than it is. This unilateral exercise's primary goal is shoulder stability, which will translate to increased strength during shoulder press exercises.
- Grab a light kettlebell with a pronated grip. Stand up straight and lift your arm into a front rack position with a 90-degree bend at the elbow. Your upper arm should be parallel to the floor with your forearm perpendicular. The kettlebell should be upside down and stable. This is your starting position.
- Squeeze the handle of the kettlebell tightly and slowly lift it upward until you reach full extension. The goal is to maintain the upside down position without the kettlebell falling over. Your other arm should be by your side in a fist. Your core should be braced.
- Pause at the top of the movement, squeezing to create tension. Then, slowly lower back down to starting position. That's one rep.
As with the shoulder CARS, control and tension are the key elements of this exercise. Remember to breathe while working through this movement. Pushing weight is never the goal of this exercise. If you need assistance while starting out, complete the movement against the wall.
Do 5-10 bottoms-up kettlebell presses per side as a warm-up on upper body training days.
Building those beautiful shoulder boulders takes time and dedication. By creating a consistent routine that incorporates the best shoulder workouts for women, you'll start to see results within weeks.