It’s ironic that the shoulder joint is capable of such a wide range of motion and, yet, shoulder training almost always focuses on the same few exercises performed in the same fashion and even the same order: overhead presses, side laterals, rear laterals. Bodybuilders often incorporate a variety of machines and exercises into their back training (which also relies on shoulder joints); however, imagination and innovation frequently fail when it comes to deltoids. If you can’t remember the last time your delts were sore after a workout, the following six approaches will re-energize your shoulder training and revitalize your growth. 


Many people attempt to pre-exhaust their shoulders by doing side laterals (an isolation exercise) before overhead presses (a compound exercise). There’s nothing wrong with that sequence, but, because side laterals target lateral delts and presses target anterior delts, it won’t pre-exhaust all the muscles of the shoulders. Even preceding presses with front raises targets only the anterior heads. Our workout pre-exhausts all three delt heads. You can boost the intensity of this routine by supersetting the pressing and rowing exercises with the isolation lifts that precede them.


  • Barbell Front Raises | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Dumbbell Presses | SETS: 3 | REPS: 8-10
  • Dumbbell Side Laterals | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Wide-Grip Upright Rows | SETS: 3 | REPS: 8-10
  • Bent Rear Laterals | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Wide-Grip Smith Machine Rows* | SETS: 3 | REPS: 8-10

*Limit your motion to the top half of this back exercise, and focus on getting a strong contraction for each rep.


Because shoulders are so effectively trained with dumbbells, they easily lend themselves to descending sets. Simply go down the rack, moving to progressively lighter dumbbells each time you reach failure. Using a machine, you can also conveniently set the pin at a progressively lighter weight.


  • Machine Presses | SETS*: 2 X 4 | REPS: 6-10
  • Dumbbell Side Laterals | SETS*: 2 X 4 | REPS: 6-10
  • Machine Rear Laterals | SETS*: 2 X 4 | REPS: 6-10
  • Dumbbells Shrugs | SETS*: 2 X 4 | REPS: 6-10

*A descending set consists of four consecutive sets of six to 10 reps each, with progressively lighter weights. 


More than any other bodypart, shoulders received the most workout attention in the pre-Schwarzenegger era. Many of the exercises of decades past have slipped into history — some justifiably so, others not. Here are the best of the old-school shoulder lifts. 

Clean and Presses: By combining a cleaning movement with a pressing movement, you can work both your trapezius (clean) and front delts (press). Lower the bar only to your waist between reps, as a floor-to-waist cleaning motion works mostly the back and legs. 

Scott Presses: This exercise was named for its proponent, Larry Scott, 1965-66 Mr. Olympia. Start by holding two dumbbells together in front of your face, palms toward you, elbows directly under your hands. Then — while keeping your arms in the same position, forearms vertical to the floor — rotate your elbows outward. When your arms are out in the double-biceps position, press the dumbbells up. Return them to the starting position. This lift works two deltoid heads by combining rear laterals (posterior delts) with dumbbell presses (anterior delts). 

Side Upright Rows: Unlike a typical upright row, where you raise a barbell in front of your body, this exercise is performed by raising two dumbbells along your sides to a position just under your armpits. Keep your palms facing your body throughout the lift. Limit shoulder shrugging, and hold at the top of each rep for a count of two. This will work your side delts with a secondary emphasis on your trapezius.


  • Clean and Presses | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10
  • Scott Presses | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10
  • Side Upright Rows | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10


 4. GIANT SETS    

When doing giant sets, perform one exercise after another with minimum rest. This technique works well with shoulders, because there are four distinct areas: front delts, side delts, rear delts and trapezius, and you can therefore do one exercise for each in rotation. Complete three or four rotations of a giant-set shoulder workout.


  • Barbell Presses | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Dumbbell Laterals | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Bent Rear Laterals | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Upright Rows | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 10-12


When most people think of shoulders, they think of width. Your shoulder width is largely dependent on the length of your clavicles, and that is determined by your luck in the gene-pool lottery. The one way you can widen your shoulders is by expanding your side delts. Therefore, as opposed to focusing first and foremost on your anterior delts with overhead presses, place a special emphasis on your medial delts. Our side-focus workout trains the medial delts first, pre-exhausting them with an isolation lift before a compound lift.


  • Seated Dumbbell Side Laterals | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Wide-Grip Upright Rows | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Machine Rear Laterals | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
  • Barbell Presses | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10 


Break out of your overreliance on barbell presses and dumbbell laterals. Odds are most, if not all, of our four unique exercises will be new to you, and they can be performed in most gyms. Add one or two to your shoulder training, or try a workout consisting entirely of unique lifts.

Old school shoulder workout
Wide-Grip Upright Rows: This exercise is included in two other shoulder workouts in this article. It deserves extra attention because it is such an effective and yet neglected lift. Unlike a typical upright row performed with a close grip, this exercise focuses more on the side deltoids and less on the trapezius. Take a shoulder-width or slightly wider overhand grip on a barbell. Keeping the bar close to your body, raise it to upper-chest level. You can also perform these with a low cable or in a Smith machine. 

W Presses: To visualize this unique lift, imagine yourself going from the contraction of a wide-grip pulldown and then clapping your hands high over your head. Now, follow that same arc with two dumbbells. 

Start by holding dumbbells at shoulder height, with your palms facing each other and your elbows in line with your shoulders (your arms and torso will form an elongated W). Then, press the dumbbells overhead while pulling them together. It’s a shoulder press combined with an overhead flye, and it works both your front and side deltoid heads. 

Decline Front Raises: Try doing dumbbell front raises while lying face-down on an incline bench set at a 45-degree angle. Momentum is minimized, and you place more emphasis on the top half of the movement. 

Behind-the-Back Upright Rows: Doing upright rows behind your back creates an intense contraction in the rear deltoids and inner trapezius. Grasp a barbell behind your butt with a shoulder-width grip and with your hands facing away from your torso. Raise the bar as high as possible; the range of motion is limited. Hold and contract at the top of each rep. These can be performed with a barbell or a Smith machine.


  • Wide-Grip Upright Rows | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • W Presses | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Decline Front Raises | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Behind-the-Back Upright Rows | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12


If your shoulders aren’t responding the way you want, don’t continue slogging away at the same routine. Our sextet of fresh approaches will force your delts and traps to expand again. Use the exercises and suggestions here for a temporary workout jolt or as a replacement to your current unsuccessful ways, and shoulder on toward new gains.