Your shoulders are an important part of your anatomy. We say that we “shoulder” heavy burdens and insist that a long-held grudge or negative feeling is a chip on our shoulder—but these metaphorical flourishes are next to nothing compared to the status of the muscle group to your strength training routine. There are few other muscle groups that are as connected and essential, as your shoulders are essential for just about everything you do with your arms.
From simple, fundamental exercises that engage your chest muscles like bench presses and pushups to the more subtle engagement that comes on back day with staple moves like rows, when your shoulders team with other back muscles, your shoulders engaged more often than not. Even lower body movements have a shoulder component, since they play a role in stabilizing the load you carry during squat and lunge variations. And of course, you can’t curl or press without your shoulders, since they act as key stabilizers during biceps and triceps isolation exercises.
When all’s considered, that’s a lot of responsibility for a group of muscles that don’t actually take up that much real estate on your body—which is why training smart is especially important when it comes to your shoulder workouts. It’s easy to overtrain your shoulders, because even when you’re not expressly targeting them, they’re still getting plenty of work.
It’s also easy to create imbalances in your shoulders, partly because the shoulder joint can get “pulled” in so many directions. Tight chest muscles in particular can “pull” your shoulders forward, wrecking your posture, and inviting injuries, and other muscles can influence the joint too.
That’s why you need to be smart with your shoulder exercises, programming careful, smart moves instead of over-developing your delts with one or two exercises on repeat in every session. Shoulder workouts require caution, and really, you can isolate your shoulders with less frequency than many of your larger muscle groups. Yes, you should attack legs multiple times a week, and you should train your back often. And you know you can (and should!) activate your core muscles in every single workout and every single day.
Tread with greater caution into shoulder sessions, though. Yes, you can train your shoulders frequently—but only if you’re not constantly slaughtering them with heavy weights. Instead, spend more time doing exercises that strengthen your mid-back muscles and rotator cuff muscles. Lightweight exercises that drive bloodflow to your rotator cuff muscles can be done often, reinforcing good posture and stabilizing your shoulder joint. Then, perhaps once a week, attack your shoulders with heavier weights. That will protect the joint long-term, while still creating the strength- and muscle-building stimulus you may want. If you take this approach, you need to be that much more nuanced with your shoulder movements, getting plenty of bang for your buck when you’re attacking delts.
This list of exercises includes both kinds of movements. You’ll target smaller stabilizing muscles with some exercises. Other exercises will help you build the visible boulder shoulders you want. It’s the best of both worlds, and a perfect starting point if you’re looking to add shoulder size safely.