Compound shoulder exercises are an integral part of any comprehensive strength training program. Even though these exercises are ultimately designed to target your shoulders, they also engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, providing a more efficient workout overall.
Compound movements also elicit a higher hormonal response, releasing essential growth hormones and testosterone, making it easier to lose fat and gain muscle.
Incorporating compound exercises into your routine not only expedites strength gains and broadens your shoulders, but also enhances joint stability and flexibility, reducing the risk of injuries.
Let’s look at some of the top compound shoulder exercises you should add to your routine to build your upper body.
Table of Contents
- 1 7 Best Compound Shoulder Exercises
- 2 Benefits of Compound Shoulder Exercises
- 3 How to Train Shoulders
- 4 Shoulder Anatomy
- 5 Compound Shoulder Exercises FAQs
- 5.1 How often should you train shoulders?
- 5.2 At what intensity should shoulders be trained?
- 5.3 What rep range should be used for training shoulders?
- 5.4 What types of exercises train shoulders?
- 5.5 How do I know when to increase the weights I’m using?
- 5.6 What are the signs of fatigue in the shoulder muscles?
- 5.7 Are isolation exercises better than compound exercises?
- 5.8 Is a bench press considered a shoulder workout?
7 Best Compound Shoulder Exercises
- Arnold press
- T-bar row
- Overhead press
- Pike push-ups
- Supported incline dumbbell rows
- Seated dumbbell press
- Landmine shoulder press
Benefits of an Arnold press
Popularized by bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Arnold press combines elements of both the dumbbell shoulder press and a lateral raise. Arnold presses engage multiple shoulder muscles, including the deltoids and trapezius, helping you develop a more well-rounded shoulder shape.
The Arnold press stimulates the shoulders in a different way from traditional exercises, potentially leading to muscle growth. The exercise involves a twisting motion, which can improve shoulder flexibility and mobility. It is also one of the best ways to grow bigger front delts.
How to perform an Arnold press
- The only equipment you will need for this exercise is a set of dumbbells, but you can also use a bench.
- Start by sitting on a bench with back support or standing with a straight back. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, palms facing your body, and elbows bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Press the dumbbells overhead, fully extending your arms. Your palms should be facing forward at the top of the press. Don’t forget to keep your core engaged.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position while maintaining the twisting motion. Control the descent to work your muscles throughout the entire range of motion.
- As you repeat the movement, keep control over the weights and focus on muscle engagement throughout, particularly around the shoulder joint. This is not the time for rushed movements.
This video by Buff Dudes will show you exactly how to perform an Arnold press and how it can be used as a warm-up exercise for your shoulders.
How to program Arnold press
Since an Arnold press is a good warm-up shoulder exercise, a lighter load should make up 25% of your rep range. You can then move on to a moderate load for 50% of your rep range and a heavier load for the remaining 25%. Aim for between 4 and 12 sets per week to work all the deltoid muscles in your arm.
Benefits of a T-bar row
The T-bar row primarily targets the muscles of the upper back, including the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and traps. Along with improving the appearance of your shoulders, this compound shoulder exercise can help you develop a wider, more defined back.
T-bar rows can be performed using various grips and attachments, allowing for some customization that targets different areas of the back. For example, a wider grip will target the lats, while a neutral grip will target the middle back.
How to perform a T-bar row
- You will need a barbell, t-bar attachment as well as weight plates.
- Before you get into your starting position, load your weight plates onto one end of the barbell and wedge the other into a corner or into a landmine attachment.
- Stand over the barbell with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Your toes should be pointing slightly outward.
- Bend at your hips and knees to lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the ground. Keep your back straight, and your chest up. Grasp the handles of the T-bar with an overhand grip.
- Start with your arms fully extended, and the weight hanging directly beneath your chest. Brace your core and pull the barbell toward your chest by retracting your shoulder blades. Keep your elbows close to your body during the movement. Aim to bring the barbell to the area around your lower chest or upper abdomen.
- Lower the weight back down in a controlled manner, fully extending your arms. Avoid letting the weight slam down.
- Repeat the movement until you’ve achieved your desired number of repetitions.
In this video, Alex Leonidas demonstrates the power of T-bar rows and how you can use them to add more definition to your back and shoulders.
How to program a T-bar row
For this exercise, which has a strong focus on your traps, it’s recommended that you do 4 – 12 sets per week. In terms of weight load distribution, 50% of your workout should be divided between light and heavy weights. A medium-weight load should make up the remaining 50%.
Overhead dumbbell press
Benefits of an overhead dumbbell press
Also known as a dumbbell shoulder press, the overhead dumbbell press is a compound dumbbell exercise for your upper body. Compound shoulder exercises such as this help you increase the size, strength, and definition of the deltoids.
An additional benefit is core engagement, which is required to stabilize your spine and maintain an upright posture, improving overall core strength and stability.
If this exercise is too advanced you could consider doing an overhead press alternative.
How to perform an overhead dumbbell press
- You will need a bench and two dumbbells for this exercise.
- Sit on a bench with a backrest or stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, palms facing forward. Your upper arm should be parallel to the ground, and your forearms perpendicular.
- Brace your core before pressing the dumbbells overhead by extending your arms fully. Keep your palms facing forward. Avoid hyperextending at the top of the exercise.
- Lower the dumbbells back down to shoulder height in a controlled manner while exhaling. Maintain proper form, and avoid letting the dumbbells drift too far forward or backwards. This will help protect your shoulder joint.
If you want to learn how to perform an overhead press safely and correctly, this video by Jeff Nippard will help.
How to program an overhead dumbbell press
To give your deltoids more definition, aim for a moderate load rep range for at least half of your sets per week. The remaining half should be divided between light and heavy weights. For your front and rear delts, aim for between 4 and 12 sets per week. Side delts require between 8 and 24 sets per week.
Benefits of pike push-ups
Pike push-ups might not require any weights, but they’re still one of the most effective compound shoulder exercises. Plus, you can do them anywhere. This variation of the traditional push-up specifically targets the anterior deltoids and triceps in the upper body.
Pike push-ups involve scapular protraction and retraction, which helps to strengthen and stabilize the muscles around the shoulder blades. They will also increase shoulder strength and flexibility, and give the backs of your arms more definition. To take this shoulder exercise further, consider incorporating front delt exercises.
How to perform a pike push-up
- Begin in a plank position with your hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift your hips towards the ceiling to form an inverted V shape with your body. Keep your legs straight, and aim to bring your heels down towards the floor. This is your starting position.
- Bend your elbows as you lower your head towards the ground. Your elbows should point back, not out to the sides. Lower your body as far as comfortably possible, aiming for a depth that challenges your shoulders and triceps.
- Press through your shoulders to return to the starting position, fully extending your arms.
This video by Minus the Gym will demonstrate the correct way to perform a pike push-up wherever you are.
How to program pike push-ups
Since pike push-ups predominantly focus on the anterior deltoids and triceps, aim for between 4 and 12 sets per week.
Supported incline dumbbell rows
Benefits of supported incline dumbbell rows
Supported incline dumbbell rows are a variation of the traditional dumbbell row exercise, where you perform the movement with your chest supported on an incline bench. By supporting your chest, you minimize the impact on your lower back.
Supported incline dumbbell rows not only engage the lats but also the rhomboids, traps, rear deltoids, and even the biceps. This incline position allows for a longer range of motion compared to standing rows, contributing to better muscle engagement and development. As an alternative, consider doing cable shoulder exercises instead.
How to perform supported incline dumbbell rows
- For this upper arm exercise, you will need a dumbbell and a bench.
- Adjust the incline bench to an angle that is comfortable for you. A 45-degree incline is a good starting point.
- Lie face down on the incline bench, ensuring your chest and stomach are firmly pressed against the incline. Your feet should be flat on the floor for stability, and your arms should hang straight down toward the floor, holding the dumbbells.
- Grasp the dumbbells with your palms facing each other. Squeeze your shoulder blades together before starting the rowing motion by pulling the dumbbells up toward your hips. Focus on driving the movement with your back muscles.
- Lift the dumbbells until your upper arms are parallel to the ground or slightly higher. Squeeze your back muscles at the top of the movement to maximize contraction.
- Lower the dumbbells in a controlled manner back to the starting position, fully extending your arms.
In this video, John Meadows of Mountain Dog Diet demonstrates how to perform incline dumbbell rows.
How to program supported incline dumbbell rows
For supported incline dumbbell rows to be effective, aim for 4 – 12 sets per week. In terms of weight loads per rep range, 25% of your workout should include light and heavy loads respectively. For the remaining 50%, aim for a moderate load rep range.
Seated dumbbell press
Benefits of a seated dumbbell press
Seated dumbbell presses isolate and engage the anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear) deltoids.
Unlike standing overhead presses, the seated variation puts less stress on your lower back, making them ideal for if you struggle with lower back problems. Seated dumbbell presses also limit the use of body momentum to lift the weights, which forces the shoulder muscles to do the majority of the work. If you have cables available, here are the best cable rear delt exercises to add to your routine.
How to perform seated dumbbell presses
- Seated dumbbell presses require a bench as well as two dumbbells of your desired weight.
- Adjust the bench (usually upright) and ensure it provides you with back support.
- Sit on the bench with your back firmly against the backrest, maintaining a neutral spine.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and place them on your thighs with palms facing forward.
- Lift the dumbbells to shoulder height by using your thighs to assist you. Keep your wrists in a neutral position throughout the exercise.
- Brace your core for stability before pressing the dumbbells overhead by extending your arms fully, bringing the weights together at the top without allowing them to touch. Avoid hyperextending at the top of the movement.
- Exhale as you lower the dumbbells back to shoulder height in a controlled manner. Avoid rapid or jerky movements.
Follow along with this video from Buff Dudes Workouts to learn how to perform a seated dumbbell press to strengthen your shoulders.
How to program a seated dumbbell press
Seated dumbbell presses focus on the anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear) deltoids, so weekly sets of between 4 and 24 are recommended, with the posterior deltoids requiring more reps. A light load rep range should make up 25% of your workout. A moderate load should make up at least half of your workout and a heavy load the rest.
Landmine shoulder press
Benefits of a landmine shoulder press
The final addition to our list of the best compound exercises for bigger shoulders is the landmine shoulder press, which requires a landmine attachment. This exercise can help you increase the strength, size, and definition of your shoulders while keeping your lower back protected.
The rotation that takes place during each movement will also stabilize the muscles around the shoulder joint, contributing to improved stability. The angled nature of the landmine press also allows for a more natural and shoulder-friendly pressing motion, which can reduce the risk of shoulder impingement.
How to perform a landmine shoulder press
- To perform a landmine shoulder press, you will require a landmine attachment or barbell, weight plates, and a barbell collar.
- Secure the landmine attachment in a landmine holder or anchor one end of a barbell in a corner. Ensure that it’s stable and won’t move during the exercise.
- Load your weight plates onto the free end of the barbell.
- Stand facing the landmine with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Grip the barbell with one hand or both hands, depending on your preference. The hand closest to the landmine should be placed near the end of the bar, while the other hand can grip the bar lower down.
- Lift the barbell from the landmine holder and position it at shoulder height. If you’re using one hand, the barbell should be on the side of the hand closest to the landmine, and your elbow should be bent.
- Engage your abdominal muscles. Next, stand upright with a slight bend in your knees and maintain a neutral spine.
- Press the barbell overhead by extending your arm(s) fully. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement. If using one hand, press the barbell directly overhead. If using both hands, press the barbell slightly in front of your body to avoid interference with your head.
- Lower the barbell back down to shoulder height in a controlled manner. Don’t let the weight drop quickly.
John Meadows from Mountain Dog Diet will take you through the basics of the landmine shoulder press, ensuring you do it safely and correctly.
How to program a landmine shoulder press
A landmine shoulder press works most of the shoulder muscles, including the deltoids and traps. Aim for 4 – 12 sets per week for your traps as well as the front and rear delts. Your side delts require slightly more reps, so you can go as high as 24 sets. Opt for a light to moderate load rep range to begin with. A heavy load rep range is ideal for 25% of your workout.
Benefits of Compound Shoulder Exercises
There are several reasons why you should add compound shoulder exercises to your workout routine:
- Works multiple muscles: Compound exercises are designed to work more than one muscle group at once, providing you with more well-rounded results.
- Builds everyday strength: You rely on your shoulders to perform a number of different activities outside of the gym. Compound exercises mimic many of the movements you perform in your daily life, which means you’ll be building the appropriate strength.
- Improves flexibility and balance: Strength and definition shouldn’t be the only reasons why you add shoulder exercises to your routine. By engaging your core and working the muscles around your shoulder joints, these shoulder compound exercises can improve your flexibility and balance.
How to Train Shoulders
To effectively train your shoulders, you need to incorporate a variety of exercises. This will allow you to target all the necessary muscle groups, including your back. The result is increased strength and better definition across your upper body.
You should also know when to increase your weight limit if you want to enhance your strength over time and avoid hitting a plateau.
Rest and recovery are also important. Not giving your shoulders enough time to rest means they won’t have the chance to grow. You could end up burning muscle instead of fat by training too hard, too often.
Your shoulder muscles are made up of the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid. While these muscles are referenced separately, they’re actually a continuous arrangement of muscle fibers that share the same tendon.
- Anterior deltoid: Also known as a front delt, this muscle starts at the outer part of your clavicle and extends up over the front of your shoulder. Your front delt is what brings your arm forward.
- Lateral deltoid: Your side delt makes up the middle of your shoulder and allows you to lift your arm out to the side. It’s also what keeps your shoulder joint in place and makes it possible to carry and lift objects.
- Posterior deltoid: This muscle is found at the back of your shoulder and originates from the back of your shoulder blade. Its primary function is to bring your arm back and externally rotate it.
Your chest, lats, and rotator cuff are some of the other muscles that cross your shoulder joint.
Compound Shoulder Exercises FAQs
How often should you train shoulders?
Compound exercises that target your shoulders should be performed twice a week. This gives the muscle group enough time to recover and grow. To help this process, it also helps to regularly stretch your shoulders and back.
For more well-rounded upper body results, target multiple muscle groups. Pair your shoulder compound exercises with back and chest exercises too.
At what intensity should shoulders be trained?
Your shoulder is one of the more delicate areas of your arm and is more prone to injuries. For this reason, it’s best to start with lighter weights. 10 to 12 pounds is a good starting point if you haven’t already been training your shoulders.
What rep range should be used for training shoulders?
If you are just starting out, aim for 12 – 15 reps. Fewer reps at an appropriate weight will ensure you can also focus on your form, which will help you prevent injuries once you do move to a heavier weight range.
What types of exercises train shoulders?
Exercises that incorporate pulling and raising motions are ideal for working your shoulders. You also want to include exercises that will work all your shoulder muscles, including the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoid. Overhead presses, lateral raises, Arnold presses, seated dumbbell shoulder presses, and barbell front raises are all recommended.
How do I know when to increase the weights I’m using?
The best guideline for increasing your weights is the 2-for-2 rule. This rule dictates that if you can do two more reps with a heavier weight than what you started out with for two consecutive workouts, it’s fine to increase your weights.
You can also look at increasing your weights if you keep hitting the top end of your recommended repetition range as per your program.
What are the signs of fatigue in the shoulder muscles?
There are a few signs to look out for to determine whether you need to give your shoulder muscles a rest. Signs of muscle fatigue include cramps, localized pain, muscle twitching, trembling, and a weak grip.
Shoulder muscle fatigue will improve with time and rest. It also helps to stay hydrated and maintain a healthy diet that’s rich in protein, collagen, and essential vitamins.
Are isolation exercises better than compound exercises?
Compound and isolation exercises each have different benefits. Compound exercises allow you to work more muscles at once, helping you achieve overall definition and strength more quickly. However, neglecting isolation exercises means you could be missing out on hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy refers to the increase and growth of muscle cells, which makes you stronger and builds your endurance. It’s best to follow a workout routine that incorporates both compound and isolation exercises for the best results.
Is a bench press considered a shoulder workout?
Bench presses are designed to work several different muscles of the upper body, including the chest, shoulders, and arms. The muscles you work during a bench press depend on the variation you use. Inclined, declined, and a wide-grip bench press are some of the most popular variations.