The 3 Best Exercises for Building Shoulder Strength

The American Council on Exercise examines the most effective shoulder exercises

Not all exercises are equal; especially when it comes to training the muscles of your shoulders, as one recent study from the American Council on Exercise points out.

Because the shoulders are an integral part of everyday functional movements, and because research has shown that 69% of people will deal with a shoulder injury at some point in their lives, ACE set out to discover which common resistance exercises are most effective for strengthening the muscles of the shoulder.

“The shoulder is a complex ball-and-socket joint that’s capable of flexion, extension, rotation and more, and there are three distinct muscles required to perform these movements—the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids,” the study’s authors point out. “The problem is people mostly pay attention to the anterior deltoids—the muscles on the front of the shoulder—probably because those are the ones we see in the mirror every day.”

The researchers speculate that many people experience shoulder injuries because the medial and posterior deltoids are often neglected.

To determine the most effective shoulder exercises, the study examined 16 healthy male volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30.

The subjects each participated in three testing sessions with a minimum of three rest days between each session. The initial test was used to determine each subject’s base level of fitness. During the final two sessions, electromyography (EMG) electrodes were placed on the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids of each subject in order to measure the level of muscle activation for each exercise performed.

After analyzing the results, the researchers determined that the following three exercises were most effective for targeting each of the shoulder muscles.

1. For targeting the anterior deltoid: the dumbbell shoulder press  

2. For targeting the medial deltoid: the 45-degree incline row or the bent arm lateral raise

3. For targeting the posterior deltoid: the seated rear lateral raise (or 45-degree incline row)

The study concluded that “for the optimal workout, you’re best served doing the dumbbell shoulder press to target the front of the shoulders, and either the 45-degree incline row or the seated rear lateral raise for the rear part of the shoulders.”

One of the study’s authors, Samantha Sweeney, M.S., recommends that exercisers begin their workouts with exercises that will target the posterior deltoid because it is commonly the weakest of all the shoulder muscles. 

The infogrpahic below depicts how to perform each exercise.

Click to view the full-size graphic on

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