How to Workout Shoulders Safely

by Evelyn Valdez

There's one specific muscle that can easily be injured and difficult to build... Your shoulders. In general, working out has its risks, but when it comes to shoulders you want to make sure you're training them properly and safely.

Our shoulders are the weakest muscle group due to bad posture, like hunching over your computer or looking down at your phone. Not only that, they are used for almost everything! Picking up things, reaching over to type, lifting things off the ground, etc. They're also one of the only muscles and joints that are used in almost every strength training exercise! This can lead to them being overused during your workouts which can cause a strain or injury that needs sufficient time to heal!

On the other hand, you shouldn't avoid working out your shoulders because strengthening them can help pull your shoulders back in place which will help alleviate neck pain, improve your posture, and actually reduce your risk of an injury. This is why training your shoulders safely is so important.

To help, we've gathered the best training tips and safe shoulder exercises, so you can build shoulders like boulders safely.

Shoulder workout tips

Before hitting the weights, there are a few rules you should keep into consideration when training your shoulders to ensure that you will maximize results and minimize injury.

Always warm-up

As with any workout, you should make sure to spend at least 10 minutes warming up by doing a few static and dynamic stretches that mimic the movements you would do with actual weight. Doing this will make sure that your muscles are ready to start lifting heavy weights and minimize the risk of pulling a muscle.

Warm-up tip: Use a long resistance band and pick 1-2 shoulder exercises (band pull aparts, pass-throughs, presses, front raises) to do before your workout, aim to do two sets with 10-15 reps.

Do shoulder isolated exercises at the end of the workout

Do your multi joint compound movements, like overhead presses and upright rows, at the beginning of your shoulder workout and do isolated exercises at the end. Single-joint exercises will eliminate assistance from other muscle groups and focus only on the muscle being targeted. Take lateral raises, for example, there are many variations like front, side, and rear laterals. Front raises target the anterior head, side lateral raises target the middle head, and rear laterals target the posterior deltoid head. Doing isolated exercises like these at the end of your workout will help completely fatigue the muscle and give you a significant pump.

Limit overhead pressing to one main exercise per shoulder workout

Overhead presses are the most common, and best, multi-joint shoulder exercise. It engages all the delt heads, triceps, and other muscles. As great as this exercise is you want to avoid doing too many overhead movements because the arm position reduces space in the joint which causes other structures within those muscles to rub against each other. Over time this will lead to inflammation and can cause shoulder pain when lifting.

If you already have shoulder pain due to lifting or other reasons, consider more shoulder-friendly variations of this exercise, like the landmine press.

Avoid fully extending your elbows

Make sure that your arms are in a natural position. A lot of new and even intermediate lifters make the mistake of fully extending and locking their elbows when performing raises and pressing movements. When you lift, especially during moves like lateral raises, your elbows should have a slight bend to them to support your joint. It will also make sure that the only joint in motion is your shoulder, and not your triceps, which can happen when the arms are fully extended. Pay attention to the placement of your elbows throughout shoulder exercises, you don't want to over-bend or fully extend. It should be just a slight bend.

Don't lift a weight that is too heavy for you

This goes for any exercise, never lift a weight that is too heavy for you. Lifting too heavy of a weight can place unnecessary stress on your stabilizing muscles and your back. Before increasing the weight you can lift, make sure that you can complete 12-15 reps with a full range of motion and with proper form.

Plan your shoulder workouts accordingly

Almost every upper body exercise involves your shoulder, from bench press to dumbbell rows, even lower body workouts require movement in the shoulders! So you want to pay attention to how your training split is set up to avoid overworking your shoulders. Most chest movements and some multi joint tricep exercises engage the shoulders. Your rear delts are also being engaged when training your back during rowing movements. Not having a proper training split with at least two days in between to let the shoulders rest can lead to the delts being overworked. So if you're not training your chest, triceps, and shoulders on the same day then train your shoulders at least two days before or after to ensure they're not being overworked. If you do train them on the same day then start with the chest, shoulders, then triceps. 

Safe shoulder exercises anyone can do

When it comes to strengthening the shoulder joints and muscles, you want to make sure you're implementing the best exercises. However, everybody is different so what works for someone else, might not work for you. Instead of giving you a list of the best shoulder exercises, we're going to focus on the best safe ones that anyone can do!

Band Rear Delt Squeeze

This is more of a warm-up exercise for the arms and upper back. Doing banded exercises like this one is a great way to warm up the shoulder muscles and arms before lifting actual weights. It'll help your muscles activate and be prepared for the heavy lifting it's about to do.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart and with a long resistance band in both hands about shoulder-width apart.
  2. You want to keep your hands the right distance apart to keep tension on the band, so play around with different hand placements to see what works best for you.
  3. Lift the band so that it is taught and in front of your chest. Slowly stretch both arms horizontally out to the sides as you widen the band across your chest.
  4. Squeeze your shoulder blades then release slowly.

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This exercise, also known as the shoulder press, is going to be your key shoulder exercise. There are various variations to it like you can do it standing, a barbell press, a landmine press, etc. We chose the seated version of this move and recommend using dumbbells for a shoulder-friendlier variation. This can be the main pressing movement on your shoulder day.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a set of dumbbells and sit on a bench making sure the backrest is upright.
  2. Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height with plans facing forward.
  3. Press the weight upwards until arms are extended overhead (elbows should not be locked), and your back should be flat, not arched.
  4. Lower to sides of shoulders and repeat.

Bottoms up kettlebell press

The problem with overhead exercises, like the shoulder press, is that lifters do them wrong. They neglect to engage their rotator cuff and shrug their shoulders which can cause instability. The bottoms-up kettlebell press fixes this problem! So, if you're having trouble with your overhead press form, try this variation instead.

How to do it:

  1.  Hold a kettlebell with one hand bottoms up so that the horn is sitting on your palm.
  2. Raise your arm so it's nearly at shoulder level with your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, and begin to slowly press the weight overhead.
  3. Hold, and then slowly lower the weight back down.

Upright Rows

This exercise is an effective multi joint movement that is often overlooked, thanks to the widely loved shoulder press. This move is an excellent shoulder builder and really fires the muscles up! We'll give you the dumbbell version since it is less challenging than using a barbell or weighted plate.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand with palms facing the front of your thighs.
  2. Pull dumbbells to the front of the shoulder with elbows leading out to the sides, and make sure the weight is very close to your body. Allow wrists to flex as the weights rise upward, the elbows should be slightly above shoulder level.
  3. Lower and repeat.

Dumbbell Front Raises

This move works the front of the deltoids. A word of caution, make sure to choose an amount of weight that fits your fitness level. Lifting the weight out in front of you can be difficult so don't lift more than you can. You'll also feel your core work as you lift the weight.

How to do it:

  1. Grab dumbbells in both hands. Position dumbbells in front of upper legs with elbows straight or slightly bent.
  2. Raise dumbbells forward and upward until upper arms are above horizontal.
  3. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower your arms back down to your sides and repeat.

Tip: Make sure your core is engaged throughout the move to help with stability, you don't want to be rocking to the sides or backward and forwards.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises

This exercise targets the front and mid deltoids, but most of the workload is placed onto the lateral head of the delts. Again, stick with a lighter weight for this exercise since this move has your arms almost straight (slight bend on the elbows).

How to do it:

  1. Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand and resting on your sides.
  2. Slowly begin to raise your arms to the side until they are lateral to the floor, remember, don't lock your elbows.
  3. Keep the movement slow and controlled as you lower the weight back down to your sides.

Seated Bent-Over Lateral Rear Delt Raises

The name of the exercise explains exactly what it's working, the rear delts. This is the part of the deltoid that's on the backside of your shoulder. Aside from that, it also works other large muscles in your back, but the main focus is the rear delts.

How to do it:

  1. Sit down on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand and by your sides, then lean forward slightly. This is your starting position.
  2. Begin to raise the dumbbells slowly until the rear delts are fully contracted.
  3. Hold for a few seconds and then lower your arms back down to your sides. Remember to keep the movement slow and controlled. 

Face pulls

Face pulls are another great exercise that helps develop your rear delts or the backside of your shoulders. It involves using a cable machine and rope attachment so that you pull the rope towards your face. This helps your shoulders do the majority of the work instead of your back.

How to do it:

  1. Attach a rope attachment to the high pulley on a cable machine.
  2. Grab the handles with both hands and with your palms facing in. Take a few steps back so that your arms are fully extended.
  3. Lean back slightly, engage your core, and pull the rope towards your face as your elbows flare outward toward the sides. Your rear delts should be engaged, and shoulders rolled back (not hunching or rolled forward).
  4. Reverse the movement and slowly extends your arms. Don't allow your shoulders or chest to roll forward.

Dumbbell Shrugs

This exercise targets mainly the trapezius muscles which are located on either side of your neck. This is definitely an exercise you don't want to neglect because strengthening these muscles helps with proper posture by helping pull your shoulders back and stabilizing your neck and upper back.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells or a barbell (depending on your fitness level) and stand with your feet slightly greater than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold the dumbbells or barbell at thigh level and shrug the shoulders straight up. Do not roll your shoulders, just shrug them straight up and down.
  3. Hold that position for a moment and then slowly release.

Start building strong shoulders safely

These are just a few of the best multi joint and single joint shoulder exercises to include in your workout plan. The best thing about them is that there are so many variations you can do that can make the exercise more difficult or easier. For example, if you're having trouble with lateral raises start off by doing them with long resistance bands, then once you're comfortable with that move to the cable machine, and then free weights. And don't forget to follow our training tips to ensure you're shoulder workouts are effective and safe!

Who are we?

We're UPPPER Fitness Gear – your new favorite fitness gear company! Founded by Iulia Danilova (Fit With Iulia), we strive to make lifting gear that is high-quality, durable, comfortable, stylish, and most importantly, designed to help elevate your workouts to the next level. We have Long Bands to help warm your shoulders safely and Wrist Wraps to help you safely push heavy weights overhead – to help you build stronger shoulders as safely as possible!

Find what your gym bag is missing at UPPPER.

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