Best Exercise For Shoulders – Build Strong And Defined Shoulders

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Having strong, well rounded and aesthetic shoulders is something a lot of people have in mind when working out. There are dozens, possibly hundreds of exercises that exist that work your shoulders to some degree but which one is the best exercise for shoulders ?

If you had to pick a single shoulder exercise and only do that for the rest of your life, what would it be ?

In this article, we will dive into scientific literature, common knowledge and experience, and determine which shoulder exercise is the most efficient at it’s job, and why.

The problem is that it is usually hard to scale results down to one single exercise as different movements usually have different functions of their own, each allowing to better target a specific area. Nevertheless, as we will see today, there are some exercises that stand out among most others as mass and strength builders.


Some shoulder anatomy

Best exercise for shouldersThe shoulder is a very complex joint and has a high degree of mobility due to it’s ball and socket nature.

Another reason why it’s tough to determine the best shoulder exercise is because not all 3 heads of the shoulder work to the same purpose:

  • anterior delt = shoulder flexion
  • lateral deltoid = shoulder abduction
  • rear delt = horizontal shoulder abduction

The anterior delt works to raise your arm in front of you, whilst the lateral delt raises your arm laterally and the rear delt is responsible for shoulder abduction in a horizontal plane.

They each have their own purpose and are recruited to different degrees in different exercises.


best exercise for shoulders – the research 

To help us determine which exercise stand king among the other shoulder exercises, we will be focusing on EMG studies. The electrical activity that EMG measures is simply a measurement of the nervous system’s signal to the muscles. Increased EMG activity is indicative of the nervous system’s attempt to produce more muscular force.

I have already swept through the top performers EMG activation wise, leaving us with the following 3 exercises (rated from 1 to 3 in terms of performance):

  1. Standing dumbbell military press
  2. Standing barbell press
  3. Incline press

To read which one was the most “all rounder” delt exercise, we compare the mean and peak contraction of each individual movement.

Are not always active throughout the entire range of motion of an exercise, Peak activation is a measurement of the highest point of activation during the repetition, whilst mean activation is more about the constant tension.

Here’s what it looks like in a table with the mean number on top and the peak number at the bottom:

ExerciseUpper trapAnterior deltLateral deltPosterior delt
175 lb Standing Military Press53.4
70 lb DB Standing Military Press51.6
225 lb Incline Press40.5


Of course, if you do dumbbell lateral raises, you will activate much more lateral delt than the standing military press or incline press does, but the aim was to determine which exercise is the overall most efficient if you had to pick one.

It’s always better, and encouraged, to accompany a main compound exercise such as the overhead press with accessory rear delt and side delt work to get the best workout in possible.

Another exercise which had a very high peak and mean contraction is the behind the neck barbell press. The only reason it’s not in this list despite it’s efficiency is because of the higher risk of injury that it poses to your shoulders due to the unnatural position it imposes on the rotator cuff muscles.


best exercise for shoulders – the result

So, who won ? 

Well if we refer back to our table, we can see that standing overhead pressing is the most well rounded exercise, hitting all three deltoids to a higher extend than the seated incline press. The dumbbell variant requires more stabilization, therefore recruiting more muscles fibers and resulting in higher peak and mean contractions.

If you don’t have access to weights or would rather do full bodyweight training without incorporating some barbell/dumbbell compound movements, a sensible choice would be the handstand push up, or an elevated pike push ups, if handstand push ups are out of your current capabilities.

If you really want to do several exercises to best target each delt, though, here are the top performing exercises to use:

  • Standing over head dumbbell press
  • Band Face Pull
  • Cable Lateral Raise
  • Barbell Shrug



The standing overhead press is an awesome compound exercise; not only does it have a great all around activation of the deltoids, it’s a highly effective strength builder and the dumbbell variant contracts an even greater number of muscle fibers.

To really hit every single head of your delts and insure complete shoulder development, you can incorporate assistance exercises such as lateral raises, shrugs, and face pulls.

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