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Super Shoulder Toning Moves

July 24, 2015

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Story at-a-glance

  • You can tone your shoulders right at home using a combination of bodyweight movements, dumbbells, and resistance bands
  • The dumbbell shoulder press, 45-degree incline row, and seated rear lateral raise have also been found to be significantly effective for shoulder strengthening

By Dr. Mercola

You use your shoulders countless times in any given day. From washing your hair to picking up your kids or grandkids to opening your car door, think about how many activities would be hampered without working shoulder muscles.

You may have experienced this disability firsthand, as 7.5 million people visit the doctor due to shoulder problems each year.1

Further, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), two out of every three adults will suffer from some type of shoulder disorder during their lifetime.

Your shoulder is a complex ball-and-socket joint that’s used for extension, rotation, flexion, and more. It’s composed of three different muscles, the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids, which make all those complex shoulder movements possible.

Yet, despite their importance and vulnerability to injury, many neglect to adequately train their shoulders the way they do other muscle groups, like those in the legs, trunk, or arms.

By building strong shoulder muscles, however, you can help to prevent common shoulder injuries and keep your shoulders functioning optimally throughout your lifetime.

What Are the Best Exercises for Your Shoulders?

The American Council on Exercise teamed up with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse’s Clinical Exercise Physiology Department to determine which exercises best target your shoulder muscles.

You can view a summary of their results in the video above. After testing 10 common shoulder exercises, several emerged on top depending on which of the three primary shoulder muscles they worked:2

  • Dumbbell shoulder press: This was best for targeting your anterior deltoid, which is the muscle on the front of your shoulders.
  • 45-degree incline row: This was best for the middle deltoid, although the bent-arm lateral raise was found to be similarly effective.
  • Seated rear lateral raise or 45-degree incline row: Both of these exercises were effective for working the posterior deltoid and provided significant muscle activation in the back of the shoulder.

In case you’re wondering, the other exercises reviewed, which did not come out on top for shoulders, included push-ups, cable diagonal raise, dips, dumbbell front raise, battling ropes, and the barbell upright row. As reported by Shape:3

“…at the end of the day there is not one best exercise for targeting the shoulders, according to John Pocari, Ph.D., head of the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse’s Clinical Exercise Physiology Department.

For the most effective use of your time at the gym, Pocari says you’re best served performing the dumbbell shoulder press to target the front of the shoulders paired with either the seated rear lateral raise, Pocari’s personal recommendation,  because it’s easier for most people to perform — or the 45-degree incline row to target the rear portion as well as the middle deltoid.”

How to Tone Your Shoulders

If you’re not planning a trip to the gym, it’s still possible to seriously tone and work your shoulders using a combination of bodyweight movements, dumbbells and resistance bands.

The moves that follow, compiled by Jackie Dragone, director of FLEX Barre at FLEX Studios, and reported by New York magazine,4 will target not only your shoulders but also your arms – even helping to reduce the appearance of stubborn “armpit fat.”

1. Upper-Body Crisscross

“Begin in a plank position and cross your hands, ending in a push-up. Repeat the move by crisscrossing back, ending with another push-up.”

2. Side-Lying Crisscross Push-Up

“Crisscross by lying on your side with your shoulders and hips stacked. Keep your left hand on the floor with your fingers facing toward your head and your right arm wrapped around the front of your waist. Press into your left hand as you straighten your left elbow and lift your upper body off the floor.”

3. Over-Under Move with Dumbbells

“Squat with your toes pointed out in a plié position slightly wider than hip width. [Hold a light dumbbell in each hand and,] with your shoulder directly above your hip and keeping one arm stable, move the other arm over and under. Switch arms and repeat.”

4. Chest-Expansion Move with a Resistance Band

“Step forward onto a resistance band so that the ends remain even. Sit with your hips back and hinge into a small squat. Extend your arms long by your sides and press them behind your hips, being careful not to bend the elbows. You should feel the front of your chest expand as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.”

Five Exercises to Banish Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain is often the result of repetitive movements that lead to the breakdown of soft tissues in the shoulder region. Sports such as tennis, pitching, and weightlifting are common culprits, but so are work-related activities and even everyday movements, like washing windows or gardening.

Repetitive strain injuries are also common among office workers, and one study revealed five exercises that benefit office-related neck and shoulder pain in women suffering from trapezius myalgia (pain in the upper trapezius muscle).5

The researchers recommend performing the exercises 3 times per week (such as Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), alternating between exercises 1, 2, and 5 on one day, and exercises 1, 3, and 4 the next. When starting out, perform 2 sets of each exercise with 8-12 repetitions for each set. Increase at your own pace to 3 sets for each.

Depending on the exercise and your current muscle strength, the recommended beginner’s weight is between 6-12 lbs. As a general rule of thumb, increase the weight as soon as you can comfortably execute all 3 sets. As a guideline, the participants in the study roughly doubled the weight used in 10 weeks. After about four weeks, you can reduce the number of repetitions of the last sets in order to increase the weight.

1. Dumbbell Shrug


Stand upright with the hand weights at the side of your body. In one even motion, lift your shoulders up towards your ears and lower them again slowly. At the same time, try to relax your jaw and neck.”6

2. One-Arm Row


Stand with one knee on the bench and lean on the same-side hand on the front of the bench. With the free arm you pull the weight up towards your lower chest. When the weight touches your chest, lower it in a controlled motion.”7

3. Upright Row


Stand upright with your arms stretched and the hand weights in front of your body. Lift the weights in a straight line as close to your body as possible, until they reach the middle of your chest and your elbows point up and out. During the whole exercise, the hand weights should be placed lower than the elbows.”8

4. Reverse Fly


Lie down on a bench in a 45° forward bent angle with the hand weights hanging towards the floor. Lift the weights outward and upward until they are horizontal, and then lower the weights in one controlled motion. During the exercise, the elbows should be slightly bent (~5°).”

5. Lateral Raise/Shoulder Abduction


Stand upright with the hand weights at the side of your body. Lift the weights outward and upward until they are horizontal, and then lower the weights in one controlled motion. During the exercise, the elbows should be slightly bent (~5°).”

Planks: Another Phenomenal Shoulder Exercise

If you’re looking for yet another way to stretch, tone, and strengthen your shoulders, try planks. While building strength, planks also increase flexibility in your posterior muscle groups. The muscles around your shoulders, collarbone, and shoulder blades will expand and stretch (an area that often receives little attention). In addition, planks work all the muscles you need to maintain proper posture, like your back, chest, shoulders, abs, and neck.

If you do planks regularly, you’ll find you’re able to sit or stand up straighter with ease. The front-facing plank, in particular, engages the following upper and lower body areas: abdominals, lower back, chest, shoulders, upper trapezius, and neck, biceps, triceps, glutes, thighs, and calves. Here are the basic steps for performing a plank, from the American Council on Exercise:9

  • Hold your elbows directly under your shoulders and place your wrists in line with your elbows.
  • Push your body up into your upper back and hold your chin close to your neck (like you’re holding an egg between your chin and your throat).
  • In this position, brace your abdominals — contract them like expecting a punch in your stomach, squeeze your gluteal (tailbone) and thigh muscles simultaneously while continuing to breathe normally.
  • Hold a plank at least 20 to 30 seconds. (When using correct form, it is not necessary to hold it for longer than this amount of time.) Rest for approximately one minute and repeat three to five more times.
  • Start doing the plank using your elbows and toes (feel free to drop to your knees if necessary) and progress up to a high plank when you feel you have developed the necessary strength.

How to Round Out Your Fitness Program

For optimal health and fitness, I recommend incorporating a variety of exercises, paying careful attention to daily non-exercise movement along with exercise. Ideally, you want to stay active and on your feet for the majority of the day, with sitting interrupting your activity rather than the other way around. A well-rounded fitness program will typically involve a little bit of all of the following on a regular basis:

  1. Sit Down as Little as Possible. The research is quite clear on this point: the more you sit, the greater the risks to your health. And this applies even if you exercise regularly and are very fit! The key is to keep moving all day long. For ideas on how to incorporate more movement into your day, please see my interview with Dr. James Levine, author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
  2. In addition to limiting your sitting as much as you possibly can, I also recommend challenging yourself to walk 7,000-10,000 steps per day. This is over and above your regular fitness program and standing up during work. Consider one of the new fitness trackers that can monitor your steps and your sleep to help you keep track of your daily movement.

  3. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
  4. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability.
  5. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
  6. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also turn it into a high-intensity exercise by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
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Sources and References

  • 1 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Common Shoulder Injuries
  • 2, 3 Shape August 21, 2014
  • 4 NYMag.com
  • 5 J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Nov;107(5):1413-9.
  • 6, 7, 8 National Research Center for the Working Environment, Rehabilitation of neck/shoulder muscle pain
  • 9 American Council on Exercise February 4, 2013
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