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5 Best Compound Shoulder Exercises For Strength & Muscle

Best Compound Shoulder Exercises

Tired of the same shoulder exercises? Or is your current shoulder routine just not giving you the desired results? Well, whatever it maybe, it’s time to switch things up with some compound shoulder exercises.

Our shoulders are such an important muscle group involved in many different movements. From your heavy chest exercises like bench press to back exercises like barbell row.

Hence, it is so important to have strong shoulders to push through that heavy weight during your upper body training. And what better then compound shoulder exercises.

Unlike isolation movements, compound movements will target the desired muscle group and other muscles as well. So, you end up just building more muscle. Who doesn’t like that?

So, let’s dive into the best compound shoulder exercises. These are a game-changer!

Anatomy of the Shoulders

Before we move onto the main part of today’s topic, let’s start with a theory class.

Shoulder Intrinsic Muscles

Deltoid Muscles

Getting the round 3D shoulder appearance boils down to training your deltoid muscles. The are the ball-and-socket joint that covers the front, side, and back of your shoulders. Hence, they contain 3 different parts:

  • Anterior deltoids
  • Lateral deltoids
  • Posterior deltoids

Let’s take a look at each one separately.

1. Anterior Deltoid

As it says in the name, anterior delts are the front part of the shoulder. More specifically, it’s origin is from the lateral third of the clavicle (collar bone).

The primary function of the anterior delts is shoulder flexion (moving your arm forward or raising it up).

So, to target this muscle, we need to perform exercises that involve shoulder flexion. You may have heard of the cable or dumbbell FRONT RAISE as popular anterior delt exercises.

It’s also important to note that many compound chest exercises already involve the front delts to high degree. This is because the insertion point of the front delts are at the pectoralis muscle.

2. Lateral Deltoids

Side or lateral delts are responsible for the broad appearance which is key for a proportion and balance physique.

It’s located of the acromion process of the scapular and helps rotate the shoulder laterally and lift the arm up sideways (shoulder abduction).

Hence, exercises such as dumbbell side raise, or shoulder press that follow this movement pattern will help build those lateral delts.

3. Posterior Deltoids

Did you know that your posterior (rear) delts are most active during your back exercises.

It’s located on the back part of the shoulder and is responsible for horizontal abduction and external rotation. So, moving your arm both back and outwards.

Think of exercises like rows, face pulls, and rear delts which follow this movement pattern.

From throwing a baseball to taking your groceries in your house, our rear delts are always involve

Unfortunately, it’s also a muscle group that is under developed and hence needs some isolation exercises.

Rotator Cuff

Consisting of four muscles, the rotator cuff originates on the scapula and surrounds the shoulder joint. It keeps the head of the upper arm within the shallow socket of the shoulder.

Teres Major

Often known as the “lat’s little helper” because of its interaction with the latissimus dories. It run along the lateral border of the scapula.

The main function of this muscle is to extend, adduct, and internally rotate the humerus.

Shoulder Extrinsic Muscles


Ever seen anyone performing shrugs with weight at the gym? Well, they are focusing on the trapezius (traps) muscle.

It’s a large triangle shaped muscle that is located at the base of your neck and goes across your shoulders.

They help stabilise the spine and plays an important role in your posture. It also allows you to move your shoulder and lift your arms.

Latissimus Dorsi

The muscles spans from the lower back to the upper rm. It is the largest muscles in the upper body.

It originates from spinous the processes of thoracic T7–T12 and inserts into the intertubercular groove of the humerus.

The main function of the lats is to extend, abduct, and internally rotate the shoulder joint.

Levator scapulae

The Levator scapulae is a muscle that originates on the back and side of your neck.

Its main function is to lift and rotate the scapula.


The rhomboid muscles are found at the top of your back and centre to the shoulder blades.

The main function of this muscle is scapula retraction (bringing your shoulder blades together). A lot of exercises require retracting your shoulders to prevent injury, maintain form, and maximise effectiveness.

Best compound shoulder exercises

When it comes to building strength and size, compound lifts are the way to go. Here are the 5 best compound shoulder exercises that will build define and strong shoulders to improve your overall training.

Related Reading: Best Cable Shoulder Exercises.

1. Military press

Let’s start off strong with one of the best compound shoulder exercises, the military press. Not only does this hit your delts, but also involves your upper chest, traps, and triceps.

Hence making this a multi-joint movement that targets various muscles to build mass and size.

It also involves a large range of motion making it the perfect exercise to develop strength in your shoulders and surrounding muscles.

While you could perform this seated, I prefer standing since it allows for your core muscles to get involved.

So, how is it done?

  1. Set the barbell at a squat rack around chest height.
  2. Grab the bar with an overhand grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
  3. Get your elbows underneath the bar and lift the weight off the rack and step back 2 – 3 steps. Your feet should be shoulder width apart and toes slightly flared out.
  4. Rest the bar on your upper chest or collar bone and flex your glutes. This is the starting position.
  5. Contract your core and push the bar straight up until your elbows lock out. Your elbows should be slightly flared out.
  6. Pause at the top of the position.
  7. Slowly return the weight back to your upper chest.
  8. repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Pro Tips

  • Your elbow position is key. Keep them slightly flared out. If they are flared out too much, it will cause shoulder pain. If they are completely straight, you won’t be able to push much weight.
  • Yes, you want to go heavy, but you also need to maintain proper form. So, a full range of motion. Starting for your upper chest and going to a full lockout is key.

Related Reading: How To Do the Cable Front Raise

2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Compound shoulder exercise.

One of the most popular and yet effective compound shoulder exercises that heavily engages the front and side delts.

It also engages the triceps, trapezius, and the upper chest to some degree.

However, you need to perform this with PERFECT form to avoid any sort of injuries. In fact, recent studies have shown that our shoulders are more likely to be prone to injury.

Now, although you can perform this standing, it would be harder lift more weight and progressively overload. This is because you can’t simply kick the weight up like you would when performing it seated.

However, research has shown that seated shoulder press has 8 % lower front delt, 15% lower side delt, and 24% lower rear delt activation compared to the standing version. Hence, you might want to go with slightly lower weights but more reps if you want to do it while standing.

But we believe that seated is better since it will allow you to lift heavier weights which is the key to building strong muscles.

Here is how you perform the dumbbell shoulder press:

  1. Set up the bench to an upright position while holding a pair of dumbbells with a neutral grip. Rest the dumbbells on your thighs.
  2. Keep your feet flat on the floor and back flat against the bench. Engage your core and kick the dumbbells up with your thighs until they are just above your shoulders. Your elbows should be point out to the sides and you shoulder blades should be retracted. This is your starting position.
  3. Press the weight up until your elbows are extended. Naturally, the weights are going to come together at the top however don’t slam them together.
  4. Hold the top position while feeling your front and side delts BURN.
  5. Slowly reverse the movement and bring the weights back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Pro Tips:

  • Remember not to flare the dumbbells straight out to the sides since this causes excessive strain on your shoulders. Instead, bring your elbows slightly forward (about 30 degrees) and press form this position.
  • Bring the dumbbells as far down as you can to give the shoulders a full stretch and contraction.
  • Go with heavier weights and we strongly suggest a spotter to help throughout this movement.

3. Upright Row

Many people don’t like this exercise. It has a bad reputation because of the unnecessary stress it puts on the shoulder joint.

However, by applying a slight variation and modifying this exercise, it is one of the best compound shoulder exercises to blow up those shoulders. The exercise also hit the traps, upper back, and the biceps.

Like all exercises, you need to perform this with proper form to get the most out of it. And of course, limit the chances of injuries.

So, how do you perform the modified BETTER upright row version?

  1. Set up the cable machine at the lowest attachment. Attach a double rope.
  2. Grab the double rope with an overhand grip and take a couple of steps back into a staggered stance until the weight is off the stack. Lean back slightly. His is your starting position.
  3. Slowly drive the elbows up until they are in line with your shoulder. Think about tearing the rope apart and focus on the contraction on your side delts.
  4. 4. Pause at the top.
  5. Slowly reverse the motion back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Pro Tips

  • Instead of using a barbell like the tradition upright row, using a double rope attachment will put less strain on the shoulder joint.
  • Make sure your drive you shoulder up until they are in line with your shoulder. Going further up can cause shoulder pain and going below will limit shoulder involvement.
  • While you lean back, drive the rope right in front of you. If it is far out in front, your front delts will be activated.
  • Aim for a moderate weight to maintain form since this is the exercise where form is the MOST important.

4. Barbell Row

Barbell rows are one of my favourite back exercises that targets multiple muscles at once. It’s one of the few compound shoulder exercises that hits the lats, rhomboids, traps, and rear delts.

A series of stabilising muscles are also involved including the teres major, rotator cuff tendons, biceps, forearms, and the core.

All these primary and secondary muscles involved makes this exercise one of the best for muscular hypertrophy and strength.

Going heavy, following correct form, and progressively overloading with this large range of motion will give you optimum results in no time.

 So, how do you perform this exercise?

  1. The set up of the barbell row is like your deadlifts. Stand with your feet hp width apart. The bar should over your mid foot.
  2. Hinge at the hips and bend over to grab the bar using an overhand grip. Your hands should be 4-6 inches wider than shoulder width.  
  3. Keeping your back neutral, squeeze your glutes and core and raise the torso slightly so that you hinge at a 45-degree angle. Your arms should be straight. This is your starting position.
  4. Squeeze your glutes, and core and row the bar up towards your ribcage. Use the elbows to drive the weight up.  
  5. Pause for a second.
  6. slowly lower the weight back to the starting position while marinating your neutral hip, back, and head alignment.  
  7. Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Pro Tips

  • To get the greatest range of motion, try to keep the torso more parallel to the ground. However, this will depend on your hamstring flexibility. Start with a 45-degree hinge and lower that angle when you develop that flexibility. The more parallel the torso is with the floor, the greater the range of motion, and hence better results.
  • At the top position make sure your hips, back, and head should all be aligned.
  • Control the eccentric.
  • Keep your chest up and your head in a neutral position with your core contracted to avoid rounding your back.
  • Wide grip will emphasise the rear delts more.

Related Reading: Rear Delt Cable Fly.

5. Incline Dumbbell Rows

Out of all of the heavy compound shoulder exercises, this one will develop those beefy shoulder appearance.

Let’s be honest, most of us have highly underdeveloped rear delts. In fact, most of our compound and upper body exercises like the bench press target the front and side delts.

Our rear delts, however, get the least amount of attention. And, if you want those 3D shoulder, you need to focus on exercises that fire up the rear delts, like the dumbbell incline row.

Not only does this exercise work rear delts, but it is also an effective exercise that targets the lats, trapezius, rhomboids, and biceps.

Let’s see how to perform this with correct form. Note: We have included modifications to emphasise the rear delts since our main focus is shoulders.

  1. Set up a bench at 30-degree angle and lie face down so your chest is in contact with the bench and feet behind you.
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells with your arms hanging down and your palms facing each other. This is your starting position.
  3. As your pull the dumbbell up, externally rotate your shoulders by turning your writs out while also driving your elbows out to the side to engage the rear delts.
  4. Raise the dumbbells to about the level of your torso and pause for a second.
  5. slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

Pro Tips:

  • Driving your elbows out to the side instead of close to the body will shift tension onto the rear delts. Remember the main function of the rear delts is to move the arm back and out to the side.
  • Play around with the position of the bench. If the bench is too low, you wont be getting full range of motion since the weight will be touching the ground.
  • Pause at the top of the movement to develop that mind muscle connection.
  • Use moderately heavy weights for this movement.

Why Compound Shoulder Exercises?

It’s a valid question. Why don’t we just stick to isolation movements? What is the point of compound lifts?

Well, compound lifts are highly effective because they target multiple muscle fibres at once. Studies have proven that these multi-joint exercises are far more efficient for improving muscle strength then isolation movements.

If your goal is to lose weight, then you DEFINETLY need to incorporate compound lifts. This is because compound lifts have shown to burn more calories.

Hence, training multiple muscle groups instead of attacking them one by one has been the perfect strategy to build size, definition, and MUSCLE!

Multi-joint training can also prevent injuries since more muscles are involved to help stabilise each other as opposed to one singular muscle been targeted,

Benefits of Training Your Shoulders

Whether you want a better physical appearance or up the weight on the bench press, having well rounded shoulders must be your priority.

Here are the 4 main benefits of training your shoulders.

1. Aesthetic appearance

Well-developed shoulders are the most important for an aesthetic and proportional look. We all want those broad 3D shoulder, don’t we?

If fact, training your shoulder will help develop that upside down “V” shape upper body appearance that everyone finds attractive.

So, if you ever feel lazy training shoulder, remember that it is the MOST important for a balanced and aesthetic physique.

2. Improves Posture

Whether it be in our jobs or while studying at school, most of us have a hunched arched back while sitting in front a computer.

This is bad. Really bad!

In fact, studies have proven that a curved back may lead to serious back pain and stiffness. Overtime, the weakness of your back muscles due to continuous poor posture can lead to a condition called Kyphosis.

Kyphosis is where your spine has this “hunchback” look and causes both physical difficulties and makes you extremely self-conscious.

3. Improve gym gains!

Our shoulder are involved in ALL upper body movements. From your chest exercises to your back exercises, the shoulders act as secondary muscles.

Hence, having strong shoulders will allow you to lift more weight during your chest and back training.

So, if you’ve been blaming your genetic for a weak chest, focus on training your shoulders and maybe you will see progress your bench press.

4. Prevents Injury

As we mentioned, our shoulders are engaged in all upper body exercises. So, keeping your shoulders strong is necessary to support your shoulder joint during those exercises.

As someone who injured his shoulder before, I can tell you how important it is to have strong shoulder muscles. It will help prevent injuries such as rotator cuff tears and shoulder impingement which are the most common injuries.

4. Helps in everyday tasks

Let’s forget about the looks for a second. Our shoulder joint is the most versatile joint in the body. Hence, having strong shoulders will help with your everyday tasks. From throwing a ball to picking up the weight of the rack, your shoulders are always involved.  

Further, training your shoulder can increase flexibility and your range of motion. It will allow you to move your arms more freely with limited strain on your shoulder joint.

Key Takeaway

Our shoulders are an important muscle that needs to be trained. It helps prevent injuries during heavy upper body lifts plus gets you a broad and bigger appearance.

Hence why we have put together a set of compound shoulder exercises that will help you develop those well rounded 3D shoulder and other muscles.

We hope you enjoyed this article.  

As always, stay Fit & Healthy and I will see you guys’ next week!

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Hey, I'm Shalin

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Shalin Anam

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