A Top Trainer Shared His Ranking of the Best Shoulder Exercises

·6-min read
Photo credit: Athlean-X - YouTube
Photo credit: Athlean-X - YouTube

Strength coach and Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. regularly shares workout guidance which demonstrates how to build muscle sustainably and progressively while also staying injury free.

The key to staying healthy, one of his major points of focus, is performing the right exercises for each person with the most efficient form. To wit, Cavaliere has spent some time highlighting his rankings for the worst to best exercises for specific muscle groups so that eager exercisers have some idea which moves they should use and which the should lose for their workouts. Most recently, he's focused on the shoulders.

For this video, he's provided his personal ranking of exercises for the front, middle and rear delts, ranging from those which should be avoided due to ineffectiveness or risk of harm, all the way up to the god-tier moves that should definitely be incorporated into your workout.

Worst

Upright Row

"Every single rep of an upright row places your shoulder into an internally rotated position with elevation," says Cavaliere, comparing the move to the kind of test a doctor might administer while checking for shoulder impingement. "The biomechanics of the exercise itself are literally fighting your own body's anatomy," he adds. "Over time, you're likely going to run into a problem."

Cuban Press

While this exercise includes external rotation, which some see as a positive when working the shoulders, Cavaliere points out that the lift comes from an internal rotation again. "The best part of this exercise is probably the press," he says. "The real dangers happen when you start to lower the dumbbells: you're getting into this eccentric internal rotation again."

Behind-the-neck Press

Yes, it was included in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Encylopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. But much like with the upright row, this move puts you in opposition to the natural movement patterns of your body. "There is nothing wrong with an overhead press," says Cavaliere. "But when you do it from this position, you're placing yourself at unnecessary injury risk."

Side Lateral Raise

Cavaliere is usually a fan of this move, aside from in one specific circumstance: when it is performed from an elevated arm, "pour the pitcher" position with the thumb pointing down and pinkie pointed up. "You can get the same benefit and activation to the middle delt by simply leaning forward a little bit and keeping your thumb higher than your pinkie to ensure you have external rotation at the shoulder," he says.

Better

Pressout

This is a good exercise for targeting the front delt, but the lack of range of motion is a limitation, Cavaliere explains. "We're not taking the weight from our thighs all the way up in an arc to end in this position, we're kind of shortcutting it by starting at our chest."

Dumbbell Cheat Lateral Raise

This move introduces a level of eccentric overload stress, which is a good driver of hypertrophy. However, as Cavaliere points out, this move also includes a degree of momentum and muscle substitution, which takes away from the specific area that you're trying to engage.

Reverse Fly

Just like with the pressout, this isn't necessarily a bad exercise, but the limited range of motion translates to limited gains in the rear delts. "It's not just about abducting the arm away from you as if you're doing a side lateral raise bent over, it really is about getting that arm back behind the body, and if you use even just a little bit more weight than you can handle here, the range of motion is going to be limited even more."

Better Still

Arnold Press

A decent move for working multiple heads of the shoulder, the Arnold press also corrects the dangerous positioning of the behind-the-neck press by placing the arms out in front of the body. Just note that when you add the Arnold press to your own workouts you should be cautious of over-rotating into internal rotation – follow this step-by-step form guide.

Abduction Row

You'll address the middle delt with this exercise, giving you the opportunity to use heavier weights. Unlike the cheat lateral raise, you'll use a rowing movement to give yourself the opportunity for more of a muscle contraction. "Think of it like 20 percent row, 80 percent abduction – and when you do, you're going to have 100 percent of a good exercise option when it comes to creating middle delt growth.

Face Pulls

One of Cavaliere's favorite exercises falls into the 'Better Still' category – proving that he isn't content to only pick the moves he loves. He has to admit that while face pulls are great, but there are other movements that are better for the rear delts. That's because other muscles get involved in the action, including the upper back, mid-scap, and rotator cuffs. Still, he advises that face pulls are great to close off any workout.

Almost Best

Scoop Press

Cavaliere ranks the scoop press ahead of other moves like the Arnold because you'll have an increased range of motion and more focus on the front delt. Just make sure to keep your elbows locked in position when you perform the exercise so that you don't turn it into a biceps movement.

Side Lateral Raise

This is the exception Cavaliere mentioned earlier in the video. He prefers the exercise performed with the thumb up, in order to target the middle delt. Lean forward, and perform your reps in a slow, controlled tempo.

Hip Hugger

Your rear delts are the focus of this odd-sounding exercise. "You should look like you're trying to pick up a pair of pants that kind of dropped down too low," he says. Just make sure that you keep your arms behind your body, pull back with your elbows, and use heavy weights.

Best

Dumbbell Front Raise

You'll be able to hit your front delts with a strong focus by using dumbbells rather than taking a bilateral approach with a barbell. Cavaliere calls the exercise the "best of the best when it comes to the front delts."

Cable Lateral Raise

Cavaliere's choice for the top exercise for your middle delt is this movement, which is just a side lateral raise with a cable. He prefers the cable setup because you're able to get a stretched position on the middle delt thanks to the cable's tension.

Dumbbell Rear Delt Row

Cavaliere's pick for the best rear delt movement gives you the best of two of his previous picks, the reverse fly and hip hugger. You'll get abduction of the shoulder and extension, which allows for an intense contraction. Just be sure that you use a lighter weight that you can handle.

Best Bang for Your Buck

If you just want to big build shoulders and you don't have a ton of time, Cavaliere suggests using presses. While he didn't discuss many pressing movements in the ranking, the trainer does recommend using movements like barbell and dumbbell overhead presses, the Z-press, the modified Bradford press, and the handstand pushup. That said, he acknowledges that many of these presses aren't as good for targeting more specific parts of the muscle.

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