Shoulders are tricky. Everyone wants to build bigger, stronger shoulders that not only look good and are also functional, but it's a joint that is highly susceptible to injury.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body; therefore injury is common, with 18-26% of people experiencing shoulder pain at some stage in their life.

Don’t be part of this statistic and learn how to keep your shoulders strong and healthy using compound shoulder exercises that are superior for growth and strength.

shoulder muscle anatomy explained

To understand how to best train your shoulders, it's helpful to understand the basic anatomy of your shoulder in terms of your upper arms and body.

The shoulder is a truly amazing joint - it is highly mobile to allow a large range of motion moving forwards, backwards, and sideways, and it rotates inwards and outwards.

It's surprising to learn that the shoulder is barely attached to the skeleton and the only attachment is the collarbone; this is called the acromioclavicular joint, or AC joint [1].

The loose connection between the shoulder and skeleton is the reason why this joint is so mobile.[2]

The other joint that makes up the shoulder is the glenohumeral joint, and it's where the ball (humeral head) and the socket (the glenoid) meet.

The rotator cuff connects the humeral head to the scapular. Its purpose is to keep the humorous tightly in the socket.[3]

The deltoid muscle is made up of three different muscle fibers. The different names signify the position of the muscles:

  • Anterior deltoid (front delts)
  • Medial deltoid (side, middle, lateral delts)
  • Posterior deltoid (rear delts)

Your deltoids are responsible for moving the joint through flexion, extension, abduction, and lateral rotation.

15 Best Compound Exercises For Improving Shoulder Strength

The shoulder joint is one of the most complex joints in the human body.

It is made up of a variety of different muscles that can be targeted through isolation shoulder exercises, focusing on the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, or rear deltoid.

But the key to building really strong shoulders is using compound movements that target all these muscles at the same time.

Compound movements are exercises that use multiple muscle groups in order to lift more weight. More tension on the muscle equals more growth.

Keep your shoulders strong with our comprehensive guide to the 15 best compound shoulder exercises that will build strength and size.

1. Seated Arnold Press

Man Doing Seated Arnold Press Exercise

The Arnold Press is one of the best shoulder exercises because it supports both lean mass development due to time under tension and shoulder stability due to the rotation in the middle of the movement.

The Arnold Press activates more stabilizer muscles around the shoulder, which helps keep your shoulders healthy.

It's one of my go-to delt exercises for developing muscle mass. I've found they help your shoulders "pop" filling out your t shirts. 


  • Works all three deltoid heads. 
  • Suitable for all abilities.
  • Great for hypertrophy.

How To Do It:

  1. Sitting on an incline bench set at a 90 degrees incline and fully supporting your back, take two dumbbells and raise them to shoulder height with palms facing towards you. This is the starting position.
  2. From here, rotate your palms outwards and press the dumbbells overhead until your elbows lock out overhead.
  3. With control, lower the dumbbells and rotate them back to the start position.
  4. Complete 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

The Arnold Press can also be done standing. The Arnold Press works best using lighter weights due to time under tension and the range this exercise demands on your shoulder. 

2. Barbell Push Press

Man Doing Barbell Push Press Exercise

The Barbell Push Press is not only a seriously effective compound shoulder press movement, but it's also going to help develop power and speed.

By using a short dip and helping drive the weight up using your lower body, you'll be able to load the barbell much more than you would with a strict press.

I'm a fan of the push press for this exact reason, as you can overload the shoulders with a lot of weight, giving them the stimulus they need to grow. 

However, while anybody can try this movement, I recommend that beginners skip this one for the time being. It's best suited for more advanced gym goers who have developed some base strength. 


  • You can overload your deltoids.
  • Great for more advanced lifters.

How To Do It:

  1. Set up the barbell in the squat rack just below your shoulders, or clean the barbell to your shoulders. Stand with feet shoulder width or slightly inside.
  2. Keeping your torso vertical and core muscles tight, initiate a bend at the knees to complete a short, sharp dip.
  3. As your knees straighten up from the dip, use the momentum to push the barbell upwards and lockout overhead.
  4. Bring back to the start position with control. You can either go straight into the next rep as the barbell hits your shoulders, or you can reset before going into the next rep.
  5. Complete 4-6 reps for 4-5 reps.

Tips From A Trainer!

Make sure you don’t excessively push your hips forwards (leaning back) when driving up and don’t excessively round the lower back. 

3. Barbell Strict Press

Woman Doing Barbell Strict Press Exercise

This shoulder exercise can be known by a few different names, such as barbell overhead press, military press, or barbell standing press.

This is probably one of the best compound shoulder exercises there is because it creates the most amount of stress on all the muscles to achieve wider and thicker shoulders.

Shoulder press exercises like this one can be done from a standing or seated position.

Executing it in a seated position will provide more support and stabilization and increase the difficulty of the exercise.

It's a great movement for all ability levels to develop solid base strength. However, beginners may struggle to lift a standard Olympic barbell, so may wish to start with lighter "studio" type barbells. 


  • It's a compound movement. 
  • Allows your lift overload the delts. 
  • It's a super strict movement. 

How To Do It:

  1. Set up the barbell in the squat rack at just below shoulder height.
  2. Place your hands just outside of shoulder width and push your elbows forwards, resting the bar across the shoulder and clavicle.
  3. From here, keep your core tight and press the bar up and overhead until the elbows lock.
  4. Lower the bar with control back to the start position.
  5. Repeat for 3-8 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

Try not to let the barbell travel too far in front, and do not compensate by arching your lower back. 

4. Barbell Behind The Neck Press

Woman Doing Behind The Neck Press At The Gym

Any overhead press movement is going to bring serious shoulder gains, and that is the case with the Behind the Neck Press.

This variation is very similar to the Barbell Strict Press but involves the bar being pressed behind the head instead of in front.

Going from behind the neck rather than in front will engage more of your back muscles and helps remove some of the stress from your shoulders.

However, I must warn you. 

This movement places a lot of stress on your shoulder joints, so if you suffer from shoulder issues, it's not the exercise for you and you should stick with other movements on this list like the regular shoulder press. And, it's best suited for more advanced lifters.


  • Suitable for advanced lifters.
  • Super strict movement. 
  • Places a lot of force on your shoulder muscles. 

How To Do It:

  1. Set up the barbell in the squat rack at just below shoulder height.
  2. Place your hands just outside of shoulder width and position yourself under the bar, with it resting across your traps.
  3. From here, keep your core tight and press the bar up and overhead until the elbows lock.
  4. Lower the bar with control back to the start position.
  5. Repeat for 3-8 reps for 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

Ensure the barbell doesn't drift forward when overhead. And don't drop the weight on the base of your neck, it can cause serious damage if you're not careful.

5. Landmine Press

Man Doing Single-Arm Landmine Press

The Landmine Press is one of my favorite shoulder exercises.

As you're working each side separately, you can iron out any muscular imbalances that may occur (imbalances can happen to any of us). 

It's particularly effective for those who have limited shoulder mobility overhead or have an injury they are rehabbing. In addition, the movement helps promote shoulder health.

If you don't have the required attachment, check out our guide to the best landmine press alternatives here.


  • Works each side separately.
  • Great if you have mobility issues.

How To Do It:

  1. Set up the barbell in a landmine attachment or prop it into the corner of a room and load the other end with weight plates.
  2. Hold the barbell at the end (above where the plate sits) and assume a split stance with your feet.
  3. From here, press the weight directly forwards until your arm is fully extended.
  4. Lower the bar with control back to the start position.
  5. Repeat for 8-10 reps on each side for 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

The Landmine Press can also be done with two hands on the bar if you want to increase the weight and from a kneeling position to increase difficulty. 

6. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Man Doing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Using dumbbells to train the shoulder muscles is very beneficial as they are better at creating more even strength across each shoulder.

When using a barbell, it is easier for the stronger side to compensate for the weaker side. This is one of the main reasons I use dumbbells for training my shoulders. It allows me to train both sides equally. 

The dumbbell press also doesn't require a lot of space, making it perfect if your home gym doesn't have much room. 


  • Works both sides equally. 
  • Doesn't require a lot of space. 

How To Do It:

  1. Using two dumbbells of the same weight, stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Stand tall and take the dumbbells to shoulder height with palms facing forwards.
  3. Press the dumbbells up until the arms are fully extended and above your head.
  4. Lower with control back to the start position, ensuring the elbow is lower than the shoulder.
  5. Repeat for 8-12 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

Keep your lower back from excessively rounding by engaging your core and glutes. 

7. Upright Row

Man Doing Barbell Upright Rows

The Upright Row is one of the best compound shoulder exercises that mainly targets the rear delts and traps.

However, this exercise isn't suitable for beginners or people with shoulder pain as it can cause some shoulder aggravation if you have shoulder issues. Check out our guide on upright row substitutes if you can't perform this one. 

I always recommend taking time to learn the correct form for this movement and never push through any pain or impingement.


  • Develops your traps. 
  • It's a compound movement. 
  • Suitable for more advanced lifters.

How To Do It:

  1. From standing, hold the barbell in an overhand grip with feet shoulder-width apart. You can use a narrow or wide grip.
  2. Initiate an upright row by pulling the elbows outwards and pulling the barbell up to around the height of your collarbone.
  3. Lower back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for 8-10 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

Upright Rows won't be suitable for everyone. If you experience any pain during this shoulder exercise, then stop. There are plenty of other compound shoulder exercises to choose from, so never do anything your shoulder doesn't like. 

8. Bench Press

Man Doing Close Grip Bench Press

"Bench press... for shoulders?" - I know what you're thinking, but hear me out on this one. 

While bench press is a brilliant exercise for chest development, it also helps you build your shoulders.

The great advantage of a compound exercise, like the bench press, is you can lift more than you can by doing isolation exercises, so the muscle gets more stimulation.


  • It's a compound movement. 
  • You can lift a lot of weight. 

How To Do It:

  1. Set the barbell at the correct height for you so that when you unrack the bar, it doesn't catch on the rack.
  2. The bench should be set flat.
  3. Lying on the bench with feet on either side, grab the barbell just outside of shoulder width.
  4. Bend the elbows out to the sides and bring the barbell down towards your chest.
  5. Pause briefly once it touches your chest, then press strongly until your arms are fully extended and back in the starting position.
  6. Repeat for 3-8 reps, 3-5 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

You can also do the bench press on an incline which targets more of the upper chest. It is ideal to incorporate both into your training. 

9. T-Bar Rows

man doing t-bar rows at the gym

The T-bar Row is one of those superior upper body exercises that target almost all shoulder muscles plus all the muscles in your back, such as lats, traps, rhomboids, and teres major and minor.

This exercise is so effective because it can be loaded with heavier weights and uses a full range of motion. 

However, if you can't perform this exercise, I suggest you take a look at T-bar row alternatives.


  • Works most of your upper body.
  • Allows you to overload your muscles with a lot of weight.

How To Do It:

  1. Set up the barbell in the landmine attachment or in the corner of a room and put weight plates on the opposite end.
  2. Standing with your feet on either side, use a triangle handle and place it under the bar.
  3. Bending your knees slightly, keep your back straight, and stand upright.
  4. Hinge the hips back and lower the weight.
  5. Row the bar up to your chest and squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of the row, keeping your elbows in tight.
  6. Lower with control and repeat for 5-12 reps and 3-5 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you don't have a triangle handle attachment, you can use your hands to grip around the bar, but your grip is likely to fatigue quicker this way. 

10. Seated Dumbbell Press

Man Doing Seated Dumbbell Military Press

The Seated Dumbbell Press is similar to the standing dumbbell press...but you guessed it, you're sitting down. 

As you'll be seated, there is less core activation, making it perfect for lifters with a weaker core. 

One thing I love about the seated shoulder press is that it's difficult to cheat the reps. With the standing shoulder press it can be tempting to use your legs to provide you with some momentum, helping you press the weight. However, with the seated shoulder press, this isn't possible. 

If you're looking for a brilliant shoulder movement to grow your delts, the seated shoulder press is the perfect movement for your workout routine. 


  • Difficult to "cheat" the reps. 
  • Low core involvement (ideal for weaker cores). 

How To Do It:

  1. Sit on an incline bench set to 90 degrees and lean on the back for support.
  2. Holding two dumbbells of the same weight with an overhand grip, take the dumbbells to just outside of the shoulders.
  3. Press the dumbbells upwards and complete the overhead press with the elbow locks out and lower them with control.
  4. Repeat for 8-12 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you are excessively arching your lower back throughout this shoulder exercise, the weight is too heavy, and you are compensating and taking the focus off the shoulder. This can also be done with one arm at a time. 

11. Front Raises

Man Doing dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is a brilliant shoulder exercise if you're looking to add mass to your upper body. This movement targets your front delts and allows you to overload them with very little weight (you don't need a lot for this movement).

I like this shoulder exercise as it allows you to isolate your shoulder muscles. 

It's great for all ability levels, and is one of the first shoulder movements I learnt when I was a teenager. 


  • Isolates the front delts. 
  • Doesn't require a lot of weight. 
  • Ideal for all ability levels. 

How To Do It:

  1. Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, and hold two dumbbells with palms facing towards you.
  2. With a slight bend in the elbow, raise the two dumbbells together until they reach shoulder level and your palms facing the floor.
  3. With control, lower the weights to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for 10-12 reps, 3 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

You don't need to go heavy with this exercise. Really focus on the contraction of the shoulder muscles and try not to swing the weight up. 

12. Face Pulls

Man Doing Face Pulls With Rope At The Gym

This exercise primarily targets the rear delts and is really effective in preventing muscular imbalances and builds stronger shoulders and a strong upper back.

You can also use this exercise to improve your posture and it works well as a rehab exercise. 

I was given this exercise by my physio after I suffered a shoulder injury; it worked brilliantly. 

However, if you don't have a cable machine accessible, try face pull alternatives that you can even do at home.


  • Helps iron out muscular imbalances. 
  • Improves posture.

How To Do It:

  1. Set the cable pulley to head height and attach the rope.
  2. Hold the rope with two hands and palms facing down and step away from the cable machine to bring tension. Your body should be square and knees slightly bent with arms extended.
  3. Initiate the movement by contracting upper back muscles and pull the elbows out high and wide, squeezing the shoulder blades at the end of the movement.
  4. Return to the start position with arms fully extended in front of you.
  5. Repeat for 8-12 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

You can also perform face pulls using a resistance band if you do not have access to the cable machine. 

13. Pull-Ups

Man Doing Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are one of the most challenging upper body exercises and one of the most important you can do for bodyweight strength and muscle development.

When people think of the pull-up, they think of lats, but this exercise is also a very effective shoulder workout guaranteed to give you boulder shoulders.

Pull-ups are one of my favorite exercises, I add them to my workout each week. But if you don't have a pull up bar, you can try pull up alternative exercises.


  • Uses your body weight. 
  • Ideal for advanced lifters. 

How To Do It:

  1. Using a pull-up bar, hold onto the bar with palms facing forward and hands around shoulder width.
  2. Start the movement with the arms straight, so you are in a dead hang.
  3. Initiate the pull with your lats and keep pulling until your chest reaches the height of the bar.
  4. With control, lower back until the arms are fully extended.
  5. Repeat for 5-10 reps, 4-5 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you are unable to do a pull-up using your own body weight, then try eccentric pull-ups or use a band to build up strength. Practice the movement often if you want to achieve a pull-up. Are you a pro at these? Add a weight belt to increase the difficulty. 

Suggested Equipment - Best Ceiling-Mounted Pull Up Bars

14. Pike Push-Ups

Man Doing Pike Push-Ups At Home

The Pike Push-up or Shoulder Push-up is a push-up variation that is more advanced and increases the strength and stability of the shoulder and the tricep.

Upper body movements such as this one should be attempted by those who find push-ups easy and want a challenge with extra work on the delts.

As the movement uses your body weight, you can pretty much do it anywhere. This makes it an ideal exercise to perform if you're on the move.


  • You can do them anywhere. 
  • Uses your body weight. 

How To Do It:

  1. The starting position is a standard push-up position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder height.
  2. Raise your hips upwards with your arms and legs straight, and your body makes a V shape. Switch on your abdominal muscles to hold your body line.
  3. Bending your elbows back, lower your head, with control down, to the floor and stop as it’s almost touching.
  4. Press strongly against the floor back to the starting position keeping elbows in tight.
  5. Repeat for 3-8 reps, 3 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

Place your hands on two blocks to elevate your position. By doing so, you'll create space for your head to move into, and will increase the range of motion for the movement.  

15. Dips

Man Doing Dips Outside

Dips are another demanding upper body exercise that requires great upper body strength. A great chest-building exercise, dips will also build shoulder muscle mass.

I like this body weight movement as it uses a large range of motion.

While they're one of my favorite exercises, I wouldn't recommend them to beginners. However, if you do feel like they're for you, use a resistance band or assisted dip machine to help you develop a base strength. 


  • Uses your body weight. 
  • It's a compound movement. 
  • Uses a large range of motion. 

How To Do It:

  1. Using the parallel bar, position your hands just outside the shoulders with elbows locked and arms parallel with your body.
  2. With a slight lean forward of the torso, bend the elbows back until the upper arm is parallel to the floor and your hips are below the bars. Your arms should be at a 90 degrees angle.
  3. Pressing down, return to the start position with elbows locked.
  4. Repeat for 6-10 reps, for 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you cannot achieve dips using your body weight, you can attach a band to help build up your strength. If you're more advanced, use a weight belt to increase the resistance and difficulty of the exercise. 

Suggested Equipment - Good Dip Bars For Home Use

Benefits Of Compound Shoulder Exercises And Strong Delts

The benefit of a compound exercise is that these types of exercises use more muscles which means more weight can be lifted.

Bigger weight lifted means more muscle recruitment and more muscle growth.

Having nice round shoulders look aesthetically pleasing, but they are also incredibly important to protect our shoulders from injury and shoulder pain, which we have already established is one of the most common areas that people injure.

Having strong shoulders will also help your posture, and training the muscles surrounding the shoulder will increase the stability of the joint.

Strong shoulders look good but ensuring you have a good range of motion in the joint will help in activities and everyday life.

Related Article - Compound Dumbbell Exercises

How To Program Compound Shoulder Workouts Each Week?

Research points towards targeting muscle groups at least twice a week in order to stimulate the best growth.

Because the shoulder is a large muscle group, it can be trained more to see any real improvements if you're well trained.

You can train your shoulder 2-3 times per week and follow these principles.

Always Start With Compound Movements

Because we can move more weight using a compound shoulder exercise, and it will be the most fatiguing because it incorporates all the shoulder muscles, they should always be programmed first when you are the most fresh and can put the most effort in.

How many compound exercises should I be choosing to grow shoulders? I recommend using 2-3 on each day you train shoulders.

Ensure You’re Training Different Angles

To create an equal balance of strength in your shoulders, it is important to train the shoulders from different angles and use a variety of different exercises.

These include vertical pressing, horizontal pressing, lateral raises, and front raises to get the most out of your shoulder training.

Finish With Isolate Shoulder Exercises

Isolation exercises focus on developing just one muscle, and they should be used to ensure you do not have any muscular imbalances.

This can cause problems due to one muscle compensating for another. Flys and cable exercises are a great way to target and separate a muscle group in the shoulder and create more balance.

Man Doing Compound Shoulder Workouts

Frequently Asked Compound Shoulder Exercises Questions

What happens if you only train compound exercises?

There's no problem if you only use compound exercises for your shoulder workouts, but if you have a specific muscle you want to target, for example, rear delts, then you will need to choose specific isolation movements that target this muscle.

Can you build muscle just doing compound exercises?

Absolutely! Compound exercises are superior to build muscle mass, and they are so effective because they work more muscle groups.

Is the seated shoulder press a compound exercise?

Yes, the seated shoulder press exercise is a compound exercise, this is because shoulder presses use all muscles in the shoulder to move the weight. Posterior deltoids are a prime mover in this exercise, but the lateral deltoids, triceps, and traps all work to press the weight overhead.

Should I do compound or isolation exercises first?

You should always do compound exercises first before you perform your isolation movements. This is because compound exercises use a lot more energy than isolation movements. 


To get the most out of training your shoulders for size and strength, incorporating compound movements will get you the results you want.

If you want to keep training your shoulders to build mass, you should also focus on shoulder health by training the smaller muscles and keeping the shoulders mobile.

Choose a handful of these exercises to add to your shoulder workout and watch your shoulders fill out your t-shirt. 


Lee Kirwin

Lee Kirwin

Lee has worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years. He's trained hundreds of clients and knows his way around the gym, including what you need for your garage gym. When he's not testing products, he loves weightlifting, Ju Jitsu, writing, and gaming.