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What are the Different Types of Shoulder Workouts?

By Jessica Gore
Updated Feb 25, 2024
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The general term 'shoulders' can usually be taken to include the deltoid muscle group, the rotator cuff, and even the upper trapezius. Each of these muscles moves the arms in a specific way, and therefore requires different motions to stimulate growth. Shoulder workouts generally involve working one of these muscle groups in isolation, or performing compound movements that require the muscles to work synergistically. Thus, shoulder workouts are often classified as either compound, isolation, or rotator cuff exercises.

Deltoids, or shoulder caps, are actually three separate muscles. The anterior deltoid sits at the front of the body, tying in with the upper pectorals. Resting at the top and sides of the shoulder, the medial deltoid enhances the broad-shouldered look associated with physical development. The posterior deltoid is perhaps the trickiest to work. Sitting at the back of the shoulders, it is less involved during compound shoulder workouts than the other three, and sometimes needs to be worked in isolation to be properly stimulated.

Compound exercises are those that require movement of more than one skeletal joint. Consequently, these movements often involve a number of muscle groups, allowing increased load and intensity. As a result, compound exercises are usually used when an increase in muscle mass, or heightened caloric expenditure, is the goal of the workout.

Overhead shoulder presses are an example of compound exercises. While performing the movement, both the shoulder girdle and the elbows are called into play. This activates the deltoids and trapezius as the primary movers, but also numerous other muscles as stabilizers and synergists. The biceps, the triceps, the pectorals, and the upper back all contribute to the shoulder workout, increasing the amount of weight carried by the deltoids themselves. Overhead shoulder presses can be performed using dumbbells, a barbell, or specialized machines, but the basic motion remains the same.

Conversely, isolation exercises only involve the movement of one body joint, and generally target specific muscles or small muscle groups. Shoulder workouts that involve isolation exercises add tone and definition to the muscle, and allow each of the shoulder muscles to be worked individually. Examples of isolation shoulder exercises include front raises, lateral raises, bent-over raises, and shrugs. A typical shoulder workout might employ a single set of a compound exercise to warm-up, or pre-exhaust, the muscle, followed by a combination of isolation exercises.

The rotator cuff is a small group of muscles that sits inside the shoulder socket and attaches to the humerus. These muscles are responsible for rotation of the arm, as when washing windows or throwing a ball. The mechanical design of the shoulder makes it among the most injury-prone joints in the human body, and the rotator cuff is a common site. Specialized shoulder workouts to strengthen the rotator cuff are often used during physiotherapy, when injury has already occurred, but these same exercises are equally beneficial when used as preventive maintenance.

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Discussion Comments
By Heavanet — On Mar 30, 2014

@ocelot60- I have a lot of muscle stiffness and soreness from a previous injury, and the types of exercises you mention do wonders for me.

When you don't more your shoulders because of pain and stiffness, a cycle develops and your issues worsen. The more you move your shoulders in stretching and rotating motions, the better they feel. These types of exercises are great to do before you lift weights. However, if you have had a shoulder injury like me, you should always check with a doctor before lifting weights so you don't make your problem worse.

By Ocelot60 — On Mar 29, 2014

This article provides a lot of good information about shoulder exercises that are very beneficial when included in a workout regimen. However, I think it is also important that anyone who is interested in beginning these types of exercises to understand the importance of stretching and rotating the shoulders before doing more strenuous exercises.

Stretching the arms above the head several times and holding the arms straight out from the body and doing circular rotations will help to stretch and loosen up shoulder muscles. Doing these exercises before using weights will help to prevent sore muscles and muscle strains.

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