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The Best Shoulder Exercises for Women to Add to Your Next Gym Sesh

Ladies — listen up! You can’t keep neglecting your shoulders during your workouts. Maybe you think that broad shoulders are a thing of the ’80s, along with shoulder-padded coats, but let’s debunk that myth together. Exercising your shoulders won’t leave you looking overly muscular and top-heavy. In contrast, it will actually help you to subtly enhance your overall hourglass look, and give you better mobility and strength. Learning the best shoulder exercises will help you to add in these moves to your normal routine.

It’s understandable if you just don’t know where to start from. Most shoulder workouts are geared toward men who want to make gains in that area and build muscle fast. It’s fine if that’s also your goal, but if not, there are still exercises that can be done with low-level impact and positive results. Let’s explore the anatomy of your shoulder and some of the best shoulder exercises for women.

What Are Shoulder Exercises?

Young woman doing dead lift shoulder exercises in the gym
Shoulder exercises can be done a variety of ways involving gym equipment, dumbbells, or nothing at all at the beginner level.

So, what are shoulder exercise in the first place? When working out at the gym, it can be confusing what machines are for your shoulder muscles as opposed to your arms. And at home, you might not know what moves are working your shoulder in comparison to your back. So let’s understand what even are shoulder exercises.

Basically, shoulder exercises are moves that target the muscles in, you guessed it, your shoulder. They can be done a variety of ways involving gym equipment, dumbbells, or nothing at all at the beginner level. Also, like most exercises, these movements will also work out another muscle group at the same time. For example, some of the best shoulder exercises work out your shoulders and your upper back or your shoulders and upper arms. Say hello to killing two birds with one stone.

Which Muscles Do They Involve?

What you’ll soon find out, if you haven’t already, is that knowing the anatomy of your body will greatly help you with working out and living a healthy lifestyle. Let’s look into how the muscles in your shoulder move and how they affect the rest of your body. In a nutshell, your shoulder muscles can be linked into two categories.

Fun Fact: Your shoulder muscles attach to your collarbone, upper arm bone (humerus), and shoulder blades.

1. Deltoids

Image of a female anatomy with deltoid muscles highlighted

In short, you have three major deltoid muscles. They are in the area you see first when you roll up your sleeves, and would typically think of when you say “shoulder”. The anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids all have specific functions in the body. More specifically, they correlate to should flexion (raising your arms up in front of your body), abduction (raising your arms up from your side), and extension (pulling your arms back and bringing the shoulder blades together), respectively.

2. Rotator Cuff

Skeletal graphic of a human shoulder showing the rotator cuff muscle

There are four smaller muscles that make up your rotator cuff group. These muscles are less visible on the surface but are super important for movement and rotation. Not only that, but they also support shoulder stabilization. Meaning, they help your shoulder to stay in place, rather than pop out of the socket with every movement.

Why Should I Bother Doing Them?

If you’ve gotten this far in your life without them, why should you bother doing any shoulder exercises at all? Well, there are plenty of reasons you’ll want to keep your shoulders active and in shape for your daily life and future. Actually, as you age, it becomes even more important to keep mobility in these key joints so you can stay safe and active for years to come. Here are a few more key reasons to include some of the best shoulder exercises into your workout routine.

1. Tone your muscles and build strength

Woman doing shoulder exercises with dumbbells

Who doesn’t like to feel fit and toned? You should be doing shoulder workouts for more than just aesthetics, but it’s definitely a plus.

Additionally, with time, you’ll begin to increase your strength, which can help you with all kinds of daily activities, such as lifting things overhead and holding heavy things at your side and in front of you. You’d be surprised how often we use our shoulder muscles without realizing it, and how impactful a bit of extra strength there can be. Even going to the supermarket for milk, but walking out with six overflowing bags in each hand won’t be a problem anymore. It will feel like a breeze after some exercises.

Remember: Building muscle and toning muscles are different things. To tone muscles, do more reps and lower weight. To build bigger muscles, do fewer reps with more weight. There are options for everyone who wants to stay fit and within their goals.

2. Increase your range of motion

Young woman doing shoulder exercises on an exercise bench with weights

You use your arms almost constantly throughout the day. Because the two body parts connect, your shoulders are also moving just as often. Working out your shoulder will enable you to move your arms in ways you never knew you could. This way, you can swing a golf club with a full circle, or lift boxes overhead without worry they’ll come topping down on you if you can’t stretch them up enough. Range of motion workouts and stretches will allow you to feel limber much longer than someone who is not working out in the same way.

3. Decrease shoulder pain and prevent injury

Woman doing shoulder exercises at home with dumbbell

A direct result of the best shoulder workouts is a decrease in shoulder pain. Now, it might seem counterproductive to work out an area in pain, but pain can actually mean that you’re too weak and at risk for injuries. That comes from not building the strength and range of motion we just discussed. So, doing shoulder pain exercises (after getting the ok from your doctor) can actually help you lessen that nagging feeling each time you overextend the shoulder joint. Increasing your movement and strength in that area will also help you prevent any future injuries or disjointed limbs. Remember, your rotator cuff needs to be worked out to keep it strong to hold your shoulder in your socket.

Are There Shoulder Pain Exercises I Can Try?

African American woman using resistance band to do shoulder exercises with the help of a physiotherapist

If you experience some shoulder pain, you should always check with your doctor first what shoulder pain exercises are best for you. The best exercises that are for beginners can help you work your way into a more demanding shoulder exercise safely. Remember, shoulder pain exercises can even be done at home, with no need to dish out money for an expensive physical therapist, unless recommended. Actually, one study even recorded that an at-home shoulder workout did, in fact, improve patient’s shoulder pain with time.[1] Now let’s explore some basic and more advanced best shoulder exercises for women.

The Best Shoulder Exercises for Women

If you’re ready to build more mobility and strength in your shoulders, then let’s get started with some of the best shoulder exercises for women. You can modify these movements to decrease or increase the weight or resistance levels.

1. Beginner: Shoulder Taps | 10 reps each side

How to do it

  1. First, begin in the plank position. Make sure that your core is engaged and your lower back is not dropping to the ground. Throughout the exercise, remember to keep your body as centered as possible and straight. 
  2. Then, slowly shift your weight to your left arm and lift your right hand up and across your chest to tap your left shoulder.
  3. Next, slowly lower your right hand back down to resume plank position. Check if your spine is still straight and your body is aligned.
  4. Repeat on the other arm.

2. Intermediate: Pull-Aparts | 15 reps

  • Equipment: One resistance band

How to do it

  1. To start, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold your arms out in front of your body horizontal to the ground, gripping the resistance band in both hands.
  2. Then, let your grip on the band loosen until you find the resistance that works best for you. For a more difficult resistance, keep your hands closer together. For less resistance, allow for more slack of the band between your hands.
  3. Now, move your arms out to the sides, while still keeping your arms straight and horizontal to the ground. Move until you are in a T-shape with your arms out directly to your sides. The resistance band may stretch across your chest.
  4. Lastly, slowly release back into the starting position. Repeat.

3. Advanced: Arnold Press | 12 reps

  • Equipment: 2 dumbbells (or if at home: two filled water bottles)

How to do it

  1. First, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Begin with a dumbbell in each hand at your chest, knuckles facing away and elbows tucked at your sides.
  2. Then, rotate your arms out so that your knuckles face you and your arms are bent at your sides, like a cactus. You should feel your shoulder blades coming closer together in your upper back.
  3. Next, push up to extend your arms overhead. Keep your arms straight overhead and pause.
  4. Lastly, release slowly back down to starting position. Repeat.

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With these best shoulder exercises, you can work your way into a more advanced shoulder workout routine with heavier weights. Working this muscle group will help you in your daily life and in preventing injuries, making it a no-brainer to add to your next gym session. With time, you might even learn to love the burn and soreness that comes with great muscle-targeting exercises. Give it a try and see for yourself!


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