When you learn about the complexity of shoulder anatomy, it’s clear the best shoulder workouts for women should be on your radar. Why? The shoulder is considered the most mobile joint in the entire human body. (1) As a “ball and socket” joint, the shoulder’s joint capsule allows for a wide range of up-and-down, back-and-forth, movements that we depend on every single day. Pretty amazingly, motions of the shoulders include: adduction (movement toward the body/midline), abduction (movement away from the body), flexion (bending), extension (lengthening), elevation (raising), depression (lowering) and both internal or external rotation. (2) The sheer mobility of the shoulder opens the joint up to injury, though.
Ever suffer from a shoulder injury, such as a rotator cuff tear or “frozen shoulder?” Then you’re already aware of just how important the health of the shoulder bones and joints are for functionality. In athletes or those who workout often, the shoulders are one of the most-utilized parts of the body — involved in movements like lifting the arms overhead, holding up weights or heavy objects, reaching in front of you or behind, and functions like catching and throwing.
Considering the frequency that these types of shoulder motions occur, even when we’re not purposefully “exercising,” it’s no surprise the shoulder experiences a lot of wear-and-tear with age. Stretching and exercising the shoulders helps keep their range of motion intact, while also adding strength and stability. Of course shoulder exercises also have aesthetic benefits as well. Not only do the shoulder workouts below help improve the strength of your arms, but they’re also tailored for women to give your upper body a lean, rounded and toned (maybe even shredded) look.
Physiology of the Shoulder (How the Shoulders Function & Operate)
The ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder is actually made up of many smaller parts — including smaller tendons, ligaments and muscles. Because of the complexity of the shoulder, it’s not actually a very stable or durable body part. The shoulders depend on soft connective tissue to keep them stable and strong. So when connective tissue becomes inflamed or degenerated over time (very common due to age, osteoarthritis or overuse), shoulder pains and stiffness are usually the result.
Tissue that helps form the shoulder include the small ligaments and tendons that hold its pieces together, including the tissue of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is where the upper arm attaches to the shoulder blade. The four primary parts of the shoulder include the:
- Sternoclavicular joint (SC joint)
- Acromioclavicular joint (AC joint)
- Glenohumerral joint
- Tissue located between the scapula and ribs.
These attach muscles to bones, helping with rotation and strength. Other shoulder anatomy to consider:
- There are three bones that help form the shoulder. These include the large bone of the upper arm (the humerus); the flat, triangular blade at the rear of the shoulder (the scapula); and the long, thin collarbone (the clavicle) at the front of the shoulder.
- A smooth layer of cartilage surrounds different parts of the shoulder, allowing for gliding motion.
- The muscles that form the shoulders include the teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus and subscapularis. (3)
- The part of the shoulder we think of as the ball-and-socket joint is formed where the top end of the arm bone fits into the small joint socket of the shoulder blade. This connection is made through the glenohumeral joint. The glenohumerral joint capsule includes tissue connecting the humerus/upper arm to the the scapula/shoulder blade.
- The clavicle connects to the shoulder blade through the acromioclavicular (AC) joint.
Best Shoulder Exercises for Women
Given how many different motions the shoulders are capable of, there are numerous ways to add muscle mass, strength and flexibility to the shoulders. Many experts feel that the best way to train the shoulders for optimal functionality and strength is to view them as more than one muscle group (since they are).
This means the most effective shoulder workouts will target different parts of the shoulder, using various types of moves, dynamic motions and weights. The moves below can be incorporated into interval training, Crossfit, Tabata-training or another plan such as kettlebell workouts. Shoulder exercises for women include (but are far from limited to):
- All different variations of planks
- All types of push-ups
- Overhead presses
- Cable pulls
- Lateral raises
- TRX push-ups (check out a TRX workout)
- And even some yoga moves that involve holding up the weight of the upper body
Before beginning any shoulder-focused workout, make sure to take a couple minutes to dynamically stretch the upper-body and loosen up the shoulders. To protect yourself from tearing or pulling, spend several minutes doing some of the following shoulder stretching exercises before you begin, and then another a couple of minutes to do the same afterwards:
- Circle and swings the arms up and down, including while the hands are held parallel to the floor
- Lift the arms overhead. You can also interlace the fingers and push the palms up to the ceiling while you do this.
- Crossover arm stretch: Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Relax your shoulders and gently pull one arm across your chest as far as possible, hold for several breaths and repeat on other side.
- Shoulder-back rotation: Hold a stick or small hand towel rolled lengthwise behind your back grabbing one end with one hand, and lightly grasp the other end with your other hand. Pull the stick or towel horizontally so that your shoulder is stretched, holding about 10 to 15 seconds on each side.
Specific Shoulder Workouts for Women
After a brief warm up/stretching period, you’re ready to customize your own shoulder workout using the recommendations below. The shoulder-targeted moves below are based on your current fitness/strength level, but if you don’t fall neatly into one category, just mix and match exercises you like.
Here’s how to use the exercises below to form your ideal shoulder workout:
- Because the shoulders can become fatigued if you focus on them exclusively during your entire workout, consider alternating shoulder moves with those that target another part of the body, such as the lower back or legs (butt workouts, hamstrings, quadriceps or calf exercises, for example). Otherwise, if you’re able to bust through back-to-back shoulder moves during your workout, then that’s an option, too.
- You can customize your own shoulder workout by performing about 2 to 3 total sets, which can include about 4 to 8 of the moves described below that focus on the shoulders/upper body.
- Between sets, rest for about 30 seconds. If possible, repeat sets one after the other in order to keep your heart rate up, which gives you the added benefit of getting some cardio.
- The amount of reps recommended for each shoulder move is listed next to the specific exercise below. As you get stronger, you can work on increasing reps, or do the opposite and focus on lifting more weight.
- Depending on your fitness level, you can keep increasing the amount of weight you use for each move, but start lightly to work on proper form at first. When using dumbbells, most women should start with lighter weights that are about 5 to 10 pounds.
- Keep increasing the amount of weight you use (or resistance, in the case of exercise bands) about every 2 to 3 weeks. For moves where your body weight is the source of resistance, (such as in yoga or TRX), then work on increasing reps or time spent holding the position.
- Complete the whole shoulder workout about 2 to 3 times per week. Take at least 48 hours rest in between workouts to allow stressed tissue in your shoulders to repair and grow back stronger.
Shoulder Workouts for Women & All Beginners:
If you’re new to working out your shoulders, aim to complete about 2 (possibly 3) sets in total. About 8 to 10 reps of the moves below will help you keep proper form. If you do too many reps, you risk breaking form because the shoulders are becoming too fatigued.
- Planks: Get into a pushup position, with your palms spread directly under your shoulders and your legs and back straight. If your wrists aren’t comfortable here, you can also bend your elbows and rest your weight on your forearms (for “forearm plank”). Aim to keep your belly and low back squeezed tight so your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to ankles. Keep breathing and hold this position for 30 to 90 seconds at a time.
- Upper-body yoga moves: Yoga moves that can help strengthen the shoulders include:
- “Downward Facing Dog” (your body forms an upside down V)
- “Chatarunga” pose (hovering to the mat in push-up position)
- “Dolphin Pose” (similar to a forearm plank but your bending from the waist)
- “Upward Dog” (a backbend where your arms are holding your legs lifted off the floor)
- “Wheel Pose” (a full backbend pushing the floor away with both arms)
- “Reverse Table Top” (holding the hips off the floor with your hands placed on the mat behind you)
- Basic push-ups: From plank position, lower your body down with your back flat and gaze forward until your chest almost touches the floor. Push back up to plank and repeat five or more times.
- Flys using dumbbells: Flys lift the arms away from the body out to the side, forming an upside down “V” shape. Hold a dumbbell in each hand near the hips while standing straight, than raise the weight sideways a few inches away from the body with straight arms. Bring the weights back towards the hips and repeat about 10 to 12 times. If it feels more comfortable, you can also perform flys while sitting, or with bent arms (sometimes called a “bent arm lateral raise”).
- Basic cable pull: Stand on a cable resistance band, holding one grip in each hand with your feet apart, enough to create as much tension in the cable as you like. Raise your arms in front of your body to shoulder height, squeezing the core in order to use the arms. Lower your arms back down and repeat 10 to 12 times per set.
For Those Who Are Athletic & Want to Stay Lean But Muscular:
For staying lean and toned, complete “a moderate amount” of reps (around 8 to 12) of the moves below. Use a weight that feels difficult, but not the highest amount you could lift. Stick with about 2 to 3 sets in total.
- Flys: Described above, which help target the back of the shoulder. To add a challenge, you may want to bend over from the waist and then perform flys. You can even place your forearm on an incline bench to help keep your back straight. Aim for about 10 to 12 reps.
- Cable front pulls: If you have access to a cable machine at your local gym, grip the cable with both hands and walk backwards until the cable is shoulder height. Pull the cable towards the face, keeping the back straight and bending the arms at shoulder height so the elbows open up to the side. Straighten the arms and repeat 10 to 12 times per set.
- Overhead press: hold a barbell overhead, gripping just wider than shoulder-width. Squeeze your core as you lift the bar straight overhead, then lower back to shoulder height. Repeat 8 to 10 times depending on the weight.
- Scaption raise: Standing upright with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other near your hips. Lift your arms straight in front of your chest to form a V, holding the “V” parallel to the floor. Pause for a breath (of more, if you’d like) and then bring the weights back down to your hips again. Repeat for about 12 to 15 reps. This is a safer alternative to shoulder presses for people with forward rounded shoulders.
- Burpees: Burpees are one of the most well-rounded exercises out there. They address the full body while working the core and arms. The basic burpee is called a “four-count burpee” and starts in a standing position.
- Count 1: Drop into a squat position with your hands on the ground.
- Count 2: Kick your feet back, placing your body into a plank position, while keeping your arms extended. For more a shoulder challenge, try lowering into a pushup here, and then back up.
- Count 3: Jump your feet back into the squat position.
- Count 4: Jump up from the squat position. Repeat about 10 to 15 times, or however many times you can within one minute.
- TRX push ups: If you have access to suspension TRX cables, place one foot in each cradle and bring the legs straight behind you so feet are at knee height. Get into push-up position, first with your legs/back/stomach in a straight line. With hands at shoulder width on the floor, perform a push up lowering your chest all the way down, then raise your hips with your chest still down to bend from the waist. Your shoulders support you as you bring your legs closer to you, then return to straighten your body again. Perform 8 to 10 of reps for one set.
For Adding Shoulder Strength and Mass:
In order to build mass and lots of strength, many trainers recommend using a high amount of weight while completing a lower amount of reps (around 4 to 8). You may want to add more sets, completing about 3 to 4 in total. Remember that the heavier you lift, the more important it becomes to take time to recover between workouts.
- Clean overhead press: Standing shoulder-width, arch your back and bend your hips to grab a bar with both hands. Lift the legs back up, holding the bar down until it passes your knees, then raise the bar quickly, if possible, to shoulder level. Straighten the back and stand tall, pressing the bar directly overhead. Bend from the hips, lower the bar and repeat.
- Bent-over side cable pull: Standing next to a cable machine, place the handle in the hand furthest away. Bend over to straighten the back, squeeze the core, then lift the arm out sideways until it’s shoulder height, keeping the palm facing the machine. Lower the arm back down and repeat.
- Front plate raise: Hold a heavy plate weight flat in front of your body near your hips, then raise the plate straight up to shoulder height without moving the core. Try not to swing the plate. Lower it down and repeat.
- Dumbbell side lateral lift: With heavy dumbbells held in each hand next to your hips, raise the arms out to the side slowly with a slight bend at the elbow, until the weights come to shoulder height. Lower weights to the hips and repeat.
Precautions When Performing Shoulder Exercises
If the shoulders start to feel pain during your workout, or pain increases afterwards and lasts more than 2 to 3 days, back off from exercising the shoulders and rest for at least several days. Keep an eye out for any injuries that can affect the shoulders due to overuse — such as a rotator cuff tear. Symptoms may include weakness and/or pain in the arm, especially when moving the shoulders.
Besides a rotator cuff tear, shoulder pain can also be caused by any of the problems below:
- Rotator cuff tendonitis: due to repetitive overhead use of the arms during activities such as gardening, raking, carpentry, housecleaning, shoveling, tennis, golf and throwing. (4)
- Frozen shoulder: occurs when scar tissue abonrmally makes the humerus adhere to the shoulder blade, causing shoulder pain and stiffness.
- Subacromial bursitis: happens when there is inflammation of the small sac of fluid, called the bursa, that cushions the rotator cuff tendons from a nearby bone called the acromion. (6)
Many of these are related to overuse and are most common among athletes or those with hobbies and manual labor jobs involving the shoulders. If you feel throbbing, stiffness or notice swelling in the upper body, avoid resistance training involving the shoulders, rest and ice the area. You may need to see a doctor or physical therapist.
Final Thoughts on Shoulder Workouts for Women
- The shoulders are incredibly mobile body parts, capable of moving in various planes of direction. Because of this, shoulders require strengthening and stretching from multiple angles.
- Shoulder moves for women include: holding planks, push-ups, lateral lifts, overhead presses, flys, burpees and lifting a heavy bar or plate.
- Women can customize their own shoulder workout by choosing about 4 to 8 different moves that target the arms and upper body, increasing either reps or weight as strength improves.