I'm a personal trainer — here are 3 best compound exercises for building shoulder strength and muscle

Man performing a lateral raise exercise using a dumbbell in his left hand with back to camera
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Whenever clients want to hone in on one muscle group, I like to pack on the intensity using compound and isolation exercises.

In the isolation vs compound exercises debate, isolation exercises might not offer as much bang for your buck, but they’re capable of zoning in on a muscle group and working them to fatigue — think lateral raises or bicep curls, for example. Then you have compound moves, which work various muscle groups together. My favorite.

If you want to bulk out your shoulder workouts as much as your shoulders, I recommend these three compound shoulder exercises for building strength and muscle.

Do you need isolation exercises for your shoulders? 

Not exactly, but I recommend them to grow shoulder muscle definition and build upper-body strength. Isolation exercises focus on one group and have a knack for working that muscle toward fatigue quickly.

There’s no such thing as an ideal workout, as everyone responds differently to strength training. But most traditional strength programs will start with the big lifts — think the bench press and overhead press, for example— and then finish with isolation exercises.

If you start with isolation exercises, smaller muscles like the biceps and triceps won’t have enough strength to support those bigger moves further along. But sure, there are other ways to program your workouts and maximize muscle growth — here are the 5 best ways to build muscle without lifting heavier

Man performing a bicep curl with elbow against knee using dumbbell during arm workout

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What are 3 best compound shoulder exercises for building strength and muscle? 

Your shoulders consist of three deltoid heads—anterior, lateral and posterior. Working all three will build well-rounded 3D shoulders, and working on your trapezius muscles will also help define the shoulders and make them, and your upper body, pop. 

Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups and form the main focus of functional training using motions like pushes, pulls and climbs. They’re my go-to for creating the most effective shoulder workouts.

You can do these exercises using the best adjustable dumbbells or kettlebells. If you’re unsure whether these shoulder exercises are for you, here’s why I swear by them and how to add them to your strength program.   

Dumbbell Arnold press

Trust Arnie to deliver a new take on the shoulder press exercise. This shoulder press variation comes from Schwarzenegger himself and targets all three shoulder heads and the triceps, also recruiting your back and core muscles to stabilize the move. 

How:

Rushing lessens the impact of the Arnold press, so slow down.

  • Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your elbows bent and palms facing toward you
  • In one fluid motion, raise the dumbbells above your head while rotating your palms out away from you
  • Pause at the top of the movement with your arms extended directly above your head
  • Reverse the movement back to your starting position.

Here’s how to do an Arnold press and what happened when our writer did 50 Arnold presses each day for one week

Dumbbell incline row

The move hits the lateral heads of the shoulders, the traps, lats and biceps. Strong back muscles account for good posture and help prevent internal shoulder rotation.

How:

  • Set your workout bench at 45 degrees incline and sit with the front of your body resting against the back of the bench, legs on either side and your chin over the front
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand, brace your stomach and press your feet onto the ground
  • Bend both elbows and row the dumbbells using an overhand grip, allowing your arms to fully extend at the bottom of the rep and squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the row
  • Keep your elbows tucked and aim for a full range of motion. Pause at the top of the row and lower the dumbbells with control.

Seated dumbbell overhead press

The seated overhead press builds strength and muscle in the shoulders, hitting the anterior and lateral deltoids, pectoral muscles and triceps. Your core and trapezius will be active during this exercise. Move slowly and avoid arching your back while maintaining a full range of motion.

How:

  • Set your workout bench with the back fully up at 90 degrees
  • Sit against the bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand
  • Start with the dumbbells at shoulder height and palms facing outward
  • Engage your core and press your back lightly against the bench
  • Press the dumbbells overhead and extend the arms
  • Slowly lower the weights to shoulder height for one rep.

3-move, 15-minute EMOM shoulder workout to try 

Once you’ve got the hang of these three shoulder exercises, try bringing them together into a short 15-minute workout to torch your deltoids, pectorals, traps and triceps.

An EMOM means every minute on the minute. Perform 8-12 reps of the Arnold press, then rest for the remainder of the minute. Aim to finish with 10-15 seconds rest, maximum. On the next minute, start the row, and so on, completing 5 rounds. It’s a shoulder torcher — good luck!

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.