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Shoulder Workouts for Women

The 4-Move Back-to-Basics Shoulder Circuit Workout

Simplify your shoulder training with this four-step approach to stronger, better-defined delts.

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The shoulders aren’t necessarily a simple structure. Truly, they’re a wonder of nature, a uniquely designed ball-and-socket joint powered by a variety of muscles large and small, all working synergistically to move the arms in a 180-degree range of motion. 

That said, the complex wonder of our shoulders — specifically for our purposes here, the three-headed deltoid muscle — doesn’t call for an equally complex workout. In fact, we’d suggest the opposite is true. That is, you can best target the area with a routine stripped down to the essentials.

With that in mind, Sara Haley, an ACE-certified personal and group fitness trainer and AFPA prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist based in Santa Monica, California, designed this shoulder session that boils everything down to four critical movements: a press, raises to the front and sides, and a reverse flye to hit those oft-forgotten rear delts.

“When it comes to shoulders, the most common error I see when people have pieced their training together themselves is that they complicate things so much that they forget what the intention of the exercise was in the first place,” Haley says. “For instance, I could combine a lateral raise with lunges, but then I need to focus on my balance, stabilizing my core, pushing through my legs, squeezing my butt… the list goes on and on. On the other hand, if I instead stand against a wall with nothing else to focus on but using my shoulders to lift my arms, the intention becomes clearer.”

Another mistake? Getting too carried away with compound presses.

As much as compound exercises are fun, interesting and time efficient, they can sometimes decrease our focus on a particular muscle group,” Haley warns. “To counter this problem, this workout starts with just one press, then finishes with three isolation moves, which allow you to focus, take momentum out of your reps, and truly helps you get back to the basics.”

The Back-to-Basics Shoulder Circuit Workout

As a warm-up, start with the IYT shoulder mobility drill with little to no weight on an incline bench or stability ball.

For the working sets, do the four exercises listed above in circuit style, doing each back-to-back-to-back for 10 reps each, then rest 60 seconds. Repeat the circuit, this time for eight reps per move, rest one minute, and then complete one final round of six reps apiece.

Exercise Sets Reps
Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press 3 10, 8, 6
Stabilized Dumbbell Front Raise 3 10, 8, 6
Kneeling Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3 10, 8, 6
Seated Reverse Dumbbell Flye 3 10, 8, 6

Exercise How-tos

Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press

Sit on a low-back bench or an adjustable bench set to 90 degrees. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level with a supinated (palms facing you) grip. With your eyes focused forward, core tight and elbows aligned under your wrists, press the dumbbells overhead in an arc while simultaneously rotating both wrists so that by the time you reach full elbow extension, your palms are now facing away from you in a pronated grip. Reverse the motion to return to the start. 

Sara Says: “Watch that you don’t over-rotate your wrists. Think of going to the point where your palms are at a 45-degree angle with your torso — a typical shoulder-press position — and press up from there. It will give you more control and keep the movement safer.”

Stabilized Dumbbell Front Raise 

Stand with your back against a wall with your feet a couple of inches out in front for stability. Start with a dumbbell in each hand directly in front of your thighs. Keeping your core flexed, chest elevated and elbows straight, raise both dumbbells simultaneously in front of you to a point at which your arms are parallel to the floor. Pause for a brief count, then lower to the start.

Sara Says: “As you fatigue, you can switch to alternating arms to finish out your set. You can also use a barbell instead of dumbbells for this exercise.”

Kneeling Dumbbell Lateral Raise 

Assume a kneeling position on the floor, one knee up and one down. With your head straight, hold the dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip. Without generating momentum, raise the dumbbells under control up and out to your sides in an arc, keeping your elbows and hands moving together in the same plane. Stop when the dumbbells reach a point level with your shoulders and hold momentarily in the peak contracted position. Slowly lower the dumbbells down along the same path and repeat for reps.

Sara Says: “As you fatigue, feel free to bend the elbows a bit more, if needed, to finish your set — it makes the lift a little easier.”

Seated Reverse Dumbbell Flye

Sit at the end of a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Bend over at the waist, keeping your chest lifted, allowing the dumbbells to hang straight down and underneath your legs. Remaining in the bent-over position, raise the dumbbells up and out to your sides, squeezing your rear delts at the top. Slowly lower to the start and repeat.

Sara Says: “If you prefer, you can also do this movement leaning with your chest against an incline bench.”