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Shoulder Workouts for Women

The Lean Muscle Series: Shape Your Shoulders

Learn how to build the delts of your dreams without relying on a barbell.

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“Building muscle” doesn’t have to mean long, arduous sessions in the weight room, straining against heavily loaded barbells and monopolizing a power rack for an hour. Stimulating growth in lean tissue is also very much possible with shorter, intensive bursts of exercise — and few muscles respond better to this approach than the shoulders.

The following workout is fun, functional and relies on just a few key pieces of equipment to get the job done. You’ll lead off with two challenging superset pairings to stimulate maximum burn, and then cap it off with 40 pike push-ups that’ll test your limits and boost your strength. All told, in 30 minutes or less, you’ll be well on your way to building a beautiful set of lean, sexy shoulders — all without a barbell in sight.

Shape-Your-Shoulders Workout

Perform the superset exercises back-to-back with no rest in between. In between supersets, rest one to two minutes max. For weighted moves, choose successively heavier dumbbells or kettlebells from set to set.

Exercise Sets Reps
Standing Dumbbell Arnold Press
— superset with —
Kettlebell Lateral Hold
4 15, 12, 10, 8

to failure
Upright Kettlebell Row
— superset with —
One-Arm Straight-Arm Dumbbell Kickback
4 15, 12, 10, 8

10-12
Alternating Dumbbell Hold Lateral Raise 3-4 to failure*
*Complete 40 reps total, doing as many reps as you can muster per set.

Standing Dumbbell Arnold Press

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Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider, and 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 twisting both wrists so that by the time you reach full elbow extension, your palms are now facing away from you in a pronated grip. (Note that your elbows will naturally shift outward as you twist on the way up and then come back in tighter to your torso on the way down.) Reverse the motion to return to the start and repeat.

Pro Tip: Want to complete an extra rep or two at the end after you can’t do any more with proper form? Try using a small bounce at the knees and hips to generate just enough momentum to prod you past a sticking point and push the weights overhead. Just be sure to use this “cheating” technique sparingly and not throughout an entire set because it reduces the stress you want to place on the delts.

Kettlebell Lateral Hold

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Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and hold a kettlebell in each hand by the handle at your sides. Your arms should be straight. From here, raise the weight upward until your arms are directly out to either side and parallel to the floor — i.e., the “up” position of a lateral raise. Now flex your deltoid cap tight and hold the dumbbells in that pose for as long as you can hold it before your form breaks. (Note that you also can use dumbbells for this isometric-hold exercise if it’s more convenient.)

Pro Tip: For an added element of punishment, er, benefit, you can extend the exercise by continuing to hold the weights in a quarter-raise position after you reach initial failure, in which you hold your arms out at a 45-degree angle from your body until you hit the point of failure again. Or you can finish the exercise with a series of “pulse” reps from a point at which your arms are at your sides up to a 45-degree angle. 

Upright Kettlebell Row 

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Take a stance just outside shoulder width, knees slightly bent, abs tight and chin up, and hold a kettlebell directly in front of your hips with both hands firmly gripping the handle. Flex your shoulders as you bend your arms to pull the weight straight up toward your chin — your elbows should rise high and out to each side of your head as you do so with the weight remaining as close to your body as possible throughout. Hold the top position for a one-count, feeling the tight squeeze in both deltoids, and then slowly lower the kettlebell to the start.

Pro Tip: Advanced athletes who want to turn up the intensity and break a serious sweat can add some lower-body action to their upright row. For these, you extend the range of motion at the bottom, lowering your hips and bending your knees on each rep to bring the kettlebell down to knee level before bringing it all the way back up. For this variation, work on developing a rhythmic, steady, slightly faster cadence than standard rows, and maintain control of the weight, keeping it as close to your body as possible for the duration of the set.

One-Arm Straight-Arm Dumbbell Kickback 

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Bend over at your hips holding a dumbbell in one hand, allowing that arm to hang toward the floor, elbow fully extended, while firmly placing your non-working hand on a sturdy object or flat bench for support. Keeping the working elbow firmly in the extended position throughout, move your arm back and upward in a deliberate manner, keeping it close to your body as you do so, until it reaches a point at which it’s parallel with your torso. Squeeze your rear delt for a one-count in the top position, then lower the dumbbell back to the start.

Pro Tip: While doing kickbacks one arm at a time allows for more focus and control to hit the target muscle — the posterior (rear) head of the three-headed deltoid muscle — for efficiency’s sake, you also can do this exercise with both arms simultaneously from a bent-over standing position. Just be sure to keep your core tight and back flat. In addition, you can keep maximum tension on the muscle throughout the motion by not bringing your arms all the way down to perpendicular with the floor, instead stopping just short of that point and reversing into the next rep.

Alternating Dumbbell Hold Lateral Raise

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Stand holding a pair of light dumbbells at your sides. Raise both arms so they are parallel with the floor. Hold one arm in place as you lower then raise the other. Continue, alternating sides. 

Pro Tip: This move seems simple in theory, but since you’re going for burnout here, a light pair of dumbbells will feel like bowling balls after just a few reps!