Most upper-body activities involve your shoulders to some extent. Every time you lift a heavy bag of groceries out of the car, pass a tray of food across the dinner table or put a box on the top shelf of the garage, you're engaging your shoulder muscles. In order to prevent injury and optimize functional ability, you need to train the shoulders for mobility, stability and strength.
The shoulder is comprised of four joints and can move in all three planes of motion. As a result, the shoulder is one of the most mobile but least stable joints in the body. This contradiction explains why shoulder injuries are so common and why focusing on developing and maintaining strong shoulders with proper mobility becomes so important. Years of poor posture, decreased range of motion as we age or even a simple fall can all lead to shoulder pain and chronic discomfort.
It's important to include a variety of shoulder exercises in your workout program to develop stability and mobility, while simultaneously getting you ready to show off your shapely arms in your favorite tank top. Add a few of these exercises to your full-body strength routine, using an amount of weight that's challenging but still allows you to complete the last repetition with proper form. Start with one to three sets of each exercise, eight to 12 repetitions per set, and after a few weeks, swap in a few different moves for variety and a continuous challenge.
Sculpt Your Way to Sizzling Shoulders
Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
Paul Searles, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at the New York Sports Science Lab, recommends this move to target the rear delts. "When done properly, you not only get great shoulder development but also develop isometric strength in the posterior chain, which will help [you] maintain good posture throughout the day," Searles explains. "To perform the bent-over dumbbell reverse fly, grab the dumbbells with your pinkies all the way to the end of the bottom of the handle. Tilt your hips back to hinge into the bent-over position, while maintaining a flat back which should feel like you're stretching your hamstrings. With your palms facing each other, raise the arms out to the sides until they are parallel with the floor. Lower the weights down but stop with your hands outside your legs to keep tension on your shoulders."
Dumbbell Side Raises
"The deltoid, a.k.a. shoulder muscle, has three parts: front, side and rear," explains Dani Singer, the director of Fit2Go Personal Training. "With the shoulder press, you’re only targeting the front. On top of that, the front needs the least work, as you're already hitting it with most chest exercises."
If you want to build symmetrical, shapely shoulders, Singer says you should actively target the side and rear of the deltoid, instead. For the rear head, he suggests the bent-over dumbbell reverse fly (as described above). For the side head, Singer recommends dumbbell side raises. "Holding a dumbbell in each hand, raise your arms out to your sides [and up] to shoulder height. Pause for two seconds, then slowly lower down. You should feel this burning the side of your shoulders after a few reps," he describes.
Down Dog Pushups
Stephanie Lincoln, founder and CEO of Fire Team Whiskey, prefers non-traditional exercises to target the shoulders. One of her favorites is down dog pushups. "Get into a traditional downward-facing dog yoga position. While keeping the hips lifted and legs as straight as possible, slowly bend your elbows, keeping them close to the body, and lower your head toward the ground," she instructs. "Go as far as you are able, then extend back to straight arms." To progress the level of difficulty, Lincoln recommends elevating your feet with a small step or box to execute the move with more resistance.
"Ultimately, shoulder L-raises are a great exercise when you are rushed to squeeze in a workout," says Matt Weik, owner of Weik Fitness. Weik explains that this exercise allows you to work the anterior and medial deltoids all at once, giving you a great bang for your workout buck. In general, compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time are a time-saving option for your workout plan.
"With one dumbbell in each hand, raise one arm to the side until it's parallel with the ground, while the other arm lifts the dumbbell out in front of you to the same level. When done at the same time, [this motion] creates an “L” or right angle," he explains. "Alternate sides with each repetition."
I's, T's and Y's
"I's, T's and Y's are some of the most basic shoulder exercises," says chiropractor Alex Tauberg. "When done correctly, they can help build the deltoid muscles, in some cases preventing or rehabbing an injury. Select a set of dumbbells that you can lift overhead without too much difficulty," he says. "Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms down by your sides. For 'I', bring your arms straight up in front of you to shoulder level. For T's, lean forward slightly, keeping the spine in a neutral position and lift the weights outward. Your arms and body will form a 'T.' To perform the "Y" exercise, Tauberg instructs patients to stand tall, bringing the arms out in front, slightly to the side, slowly lifting up overhead to form a Y with the arms and body. Do one to three sets of each exercise before moving on to the next.
Single-Arm Band Pull Apart
Yoga and Pilates expert Kristin McGee's favorite exercise to target the rear deltoids and shoulders is the single-arm band pull apart. "It's my favorite because it works many angles of the shoulders, the rear deltoids the medial delts and the scapula all at once," she explains. "Isolating one arm at a time really helps you focus."
"Hold a resistance band in front of you with hands shoulder-width apart," she explains. "[Using your right arm], pull out to the side while squeezing your deltoids and pressing the tops of the shoulders down." Complete all your reps on one side, then switch to the other arm. This move can be performed in a standing or supine position depending on your preference.
Lincoln considers this to be the number one exercise for building the muscles around the shoulders, which results in stronger shoulders overall. "Don't be intimidated by pull-ups," she encourages. "You can use an assist band to help you complete the pull-ups with proper form [in the beginning]. If you do not have an assist band, use a chair to help you start at the top and lower yourself down as slowly as you can, [a variation that is referred to as} a negative pull-up."
No matter your goals, shoulder exercises are an important part of a balanced strength training routine. By adding a few of these shoulder exercises to your regular workout, you'll stand taller and feel stronger.
What are your favorite exercises to strengthen and define the shoulders?
Only when I honored my true self was I able to change my relationship with food and fitness—for good.
Sports were always at the forefront of my life. As a kid, I did gymnastics for more than 10 years, and in high school, I participated in track and diving. In college, I was a walk-on member of the collegiate rowing team but soon switched over to track and field. By my senior year, I was a national-level competitor in the NCAA and the best female hammer thrower in school history.
If you had asked me who I was leading up to my college graduation, my answer was clear: I'm a Division I athlete in the Big 12 Conference pursuing a degree in sports administration. My identity was intact, and my list of projects and accomplishments made me feel worthy. But just one month after graduation, nothing made me feel like I mattered anymore.
Loss of ID, Gain of LBs
After college, I was bartending in my hometown. I felt such a loss of identity and of value. I didn't know what I had to offer and started to struggle with my relationship with food. Up to that point, I had never had to worry about how many calories I ate because I trained several hours a day. I'd eat whatever I wanted—burritos, pizza, bread and fries—and since I continued to eat that way at a fraction of the activity level, my weight shot up.
That extra 15 pounds happened so quickly, and I didn't feel good. I had no energy, no drive, no confidence. I had to take action, but I didn't know what to do. My life was a daily struggle with self-image and self-worth. I was following the exercise and nutrition plans that worked for others, but they weren't working for me.
Clarity and Reinvention
This struggle, while difficult, ultimately led to the biggest breakthrough of my life—that I needed to honor what was best for me to be successful. Why was I eating foods I hated and following a fitness routine that didn't jive with my life? I needed a plan customized just for me.
Once I took account of these things, I stopped trying to be like everyone else and began to do things my way. I made my breakfasts and dinners a week in advance instead of skipping the meals or eating cheese and crackers for dinner. I never left home without a snack in my purse and a big bottle of water to sustain me through long, unpredictable days. And I began training with a workout buddy to help motivate me and get me to the gym consistently. Suddenly, I was seeing results on the scale, and I was listening to myself versus looking to others for validation.
Soon, I found work as a fitness model and photos of me appeared in popular magazines like Oxygen. Then I was contacted by producers from the TV show "American Gladiators" asking me to audition. And somehow, among all the professional athletes, stunt people and longtime industry standouts, they chose me.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
"American Gladiators" will go down as one of my favorite experiences, filled with great people and a greater understanding of the television business. However, I quickly fell back into old mental patterns. I identified myself based on external qualities and accolades rather than continuing to develop my own identity within. When the show was canceled, I was once again lost and unsure.
I moved to Los Angeles, but even though I was modeling, training and teaching fitness classes, I was living the opposite of a healthy life. For instance, when I booked a modeling gig, I felt important and valuable, but to prepare I would crash-diet and cut my fluids in order to look smaller and leaner. After a shoot, I would binge eat on pizza, sweets and cocktails. These unhealthy habits evolved into a very distorted self-image, and even though I was in good shape, I was never "small enough" in my own eyes. At each meal and in front of every mirror, I was tearing myself down.
My lowest point came when I contemplated purging the foods I had just binged on, and this scared the crap out of me. An eating disorder? How could I let this go so far? This was another huge turning point for me, and I decided to use health and fitness as a way to mentally get healthy again. I started to put my best self forward, and my training business began to thrive. The momentum continued, and I appeared in more magazines and ultimately landed on "The Biggest Loser."
Looking back, I can see that the problem was never with my workouts or the meals I prepared. It was with me and my understanding of who I was and who I wanted to be. I transformed my critical tendencies and began acknowledging and celebrating my successes versus beating myself up for some stray, imperfect action. I stopped the one-size-fits-all mentality and focused less on what everyone else was doing and more on reaching my own goals. I created a routine of healthy eating and exercise that made sense for me. And as a result, I didn't just look good on the outside, but I was also happier, healthier and more successful in all areas of my life.
Now It's Your Turn
On "The Biggest Loser," my approach was not one of tough love, though I set a tough standard: eat highly nourishing foods, exercise right and—most of all—believe in yourself. Both seasons I was on, my team took home the prize, and that's exactly what I want for you—to win by overcoming your challenges and achieving your best body and your healthiest life.
With The Oxygen Challenge 4, I share all my secrets for success with you and will teach you how to believe in and learn to use the power within yourself. Together, we will bolster your strengths, work through your problems, and enable you to live in a positive and vibrant way.
The choice is yours. Let's commit to this journey—and succeed—together!
The Oxygen Challenge 4 (OC4) begins July 16, 2018.
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