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Which Are The Best Shoulder Exercises? I Tested 17 To Find Out

by Jeremy Ethier - November 27, 2022

Whether you're looking to create massive caps or simply a more functional, balanced physique, building your shoulders will help. And in this article, I show you the best shoulder exercises that'll do just that (thanks, Betty!)

Betty and I are back.

The best shoulder exercises Betty

She’s a $12,000 science machine that’ll help us determine which are the best shoulder exercises out of the 17 I'll be testing. Bonus: we'll also find out which are the absolute worst for building those deltoid muscles.

I tested these exercises on 3 subjects, averaged the data, and found some very interesting insights that align with other research out there.

With the results from this experiment, you’ll be able to save literally years of wasted time doing the wrong movements for your body.

Wait, How Does Betty Determine The Best Shoulder Exercises?

Betty measures the electrical activity of our muscles as they contract.

This can be used to estimate muscle activation. A couple of weeks ago, we used her magic to help us determine what chest exercises best activated the upper, middle, and lower chest (click here to find out what the best chest exercises are).

This time, Betty is going to help reveal what the best shoulder exercises are.

The What, Who, Wager, And All Relevant Details Of The Experiment

What And Who?

Let’s explain what and then who we’ll be measuring. So, obviously, the "what" will be the deltoid muscle, which is made up of 3 regions:

  • Front delts: Front of the shoulder, which most people overdevelop.
  • Side delts: Side of the shoulders, which help widen your shoulders.
  • Rear delts: Back region of the shoulders, which is commonly underdeveloped — but super important in balancing out your shoulders and providing that 3D look.

We're putting sensors on each of these 3 regions to determine the best shoulder exercises for the front delts, side delts, and rear delts.

The best shoulder exercises electrode placement

But we’re also putting one sensor on the upper traps. You’ll find out why exactly we did this later on.

As for who we’ll be testing? Just like in the last video, I wanted at least 3 subjects. And I also wanted to introduce a female subject this time.

Unfortunately, my girlfriend and ride-or-die homie for the past 7 years, Tahnee, had a shoulder injury preventing her from doing many of the exercises. But we will bring her in the next video.

The best shoulder exercises Tahnee

As for this one, I, of course, wanted to see what are the best shoulder exercises for my body (as we all know, there is no one best exercise that'll work for everyone, after all), so I signed up right away. Alex, our master Built With Science coach, had no problem being a guinea pig again.

And lastly, I wanted the final subject to be a beginner to see how the results might differ based on the level of experience. Raza, our operations manager, would be the perfect fit. Unfortunately, in the last episode, he faced the wrath of the ice bath after losing the wager, so I was pretty hesitant about asking him again.

To my surprise, he was actually pretty open to it!

The best shoulder exercises Raza shave

What's The Wager This Time Round?

As for what that wager is this time, this is the Scoville scale that ranks the heat of food.

The best shoulder exercises wager Scoville

We’ve ordered the world’s hottest bowl of noodles and the world's hottest chip, made with the hottest chile pepper on the planet, the Carolina reaper.

The best shoulder exercises wager Scoville chips

But we also got a gummy bear. This bad boy goes way off the chart at 9,000,000 Scoville, and according to the description on Amazon, is 900x hotter than a Jalapeno.

The best shoulder exercises wager Scoville gummy bear

Each of us is going to write down on a piece of paper what we think the best shoulder exercises (specifically, the top 2) will end up being for the front, side, and rear parts of the shoulder. The person who gets the most exercises correct still suffers, just not as much. They get to choose who has to eat what. I’ve seen what these have done to people online, and honestly, I was pretty scared.

The 3 Things We Needed To Prep Before Conducting The Experiment

Before testing and finding out what the best shoulder exercises are, there were 3 things we needed to prep.

First, all our 1 rep max (1RM) for each exercise.

We had to figure out how much weight we'd be using on each shoulder exercise to ensure they were all equally challenging.

So, a few days before testing, we all spent a whole day in our gym and figured out our estimated “1 rep max” for each exercise. This is the maximum amount of weight we could lift on each exercise. On test day, we used 70% of this weight.

Next, we (or, rather, just Raza) had to shave.

Next, electrode placement. As some of you know from the last article, we needed a clean shave to make sure the electrodes stick. Alex and I were blessed with Asian genetics, so we were ready to go. Raza, on the other hand ...

Well, fortunately, this time, he didn’t actually have much hair on his shoulders, so a quick shave and an alcohol swab were all that was needed before we could place the sensors.

The best shoulder exercises Raza shave

Finally, we had to get our maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) values.

Before we could start testing and finding out what the best shoulder exercises are, we had to take a few crucial measurements known as MVC (maximum voluntary contraction).

This represents the maximum activation your muscle can reach. But this value will be slightly different for everyone.

So, by gathering this value before we start testing the exercises, we’re able to then accurately compare the shoulder exercises we do against each of our own maximum values to see how well the exercise works for our individual shoulder muscles. Getting this value wasn’t easy, but we did it!

And with that out of the way, we were ready to test.

Experiment Design

We’re sticking to a similar design as our chest experiment by doing 1 set of 5 reps and then taking at least a 5-minute rest before moving to the next exercise.

We also rotated between front delt, side delt, and rear delt exercises to avoid overly fatiguing one region.

Exercise form is also extremely important to activate the right muscles in the first place, so I closely monitored and tweaked form if needed. In fact, this is Raza’s side delt and upper trap activation using his original form. When corrected, his side delt activation increased by over 55%, and his upper trap activation decreased because he was now using more of the right muscles.

The best shoulder exercises importance of form

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… Now all was going well until I realized something.

One of the most popular rear delt exercises is done at the “reverse peck deck machine”. Because we conducted our experiment at the Built With Science gym, well, we didn't have access to this particular machine.

This means… we had to head back to the same public gym as last time to see if they’ll let us borrow their pec deck machine.

So, What Are The Best Shoulder Exercises?

Before we dive into the winners, just keep in mind that Betty isn’t the end-all-be-all.

I invested in her because I always had unanswered questions when it came to studies, and I wanted to test things for myself.

But as you’ll see, she has her limitations.

Not to mention we only tested 3 subjects. That said, after averaging the data across the 3 of us, I did find some very interesting insights that align with other research out there.

The Best Shoulder Exercises For The Front Delts

Let’s start with the best shoulder exercises for the front delts.

The best shoulder exercises Graphic web Shoulder EMG graph - AVG Front

Most of you guys voted for front raises to come out on top. It’s not a bad guess, but it did end up performing quite poorly.

Now there are two reasons for this.

The first is that you can't use very much weight on this exercise compared to other big shoulder exercises. Less weight tends to lead to less activation. Not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of when measuring muscle activation.

Second, the tension during the exercise doesn’t actually line up very well with the front delts.

If we look at the top of my shoulder during the raise, some of the front delt but also some of the side delt is working. So, it hits a bit of both without being great at hitting either one.

The best shoulder exercises front delts

Now, although we didn’t test it with the thumbs facing up, which would theoretically better line up the tension with the front delts, a past EMG study did. The researchers found front raises activated the front delts just as much as the barbell bench press and 40% less than the shoulder press.

The best shoulder exercises overhead shoulder press for front delts

So while it may be a half-decent option to work the front delts without having to use very heavy weight, let’s take a look at the winners.

Both winners were overhead shoulder presses, just different variations of them. We tested the seated dumbbell press, standing dumbbell press, seated barbell press, and standing barbell press.

But for the seated variations, we were actually able to use slightly heavier weights than the standing variations because of the extra stability provided by the bench. Likely as a result of this, for all 3 of us — although not by much — the seated versions performed the best.

But the standing versions do have their benefits as well since they get the core and whole body involved. And, as you’ll learn later on, the standing versions also provided a different kind of demand on the shoulders.

Something To Note When Including Overhead Presses In Your Training

Overhead presses are the best shoulder exercises for your front delts. But while they will provide significantly more activation on the region (71% for me), it’s likely that you’re already working this muscle quite a bit whenever you perform chest exercises.

In fact, when we look at data from the chest exercises we tested a couple of weeks back, during the barbell bench press, my front delts averaged 44% activation.

The best shoulder exercises front delts are already worked on barbell bench press

This is why many people have overdeveloped front delts relative to their side and rear delts.

So my recommendation would be to do overhead presses once, maybe twice a week, depending on your goals. But to balance out your shoulder development, spend more of your time working on the side and rear delts using the best shoulder exercises for those regions we’re about to cover.

The Best Shoulder Exercises For The Side Delts

Now the best shoulder exercises for the side delts. This took me by complete surprise.

The best shoulder exercises Graphic web Shoulder EMG graph - AVG Side

The winners ended up being the two standing shoulder presses we tested. At first glance, I had no idea how these managed to outrank the lateral raise variations we tested since those are widely known as the best side delt exercises.

But after taking a deeper look into the data, I noticed a couple of things.

If you take a look at the real-time graph of the dumbbell lateral raise, you can see there’s no activation at the bottom position when your arms are held straight down. Which makes sense, your side delts are just chilling.

The best shoulder exercises side delts not activated at the bottom range of lateral raises

However, if you look at the standing shoulder press, you don’t see this.

The best shoulder exercises side delts play a stabilizing role during overhead presses

At the bottom position of each rep, the side delts are still helping stabilize the weight up at your chest. In addition to this, the standing versions of the shoulder press have a greater stability demand.

In our experiment, as well as in past studies, this has been shown to lead to higher side delts activation.

The best shoulder exercises stabilizing role of medial delts on standing overhead presses

But this isn’t a very powerful stimulus for growth. For example, if I put sensors on my glutes as I performed the exercise, which is contracting hard to stabilize my body, you’d see quite a high activation.

But you wouldn’t do standing shoulder presses to grow your glutes.

In reality, the front delts are the main muscle helping you actually move the weight and, thus, will experience most of the growth.

It’s a case where more activation doesn’t necessarily lead to more growth — highlighting one of Betty's limitations.

Taking this into consideration, I’d remove shoulder presses from the top, which would now bring the lateral raises to the top of this list of the best shoulder exercises for the side delts.

In this experiment, the standard dumbbell lateral raise and the lying incline lateral raise came out on top, with cable lateral raises following closely behind. All of those are great options.

The Best Shoulder Exercises For The Rear Delts

Last but not least, the best shoulder exercises for the rear delts.

The best shoulder exercises Graphic web Shoulder EMG graph - AVG Rear

Most of you guys voted for the reverse pec deck to come out on top. While it did perform quite well, the top exercise was instead one of my favorites and something we use in our Built With Science programs.

It’s the double-arm reverse cable fly. But the setup and form are what seemed to make all the difference.

If you look at the anatomy of the rear delts, they travel at roughly a 45-degree angle away from the body.

The best shoulder exercises rear delts anatomy

The reverse pec deck, since the arms are held up at shoulder height, doesn’t line up the tension very well with this.

But with this exercise, by setting the cables high and pulling the arms down and back at a 45-degree angle from the body, it lines up the constant tension from the cable almost perfectly with the rear delts. Which is probably why it performed so well.

The best shoulder exercises rear delts lined up with the cable rear delt flyes

What Happened With Face Pulls?

Before I show the other exercise that made the list of the best shoulder exercises for rear delts, let's talk about face pulls. This was the second most voted-for exercise to win for rear delts activation.

However, it didn't perform very well at all.

Part of it is due to what we just talked about. Face pulls do keep the arms up, but the 45-degree arm angle seems to be optimal for the rear delts.

The best shoulder exercises face pulls not lined up with rear delts

But another big part of it is stability.

It’s very hard to use heavy weight with proper form on face pulls as it often causes you to just tip over or use other muscles instead.

In fact, I tried to go relatively heavy on face pulls during this experiment to make them equally as challenging as the other exercises, and as a result, my body compensated by activating my upper traps even more than my rear delts.

The best shoulder exercises face pulls activate traps more

That said, face pulls are great for strengthening the rotator cuffs and various other important muscles for shoulder health and posture.

But to properly do that, you have to use light weights. Don't treat face pulls as a big muscle-building movement for the rear delts. As you'll see, there are far better options for that.

What's The Other Winner That Made The List Of The Best Shoulder Exercises?

As for the other rear delt winner joining the ranks of the best shoulder exercises, this ended up once again being the reverse cable fly, but with one arm and the body positioned sideways to the cable.

The best shoulder exercises cable rear delt flyes double arm vs single arm

Now, although these two exercises look very similar, they actually both challenge the rear delts in a different way.

The double arm challenges your rear delts most in the middle of the movement.

Whereas the single arm challenges your rear delts most at the beginning of the movement, which recent research has shown to be arguably the most important part of the movement for growth. So, I’d definitely recommend doing both.

If you don’t have access to cables though, another exercise that performed quite well is the chest-supported rear delt dumbbell row with your elbows kept at a 45-degree angle away from the body.

*Drumroll* Who Guessed The Fewest Of The Best Shoulder Exercises Correctly?

The best shoulder exercises wager

And here's how it all went down:

The best shoulder exercises wager results

One final thing: many of the best shoulder exercises you'll come across here are the EXACT ones I use in my Built With Science 2.0 (new and improved!) programs. So, if you want to fast-track your results and transformation, definitely take the quick analysis quiz below to discover the best program for you and your body:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:

Psst: you might also wish to check out some of my back-related articles before checking my past "smartest back workout" article out:

By the way, here’s the article summed up into a YouTube video:

We Tested 17 Shoulder Exercises, These Are Best For Growth

Which Are The Best Shoulder Exercises? I Tested 17 To Find Out