How do I strengthen my shoulders?

February 18, 2012

Q: I love lifting weights but have had shoulder injuries in the past that prevent me from doing a lot of exercises I love, which I believe is a result of unbalanced shoulders that are weak in the back and strong in the front. Have you even run into this problem before, and if so, is there a way to fix it without shoulder surgery?

A: Show me the average gym rat on shoulder day, and I’ll show you a shoulder surgery waiting to happen. That’s because they focus most of their time lifting only heavy weight overhead with exercises that isolate the front deltoids and neglect the sides and backs of the shoulders. Don’t get me wrong; overhead movements are a great way to build shoulder size and strength, but if you want to get great results and stay injury free, you have to take other important rules into consideration.

The importance of balance

When I was young, the only muscles I worked were the ones that I could see when I looked in the mirror. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a back to my body until I started to get injuries that forced me to re-evaluate the way I trained. I learned painfully that the muscles in the back of the body have to be equally strong as the front or you’ll put stress on your joints and eventually get hurt. Most of the popular pressing shoulder exercises like overhead dumbbell or military presses work the front deltoids or front of the shoulders and neglect the side and rear delts. This causes bad posture, because the strong muscles in the front take over and pull the weak muscles forward, forcing the shoulder joint to pop and grind while lifting weights. This will eventually cause damage that may require surgery to correct.

Be creative
Most gyms spend money on machines and equipment that work muscles people love to flex, like biceps, chest, legs and abs, but rarely do you see anything designed to work less-desirable body parts such as the side and rear deltoids. To hit these smaller, less glorious muscles, you have to be creative using dumbbells, kettle bells and cables. For rear delts, or back of the shoulders, I like front plate raises, throat rows and lying incline rear delts. To work the sides of the shoulders, I do dumbbell lateral raises and upright rows with a wider grip.

Prioritize weaknesses
Once you realize you have a weakness, you have to make it your priority to fix it, or it will never become your strength. I often train the smaller shoulder muscles first before I get fatigued to ensure they get a great workout before I begin pounding the front of the shoulders with overhead movements. This helps to keep balance and joint integrity, keeping all parts of the shoulder strong and functioning correctly.

Include traps in shoulder training
Be sure to include exercises that work the trapezius muscles as well as the front, side and rear delts. If you’re not familiar with the traps, they’re the muscles that attach to the base of the skull and run down the back of the neck to the top of the shoulders. You’re flexing them when you shrug your shoulders to say, “I don’t know,” and if they have ever stiffened up on you, you’ll never forget it because you won’t be able to turn your head. Adding exercises to strengthen these muscles is essential because they tie into the shoulder and neck and help with posture as well as shoulder strength, joint integrity and mobility. It will also keep these muscles from getting tight and causing … well, let’s just say a pain in the neck.

So to answer your question, I believe that most shoulder injuries in the weight room can be prevented, but you have to make sure you train correctly or you may be setting yourself up for problems in the future.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out