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Barbell shoulder exercises are movements that target the shoulder muscles using a barbell.
The exercises can help build strength, mass, and stability in the upper body, especially the shoulders.
Best barbell shoulder exercises for a strong and well-formed upper body
Below are some top barbell shoulder exercises that help target and build your deltoid muscles to help you build strength and size.
As the title implies, you need a barbell for all the exercises discussed here. Check out our recommended best Olympic barbells if you have yet to acquire one of these versatile pieces of equipment for your gym.
You may also need weight or bumper plates of different capacities.
Barbell Overhead Press
The barbell overhead press is considered one of the fundamental compound movements for developing shoulder strength and size.
It is a compound exercise that involves multiple joints and muscle groups. Thus it engages the anterior deltoids, medial deltoids, and to some extent, the posterior deltoids.
It also engages the trapezius muscles and other upper-body stabilizing muscles.
The movement requires the coordinated effort of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints and the activation of the core muscles for stability.
The Barbell Overhead Press is known for its ability to develop upper body strength and muscle size. It places a significant load on the shoulders, forcing the muscles to adapt and grow stronger.
With progressive overload, it can boost shoulder strength and hypertrophy, making it one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for building the upper body.
Steps to follow
- Load the desired weight plates onto a barbell.
- Position the bar on a power or squat rack at about shoulder height. Ensure the barbell is centered and secure.
- Stand in front of the barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart. Approach the barbell and grip it slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing forward (overhand grip).
- Bend your knees and use your legs to lift the barbell off the rack.
- Take a few steps back and position yourself with the barbell at shoulder level, resting on the front of your shoulders. Your elbows should be slightly in front of the barbell.
- Plant your feet firmly on the floor and at about shoulder-width.
- Engage your core, maintain a neutral spine, and retract your shoulder blades to create a solid support base.
- Take a deep breath, brace your core, and press the barbell directly overhead.
- Push through your palms and extend your arms fully without locking your elbows. Keep your head neutral and avoid excessive neck extension.
- When you extend the barbell fully overhead, hold it briefly in that position to stabilize your shoulders. Maintain control throughout the movement and avoid excessive swaying or arching in your back.
- Lower the barbell slowly and under control to your starting position, returning it to shoulder level. Avoid slamming the barbell into your shoulders.
- Repeat 8-12 reps for a set and 3-4 sets to complete a session.
The Barbell Push Press is a compound exercise that targets the shoulder muscles, particularly the front and side deltoids. These muscles play a significant role in pressing the weight overhead.
It also engages the quads, glutes, and core muscles.
The Push Press is one of the best barbell shoulder exercises that allows you to generate more power and lift heavier weights.
Using the legs and hips to assist in driving the weight upward lets you overcome sticking points and move more weight overhead. The increased load stimulates muscle growth and strength gains.
Barbell Upright Row
he Barbell Upright Row is a shoulder exercise that targets the lateral deltoids.
It involves the anterior deltoids, upper trapezius, and other upper body muscles and also engages the upper trapezius, rhomboids, and biceps to some extent.
The upright row is one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for developing strength and size in the shoulders.
Barbell Front Raise
The Barbell Front Raise targets the anterior deltoid muscles of the shoulders.
It involves lifting a barbell in front of your body to shoulder height and is one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for isolating and targeting the anterior deltoids.
The movement also engages the lateral deltoids and upper trapezius. These muscles act as stabilizers during the exercise.
The anterior deltoid or front delt muscles are responsible for shoulder flexion. They help to lift objects in front of your body.
Performing Barbell Front Raises regularly can help improve shoulder strength, stability, and aesthetics.
Bent-Over Barbell Raise
The Bent-Over Raise Barbell targets the posterior deltoid muscles of the shoulders.
The bent-over barbell raise also engages other upper back muscles, including the rhomboids and traps. These act as stabilizers during the movement.
The exercise involves bending over at the hips while holding a barbell with an overhand grip and lifting it laterally to shoulder height while focusing on squeezing your rear delts.
Barbell Push Jerk
The Barbell Push Jerk targets the shoulders. It also works the legs, core, and upper body muscles.
The Push Jerk is a dynamic and explosive movement that involves driving a barbell overhead from the shoulders with the help of a leg drive.
The exercise requires the activation of the shoulder muscles to press the weight overhead.
It targets the anterior and medial deltoids and even the posterior deltoids to some extent.
In addition to the shoulders, it engages the legs, core, glutes, and triceps.
Thus it is one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for developing overall strength, power, and coordination.
The Push Jerk requires generating power from the legs and transferring it to the upper body to drive the barbell overhead. Thus, it is also one of the best barbell exercises that can help improve athletic performance and power development.
Steps to follow
- Rest the loaded barbell on your front shoulders, with your palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Flex your hips and knees and dip down.
- Quickly extend your legs and drive the barbell upwards.
- Pace yourself underneath the barbell by pushing against it and moving your body into a partial squat as the bar reaches its peak.
- Finish with your body fully extended, with the barbell overhead, and your arms locked out.
- Lower the barbell back to your starting position by reversing the movement.
Barbell Behind-the-Neck Press
The barbell behind-the-neck press targets the side and rear delts.
Pressing the barbell from behind the neck emphasizes those areas much more than other shoulder-pressing exercises.
However, it is worth noting that the exercise is more controversial and carries a higher risk of injury than other barbell shoulder exercises.
It requires good shoulder flexibility and mobility, particularly in external rotation and shoulder extension. Attempting the exercise with poor mobility in those areas can increase the risk of injury.
The exercise places the shoulder joint in a more vulnerable position and can put excessive stress on the rotator cuff and other structures.
The behind-the-neck press is a more advanced barbell shoulder exercise with a higher risk of shoulder impingement and other shoulder injuries.
Thus you should not attempt it if you have previous shoulder injuries or limitations in shoulder mobility. Assess your capabilities and consult a qualified fitness professional or healthcare provider for guidance if you have any concerns.
Steps to follow
The barbell behind-the-neck press involves pressing the bar overhead from behind your neck.
- Set up the barbell on a rack, ensuring the height is such that you can comfortably lift it off and place it behind your neck.
- Stand facing away from the barbell with feet at shoulder-width and toes slightly turned out. Reach behind you and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, palms wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the barbell off the rack, place it behind your neck, and take a few steps forward. The barbell should rest on your upper traps and deltoids. Ensure that you have a firm grip on the bar.
- Take a deep breath, engage your core, keep your chest up, and maintain a neutral spine position.
- Extend your arms, press the barbell upward, and push the bar overhead. Maintain control and stability throughout the movement.
- Keep your head aligned with your spine and chin slightly tucked as you press the bar overhead. Do not excessively arch your back or strain your neck.
- Pause briefly when the barbell is fully extended overhead in a locked-out position. Your arms should be straight, and the barbell should align over the middle of your body.
- Slowly lower the bar down behind your neck, maintaining control and stability. Avoid allowing the barbell to crash onto your neck or upper back.
- Start with light weights and gradually increase the load as necessary.
- Reduce the weight or discontinue the exercise if you experience any discomfort.
- Consider working with a qualified fitness professional if you are new to the exercise or weightlifting.
Barbell Lateral Raise
The barbell lateral raise targets the side delts. While the dumbbell variation is more popular, the barbell version can provide a slightly different stimulus and challenge to the shoulder muscles.
The exercise also engages the front delts and the shoulders’ stabilizer muscles and is one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for developing strength and aesthetics.
You will usually do the barbell lateral raise holding the barbell with one hand, making it one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for correcting imbalances to help build a more symmetrical body.
Steps to follow
- Stand with feet at shoulder-width and grasp a barbell with one hand, using an overhand grip, palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Position the barbell against the side of your thighs.
- Engage your core and maintain a slight bend in your knees.
- Raise the arm holding the bar sideways until it is parallel to the floor, forming a “T” shape.
- Pause briefly and slowly lower the barbell back to your starting position.
- Repeat 8-12 reps.
- Change hands and go through the movement.
- Start with a weight that allows you to control the bar with one arm
- Avoid using momentum to swing the barbell or excessively arching your back.
- Keep your shoulders down and avoid shrugging them up toward your ears.
Barbell Clean and Press
The barbell clean and press is a highly effective shoulder exercise that targets multiple muscle groups, including the shoulders, upper back, and arms.
It is a compound movement that involves both a “Clean” or lifting of the barbell from the floor to the shoulders and a “Press” or pushing the barbell overhead.
The movement is one of the best barbell shoulder exercises for targeting the front delt, the trapezius muscles of the upper back, and the triceps.
It also engages the core, legs, and hips during the clean portion of the movement.
Including the clean and press in your barbell shoulder exercises can help you build strength, power, and athleticism.
It can help improve functional strength and enhances the ability to generate power through the hips and upper body. It also helps to develop core strength and stability.
Steps to follow
- Stand with feet at shoulder-width, toes pointing slightly outwards, and the loaded barbell on the floor in front of you.
- Bend your knees, hinge at the hips, and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Explosively extend your hips with a powerful hip drive and pull the bar toward your shoulders, and catch it at your shoulders in the racked position.
- Brace your core and extend your arms to press the barbell overhead when the bar is in the racked position.
- Lock your elbows at the top, ensuring the barbell is above your head.
- Lower the barbell back to your starting position.
The Barbell Clean and Press is an advanced exercise and may not be suitable for novices or individuals with certain physical limitations.
Seek guidance from a qualified fitness professional or healthcare provider if necessary.
Why use a barbell for shoulder exercises
Using a barbell for shoulder exercises offers several advantages compared to other equipment or free weights.
- Load Capacity
Barbell shoulder exercises allow you to lift heavier weights compared to other equipment.
The barbell has a higher load capacity. That makes it possible to overload the muscles progressively and stimulate strength and growth.
- Compound Movements
Many barbell shoulder exercises are compound movements that involve multiple muscles working together.
Many barbell shoulder exercises recruit the shoulder muscles, the triceps, the upper back, and the core, resulting in efficient and effective workouts.
- Balance and Stability
The barbell provides a balanced and stable grip, allowing for better control and stability during shoulder exercises. That can help maintain proper form and reduce the risk of injury.
- Range of Motion
Unlike other equipment, barbell exercises often allow for a broader range of motion.
The increased range of motion can help target the shoulder muscles more effectively and promote better flexibility and mobility in the shoulders.
- Progressive Overload
The design of the barbell allows for easy progression in resistance.
You can gradually increase the weight on the barbell as you get stronger, facilitating progressive overload and continued muscle growth.
Barbell shoulder exercises offer a wide range of options to target different areas of the shoulders, such as the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids.
You can target the shoulder muscles from different angles to help achieve better results.
- Functional Strength
Barbell shoulder exercises often mimic movements encountered in daily activities and sports.
Training with a barbell allows you to develop functional strength and transfer the benefits of your workouts to real-life movements.
Tip for training with a barbell
Keep the following in mind when training with a barbell.
- Focus on Proper Form
It is essential to maintain proper form when training with a barbell.
Pay attention to your posture, alignment, and movement patterns throughout each exercise.
Engage your core, maintain a neutral spine, and use controlled and deliberate motions.
That will help maximize the benefits of the exercise and reduce the risk of injury.
- Start with Lighter Weights
Newbies to barbell training or doing a new exercise should start with lighter weights.
That will allow you to focus on mastering the form and technique before gradually increasing the load.
Establish a solid foundation and build strength progressively.
- Warm Up Properly
Make sure to warm up adequately before diving into your barbell workout.
That can include dynamic stretches, light cardio, and specific warm-up sets with lighter weights to prepare your muscles and joints for the upcoming movements.
Warming up can help increase blood flow, improve flexibility, and reduce the risk of injury.
- Use Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the principle of gradually increasing the demand placed on your muscles, whether it’s through more weight, additional repetitions, or increased sets. That stimulates strength and muscle gains over time.
Gradually increase the weight you lift over time.
That will allow you to progress and challenge your muscles.
- Incorporate Proper Rest and Recovery
Give your body sufficient time to rest and recover between barbell training sessions.
That will allow you to repair and strengthen your muscles.
Adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and active recovery techniques like foam rolling and stretching can also help with optimal recovery.
- Listen to Your Body
Pay attention to how your body feels during and after your barbell shoulder exercises.
Adjust your workout if you experience pain or discomfort that is not typical muscle soreness.
Don’t push through sharp or persistent pain.
Consult a healthcare professional if you have any concerns.
- Seek Professional Guidance
Newbies to barbell training or exercisers looking to refine their technique should consider working with a qualified fitness professional, such as a personal trainer or strength coach.
They can provide guidance, teach you proper form, and create a personalized training program tailored to your goals and abilities.
Benefits of barbell shoulder exercises
Barbell shoulder exercises offer several benefits for the muscles and overall fitness.
- Increased Shoulder Strength
Barbell shoulder exercises are highly effective in strengthening the muscles of the shoulders, including the deltoids, traps, and rotator cuff muscles. Regular training can lead to improved shoulder stability and overall strength.
- Muscle Hypertrophy
Challenging the shoulder muscles with progressive overload using barbell exercises can help promote muscle hypertrophy or muscle growth in the shoulders.
That can result in more defined and visually impressive shoulders.
- Functional Upper Body Strength
Strong shoulders are crucial for performing various upper body movements and daily life and sporting activities.
Barbell shoulder exercises help develop functional upper body strength, enhancing your ability to push, pull, lift, and carry objects effectively.
- Improved Posture
Strong and balanced shoulder muscles contribute to better posture by helping with proper upper-body alignment.
Barbell shoulder exercises can help counteract the effects of rounded shoulders or slouching.
- Enhanced Athletic Performance
Well-built and more stable shoulders are essential for many athletic activities, such as throwing, swinging, hitting, and overhead movements.
Barbell shoulder exercises can help improve your performance in sporting activities that involve upper body movements. It can also enhance athleticism.
- Injury Prevention
Strengthening the muscles around the shoulders, including the rotator cuff muscles, can help reduce the risk of shoulder injuries.
Thus barbell shoulder exercises can contribute to injury prevention by improving shoulder stability and muscular balance.
- Increased Bone Density
Resistance exercises, like barbell shoulder exercises, can stimulate bone growth and increase bone density.
That can help prevent conditions like osteoporosis and promote long-term skeletal health.
- Versatility and Progression
You can adapt several barbell shoulder exercises to different fitness levels and goals.
You can gradually increase the weight on the barbell as you get stronger, providing opportunities for progressive overload and continued improvements.
Final words from LiveLIfe
Incorporate these barbell shoulder exercises into your upper body workout routines to help you build your deltoids.
They can help you target and work your muscles from different angles, add variety to your routines, and help spice them up for better results.
- McAllister M, Schilling B, Hammond K, Weiss L, Farney T. Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(1):181-7. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f23ad
- Campos YAC, Vianna JM, Guimarães MP, et al. Different shoulder exercises affect the activation of deltoid portions in resistance-trained individuals. J Hum Kinet. 2020;75:5-14. doi:10.2478/hukin-2020-0033