Ask a rookie lifter or a gym bro about the best shoulder exercises, and they’ll probably point you towards the military or Arnold press. However, the benefits of shoulder isolation exercises are often underplayed and underappreciated.
Most people describe compound exercises as multi-joint movements that help build muscle mass and strength. While this definition is not incorrect, it is missing a critical keyword. So, let’s fix it once and for all. Compound exercises are multi-joint lifts that primarily help build muscle mass and strength.
Per popular opinion, isolation exercises are good for improving conditioning and muscle balance. However, the muscle-building benefits of single-joint lifts are often neglected.
Don’t think single-joint exercises can help build muscle mass? Answer this for yourself:
Let’s say a rookie is put through a 12-week isolation exercise-only training program. Per popular gym folklore about single-joint lifts, the novice will considerably improve his shoulder separation and definition but see no advancements in the muscle mass department. Do you think this is correct?
Don’t get us wrong. We don’t mean isolation exercises are better than compound lifts at building muscle mass. This rant is about isolation exercises not being paid their fair share of muscle-building credit. Although isolation exercises might not drastically boost muscle growth, they have a meaningful contribution. So, keep this in mind the next time you perform a single-joint movement.
Similarly, compound movement can improve your muscle conditioning and definition as well.
In this article, we will list 60 shoulder isolation exercises—categorized by the three deltoid heads, so it is easier for you to pick the ones that fit your training regimen. And we’ll also throw in a few trapezius and shoulder warm-up exercises as complements in the end. So, sit tight.
Benefits of Shoulder Isolation Exercises
Here are reasons why single-joint exercises deserve to be in your training regimen:
1. Improves Muscle Definition
Shoulder isolation exercises can improve muscle definition by focusing on one muscle at a time. If you didn’t already know, shoulders consist of three heads—anterior, medial, and posterior. Plus, you need to train the trapezius muscle too.
While you might be able to hit two muscles (or three considering the traps) simultaneously using a compound exercise, you cannot work on all three delt heads and traps for muscle growth in a single movement. You need isolation exercises to improve your shoulder muscle definition, especially for hard-to-train muscles like rear delts.
2. Better Mind-Muscle Connection
Since you’re targetting one muscle at a time, it is easier to establish a mind-muscle connection during an isolation exercise than in compound lifts where the multi-muscle stimulation can be overwhelming.
Pro tip: If you have trouble establishing a mind-muscle connection with your shoulders, you should start your delt workouts with an isolation exercise and focus on contracting your muscles with every rep and achieving a muscle-ripping pump.
3. Shortens the Workouts
It’s no secret that compound movements can be more taxing on your body than isolation exercises. In lifts like the squat, you are training multiple muscle groups, which require longer to recover between sets. On the other hand, since you’re only using one muscle in an isolation exercise, the downtime between exercises is significantly reduced.
If you’re short on time and want to get through a workout without compromising on the number of exercises and intensity, your best bet would be to stick to isolation exercises. Furthermore, isolation workouts reduce downtime between workouts as you recover faster than compound exercise-only workouts.
4. Build Muscle Mass
We hope this section’s prelude did its job and that you’re already convinced about the effectiveness of isolation exercises in building muscle mass. However, if you’re still unsatisfied, the muscle pumps and ensuing progress after you add the shoulder isolation exercises mentioned in this article into your training program will proselytize you.
5. Adds To Your Physique’s Aesthetics
This is more of a generic benefit to shoulder training. Powerbodybuilder Mike O’Hearn revealed that Arnold Schwarzenegger once told him shoulders are the first thing judges notice when a bodybuilder walks out on stage. Broad shoulders accentuate your V-taper and give the illusion of a smaller waste.
Shoulder isolation exercises help improve your shoulder definition. Plus, they are incredibly effective in achieving a muscle pump, which can be a godsend when you’re backstage pumping up and preparing to take the stage.
6. Reduces the Chances of Injury
Unlike compound exercises, there aren’t several moving parts in isolation exercises, meaning the chances of injury are significantly reduced as you do not have to lift as heavy as you would in multi-joint lifts.
60 Best Shoulder Isolation Exercises
Our goal with this article is to provide you with the most exhaustive list of shoulder isolation exercises you can find on the internet. We have listed single-joint shoulder lifts and their variations to make them more convenient for you.
Every exercise has a few pro tips to help you get the best bang for your buck. We’ll also link them to their dedicated guides for in-depth analysis. Feel free to check them out.
Here are the delt isolation lifts you should be familiar with:
16 Best Anterior Delt Shoulder Isolation Exercises
The anterior (front) delt is located in the front of your shoulder joint and connected to the clavicle. It helps move your arm forward and is used to reach for an object in front of you.
Here are the best anterior shoulder isolation exercises:
1. Barbell Front Raise
- Make sure you are standing upright throughout the exercise. Restart the set using a lighter weight if you find yourself leaning back or forward.
- Pause and contract your shoulders at the top of every shoulder raise exercise.
- Return to the starting position with a slow and controlled motion, and do not bounce the bar of your thighs.
2. Seated Barbell Front Raise
- Your heels should be under your knees during the exercise.
- Maintain the natural arc in your back throughout the motion.
- Do not round your shoulders or use momentum.
3. Standing Alternating Dumbbell Front Raise
- Your shoulders should be aligned throughout the motion. Do not use momentum by pushing your shoulder forward to lift the dumbbell.
- At the top of the motion, turn your pinkies towards the ceiling for optimal anterior delt stimulation.
- You could also perform this exercise simultaneously with both arms.
4. Seated Dumbbell Front Raise
- Performing the dumbbell front raise while seated makes you follow a stricter form.
- Hold the dumbbells with a neutral grip at your sides and rotate your wrists so they face the floor at the contraction point.
5. One-Arm Seated Dumbbell Front Raise
- Unilateral exercises are a great tool for fixing muscle and strength imbalances.
- During this exercise, perform a higher number of reps or use a relatively heavier weight on your lagging side to bring it up.
6. One-Arm Standing Dumbbell Front Raise
- While performing the unilateral dumbbell front raise, the dumbbell should be in front of your thigh at the bottom of the lift as compared to the conventional dumbbell front raise where the dumbbells are at your sides.
- Make the exercise more challenging by slowing the eccentric part of the motion to four to five seconds.
7. One-Arm Cable Front Raise
- Unilateral cable front raise is an incredibly effective exercise to isolate your front delts. Keep the reps slow and controlled to make the most of this exercise.
- You could switch your wrist position from pronated (facing down) to neutral (facing your body) to target your delts from a different angle.
8. Weight Plate Front Raise
- Weight plate front raise is one of the exercises that look easy but will leave you sore and exhausted.
- Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout the exercise.
- Make sure you don’t bang the weight plate into your legs at the bottom.
9. Barbell Overhead Front Raise
- Your arms should be perpendicular to the floor at the top of the barbell overhead front raise.
- Use comparatively lighter weights on this exercise than conventional barbell front raise.
- Make sure you’re not using momentum by swinging back and forth.
- You could also perform a unilateral dumbbell variation of this exercise like Arnold did in the cult bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1977).
10. Incline Dumbbell Front Raise
- Set the incline bench at a 45-degree angle for optimal front deltoid stimulation.
- Make the lift harder by keeping your head on the bench throughout the exercise.
- You could also perform this exercise using a barbell.
11. One-Arm Dumbbell Front Raise on Incline Bench
- The unilateral variation of the previous exercise helps you better focus on each side.
- If you find yourself leaning towards the working side, it is a sign you’re going too heavy and should use a lighter weight.
12. Incline Barbell Front Raise
- The incline barbell front raise is a relatively harder version of the incline dumbbell front raise as you’ll only be moving the dumbbell in the top half of the range of motion compared to the dumbbell version of the lift.
- Do not crash the barbell into your thighs at the bottom.
- Maintain a slight bend in your elbows throughout the movement.
13. Incline Cable Front Raise
- Place an incline bench, set at a 60-degree angle, a few feet in front of a cable pulley machine. Your back should be towards the cable machine.
- Grab a D-handle bar in each hand and place your chest against the inclined pad. Leaning against the pad takes out momentum from the equation.
- Use a functional trainer cable machine for this exercise instead of a conventional cable pulley machine.
14. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Front Raise On Incline Bench
- The chest-supported (prone) dumbbell front raise works your anterior delts at an angle and helps build the separation between your shoulders and pecs.
- At the top of the movement, your arms should be in line with your body.
- The bench’s angle also plays a role in determining how high you can raise your arms so make sure it is not too upright.
15. Car Drivers
- Car drivers are most effective (and brutal) when performed at the end of a shoulder workout.
- This exercise will fill your anterior delts with blood and lactic acid and take you for a swim in them.
16. Lying Cable Front Raise
- This front raise variation removes the use of momentum from the exercise.
- Set the pulley machine at its lowest setting to ensure a more natural movement pattern.
- Make sure there is tension on the bar at the bottom of the movement.
13 Best Medial Delt Shoulder Isolation Exercises
As the name suggests, the medial (intermediate, lateral, outer, side, or middle) delt is surrounded by the anterior and posterior deltoids. It is the biggest shoulder muscle and gives it a round appearance. The side delts help move your arm out to the side and up and down.
The most effective side delt isolation movements include:
1. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- At the bottom, the dumbbells should be resting against your thighs. Bringing the dumbbells together in front of your quads can result in a trapezius engagement.
- Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout the exercise.
- Make sure the dumbbell is in line with your forearm. Do not bend your wrists while performing the exercise.
2. Leaning Lateral Raise
- The leaning variation of the dumbbell lateral raise better isolates your lateral deltoids, ensuring you do not use momentum while performing the lift.
- Twist your pinky towards the ceiling for better delt engagement.
- Slow the eccentric part of the motion for a nastier middle delt pump.
3. Alternate Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- In this lateral raise variation, you alternate between arms with every rep.
- You’ll be able to lift heavier in this variation.
- Perform all the reps on one side before switching to the other for better isolation.
4. Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- You should lighten the weight if you find yourself swinging back and forth while performing this exercise.
- Do not bend your neck. Look straight ahead to ensure there is no unnecessary stress on your neck.
5. Seated Alternate Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- Seated dumbbell lateral raise reduces the chances of using momentum.
- Keep your heels under your knees and your back arched throughout the exercise.
6. Landmine Lateral Raise
- Grabbing the bar at its collar might cause it to bump into your thighs with every rep. Hold it at its end for a better range of motion.
- Ask a spotter to hold the other end of the bar in place to ensure it doesn’t move during the set.
7. One-Arm Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- Since this is a unilateral exercise, it will help you establish a better mind-muscle connection.
- You could keep your non-working hand on your abdomen or hold onto a hip-high object like an incline bench for support. Alternatively, you could hold a dumbbell in your resting arm for better stability.
8. Cable Lateral Raise
- Perform this exercise on a functional trainer instead of a standard cable pulley machine.
- Using wrist cuff cable attachment will help you better target the delts by removing your grip strength from the equation.
- Keep your torso as steady as possible throughout the exercise.
9. Single-Arm Cable Lateral Raise (Crossbody)
- The unilateral cable lateral raise variation is excellent to bring up your lagging side.
- Use a slightly heavier weight or perform a few more reps on your weaker side to bring it on par with its stronger sibling.
10. Machine Lateral Raise
- A lateral raise machine minimizes the use of momentum.
- Letting the weight stack at the bottom can alleviate the tension from your delts, so make sure you don’t come all the way down.
11. Banded Lateral Raise
- You don’t necessarily need weights to work out. You could train your shoulders using resistance bands. However, do not expect the same gains you would get when training with weights.
- While using a band, control the eccentric (lowering) movement and don’t let the band snap back to the starting position. The eccentric is as important as the concentric.
- You could use a resistance band loop or a D-handle bar resistance band for this exercise.
Check Out: 13 Best Resistance Bands Reviewed for 2023
12. Lateral Raise Partials
- You do not have to go super heavy on the lateral raise partials.
- This dumbbell lateral raise variation is great for building strength.
- Perform this exercise as a superset to get the best bang for your buck.
- For constant tension on your middle delts throughout the exercise, donot let the weight touch your thighs at the bottom.
13. Kettlebell Lateral Raise
- This exercise is a dumbbell lateral raise variation.
- You’ll feel greater stress on the lower end of your shoulders in this exercise than in the conventional dumbbell lateral raise as the weight is below the handles forcing your muscles to fight gravity to stabilize the weight.
19 Best Posterior Delt Shoulder Isolation Exercises
Posterior (rear) delts are located at the back of your shoulders and are usually the most stubborn of the three siblings. They help move your arm backward.
Take your rear delt gains to the next level with these exercises:
1. Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- Using more weight than you can handle on this exercise forces your rhomboids and traps to take over. Use weights that would allow you to perform 10-15 reps (optimal for achieving hypertrophy) while maintaining a mind-muscle connection.
- Maintain a slight bend in your knees and an arch in your back throughout the exercise.
2. Standing Cable Reverse Fly
- To perform this exercise, set the cable pulley machine at shoulder height, hold the cable directly without any attachments or use a d-handle or cuff attachment for optimal rear delt activation.
- Extend your arms as far behind your torso as possible. Pause and squeeze your posterior delts at the contraction point.
- You could also perform the supine cable reverse fly for better rear delt isolation.
3. Seated Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- This exercise can be a little harder for people with limited mobility. Take 5-10 minutes to warm up and stretch before beginning your workouts.
- Maintain a slight bend in your elbows and focus on driving your elbows towards the ceiling for optimal rear delt stimulation.
4. Alternate Seated Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- This variation allows you to work your rear delts unilaterally.
- The posterior deltoids are one of the hardest muscle groups to train. Plus, they are amongst the most stubborn, making unilateral movements a great tool.
- Going too heavy on this lift will throw off your balance.
5. Pec Deck Reverse Fly
- This is arguably one of the most popular rear delt exercises.
- Make sure you don’t round your shoulders while performing this lift.
- Keep your torso upright and feet flat on the floor.
- Alternate between pronated and neutral grips to add variety to your workout.
6. Dumbbell Reverse Fly on Incline Bench
- The dumbbell incline bench reverse fly limits the use of momentum and helps you zero in on the back of your shoulders.
- Like the pec deck reverse fly, switch between the pronated and neutral grips to train your rear delts from different angles.
- Ensure the incline bench is at a 45-degree angle with the floor or lower to target the rear delts optimally.
7. One-Arm Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly on an Incline Bench
- A more upright bench (60 degrees with the floor) will result in middle delt recruitment so keep the dumbbell at a 45-degree angle or lower.
- Grab the bottom of the inclined pad or a dumbbell so your core doesn’t take over the lift.
- At the bottom of the movement, the dumbbell should be under your chest.
8. Alternate Dumbbell Reverse Fly on Incline Bench
- Ensure you’re not swinging the dumbbell at the bottom to generate momentum.
- Keep your form strict and the eccentric and concentric movement slow and controlled.
- An advanced variation of this exercise includes holding your resting arm at the contraction point while completing the recommended reps on the working side.
9. Bent-Over Rear Delt Fly (Head on Bench)
- If you’re in the habit of using momentum and always find a way to cheat no matter how strict the setup, this variation of the bent-over rear delt fly will make you think twice about biting off more than you can chew.
- Using heavier weights than you can handle and swinging your torso back and front will make you bang your head into the incline bench.
- In this exercise, you should focus on squeezing your rear delts with every rep.
10. Alternate Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- The alternate bent-over dumbbell reverse fly requires a solid core.
- You’ll feel your stabilizers kick into action as soon as you raise your arm to your side.
11. One-Arm Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- The unilateral bent-over dumbbell rear delt fly is a great exercise to smoke your posterior shoulder heads.
- Keep the reps slow and deliberate, and follow a rep tempo to get the best bang for your buck.
12. Bent-Over Low Pulley Rear Delt Fly
- Most people make the mistake of going too heavy on this exercise.
- Focus on keeping your torso parallel to the floor and squeezing the life out of your posterior delts with every rep.
- Use cuff attachments to take your grip strength out of the equation.
13. One-Arm Cable Reverse Fly
- While performing this exercise, stand where you’d stand while performing the convention bent-over low pulley rear delt fly; in the center of the cable pulley machine.
- Standing too close to the cable pulley won’t allow a full range of motion.
- Make sure your shoulders are in line throughout the motion, and you’re not twisting your back with every rep.
14. Half-Kneeling Banded Face Pull
- Set the resistance band at face height and wrap the other end of the band around your hands. The bands should be engaged at the bottom of the movement.
- While performing the exercise, keep your upper arms parallel to the floor so you don’t engage your lats.
15. Banded Bent-Over Reverse Fly
- The banded bent-over reverse fly is a great exercise, especially if you work out at home.
- You could perform this exercise with a resistance band under your feet or while holding a resistance band loop in your hands.
16. Standing Banded Face Pull
- The banded face pulls are some of the trickiest shoulder isolation exercises.
- You need to make sure your elbows are parallel to the floor, you’re not leaning back, and the resistance isn’t too much. Any of these can lead to lat, trap, or rhomboid recruitment.
17. Lying Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- For the lying dumbbell reverse fly, set a couple of aerobic steps under each side of a flat bench. Lie prone on the bench with your knees on the pad and a dumbbell in each hand.
- With a slow and controlled motion, raise your dumbbell—in a flying motion—towards the ceiling as high as possible.
18. Alternate Lying Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- For this exercise, you’ll be alternating between sides with each rep.
- You could also do the unilateral flyes to better isolate your rear delts.
19. Side-Lying Rear Delt Fly
- The side-lying rear delt fly is one of the most brutal shoulder isolation exercises, and you’ll have to go super light on these to optimally target your rear delts.
- You could place your resting arm on the floor or wrap it around the bench for support.
Traps Shoulder Isolation Exercises
The trapezius is a muscle that starts at the base of your neck, goes across your shoulders, and extends to the middle of your back. The traps help you move your head, neck, arms, shoulders, and torso. It also stabilizes your spine and helps improve posture.
1. Dumbbell Shrug
- The dumbbell shrug is the bread and butter trap exercise for most people.
- Focus on squeezing your traps at the top of the movement with every rep.
- You should use a lighter weight if you cannot hold the rep for a second at the top.
2. Barbell Shrug
- While performing the barbell shrug, don’t drop your shoulders like a bomb during the eccentric part of the lift.
- Keep your reps slow and controlled.
3. Behind-the-Back Barbell Shrug
- While performing any shrugging movement, keep your torso upright and your head in line with your spine. Do not bend your head forward.
- Try touching your middle delt to your ears at the top of the range of motion.
4. Cable Shrug
- The cable shrug adds a little variety to your shoulder routine as the cable has a movement path, and you’ll be pulling at a slight angle.
- You could also switch between different handles to tweak the degree of trapezius contraction.
The eight exercises you’ll be learning next help promote overall shoulder health and are incredibly effective for warming up your muscles and joints and rehab:
1. Dumbbell Six Ways (Raise)
- The dumbbell six ways is one of the nastiest shoulder isolation exercises. It can be done as a warmup, at the beginning, middle, or end of a workout. It doesn’t matter where you fit it in; the dumbbell six ways will annihilate your deltoids.
- This exercise works your front and middle deltoids.
- Perform this exercise while seated to limit the use of momentum.
2. Cable Internal and External Rotation
- The cable internal and external rotations are great exercises to warm up your rotator cuffs.
- Remember, the goal here isn’t to lift heavy but to sufficiently warm up your shoulder joints.
3. Knee-to-Elbow Dumbbell External Rotation
- If you don’t have access to a cable pulley machine, the knee-to-elbow dumbbell external rotation should be your go-to exercise for warming up your shoulder rotator cuffs.
- If you have never performed this exercise before, use the lightest dumbbell in your gym and build from there.
4. Half-Kneeling Cable External Rotation
- Rotator cuffs are one of the more common injuries, especially while lifting heavy or as a lifter gets older. Rotator cuff work at the beginning of every workout, especially push workouts should be mandatory.
5. Banded Internal and External Rotation
- Resistance band internal and external rotations are incredibly effective at warming up your shoulders. Wrap one end of the band around a sturdy surface at waist height and grab the other end in your hand.
- Keep the eccentric part of the motion slow and controlled, and do not let the band snap back into the starting position.
6. Bench-Supported Dumbbell External Rotation
- If you feel you cannot keep your elbow steady while performing the rotator cuff movements, you should place your elbow on top of an incline bench pad for stability.
- Use a lightweight dumbbell and maintain total control throughout the exercise.
7. Banded Ys
- The Banded Ys is a great warm-up exercise to perform before hitting heavy shoulder presses.
- Pause and contract your shoulders at the top for a nasty pump.
8. Standing External Rotation
- The standing external rotation, aka the pull apart, is a great exercise to warm up your middle and posterior deltoids, traps, rhomboids, and shoulder rotator cuffs.
- Add it to your everyday routine if you have slouching shoulders or want a better posture.
These 60 exercises conclude our exhaustive and the most in-depth shoulder isolation exercises guide you’ll find on the internet. Shoulder isolation exercises (and isolation exercises in general) reduce your chances of injury, help achieve better mind-muscle connection, improve muscle definition, boosts muscle growth, and add to your aesthetics. In short, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be doing shoulder isolation exercises.
Mix and match these exercises in your next shoulder workout to get the best pump of your life. Don’t forget to tag us on Instagram @fitnessvoltnetwork to let us know how it went!