6 Best Shoulder Isolation Exercises for Building Muscle

Compound exercises are incredible for hitting multiple muscles simultaneously and building sturdy and sizable shoulders, but you need isolation exercises to shape your delts.

Isolation exercises target one muscle at a time, fix strength imbalance, and improve muscular symmetry.

In this article, I’ll show you the six best shoulder isolation exercises that hammer the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids from every angle and develop strength, size, and muscularity.

Here’s a quick list of the isolated shoulder exercises you’ll see in this blog:

  • Front Raises
  • Incline Y Raises
  • Lateral Raises
  • Seated Rear Delt Raises
  • Cable Reverse Fly
  • Shoulder Shrug

Whether you train to build muscle or lose fat, including these exercises in your workout program can build proportional shoulders and a defined upper body.

Let’s learn about each exercise and how to do them step-by-step so that you will understand how to use these exercises effectively to help train your deltoids.

6 Best Shoulder Isolation Exercises for Proportion and Size

1. Front Raises

Front Raises, A Shoulder Isolation Workout

About Exercise

  • Target Muscles: Anterior Deltoid
  • Equipment Needed: Barbell/Dumbbells
  • Difficulty Level: Beginner
  • Other Muscles Engaged: Abdominals when you do in a standing position.

Benefits

The front raises isolate the anterior deltoid and help build aesthetic shoulders. It is also excellent for beginners who want to build up their strength for overhead and bench presses.

Steps to Perform

  1. Grab one dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip.
  2. Stand upright with your arms straight and palms facing your body.
  3. Raise the dumbbells alternatively until they reach your shoulder height.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Hold your torso upright with your core tight and deliberately raise the dumbbells, feeling the full contraction.
  • Avoid swinging your arms or shrugging your shoulders while lifting the weight.
  • You can also do front raises with a barbell.

How to Program

I recommend doing three sets of 10 reps on each arm. Use light to moderate weight, focus on muscle engagement, and increase 5-10% weight after each set to constantly challenge your muscles.

2. Incline Y Raises

About Exercise

  • Target Muscles: Front and Side Delts
  • Equipment Needed: Dumbbells and an Adjustable Bench
  • Difficulty Level: Intermediate
  • Other Muscles Engaged: Upper Back

Benefits

The incline Y raises strikes the anterior and lateral delts from a different angle and helps build sturdy and flexible shoulders.1 Coratella G, Tornatore G, Longo S, Esposito F, Cè E. An Electromyographic Analysis of Lateral Raise Variations and Frontal Raise in Competitive Bodybuilders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020;17(17):6015. Published 2020 Aug 19. doi:10.3390/ijerph17176015 Lifting your arms diagonally also improves rotator cuff health and overall shoulder functionality.

Steps to Perform

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells with a neutral and lie on a 45-60 degrees incline bench with your face down. Ensure your chest is on the edge of the bench.
  2. Keep your arms straight down and lift your upper back and shoulder blades slightly while maintaining a neutral spine.
  3. Now, lift your arms out diagonally until your deltoids are fully engaged.
  4. Pause for two seconds, feel the work, then return to the start. That’s one rep.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Control the ascent and descent to maximize muscle contraction.
  • Keep your head and neck neutral to avoid putting unnecessary stress on them.
  • You can also use an overhand grip (palms over the dumbbells) to hammer your deltoids from a different angle.

How to Program

I suggest performing three to four sets of 10-12 reps using light dumbbells to work effectively on your delts. I also consider doing it after strength-focused exercises, such as military or bench press, because doing it before them makes your muscles tired, and you won’t be able to lift heavy.

3. Lateral Raises

Isolated Shoulder Exercise

About Exercise

  • Target Muscles: Side Deltoids
  • Equipment Needed: Dumbbells/Cable Pulley/Lateral Delt Raise Machine
  • Difficulty Level: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Other Muscles Engaged: None

Benefits

The lateral raise primarily targets the side delts and increases your shoulder strength and appearance.2 Campos, Yuri A C et al. “Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals.” Journal of Human Kinetics vol. 75 5-14. 31 Oct. 2020, doi:10.2478/hukin-2020-0033

Steps to Perform

  1. Holding one dumbbell in each hand, sit on the edge of a bench.
  2. Keep your arms straight at your sides with your palms facing your body.
  3. Slightly lean forward, maintaining a flat back and tight core. That’s the start.
  4. Keeping your elbows softly bent, raise your arms to your sides until your shoulders are engaged.
  5. Pause for two seconds at the top to feel the contraction, then lower the weight. That’s one rep.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Make sure your elbows don’t go beyond your shoulder height.
  • Hold the dumbbells at the top to increase time under tension and enhance muscle endurance.
  • Keep your abdominals tight throughout the movement.
  • You can do lateral raises with dumbbells and machines, whichever suits you best. I prefer using the combination of both to build sculpted deltoids.

How to Program

Lateral deltoids do not engage in other exercises like anterior delt, so I recommend doing more reps and sets than the front raises. You should also perform this exercise before hammering the front part of the shoulders so you can lift heavy weights and train your side deltoids nicely.

4. Seated Rear Delt Raises

Rear Delt Dumbbell Fly

About Exercise

  • Target Muscles: Rear Deltoid (Back of the shoulders)
  • Equipment Needed: Dumbbells and a Bench (optional)
  • Difficulty Level: Intermediate
  • Other Muscles Engaged: Upper Trap

Benefits

The Bent-over lateral raise is a simple yet powerful isolation exercise that primarily activates the posterior delts and improves shoulder health and muscularity.3 Dynamite Delts: American Council of Exercise Research Identifies Top Shoulder Exercises – Study by Samantha Sweeney, M.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Clayton Camic, Ph.D., Attila Kovacs, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D.

Steps to Perform

  1. Holding one dumbbell in each hand, sit on the edge of a bench with your feet firmly on the ground, arms down and straight at your sides, and palms facing each other.
  2. Lean your torso forward while maintaining a flat back. Face down and core tight. That’s the start.
  3. Keeping your elbows partially bent, lift your arms out to your sides until your rear delts are engaged.
  4. Feel the contraction for two, then lower your arms to the start and repeat.

Tips and Mistakes

  • This exercise isn’t about building strength but muscle and definition, so grab the dumbbells that are not too heavy for performing at least 10 reps.
  • Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout the movement to elicit maximum muscle contraction.
  • If you’re a beginner and find it difficult to perform the bent-over lateral dumbbell raise, I suggest you use the reverse pec deck to train your posterior delt.4 Franke, R.deA., Botton, C. E., Rodrigues, R., Pinto, R. S., & Lima, C. S. (2015). Analysis of anterior, middle, and posterior deltoid activation during single and multijoint exercises. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 55(7-8), 714–721.

How to Program

You can do rear delt raise, whether on pull or push day, depending on the training split you follow. I usually superset leg and shoulder workouts and perform the rear delt raise three to five sets after bolstering my front and lateral deltoids.

5. Cable Reverse Fly

About Exercise

  • Focused Area: Posterior Deltoids
  • Equipment Needed: Cable Pulley
  • Difficulty Level: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Other Muscles Engaged: Upper Back

Benefits

Besides the rear delt row, bent-over lateral raises, and reverse pec deck fly, you can reinforce the rear delt with a cable pulley machine. The cable reverse fly is a beginner-friendly exercise, allowing you to train your rear delt with control and a full range of motion.

Steps to Perform

  1. Set the lever at an appropriate height, slightly above your height, and attach D-handles.
  2. Grasp the handles with an overhand grip, take a few steps back, and stand in a shoulder-width stance.
  3. Slightly lean back, extend your arms before you and maintain a soft bend in the elbows. That’s the start.
  4. Pull the handles apart and backward by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position and complete as many times as possible.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Adjust the cable slightly above your head level to ensure you feel the work in your rear delts.
  • Maintain a flat back throughout the movement.

How to Program

Perform three sets of 15 reps with 2 minutes of break in between. I also suggest pairing this reverse cable fly with the rear delt rows or face pulls because these exercises reinforce the back of your shoulders from two different grips and angles.

6. Shoulder Shrug

Shoulder Shrug

About Exercise

  • Target Muscles: Upper Traps
  • Equipment Needed: Dumbbells/Barbell
  • Difficulty Level: Intermediate
  • Other Muscles Engaged: None

Benefits

Shoulder shrug targets the muscles around the neck and traps, which are skipped during the other exercises. Strong upper traps provide stability to your shoulder and enhance your torso appearance.

Steps to Perform

  1. Grab one dumbbell in each hand and stand upright with your arms straight at your sides and palms facing your thigh.
  2. Raise the dumbbells by slowly raising your shoulders in a shrugging motion.
  3. Hold for a second, then slowly return to the initial position. That’s one rep.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Keep your torso slightly forward while maintaining a flat back.
  • Feel the squeeze for two seconds by holding your shoulder blades at the top.

How to Program

Perform three to four sets of 10-15 reps at the end of your shoulder day. You can use moderate to heavy dumbbells, but make sure you feel the work in the targeted area.

Final Thoughts

Unlike compound movements, isolation movements help you target the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids, specifically one at a time.

You can also use single-arm isolation exercises to enhance your strength imbalance by working more on your weaker side.

So, I recommend including these exercises in your training program to build stronger, broader, and symmetrical shoulders.

References

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Author
Murshid Akram
I'm an online personal trainer, fitness blogger, and fitness enthusiast. I love researching and writing about exercise and nutrition. I share science-based, practical, and logical information that can help you achieve your desired fitness goal.
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