Use This Formula for a Great Arm and Shoulder Workout

Use This Formula for a Great Arm and Shoulder Workout

Ready to put together an arms-and-shoulders workout? I’ve already given you the lowdown on the best bicep exercisesbest tricep exercises, and best shoulder exercises. Today I’ll give you a formula to combine them, and it’s customizable so you can swap in your favorites if you don’t love mine.

The structure

We’re going to start with a heavy(ish) compound exercise that works your arms and shoulders together. Then we’ll move on to moderately heavy exercises, starting with the ones that didn’t get hit very hard on the compound. We’ll superset exercises where we can, to save time. It will look something like this: 

  1. Shoulder press of your choice – 5 sets, heavy, anywhere between 3-8 reps, with 2 minutes of rest between sets.
  2. (optional) Rear delt work – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
  3. Bicep/tricep superset – 3 sets of 8-12 reps each 
  4. Shoulder superset – 3 sets of 10+ reps each
  5. (optional) Light bicep/tricep superset – 3 sets of 12-15 reps each

For a 30 minute workout, skip the optional sections and just do a shoulder press, bicep/tricep superset, and a shoulder superset. The first 15 minutes will be spent on the shoulder press and the rests between sets; the other components you can speed through with basically no rest. 

To get more work in, take some extra time and do the optional sections. If you try that and find you’re recovering well, it’s fine to add more bi/tri supersets or double up on any of the components of the workout that you’d like to spend more time on.

How this fits into your week: Once a week is okay, but this workout should ideally be done twice per week. It’s also fine to do this workout once, and a different upper-body workout another time. 

Note that this workout does not target your chest and back, so it’s not a full upper body workout. You could do this in a rotation that goes: 

  • Arms and shoulders
  • Legs
  • Chest and back
  • (rest or repeat)

How to turn this into a full upper-body workout: replace one or both of the bicep/tricep supersets with a push/pull superset that uses chest and back muscles. We’ll discuss this when we get to that section.

Read on for more detail on each component of the workout, and the choices that you have for each section.

Part 1: the press

You can do any kind of shoulder press or overhead press here, with any appropriate equipment. Here are some good choices for the press: 

  • Standing barbell strict press
  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press (upright, not incline)
  • Standing single or double kettlebell press
  • Z-press (seated on the floor with legs spread for stability)
  • Landmine press (my top pick for anyone with shoulder pain when their arms are directly overhead)

If you have another favorite press, feel free to swap it in. I don’t recommend push presses here; keep your knees straight on any of those standing presses. Push presses are great, but not right now.

Rest time: 2 minutes or more. This press at the beginning of the workout is meant to be a heavy exercise for strength building (we’ll do some pump work later) so make sure you’re taking adequate rest between sets.

Reps per set: about 5. Keep the reps in the single digits. You could go as low as 3 reps per set, but I wouldn’t go much higher than 8. If you want to think of this as a “5×5” routine, that may help you remember. 

Weight to use: Anything that lets you get the desired number of reps. It’s okay to use a different weight for each set if you like, but try to make your last set the heaviest. 

How to progress: Choose your own adventure. Look at last week’s workout, and add weight or reps to at least one set. For example: 

  • Last week you did 50 pounds for 8 reps on all five sets. This week, go with 55 pounds for your last two sets and see how many reps you can get. 
  • Last week you did five reps each at 20, 25, 30, 30, 30 pounds. This week, do five reps each at 25, 30, 30, 30, 35. 

Sure, you could do a straightforward double progression, but I like to give myself the option to change things up based on how things are feeling. Variety is fun and can be good for us.

Part 2: (optional) rear delt work

Your deltoids are the muscles that sit on top of your shoulder like a big 1980s shoulder pad, and they’re each made of three parts: front, side, and rear. The front and side delts get a pretty good workout from overhead pressing, so at this point in our workout the rear delts can use some extra love. Here are some good options: 

  • Bent-over dumbbell reverse fly
  • Reverse fly, supported on an incline bench (lay face-down)
  • Band pullaparts
  • Face pulls on a cable machine
  • Reverse fly on a machine such as a pec deck

Rest time: 90 seconds or less. If you think you’ll get bored waiting, grab a pair of dumbbells and so some curls in between sets. 

Reps and weight: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps. Weight can be anything that gets you the appropriate number of reps per set.

How to progress: Add weight or reps each time. If you’re using a resistance band, you’ll have to go by feel, but work toward using a stronger band or a narrower grip over time. 

Part 3: bicep/tricep superset

Here’s where we get to the fun stuff! You can pick anything for these. Some classic isolation exercises for biceps: 

  • Barbell curls (or ez-bar curls)
  • Bayesian curls, described here (it’s a cable curl from a stretched position)
  • Dumbbell curls
  • Hammer curls
  • Zottman curls
  • Cable curls

And for triceps: 

  • Skullcrushers 
  • Overhead dumbbell tricep extensions
  • French press
  • Tricep kickbacks
  • Cable pushdowns

If your goal today is to work only arms and shoulders, stick to those lists. But if you’re trying to turn this into a general upper-body workout that includes chest and back, go with a pull exercise instead of bicep isolation, such as: 

  • Chinups
  • Pullups
  • Seated cable rows
  • Barbell bent-over rows or Pendlay rows
  • Kroc rows

And go with a push exercise instead of a tricep isolation: 

  • Close grip bench press
  • Dips
  • Pushups
  • Incline or overhead press (choose a different variation from what you did at the beginning of the workout)

We’ll do another bis/tris superset at the end of the workout, so you can always go with a push/pull here and save the isolations for the other superset. 

Rest time: As needed. Try resting 30 seconds after doing both exercises, but no rest in between. 

Reps and weight: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps, with a weight that lets you complete the desired number of reps. You can go with a wider range (5 to 15?) if you prefer. 

How to progress: Add reps each time, and when you can do three strong sets at the top of your rep range, add weight or change the difficulty (for example, try diamond pushups). 

Part 4: shoulder superset

For this, we’re going to steal one of the two shoulder supersets from my best shoulder workouts post. The one most people will choose is the classic three-head deltoid isolation: 

  • Dumbbell front raise
  • Dumbbell lateral raise
  • Bent-over dumbbell reverse fly

Do these in a circuit, moving immediately from one exercise to the next without putting the dumbbells down. I like to choose a different starting point for each round: maybe front/lateral/rear the first time, lateral/rear/front the second time, and so on. Don’t worry if the number of reps varies from set to set; fatiguing your shoulders is more important than counting reps.

Rest time: As needed between circuits, about 30 seconds. 

Reps and weight: Aim for 10-15 reps of the first exercise, and then keep going with that weight even if it means your reps drop off (maybe 15, 12, 10 during the first round, 12, 10, 8 the second round…it’s all good). 

How to progress: When you’re easily getting more than 15 reps on multiple sets, add weight. 

Part 5 (optional): light bicep/tricep superset

For this finisher, we’re doing another bicep/tricep superset, but this time with lighter weight. Refer to the list of options above, but choose different exercises than the ones you did earlier in the workout. Maybe you did pushups and pullups before, so you’ll do Zottman curls and skullcrushers this time. 

I’m going to give you two options for how to set this up: 

Rest, reps, and weight, option 1: 3 sets of 12 or more reps. Rest at least 30 seconds between supersets. Add weight when you can do 15+ reps for all three sets.

Rest, reps, and weight, option 2: Choose a weight that you think you can handle for at least one set of 15. Set a timer for 5 minutes and do as many sets as possible, with as little rest as possible, until time is up. Expect your reps to drop sharply—maybe you do 15 at the beginning, but can only manage 3 at the end. The point is to keep moving as much as you can within the 5 minutes.

So there you have it: a full arms-and-shoulders workout, modifiable to a full upper-body workout, that you can do in as little as 30 minutes or enhance with extra sets to fill out an hour or more at the gym. Keep track of your progress in a notebook or on an app (or even a note in your phone) and enjoy seeing your arms and shoulders get stronger over time. 

Lead Image Credit: Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock


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