Big, muscular chest and shoulders are a common goal for lifters, leading many to try to combine their chest and shoulders on the same day.
As a strength coach, I can tell you that training these muscle groups together requires careful planning so that you’re providing each muscle with the appropriate stimulus.
- Whichever muscle group you train first will reap the most benefits, as fatigue will set in and decrease the stimulus for the secondary muscle group. To train both muscle groups effectively, alternate the order across workouts.
- The best chest and shoulder workout will consist of 2 compound movements and 1 isolation exercise for the primary muscle group, followed by 2 isolation exercises for the secondary muscle group.
- I recommend training your chest and shoulders separately to achieve the best strength and muscle gains because there is too much overlap between the muscle groups; however, you can train them together if it’s your only option.
To help you understand how to train them in the same session and get the best growth you can, I will provide you with the best exercises to do and how to program them in your workouts. I will also offer you a two-day training routine you can implement today.
If you want to grow your chest and shoulders, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.
Chest & Shoulder Musculature
The chest and shoulders are responsible for pressing loads away from the body (in front, overhead, or any angle in between). Both muscle groups work synergistically (together) to press; however, depending on the angle of the press, you can alter their involvement.
Horizontal pressing, like bench presses, push-ups, and dips, favors the chest muscles. In contrast, vertical pressing, such as overhead presses and very high incline bench presses, work more of the shoulders.
Choosing Exercises To Target The Chest & Shoulders
The following exercises are the best to include in your chest and shoulder workout, broken down by muscle group and amount of muscle used (compound vs isolation).
Related Article: The Best Shoulder Exercises to Grow BOULDERS for Shoulders
Compound Chest Exercises
Barbell Bench Press (Flat or Incline)
The barbell bench press is a great movement as it can produce high amounts of muscle activation in the chest and triceps. This movement responds best to heavier loads to overload the chest muscle fibers.
The barbell bench is also a great way to work on triceps strength (which will also help you lift more weight overhead). You can also perform this on an incline bench and target more of the upper chest.
Smith Machine Bench Press (Flat or Incline)
The Smith machine is an excellent option to train the chest and reduce the demand for the triceps (compared to the barbell). Despite being a compound exercise, the Smith machine isolates the chest.
This bench variation minimizes stress on the triceps, which is ideal when you train the chest after the shoulders (in which your triceps may be pre-fatigued and would limit your ability to train the chest hard).
Reverse Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell reverse grip bench press is an excellent option to remove some of the anterior deltoid from the movements, as the reverse grip places more emphasis on the chest and triceps and less on the shoulders.
The dumbbells are great because they allow you to customize the wrist position based on your comfort levels rather than being locked into a specific position with the barbell.
The dip allows you to train the lower regions of the chest and even some triceps. This exercise does place some loading on the front of the shoulders, so if you do decide to do this, perform these early in the session and follow them up later with shoulder isolation exercises.
Chest Isolation Exercises
Machine Chest Fly
The machine chest fly is an isolation exercise, allowing you to train the chest directly. Since the path is fixed, you can place all your intensity on the chest muscles and not worry too much about keeping your arms in the correct position.
This exercise is good for all levels and is suitable for training chest flies with moderate loads.
Cable Chest Fly
Cable chest flys allow you to individualize the angle at which you perform a fly, which is ideal for targeting different areas of the chest. If you set the pulley at a low position and perform an upward fly, you will target more of the upper chest, whereas a high pulley position with a downward fly will train more of the lower chest.
These require more stability and attention to form, which may make them less beginner-friendly and best trained at lower intensities.
Related Article: The Best Chest Exercises to Grow Bigger Pecs
Shoulder Compound Exercises
Smith Machine Shoulder Press
Smith machine shoulder presses are a great way to train the shoulders as directly as possible while doing compound movements. The Smith machine shoulder press is best when you need to save your triceps for later or your triceps are already fatigued.
With Smith machine presses, you can train the shoulders to complete failure without risk of injury from loss of stability or muscle failure of the triceps.
Barbell Shoulder Press
The barbell shoulder press is an upper-body pressing exercise that allows you to train the shoulders (and, to an extent, the triceps and upper chest) without needing machines.
This movement is excellent for overhead pressing strength, as loads are often much higher than the dumbbell or Smith pressing.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Dumbbell shoulder presses allow you to train each arm independently, addressing any shoulder imbalances. Additionally, you can rotate your wrist to individualize the movement and make it more comfortable on your wrists and shoulders.
With dumbbells, you must stabilize and control the path more, which is beneficial for increasing stability but also a limiting factor that won’t allow you to train the shoulders to total fatigue (as your form or triceps may fail out first).
Cable Upright Row
The cable upright row is a compound exercise that trains the posterior delt (back of the shoulder) and the traps. This exercise should be done with moderate to lighter reps and strict form, as this, when done incorrectly, could place a lot of stress on the front of the shoulder joint.
That said, it is a very potent muscle builder for the rear deltoid. I prefer using the cables for this exercise as they allow you to stay within a fixed path and keep constant tension of the muscle from top to bottom.
Shoulder Isolation Exercises
Cable Lateral Raise
The cable lateral raise is an isolation exercise for the lateral deltoids (sides of the shoulders). You can perform this movement with both arms or one arm at a time.
The key to this is to use strict form and control the weight throughout the movement, as cables will help you keep constant tension on the shoulders and minimize the involvement of all other muscle groups.
Machine Reverse Fly
The machine reverse fly isolates the rear deltoid. This muscle gets trained indirectly during rows and other pulling movements. However, you should add a bit of isolated training to this section of the shoulders as this provides shape and size to the back of the shoulders.
Related Article: Is It Better To Do Shoulders On Push or Pull Day?
How To Plan The Best Chest & Shoulder Workout
Here are the key factors to consider for the best chest and shoulder workout using the abovementioned exercises.
I recommend training the chest and shoulders twice per week. I would train the chest first in one of the sessions and then the shoulders first in the other session.
You could train them three times per week if they are a priority; however, be mindful of any joint pain or tenderness indicating that your body isn’t recovering properly.
Training twice per week will be ample for most lifters, even more so for advanced ones, as they will need more recovery between sessions, as training both shoulders and chest in the same session can be very fatiguing on the upper body.
Exercise selection will be essential here, as you will want a balance of chest and shoulder exercises and a blend of compound and isolation to ensure each muscle gets an appropriate stimulus.
The muscle group you train first will get the best stimulus, so ensure you switch up the muscle group you’re training first to give the chest and shoulders equal priority (as mentioned above).
Choose 2 compound movements for the muscle group you are training first, and follow up with an isolation exercise. Then, select all isolation movements for the other muscle group.
For example, let’s say your chest is the primary focus, so you start with chest exercises. You could choose barbell bench press (compound), dumbbell incline chest press (compound), and cable fly (isolation). Then, include cable lateral raises (isolation) and reverse flys (isolation) for shoulders.
Suppose you want to do the inverse and train shoulders first. In that case, I recommend something like the Smith machine high-incline overhead press (compound), cable upright row (compound), and cable lateral raise (isolation). Then, include chest flys (isolation) and chest presses to target your chest.
Total sets for the entire workout should be around 15-20, split up ⅔ for the first muscle group trained and ⅓ for the second muscle group.
Ideally, you train 6-12 sets for the first muscle group (spread out across 2-3 movements) and then 6-8 for the second muscle group (spread out across 2 exercises).
I recommend keeping compound movements in the 5-10 rep range and isolation in the 10-20 range.
The loading should match the rep range you are training in. For heavier compound exercises, stick with 60-80% of max unless you are training for strength and doing lower reps (5 reps or so), which you may be able to lift with 80-85+%.
The load will be lighter for higher rep ranges and isolation exercises, but you should still choose a challenging load within the prescribed rep range.
You can progress load, reps, or sets every week (choose one variable to progress by 2-5%). If you add more reps, weight, or sets to the first few movements, you should maintain progress in the last movements trained, as you will be extra tired.
Progress the muscle group you train first in every session, and then focus on maintaining progress for the second muscle group. You can push hard and progress the secondary muscle the next training day when it is trained first.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
Sample Chest & Shoulder Workout
Below are two chest and shoulder workouts that you can use as your 2-day split for developing more muscle. You will notice that the below workout structure follows the recommendations and includes the exercises discussed above.
Note: This exact workout is not found in the Fitbod app, but you can use this as a template to build your workouts using the Fitbod app.
Day 1: Chest and Shoulders
- Bench Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Cable or Machine Chest Fly: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Dip: 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Cable Lateral Shoulder Raise: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Machine Rear Delt Fly: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
Day 2: Shoulders and Chest
- Smith Machine or Barbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Cable Lateral Shoulder Fly: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Cable Upright Row: 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Machine or Cable Chest Fly: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 2-3 minutes between sets
Chest & Shoulder Workout: My Honest Opinion
I don’t recommend training your chest and shoulders on the same day because most exercises that train your chest also recruit your shoulders, and vice versa. This cross-over means that whichever muscle group you train second will be pre-fatigued, limiting the quality and quantity of its training.
Training them on different days would be more beneficial as each muscle group would be fresh, allowing you to train harder and maximize muscle and strength gains.
However, if you have to train your chest and shoulders together due to time constraints, it’s better than only training them each once per week.
If you train them on the same day, follow the recommendations above to minimize interference.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.