Building stronger shoulders is done through a program that includes isolated deltoid exercises and overhead pressing.
To do such movements, dumbbells are often a great option as they allow you to do a variety of motions in a wide range of motion to isolate all three heads of the deltoid.
In this article, we will discuss the 9 best dumbbell shoulder exercises to build the deltoids and overhead strength:
- Dumbbell Clean and Press
- Dumbbell Push Press
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Arnold Press
- Dumbbell Front Raise
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Flye
- Dumbbell Face Pull
- Dumbbell Upright Row
The beauty of these exercises is that they can all be performed with a pair of dumbbells, making them highly effective and efficient in home gyms or when you do not have access to large gym equipment and resources.
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What is Considered as the Shoulders?
The shoulders is a general term used to describe the deltoids, which are composed of three heads.
- The first head of the deltoid is the anterior deltoid (front delt), which is used in most pressing movements as well as exercise like front raises.
- Next, you have the medial deltoid (lateral/side), which is the larger of the three and is targeted with most overhead pressing movements and side raises.
- Lastly, the posterior deltoid (rear delt) is used to stabilize the shoulder, and is often trained during pulling movements like rows (when the elbows are flared out) or reverse flyes.
For the sake of this article, we will offer exercises for each head of the deltoid.
Training the shoulders for optimal development should include exercises that target all three heads, with a large emphasis on the lateral and rear deltoids as the front delts often get enough training volume via horizontal and vertical pressing movements (barbell bench press, overhead press, dumbbell press).
Looking for a program to build stronger shoulders? Check out the Fitbod app, which can build a program designed to help you gain strength, add muscle, track your progress, and progress you week to week to get the most out of your training.
1. Dumbbell Clean and Press
To perform the dumbbell clean and press, you first need to grab a pair of dumbbells and stand up tall, with the hands (and weights) by your sides.
Bend the knees and hips, as if you were doing a dumbbell Romanian deadlift, and explosively jump upwards, pulling the weights to the shoulders and landing in the dumbbell front squat position.
From there, you want to perform a standing dumbbell shoulder press, keeping the legs straight and back flat. Think about pushing the weights up and slightly back so that the biceps are by the ears and the weights themselves are slightly behind the head.
- The dumbbell clean and press is a complex exercise that can be done to lift heavy loads overhead and build shoulder strength.
- This is a great way to also develop strength and power in the posterior chain.
- This exercise is complex, and does challenge other things than just the shoulders, so if you are looking for purely a shoulder isolated exercise, then this is not it.
When performing this movement, think about keeping the core braced and use the legs to lift the weights in the clean. The press should come entirely from the upper body.
2. Dumbbell Push Press
To perform the dumbbell push press, you will first need to do a dumbbell clean initially to get the weights to the shoulders.
Once the weights are on the shoulders, you will want to dip downwards by bending your knees and hips simultaneously, making sure to keep the torso upright, hips over the heels, and not let the heels or toes lift off the floor.
Explosively extend the lower body to gain upwards momentum for the press (push through the legs), and go directly into pressing the dumbbells overhead with the upper body.
- The push press allows you to lift more weight overhead than a normal shoulder press, and despite the legs assisting in the movement, you are able to overload the shoulders and triceps to gain strength, power, and muscle mass.
- You can perform push presses after a hard set of overhead shoulder presses to get a few more reps and increase your training volume.
- Push presses are an ideal upper body power movement and can improve athletic performance.
- This can be a complex movement perhaps not suitable for individuals who are less skilled with their coordination and balance.
Try doing these first in your workout to build strength, or do them last to really burn out the shoulders.
Related Article: Push Press vs Push Jerk: 5 Main Differences
3. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press can be done seated or standing. The seated position often creates less stress on the lower back and does not allow the lifter to lean back (make the press easier) or use the legs for added stability and strength.
To perform the seated version, grab a pair of dumbbells and sit down, with an upright back support set at 90 degrees or almost 90 degrees (a 5-10 degree recline is acceptable).
With the dumbbells at shoulder level, and the elbows out to the sides (or slightly angled in front of you), push the dumbbells overhead making sure the elbows become straight and the weights themselves are stable overhead.
Slowly lower the weights, making sure to keep your chest up, and repeat.
- This exercise is a very isolated movement for the shoulders, but also targets the triceps and upper chest too (the more you recline yourself, the more upper pec).
- This is a great option for lifters looking to build strength and muscle for the shoulders.
- The seated version does not allow for any aid via the lower body, making it a very challenging and effective shoulder-building exercise.
- This can be tricky for some lifters to get heavy loads to the shoulders to start the movement. This is where having a spotter can be helpful.
- Some lifers have shoulder pain, and if this is the case you can go lighter, train in different ranges of motion, or change the angle of your elbows (elbows more forward than out).
If you want to build the shoulders, try to lower the dumbbells down to the shoulders, or at least 0-1 inch above the shoulders.
4. Dumbbell Arnold Press
The dumbbell Arnold press is named after Arnold Schwarzenneger and is a variation of the dumbbell shoulder press with the addition of twisting motion at the bottom of the exercise to target the rear delts.
Because of this, the Arnold press effectively trains all heads of the shoulder, in one movement.
To perform the Arnold press, you will perform a seated shoulder press as detailed above, however, at the bottom range of motion, you will move your elbows in front of you so that your palms are facing you at face level.
To perform the next rep, you will reverse this motion and then proceed to perform the shoulder press.
- The twist at the bottom of the shoulder press increases the range of motion of the press and helps develop the rear delt.
- By increasing the range of motion, you are able to train the muscles to get bigger and stronger, without having to beat up the shoulders
- If you are relaxing at the bottom of the movement, you can get a lot of shoulder joint movement, which is not good. Make sure you are keeping your chest up and upper back stable as you approach the bottom of the Arnold press.
Try not to relax at the bottom of the press, but rather stay rigid and strong.
5. Dumbbell Front Raise
The dumbbell front raise is a shoulder raise variation that targets the front deltoid. While the front deltoid already gets ample volume in most pressing programs (the front delt assists in movements like bench pressing, dips, and overhead press), you can add more direct front delt volume to build them even more.
To perform these, grab two dumbbells and place them in front of your body, slightly outside the thighs. Raise them upwards in front of you, either directly in front of you or slightly outwards, making a V.
You can play around with the angle and see what feels best on the shoulders (you should not have joint discomfort).
Raise the dumbbells up (palms down) as high as you can (even to face level or above), slight pause, and then lower the downwards until they almost touch your body, then repeat.
- This is a good isolation exercise to add size to the front of the shoulders.
- This can create some shoulder pain or discomfort in some individuals, especially those who already do a lot of pressing, and or have bad posture.
Try to control the lowering phase. You do not need to go super heavy with these, and in fact, going super heavy and swinging the weights around can cause shoulder pain and injury.
6. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise is a shoulder exercise that isolates the side deltoids and can add width and broaden the shoulders (if you are looking for that v-taper physique).
To do this exercise, grasp a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand, and with straight arms (or a very slight bend or a few degrees) lift the wrists upwards to the sides.
The key here is to lift the dumbbells so that your elbows and wrists are in line with one another at the top of the movement.
Raising the dumbbells high will increase the range of motion, and can improve the muscular contraction at the tip. Control the lowering phase, and repeat.
- The lateral raise is a great exercise to target the side delts and train them directly without adding extra stress or volume to the upper pecs, triceps, and other areas of the upper body
- The lateral raise can be one of the main movements in your shoulder routine, as it is low stress on the joint and can be trained in high volumes.
- This can be done incorrectly, and often too much momentum is used to lift weights that are too heavy.
- Since this is a single joint exercise, lifting very heavy can create some issues with the shoulder joint when done too heavy and/or without control.
Focus on lifting the elbows and wrists together, rather than thinking about raising the dumbbell upwards.
7. Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Flye
To perform the bent-over reverse flyes, you will need to make sure you can first assume a bent-over position with a flat back, having your body parallel to the floor (similar to that of a bent-over row).
To do this, you need to bend over at the hips, with slightly bent knees to place yourself in a 90-degree bent position, with your back flat and chest up, parallel to the floor.
With dumbbells in your hands, and palms facing one another, lift the wrists upwards to your sides, reaching out. If your head was 12 o’clock on a watch, your hands should be lifted to 9 and 3, or maybe even 10 and 2 if it feels more comfortable.
Lift, pause at the top briefly, slowly lower your hands, and repeat.
- The bent-over reverse flye is a great exercise to target the rear deltoids and can help to develop the shoulders
- This is commonly performed incorrectly, usually with too much weight, too much movement, and not at the proper angle
- This can be difficult to do properly and effectively target the rear deltoid, which is why using cables or machines may be more beneficial for those who are not experienced.
If you do not feel the rear deltoid, then you are not doing this properly. Try to focus on small, finite movements of the arm, and add pause and slow tempos to isolate the muscle, rather than heavy, large swinging motions (this will often result in the traps and upper back taking over).
8. Dumbbell Face Pull
The dumbbell face pull is an upright row variation. To do the face pull, you will need to lean slightly forward, either from a standing position or chest down on an incline bench (30-45 degree incline).
By leaning forward you will properly work the angle needed to isolate the rear deltoid.
With the hands in front of you, palms facing your thighs, flare the elbows outwards to the sides and lift upwards, making sure that your elbows are up above the wrists at all times.
Lift your elbows as high as you can, and don’t let them fall backward. The thumbs should end somewhere in line with the face or eyes.
Pause at the top, slowly lower, and repeat.
- This is a great exercise to isolate the rear delts and also get some traps involved.
- When compared to the bent-over reverse flye, this exercise may be easier to master and train to failure since you do not need to support yourself in a fully bent-over position.
- This can be difficult to find the proper angle, with most lifters having poor shoulder flexibility and dexterity to do it properly
- The traps are often active in this, and can sometimes take over the movement is someone is not skilled in isolating the rear delts
Focus on the elbow lifting upwards, not the dumbbell. If the elbows lift up and stay flared out, the wrists and weights will follow in the proper path needed to target the rear delt.
9. Dumbbell Upright Row
To perform the upright row, you will stand tall with dumbbells in your hands. With the dumbbells in front of you, and palms facing your thighs, lift the elbows upwards as you keep them flared out.
The elbows should stay above the wrists at all times.
Keep the dumbbells shoulder width or slightly wider as you lift them, and pause at the top. This brief pause will help you get a better contraction in the deltoids.
Once you have paused briefly, lower the weights under control and repeat.
- The upright row is a great movement to build the shoulder size, especially the anterior and lateral deltoids, and traps
- This can be uncomfortable for some individuals, especially if they have shoulder issues or impingements
This should be done with moderate to lightweight, and with control. The anterior deltoid already gets a ton of indirect training in most pressing programs, so make sure to not be hunching forward during this.
2-Day Shoulder Development Program
Here is a 2-day shoulder program designed to add size and strength to the shoulders, specifically the side deltoids.
The front delts often get enough training volume with heavy pressing (bench press, dips, etc) and the rear delts get volume during pulling workouts (rows, pulldowns, etc).
Each shoulder day will really emphasize the lateral head of the deltoid primarily.
Dumbbell Shoulder Workout – Day 1
- Dumbbell Clean and Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, go heavy
- Dumbbell Seated Arnold Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, go heavy
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, pause at top, and then perform a drop set after each set
- Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Flye: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, pause at top, and then perform a drop set after each set
Dumbell Shoulder Workout – Day 2
- Dumbbell Push Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, go heavy
- Dumbbell Seated Arnold Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, pause at top, and then perform a drop set after each set
- Dumbbell Front Raise: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, pause at top, and then perform a drop set after each set
Other Shoulder Training Resources
- The At Home Shoulder Workout You Can Do With No Weights
- What Chest Workouts Can You Do With Bad Shoulders?
- 9 Best Side Delt Exercises To Grow Your Shoulders
- 3 AWESOME Resistance Band Shoulder Workouts
- Boulder Shoulder Workout: Must-Do Exercises + Sample Program
Dumbbells are extremely versatile and offer a wide array of movements to train the shoulders.
With a proper understanding of the different heads of the deltoid, and how to efficiently train them by adjusting your angles and movements, you can develop stronger, healthier, and more muscular shoulders.
It is important to remember that the shoulders are often used in heavy pressing movements, so if you are looking to add extra shoulder volume, you can often create results using moderate to lighter loads for most of the isolation exercises and perform them in high volumes, with good form to failure.
If you are looking to integrate these exercises and plans into your own training program, try using the Fitbod App. The Fitbod app 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 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
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.