BEST SHOULDER EXERCISES WITH DUMBBELLS
You want to build big shoulders and you only have access to a few pairs of dumbbells. What do you do?
I’m going to show you exercises that target the shoulders for strength, power or hypertrophy. I’ll also give you options if you’re looking for a corrective exercise or a total body exercise.
I’ll also show you one that’s meant for metabolic training as an additional form of creating hypertrophy. Plus, I didn’t leave out the best dumbbell exercise for hitting the rear delts!
I’m leaving no stone left unturned to make sure you have every tool in the arsenal to help you build cannonball shoulders!
And not only will I show you which dumbbell exercises are my favorites for the shoulders, I’ll explain exactly why.
I had lots of exercise options here, but I could only choose the best!
Before you read ahead to my choices, here’s a map of the deltoid muscles of the shoulder including the front deltoid, the middle deltoid and the rear deltoid so you can orient yourself as you begin to incorporate these exercises into your shoulder workout routine.
If building stronger shoulders is your goal, what do you do if you have to limit yourself to dumbbells?
If I was asked what’s the absolute best exercise for shoulder strength regardless of equipment, my answer would be the barbell overhead shoulder press. But you need a barbell for it.
So if you’re recovering from a shoulder injury or don’t have a barbell at your disposal, what would be the best strength option using dumbbells only?
Just because we don’t have a barbell doesn’t mean we have to give up the benefits of the overhead press movement. It will still be the basic foundation of your shoulder strength.
You can do an overhead press with dumbbells, but don’t do this as a seated dumbbell shoulder press..
Some people think you take the legs out of the exercise by sitting down, but that’s a fallacy.
What actually happens is that you wind up driving more into your knees and legs to press your head back into the bench, creating a counterforce and causing you to push the dumbbells up awkwardly overhead.
That interferes with the normal scapular-humeral rhythm of your arm by pressing your shoulder blades back into that bench, and creates a ‘cheat’ in the form of added stability from the use of the bench.
It’s preferable to do this exercise standing, as a Standing Dumbbell Press.
1.) STANDING DUMBBELL PRESS
To perform these dumbbell shoulder presses, stand with feet shoulder width apart and hold two dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing toward each other. Raise both dumbbells, ending with arms extended overhead and then slowly return to start position.
This exercise allows you to get your elbows out in front of your body into that scapular plane so you can press overhead more safely without risking impingement of the shoulder.
Don’t be surprised when the added stability challenge of standing requires you to use less weight than what you can on the barbell version!
It’s also important to note that if you are training with dumbbells with a goal of progressive overload, you’re not going to be able to make the smaller jumps in weight that you can with the barbell. A 5lb increase on a barbell is going to turn into a 10lb increase with dumbbells. If you go up from 50s to 55s, it’s a 55 in each hand which is a 10 lb overall increase. So it’s good to keep that in mind.
When we’re training for power we need the ability to apply some speed to the movement that we’re performing.
The jammers are my absolute favorite power move for shoulders, but I realize that not a lot of people have access to this piece of machinery.
I also love the Viking press but it involves another implement that many people and even many gyms don’t have.
I like both of these movements because they get your shoulders out in front of your body in a safer position, which is important when you’re going to apply speed to a movement.
They also allow your legs to participate heavily in the movement. If we’re talking about power and the application of maximum force over the shortest period of time, our legs can help us do that more effectively in upper body movements.
Thankfully if we’re looking to create a similar effect with dumbbells, it’s not necessary to change the movement. We just swap dumbbells into our hands and perform the Dumbbell Push Press.
2.) DUMBBELL PUSH PRESS
Start position is standing with dumbbells in each hand at shoulder level. Explosively push the dumbbells straight overhead and lower. Repeat with controlled, fast explosive motion.
With the Dumbbell Push Press you can utilize your legs to drive from the ground up. It’s an athletic, ground-based movement. However it’s important to be sure you’re doing it properly.
You’ve got to make sure you’re not just bending your knees, but you’re properly loading the hips.
If you want to apply force, strength and speed to a movement, you want to utilize the biggest muscles in your body, and those are around your hips.
So, stick your ass out, hinge at the hips and utilize those big muscles to drive up overhead.
Keep your reps sub-failure to make sure you’re maximizing your power output. As always, rep range for power training should be kept to around 7-8 explosive, crisp reps.
In order to create muscle growth, it’s not always necessary to add more weight to the bar.
We can also achieve this with eccentric overload, and we’re going to use a dumbbell raises combo to accomplish it for shoulders.
We’ll start with a Cheat Lateral Raise which allows us to overload with heavier weights and utilize a bit of a cheat as we raise up on the concentric portion of the lift, while really trying to slow and control the eccentric lowering of that dumbbell.
That’s a great stimulus for overall muscle growth in the long term.
Start position is standing with feet shoulder width apart, torso at a slight forward angle. Start by holding the dumbbell at the front of your thigh and slightly bend the elbow. Cheat the dumbbell straight up and out to the side, arm straight keeping the elbow slightly bent and then slowly lower the dumbbell through the eccentric portion.
3.) CHEAT LATERAL RAISE
But we won’t stop there!
Another key aspect of taking a muscle closer to a hypertrophy response is to apply stress to, and through, failure.
So without taking rest, we’ll take a lighter weight and perform a strict straight dumbbell side lateral raise.
In this exercise you’ll take dumbbells in both hands and lift the dumbbells upright until arms are parallel to the floor with a slight bend in the elbows. Lower the weight
4.) STRAIGHT DUMBBELL LATERAL RAISE
You want to remember to take care of the shoulders in this exercise. Keep your thumb higher than your pinky. No ‘pouring the pitcher.’
Work on that good contraction at the top, and lower the dumbbell back under tension. Don’t use momentum and take it all the way until you can’t perform another rep with good form.
This is a great combination you can use to create hypertrophy in the shoulders.
We have another option to create muscle hypertrophy which is applying metabolic stress through a mechanical drop set.
We can apply the concept of training through failure by using metabolite build up to induce muscular stress. When you perform a mechanical drop set going from move to move without stopping, it creates a significant lactic acid build up.
The set doesn’t even begin until it starts to burn, and then you try to see how far you can go through it!
We will take it not to failure but through failure, accumulating more and more lactic acid that we really have to try to resist.
We’ll start off with a variation of the dumbbell front raise called a Fixed Arm Front Raise.
5.) FIXED ARM FRONT RAISE
I keep my elbow locked into a 90-degree position and I raise my arm up in front of my body. It’s sort of a modified front raise and press.
Once I fatigue there, I’ll move to an exercise I can handle a bit more easily with that weight: a High Pull.
6.) HIGH PULL
The High Pull – do not be confused – is not a dumbbell upright row. The positioning of my hands in relation to my elbows is opposite of what it would be in an upright row.
I’m letting my hands lead the way with my elbows trailing, which creates the external rotation in the shoulder.
You’re going to do that until you’ve reached failure once again.
Then for our next exercise in this mechanical drop set, you’ll take just one of those dumbbells and hold it out in front of you to perform a Figure 8.
7.) FIGURE 8
We call these plate 8’s when I’m doing it with a plate, but there’s no reason why you can’t do this movement with a single dumbbell.
Facing forward, hold the dumbbell straight out in front of you with both hands and move the dumbbell in a figure 8 motion.
You take it, once again, to failure.
By now your upper arm and shoulders should feel like they’re a raging inferno, but you don’t want to quit!
If you’re going for a true metabolic effect you have to revel in that burn, so now you’ll take that dumbbell and grip it to do a Dumbbell Press Out.
8.) DUMBBELL PRESS OUT
You’ll have that little reprieve when the dumbbell is closer to your chest, which will help you keep these going until you rep out.
As soon as you’ve reached failure, you’re finally finished with the set.
That is a great option with dumbbells only to create an incredible metabolic effect that’s going to help you achieve hypertrophy in the shoulders.
Let’s say you’re looking for a total body movement that includes a vertical overhead motion because you’re short on time.
You want to kill a few birds with one stone.
For a total body movement, it was a toss up for me between the thruster and the power clean over.
You can do a dumbbell thruster, however I feel like the Dumbbell Power Clean-Over is a better option. I like that it goes from the floor to overhead, plus it’s a little more explosive than the thruster, making it one of the best compound exercises for shoulders.
9.) DUMBBELL POWER CLEAN-OVER
With the Dumbbell Power Clean-Over I don’t have to stop at the bottom of a squat like I do with the thruster. It teaches me to clean off the ground.
I’m able to clean it to one shoulder and then in one motion, take that dumbbell up and overhead to the opposite shoulder. You really hit a good portion of the shoulder’s range of motion with this exercise.
Doing a home workout and short on time? Do a few rounds of the power clean over… it will crush you!
As you’ve come to expect from ATHLEAN-X, we always have an eye on injury prevention, so I’d be remiss to not include a corrective exercise for shoulders.
You know how I love face pulls.
In fact, I’ve come to be known as the ‘face pull guy.’
The problem is, you can’t do a face pull with a dumbbell.
So for our corrective exercise, I chose the Prone Floor Press. It has very similar mechanical elements to the face pull and works all the muscles of the inter-scapular/posterior upper chain.
10.) PRONE FLOOR PRESS
We have to get our arms off the floor in order to have enough clearance to do the exercise.
We definitely don’t need heavy weight. With most corrective exercises, you’d be surprised at how weak you really are, because these are typically muscles that just haven’t been trained enough.
A very light weight is plenty to overload the muscles I’m trying to work in this exercise, which are the mid-scapular muscles, the rotator cuff and the lower traps.
We’re forcing the lower traps to stabilize as our arms go up overhead, just like we do in the heavy overhead press.
They’re important muscles.
All muscles matter.
This should look very similar to another exercise you’ve seen me do… the face pull with the overhead press.
The fact is, if I don’t have access to a cable but I have dumbbells at my disposal, I’ve still got to find a way to hit my correctives, and this exercise is a great example. Be sure to include correctives a couple times per week to strengthen the shoulder joint and help avoid shoulder injury.
Since you can never give enough attention to your rear deltoids, I also included a great move to target them directly.
The rear delt row was a top consideration because it allows for maximum activation of the rear delt with the arm in extension back behind your body.
However, I’ve come across another exercise that I believe is a better choice because it adds another important component in addition to this extension.
We call this one the Urlacher.
The Urlacher ties in the rear delt and the rotator cuff. It gets us to open up the chest, externally rotate the shoulders and get that rotator cuff working. It also gets the arms behind the body to work the posterior delts, traps and rhomboids.
The Urlacher allows you to hit the rear delts, without being forced to do so in isolation.
If you’re a bodybuilder looking just to target the rear delt, then I would probably go with a rear delt row. But if not, I would choose the Urlacher instead.
Give these exercises a shot on shoulder day whenever you don’t have access to a barbell or just want an extra challenge. Along the way I mentioned a few extra barbell and machine based exercises and to show you what my preferences would be if I weren’t limited by equipment. However, you can get a great shoulder workout regardless of your training goals, even if all you have access to is dumbbells!
- If you’ve only got dumbbells to work with, what would be the best exercises for shoulders? It depends on your training goal. I’ve shown you the best dumbbell shoulder exercises for strength, power, hypertrophy, corrective, total body and a special focused exercise for the rear delts.
- For strength my favorite dumbbell exercise is a Standing Dumbbell Press because it mimics the overhead press movement and doesn’t limit your scapular movement like a seated version would.
- For power I chose the Dumbbell Push Press because it allows you to involve the legs to make the movement more efficient and explosive like some of the other machine-based power movements do.
- For hypertrophy you want to work to and through failure. I’ve given you two possibilities for this. One is a Cheat Lateral Raise into a Straight Lateral Raise to create overload. I’ve also shown you a mechanical drop set to create a significant lactic acid build up which creates stress and forces you to work through it.
- If you’re short on time and looking for a total body move that also includes a vertical overhead motion, the Dumbbell Power Clean-Over is an ideal option.
- As a physical therapist I like to include corrective movements, and if my favorite face pull isn’t an option, a great dumbbell corrective exercise would be the Prone Floor Press which shares similar mechanics to the face pull.
- Finally I’ve chosen the Urlacher as the best rear delt exercise with dumbbells, because instead of working the rear delts in isolation, it gets the rotator cuff, posterior delts, traps and rhomboids working in concert.
I make it a point to always include the science behind my exercise selections. It’s what makes my programs work so well. Ready to try one? Find the program best suited to your goals using our ATHLEAN-X Program Selector. All of my programs include the best fitness tips, workouts and nutrition plans to help you build muscle, develop strength, and burn body fat.