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best dumbbell exercises for shoulders


You want to build big shoulders and you only have access to a pair of adjustable dumbbells. What do you do?


I’m going to show you a wide range of 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 increase your shoulder mass and build boulder shoulders!

And not only will I show you which dumbbell exercises are my favorites for building shoulder muscle mass, I’ll explain exactly why.

I had lots of exercise options here, but I could only choose the best! Below is a preview of the dumbbell shoulder exercises I’ve chosen.

Rather than combining all of these into one long dumbbell shoulder workout, I recommend that you use the guide below to choose a few exercises for shoulder muscles to include in your shoulder workouts depending on the goals you’re currently training for.


  1. Standing Dumbbell Press
  2. Dumbbell Push Press
  3. Cheat Lateral Raise
  4. Straight Dumbbell Lateral Raise
  5. Fixed Arm Front Raise
  6. High Pull
  7. Figure 8
  8. Dumbbell Press Out
  9. Dumbbell Power Clean Over
  10. Prone Floor Press
  11. Urlacher

Before you read ahead to the more detailed descriptions behind my choices, here’s a map of the deltoid muscles of the shoulder including the front deltoid, the middle deltoid and the rear deltoid muscles so you can orient yourself as you begin to incorporate these effective shoulder exercises into your shoulder workout routine.

shoulder muscle anatomy including front, middle and rear deltoid muscle


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 a compound movement: the barbell overhead shoulder press. But you need a barbell for it.

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barbell overhead press for shoulders
The barbell overhead press is my favorite exercise for shoulder strength, but what if you have to limit yourself to dumbbells only?

So if you’re recovering from a shoulder injury or don’t have a barbell at your disposal, what would be the best way to train your shoulders for strength using a pair of 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 a pair of dumbbells, but don’t do this in seated positions as a seated dumbbell shoulder press.

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don't sit down for the dumbbell overhead press
Don’t perform the dumbbell overhead press seated because it causes issues with proper arm movement in this exercise.

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 incline bench, creating a counterforce and causing you to push the pair of 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 incline bench.

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a seated overhead press pushes shoulders and head backward which isn't a good position
When you are seated your shoulder blades get pushed back into the bench, interrupting the normal scapular-humeral rhythm of your arm.

It’s preferable to do this essential shoulder dumbbell exercise in standing position, as a Standing Dumbbell Press.


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dumbbell standing overhead press for shoulder strength

To perform these dumbbell shoulder presses, starting position is standing with feet shoulder width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing toward each other. Raise both dumbbells, ending with arms extended overhead and then slowly return to starting position.

This effective 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 lighter weight than what you can on the barbell version!

It’s also important to note that if you are training with a heavy dumbbell 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 a pair of 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 a shoulder exercise routine, but I realize that not a lot of people have access to this piece of machinery.

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jammers shoulder exercise
The jammers are my favorite shoulder exercise for power, but many people don’t have access to this piece of equipment.

I also love the Viking press as a challenging exercise for shoulder muscles, but it involves another implement that many people and even many gyms don’t have.

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Viking press for shoulders power
The Viking press is another exercise I love for power, but it’s another machine that most people don’t have access to.

I like both of these movements because they get your shoulders out in front of your body in a safer position, limiting injury risk, 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.

 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 a pair of dumbbells, it’s not necessary to change the movement. We just swap dumbbells into our hands and perform the Dumbbell Push Press.


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dumbbell push press for shoulders power

Starting position is standing with a pair of dumbbells in your hands at shoulder level. Explosively push the dumbbells at shoulder height to 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 with strict form, keeping core muscles tight, to avoid the risk of injury.

You’ve got to make sure you’re not just bending your knees, but you’re properly loading the hips.

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bend your knees and load the hips in the dumbbell push press for shoulders
In the Dumbbell Push Press make sure you’re bending your knees and properly loading the hips.

If you want to apply force, maximal 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.

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stick out your rear and perform a hip hinge in the dumbbell push press shoulder exercise
Stick out your rear, do a hip hinge and utilize the big muscles in the glutes and legs during the Dumbbell Push Press.

Keep your reps sub-failure to make sure you’re maximizing your power output. As always, rep ranges 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 heavy loads 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 heavy dumbbell.

That’s a great stimulus for overall muscle growth in the long term.

Starting position is standing with feet shoulder width apart, torso at a slight forward angle.  Start by holding the heavy 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.


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cheat lateral raise for shoulder hypertrophy

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.

A key aspect of taking a muscle closer to a hypertrophy response is to apply stress to, and through, failure.

So without taking rest between sets, we’ll take a lighter weight and perform a strict straight dumbbell side lateral raise.

In this excellent exercise, starting position is taking a light dumbbell in each hand and lift the dumbbells upright to about shoulder level until arms are parallel to the floor with a slight bend in the elbows. Lower the weight, controlling it on the way down.


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straight lateral raise for shoulder hypertrophy

You want to remember to take care of the shoulder joint in this challenging 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.

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shoulder contraction at the top of the straight lateral raise for shoulders
You can see the shoulder contraction at the top of the Straight Lateral Raise.

This is a great combination you can use to create hypertrophy in your shoulder exercises routine.


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 rest between sets, 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.


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fixed arm front raise for shoulders metabolic

Starting position is standing with feet shoulder width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells. 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 effective exercise I can handle a bit more easily with that weight: a High Pull.


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dumbbell high pull for shoulders metabolic

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

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dumbbells figure 8 for shoulders metabolic

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.


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dumbbell press out for shoulders metabolic

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 shoulder mass.


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dumbbell power clean over for shoulders total body

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 effective 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.


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dumbbell prone floor press corrective exercise for shoulders

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 lighter 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. Save the heavy loads for your compound exercises.

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a light weight is enough to overload the scapular shoulder muscles in the prone floor press
A light weight is enough to overload the mid-scaps, rotator cuff and lower traps in the Prone Floor Press.

We’re forcing the lower traps to stabilize as our arms go up overhead, just like we do in the overhead press with heavy weights.

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.

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the motion of the prone press is similar to the face pull with overhead press
The motion of the Prone Press is similar to the face pull with 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 joints and help avoid shoulder injury.


Since you can never give enough attention to your rear deltoid muscles, 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.

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rear delt row for shoulders
The rear delt row allows you to get maximum activation in the rear delt because your arm is extended behind your body, but it didn’t make the cut for my #1 best dumbbell exercise for rear delts.

However, I’ve come across another rear delt 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.


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dumbbell urlacher for rear delts

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, upper traps and rhomboids.

The Urlacher allows you to hit the rear delts, without being forced to do so in isolation.

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urlacher works posterior delts, traps and rhomboids
The Urlacher helps us work the rear delts in concert with other muscles for a better overall effect.

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 well-rounded shoulder workout regardless of your training goals, even if all you have access to is a pair of dumbbells!

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 and accelerate your fitness journey?  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 maximal strength, and burn body fat.


  1. If you’ve only got dumbbells to work with, what would be the best exercises to build big dense 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


To build your shoulders with dumbbells, try the Cheat Lateral Raise and the Straight Dumbbell Lateral Raise. These are some of the best dumbbell exercises for hypertrophy for the shoulders.

Each of these is an excellent exercise that can help you build all-around shoulder size and strength. Be sure to perform a proper shoulder warm-up before performing the exercises for shoulder muscles that make up your shoulder strength training workout.

The best dumbbell shoulder workout will depend on what goal you’re training for. If you’re training for strength, try the Standing Dumbbell Press. If you’re training for power, try the Dumbbell Push Press. If building muscle mass is your goal, try the Cheat Lateral Raise. You could also apply metabolic stress with the High Pull if you’re looking for hypertrophy. Finally, if you want a total body movement that includes a vertical overhead motion that will hit shoulders the Dumbbell Power Clean-Over is a great exercise.

Each of this moves is an absolute shoulder burner that will help improve shoulder strength and the appearance of shoulder size. Be sure to perform a proper shoulder warm-up before your shoulder exercise routine to avoid risk of instability in the shoulders.

The 5 best dumbbell shoulder exercises are:

These exercises will help you achieve balanced shoulder training that hits every head of deltoids including the posterior head, the medial head and the rear deltoid head. Be sure to perform a basic shoulder warm-up before your shoulder exercise routine. Warm up the entire shoulder girdle to create a freer range of movement before initiating your shoulder strength training routine.  This will help build stronger and healthier shoulders over time.

The best basic shoulder exercises with dumbbells would be the Standing Dumbbell Press, the Dumbbell Push Press and the Cheat Lateral Raise.  These can work as beginner shoulder exercises, provided you perform a proper warm-up and be sure to use good form. These exercises will help you to build shoulder muscle mass and develop improved shoulder stability and healthier shoulders.  Using a moderate load, the increase in volume will help you develop larger shoulder size. 

The number 1 shoulder day exercise for building shoulder mass in my opinion is the Standing Dumbbell Press because it is an excellent exercise for shoulder muscles that can be done at home or anywhere you have access to a pair of dumbbells.  It's the ideal replacement for the Overhead Barbell Press.  Be sure to perform a proper warm-up before your shoulder exercise routine to avoid risk of injury in your weight training regimen. The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint that perform a crucial role in movement in our daily lives, so it is important to perform a proper warm-up to preserve the health of the joint. Take 1-2 rest days between shoulder workouts to allow ample time for recovery. 

When doing a shoulder workout routine, you'll want to choose at least 3-4 different shoulder exercises to make to hit each deltoid head including the posterior deltoid (rear deltoid muscles), the lateral deltoid, and the front deltoid head. Be sure to get adequate rest between workouts, working shoulders 1-2 times per week and taking rest days in between. You can do your shoulder exercise routine at home with no other equipment except a pair of adjustable dumbbells. Be sure to do a proper shoulder warm-up before your workout to avoid shoulder pain and for healthier shoulders.  

To get big boulder shoulders you need a weight training fitness routine that includes exercises to hit every head of deltoids including, the rear deltoid head (posterior deltoid), the lateral deltoid (lateral head) and the front deltoid. These will include some compound movements done with heavier weights as well as some lighter isolation exercises to help you build shoulder mass. To increase shoulder size and build strong shoulders, you can train your shoulders with dumbbells at home or using cables, barbells and other equipment during gym workouts. Be sure to perform a proper shoulder warm-up including shoulder mobility exercises before your workout to avoid shoulder pain and for healthier shoulders.

Performing a shoulder workout routine 3 times a week may be too much if you want to build well-developed shoulders.  It's important to ensure you're getting adequate rest between each shoulder exercises routine. Training shoulder day 1-2 times per week is an ideal fitness routine which helps ensure you're getting an additional rest day between shoulder workouts to allow for complete shoulder muscle development. It's also important to perform a proper warm-up before your shoulder day workout. 

To build shoulder muscle mass fast, you should train shoulder day 1-2 times per week. Your weight training routine should include a wide range of exercises to hit the lateral head (medial head), rear shoulders/posterior head (rear deltoid head) and thefront head of the shoulders.  To build muscle mass and dense shoulders, you should be using heavier weight in compound movements like overhead presses, as well as lighter weights for isolation exercises. You can train your shoulders with dumbbells at home, or in gym workouts using cables, barbells and other equipment. Be sure to create a well-rounded shoulder workout with a proper shoulder warm-up to build muscular shoulders and improve overall shoulder health. 

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Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS

Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.

Read more about Jeff Cavaliere by clicking here

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