The barbell is a great tool to build strong and good-looking shoulders, but so are dumbbells. You might not be able to move as much weight with dumbbells, but the disadvantages stop there. Training the shoulders with dumbbells is easier on your wrist, elbow, and shoulder joint because of the freedom of movement the dumbbell provides. On top of that, you get a myriad exercise selection, grip variations, increased range of motion, and ability to decrease strength imbalances between sides because you’re lifting each dumbbell unilaterally. These are just several advantages of dumbbells to note. The point is, dumbbells are really all you need for a brutal, hypertrophy-inducing shoulder workout…

Benefits Of Training The Shoulders

Besides the obvious vanity benefits of a rippling set of 3D shoulders, there are important performance and health benefits of having strong and muscular shoulders.

  • Improved Posture: Strengthening the shoulders helps improve your posture and helps stop the dreaded ape-like posture that comes from sitting too much and playing with your phone.
  • Better Shoulder Stability/Injury Reslience: The shoulder joint is a shallow ball and socket joint, which is great for mobility, but this comes with a high risk of injury. The stability part of this equation is up to you. Strengthening the muscles around the shoulder joint will improve shoulder stability and reduce your injury risk.
  • Improved Performance: The shoulders play a role important in exercises such as vertical and horizontal presses and rows and chin-ups and pull-ups. In some exercises, they are the secondary muscles allowing the primary muscles to do their job. Wouldn’t be a shame if your shoulders gave out before maximizing your chest and back gains? Improving your shoulder strength will help improve your performance in sports and life too. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest link. 
  • Better Big 3: You need a lot of shoulder mobility to perform the squat, deadlift, and bench, but this needs to match by shoulder stability also.  Balanced shoulder training that focuses on all three deltoids will improve your shoulder stability and improve your performance with the big 3 too.

Anatomy of the Deltoids

The deltoids are large triangular-shaped muscles made up of three heads, the anterior (aka front), middle (aka lateral) and posterior (aka rear) deltoids. They each insert on the upper humerus (arm) and originate from the clavicle and scapula.

The deltoids lie over the shoulder joint which gives your shoulder that boulder shoulder look that almost all lifters desire.

shoulder anatomy

Movements Of The Shoulder:

The shoulder is a shallow ball and socket joint that has the ability to move in multiple directions and requires a lot of muscles and mobility to make this all happen. This is why it’s important to strengthen the deltoids from all angles for better shoulder stability.

Here are the main movements for the deltoid with the muscles involved:

Shoulder MovementDeltoid MuscleExercise Example
Shoulder ExtensionPosteriorDumbbell Pullover
Shoulder FlexionAnteriorFront Raise
Shoulder AbductionMiddleLateral Raise
Shoulder AdductionPosteriorChin Up
Shoulder Horizontal AbductionMiddle & PosteriorBent-Over Reverse Fly
CircumductionAll ThreeCARS (Controlled Articular Rotations)

Dumbbell Shoulder Training For Hypertrophy

Training the shoulders for strength is a must, but dumbbells are generally not the best tool for strength, with exception to beginners. Beginners can build up a very solid strength foundation with dumbbells alone. However, as you become more advanced, it’ll be important to work in heavy low rep presses with barbells to increase your maximal strength. 

That said, strength is not the purpose of this ultimate dumbbell shoulder wrokout. We are here to build up some boulder shoulders. So, we will concentrate on moderate to a heavy loads for reps between 8 to 15.

The number one driver for shoulder hypertrophy is an increase in volume which leads to increased time under tension. Arguably the best tools for this is the dumbbell. Dumbbells are easier on the joints, easier to set up, and they allow you to work one side at a time to iron out muscular imbalances between sides. Symmetry is key when it comes to aesthetics.

What’s more, because the deltoid muscles run in different directions, dumbbells allow you to change the angle of the lift to hit these muscles in their entirety, which leads to much better shoulder development.

The exercises in the workout below include some compound movements and a few isolation exercises which are optimal for shoulder hypertrophy. Here are some general recommendations for programming dumbbell shoulder workouts for muscle growth.

  • Moderate loads (75-85% 1RM)
  • Moderate sets (2-4)
  • Higher reps (8-15+)
  • Moderate rest between sets (90-120 seconds)

The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Shoulders

Before we get into the workout, let’s go over the six dumbbell shoulder exercises involved…

1. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

dumbbell shoulders

The dumbbell shoulder press can be performed either seated or standing but by doing them seated we are isolating the shoulders more and eliminating any chance of cheating (leg power and body English). This exercise is varied by changing the angle (wide for more shoulder), narrow (more anterior deltoid and triceps), grip width, and even rotation. All options are good, but it depends what other exercises you are doing in your workout. For the purpose of this workout, we want to use a standard to wide angle. The beauty of all overhead presses is they train all 3 of the deltoids. Yes, even the rear because the posterior deltoid stabilizes the weight when you’re overhead.

How to do seated dumbbell shoulder presses:

  1. Clean the dumbbell so they are sitting on your shoulders and sit upright on an incline bench.
  2. Puff your chest out, brace your core, and find your preferred pressing angle.
  3. Then press both dumbbells overhead until your elbows lock out.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to your shoulders and reset and repeat.

2. Leaning Dumbbell Lateral Raises

dumbbell workout for shoulders

Leaning lateral raise gives you increased stability and range of motion as the distance your arm has to travel to perform the lateral raise is further. This greater range of motion with a strong contraction of the lateral deltoid leads to more tension and more gains than the standing or sitting variation. Performing lateral raises unilaterally helps decrease strength imbalances between sides too. 

How to do leaning db lateral raises:

  1. Hold a power rack or a pole with one hand and bring your feet close to the rack.
  2. With the dumbbell resting on your outer thigh, raise the dumbbell away until you feel a strong contraction in your lateral deltoid.
  3. Slowly lower down and repeat for reps.
  4. Then repeat on the other side.

3. Dumbbell Push Press

dumbbell shoulder superset workout

The dumbbell push press uses a lower-body dip, think quarter squat to push the dumbbells overhead. Push presses use the triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips, which closely mimics what happens on the sporting field. The lower body dip allows you to potentially press more weight overhead too. More weight=more muscle. If you are an athlete, you are killing two birds with one stone – bigger shoulders and more overall bodily power. By the way, as with most overhead pressing variations this trains all 3 deltoids.

How to do dumbbell push presses:

  1. Clean two dumbbells to the top of your shoulders and assume an upright torso.
  2. Dip down 4-6 inches, knees over toes using your legs to press the dumbbells overhead.
  3. The dip to press is one seamless movement, not two separate ones. 
  4. Lockout the dumbbells overhead and slowly lower dumbbells and reset and repeat.

4. Arnold Press

shoulder workout with dumbbells

The dumbbell Arnold press is named after the great man Arnold Schwarzenegger (check out his training split if you want to train like him). With the rotational nature and the large range of motion,  this exercise increases time under tension for all three of the deltoid heads. Because your pressing in multiple planes of motion this will target more deltoid muscle fibers. And when performed for higher reps it is an absolute shoulder burner.

How to perform Arnold presses:

  1. In a seated position on an upright incline bench, kick dumbbells up and rotate your hand until your palms are facing your shoulders.
  2. In one motion, press the dumbbells and rotate your palms to face forward.
  3. Lift until your biceps are by or behind your ears.
  4. Pause and reverse the move slowly and reset and repeat.

5. One Arm Bent Over Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise

best dumbbell shoulder workout

The stability one arm bent-over rear delt raise (aka reverse fly) is a great exercise to target the posterior deltoid, as well as the muscles of the upper back. With the increased stability of holding the squat rack, you’ll be able to potentially use more weight and strengthen muscles imbalances between sides for better muscle This is a win-win for your shoulders and upper back.

How to perform the stability one arm bent over rear delt raise:

  1. Stand side on to a squat rack or something solid holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand.
  2. Hold the squat rack and hinge at the hips keeping your shoulders down and chest up.
  3. With a light bend in the working elbow, perform a rear delt raise until you feel a contraction in your upper back and shoulder. 
  4. Return to the starting position and repeat.
  5. Perform the same sequence on the other side.

6. Dumbbell Pullover

dumbbell workout shoulders

The dumbbell pullover does train the chest, lats, and serratus anterior. But by virtue of training the upper back and lats, it trains the posterior deltoid too via shoulder extension and the anterior deltoid via shoulder flexion. When the dumbbell pullover is performed correctly it takes your upper body through a large range of motion, giving you more muscle-building potential. This is an old-school body-building move that hits a lot of buttons.

How to do dumbbell pullovers:

  1. Lying perpendicular on a flat bench, upper body on the bench, and holding a dumbbell in both hands above your chest.
  2. Get your lower body in the hip extension position.
  3. Engage your glutes to keep your lower back neutral.
  4. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, let the dumbbell drift backward behind your head until your feel a stretch in your pecs and lats.
  5. Once the dumbbell is behind your head, pull the dumbbell back over your chest.
  6. Pause for a second and reset and repeat for reps.

How to Warm Up The Shoulders before working out

It’s always important to get the blood moving through your shoulder region to prepare it for training and to prevent injury. Doing so moves the blood from your abdomen area to your shoulders to lubricate the shoulder joint and to access your shoulder’s mobility.

Just doing a few shoulder circles is not enough. Better to throw in a few low intensity shoulder exercises which target the shoulder area to prepare the shoulder joint for action. Although there are lots of moves, here are several good ones that get the shoulders ready to roll.

Do about 5-10 reps for each (both sides/directions where it applies)…

Spiderman With Rotation

shoulder stretches

TRX I Y T

shoulder training

Arm Circles

shoulder warm up

Push Ups

shoulder warm up exercises

The Ultimate Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

You will perform 3 supersets, resting little between sets and moving to the next exercise.

Aim for around 90-120 seconds rest between supersets/exercises. If you need more rest, take it. Although it is tempting to take less rest, taking sufficient rest will allow you to use the same load throughout the 3 supersets.

Note: If you don’t know what a superset is, it just means that you do the two exercises back to back without rest. 

When focusing on the shoulders with dumbbells, it’s better to increase your stability so you’ll drive more engagement to the shoulder and less to the stabilizing muscles that hold you up right. So, most of these exercises you’ll be seated or holding on to something stable, so you’ll be able to use more weight and drive more tension to the shoulder.

Where you can, slow down the eccentric (downward motion) to create more muscle-building tension.

You can perform this workout once or twice a week…

Superset 1 x 3 sets:
1A. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press x 8-15 reps
1B. Leaning Away Lateral Raise x 12-15 reps each side
– Rest only 90-120 seconds between supersets and before moving on to Superset 2.

Superset 2 x 3 sets:
2A. Arnold Press x 8-15 reps
2B. Stability Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise x 12-15 reps on each side.
– Rest only 90-120 seconds between supersets and before moving on to Superset 3.

Superset 3 x 3 sets:
3A. Push Press x 8-12 reps
3B. Dumbbell Pullover x 8-15 reps
– Rest only 90-120 seconds between supersets.

dumbbell shoulder workout infographic

Check out some of our other ULTIMATE workouts:

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