What’s the right way to train your shoulders? The answer to that question will change depending on your goals, preferences and level of experience — as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Starting with the basics, though, you have the dumbbell shoulder press.
A pillar of building bigger, stronger shoulders for both physique competitors and strength athletes alike, the shoulder press harkens back to one of the earliest concepts in strength training: lifting something heavy over your head and getting stronger in the process.
The dumbbell shoulder press remains one of the most straightforward pressing variations, so you’re likely to encounter it early in your fitness journey. Whether as a part of your new workout routine or as a new movement you want to dip your toes into, you need to know how to shoulder press with dumbbells with proper technique. Here’s how to accomplish just that.
- How to Do the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press Sets and Reps
- Common Dumbbell Shoulder Press Mistakes
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press Variations
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press Alternatives
- Muscles Worked By the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Benefits of the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Who Should Do the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Before you pick up a pair of dumbbells, you’ll need to make a few decisions regarding how to perform the movement: Do you want to lift standing or seated? What grip will you use? When it comes to the dumbbell shoulder press, variability means versatility.
This guide specifically details how to perform the dumbbell shoulder press while seated.
Step 1 — Get Into Position
After finding some dumbbells and a stationary bench, get into the proper starting position. Take a seat and push your feet into the ground. Then, with a pronated grip (palms facing outward), bring the dumbbells to their starting position just outside of your shoulders.
Coach’s Tip: Get in the habit of setting up the same way every time so you can focus on working hard.
Step 2 — Press Overhead
Before you start, brace your core and depress your scapula. Then press the weight above your head. At the top of the dumbbell shoulder press, the dumbbells should be directly above your wrists, your wrists above your elbows, and your elbows above your shoulders.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid leaning back excessively on the bench, which can recruit chest muscles and prevent maximum recruitment of the deltoids.
Step 3 — Control the Descent
Bring the dumbbells back down to their starting position by bending your elbows and reversing the pressing movement. Be sure to complete a full repetition by bringing the weight back to your starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Slow down and control the eccentric to increase time under tension while performing the dumbbell shoulder press.
Even if you have a preference for another overhead pressing variation, considering how fundamental the lift is, the dumbbell shoulder press should be something that you’re at least capable of. Here are a few ways to incorporate it into your routine.
- For Beginners: Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
- For Hypertrophy: Perform 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps.
- For Strength: Perform 4 sets of 6-8 reps.
Given how much you can customize the dumbbell shoulder press, it’s important to identify and distinguish between the mistakes that can occur while performing the lift.
You should always avoid technical changes that put you at risk of injury. However, in the process of tailoring an exercise to your specific needs, preferences, or bodily structure, you may end up finding a variation that works even better.
The mistakes detailed below fall into both of these categories. Knowing the difference can help you develop a more comprehensive understanding of the dumbbell shoulder press, so that if you choose to make changes to the lift, you’re doing so safely.
Leaning Back Excessively
By leaning too far back, you can inadvertently turn the dumbbell shoulder press into a quasi-incline bench press, recruiting your upper chest to help press the dumbbells. If this happens to you, the culprit may be insufficient flexibility at the shoulder.
If that’s not the issue, you could simply be going too heavy to lift with good form. By keeping your back flush against the bench, or opting out of a backrest entirely, you can target your shoulders more directly.
Forcing Unnatural Movement Patterns
Your unique anatomical structure means that someone else’s cues may not work well for you. Keep in mind that the dumbbell shoulder press shouldn’t cause pain or discomfort at any point during the lift, and forcing unnatural movement patterns can reduce your stability and put you at an increased risk of injury.
Before you write off the dumbbell press entirely, tinker with your elbow position (how wide you have your arms) and grip (how much you allow your wrists to bend) to see if that resolves any nagging discomfort. Don’t try to perfectly replicate the way someone else performs the press.
Not Locking Your Elbows Out
If you’re avoiding a full range of motion due to a potential injury, or as a way to increase time under tension in a specific portion of the lift, feel free to disregard this one. Some gymgoers start their careers without ever learning to fully extend their arms over their heads.
Remember that at the top of the lift, your joints should be stacked on top of each other to ensure maximum stability. Working through a full range of motion from the get-go not only reinforces good habits, but makes lighter weights more effective for muscle growth.
Dropping the Dumbbells
It may seem silly when you’re first getting started, but once you’re working with heavy dumbbells, considering how you’ll get them down at the end of the set becomes an important part of the dumbbell shoulder press.
Even if your gym is equipped for you to drop the dumbbells on the floor, doing so creates a safety hazard that’s easy enough to avoid.
Consider getting your spotter to take one of your dumbbells once you’re finished. Alternatively, when lowering the weight back down, you can bring your knees up one at a time to “catch” the dumbbells. There’s no reason to chuck them from shoulder-height onto the floor.
There are more ways to perform an overhead press than you might think. From grip adjustments, elbow position, working from a standing position versus seated, the equipment you use, and a whole lot more, the possibilities are nearly endless.
Here are a few popular variations of the dumbbell shoulder press to get you started if you want to experiment.
Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Notable for the difference in grip, you can perform the neutral-grip dumbbell shoulder press by keeping your palms facing each other for the duration of the lift.
If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, a neutral grip may decrease the strain on your shoulder when compared to a more externally-rotated position. Keeping your upper arm tucked against your torso while you press reduces the moment arm — or, how much torque there is in a given location — at the shoulder.
By increasing the range of motion at the bottom of the dumbbell shoulder press, and rotating smoothly from an externally-rotated shoulder to an internal position, you can engage all three heads of the deltoid as well as some small, often-overlooked muscles like the serratus anterior.
Partial-Repetition Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Though it may be controversial for range of motion purists, intentionally performing some partial repetitions can be helpful in a few different scenarios: Some bodybuilders tout the benefits of working with partial repetitions to maximize time under tension, get a better pump, or during burnout sets at the end of their workouts.
The partial-repetition shoulder press is pretty straightforward — set up as you normally would, but stop either halfway up or halfway down instead of pressing until your arms are fully straightened. Doing the bottom half of the press only will emphasize your front delts, while the top half is all triceps.
If you’re interested in strength training, you should probably be familiar with the dumbbell shoulder press, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it. If you lack the equipment to perform the dumbbell shoulder press, or it’s just not your thing, you can try out a few alternatives to hammer your shoulders.
Barbell Overhead Press
Barbell exercises let you test your strength like no other. If you really want to see just how much weight you can push over your head, the barbell overhead press might be your best option on push day.
In addition to blasting your shoulders, the barbell overhead press hits numerous muscle groups, making it great for developing overall upper body strength. Prerequisites for performing the lift include a barbell, plates, and a burning desire to get after it.
If you’re trying to push through a plateau on your overhead press, incorporating the push press can be helpful because it allows you to lift supramaximal loads. It’s also a very common strength-based accessory movement for Olympic lifters, who specialize entirely on getting big weights overhead.
The landmine press offers a range of benefits besides building your shoulders. Thanks to its unique range of motion, the landmine press lets you develop strength and stability while giving your joints a break.
The landmine fixture also allows you to press unilaterally, which can help you identify and address imbalances in muscular strength, size, or stability.
You’re probably dumbbell shoulder pressing for the shoulder gains, but like all compound movements, you must use a variety of muscles for stabilization and support. Here are all of the relevant players for the dumbbell shoulder press.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the deltoids are the primary muscle group used during the dumbbell shoulder press — it’s right there in the name, after all. The front head of your deltoids contracts to extend (or raise up) your arm, particularly during the first half of the exercise.
By playing around with your grip and upper arm position, you may find that you can target more of the anterior head or the medial head of your deltoids.
As with all pressing movements, your triceps engage during the dumbbell shoulder press to extend your elbows and lock the weights out over your head. They also help stabilize your arms during the eccentric portion of the lift as you lower the weights back down.
While certainly not the prime movers of the dumbbell shoulder press, all pressing movements rely on the musculature of your upper back to some degree. Muscles like the mid and lower trapezius, rear deltoids, and even your lats affect how your shoulder blades move atop your ribcage.
A weak or underdeveloped lower back can stifle your pressing power in the same way that a house built upon a weak foundation is prone to collapse if tested by harsh winds.
If you’re not sure whether or not you should be doing the dumbbell shoulder press, consider some of the benefits listed below. There’s probably something here for you, no matter your fitness goals.
Subtle changes to your grip and elbow position help you stimulate your shoulders from all angles. Further, the grab-and-go convenience of dumbbells allows to quickly perform intensity techniques like drop sets and supersets.
There’s Lots of Versatility
You can tweak and tailor most dumbbell movements to fit your exact needs and bodily structure. Implements like barbells or weight machines can lock your body into a specific movement pattern. If you value versatility and comfort when you hit the weights, go for the dumbbell shoulder press.
May Help Address Imbalances
Working with two separate implements like a pair of dumbbells brings your stabilizers front and center. Small muscles in your upper back and shoulder girdle have to work overtime to ensure everything runs smoothly while you press.
This also allows you to identify any side-to-side discrepancies that you might have. If your left shoulder is more flexible or powerful than your right, you’ll notice the difference very quickly when you perform the dumbbell shoulder press. This gives you a lane to address the issue and get right back to training.
In a busy gym, you can swap out two pairs of dumbbells far more quickly than you can unload a barbell — nevermind having access to a squat rack to press in in the first place. Dumbbells are also easy to store at home and are more practical to travel with.
Even if the dumbbell shoulder press isn’t a mainstay movement in your workout routine, having a general familiarity with the exercise gives you the freedom to train your shoulders in nearly any circumstance as long as you have some dumbbells on-hand.
Still not sure if the dumbbell shoulder press is right for you? Check and see if you fall into one of the following categories.
If you’re just getting started in your strength training journey, building a familiarity with the dumbbell shoulder press will only help you. You may lack the strength to press serious weight with a barbell, but the additional range of motion provided by the dumbbell variation of the lift is worth capitalizing on as you become more accustomed to the movement pattern.
Big shoulders give the impression of big everything. Well-developed shoulders fill out shirts better and your waist looks thinner. Since you can really isolate your shoulders with the dumbbell shoulder press, it’s a great lift to help develop a more aesthetic physique.
(Almost) Everyone Else
Whether you’re at the gym looking to pack mass onto your shoulders, build strength overhead, or if you want to improve your overall fitness, the dumbbell shoulder press can be a great addition to your routine.
It’s not a requirement for building bigger shoulders, but the lift is versatile enough that everyone should be familiar with it and be able to perform it to some degree. Pushing something over your head is a crucial aspect of healthy human movement, after all.
Demolish Your Delts
The dumbbell shoulder press should be among the first movements you master in the gym. There’s a low barrier to entry, but the lift continues to pay dividends as you progress and grow. It’s the Swiss army knife of hitting shoulders — convenient, versatile, and always available in your back pocket.
If you’ve got some lingering questions about the dumbbell shoulder press, you might find the answers you’re looking for right here.
Do I have to dumbbell shoulder press?
There are innumerable ways to train your shoulders, ranging from sports specific training, to weightlifting, to calisthenics and bodybuilding. Ultimately, how you choose to train comes down to what you enjoy doing.
At the least, you should be broadly familiar with the dumbbell shoulder press and be able to perform it comfortably. You never know when you might want to plug it into a workout.
Where do I incorporate the dumbbell shoulder press into my routine?
This depends entirely on the sort of program you’re running. If you have a dedicated shoulder day, the dumbbell shoulder press could be a great compound lift to start out your workout. Depending on your split, it could also fit well into a push day, or a general upper-body workout.
How do I decide what variation works best for me?
If you’re unsure of what kind of overhead press will work best for you, or you don’t know whether you’d prefer to stand or sit while performing the dumbbell shoulder press, experiment!
On the other hand, if you’ve started incorporating the dumbbell shoulder press, you’re comfortable with the lift and seeing progress, don’t change things up without a good reason. There’s value in the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Featured Image: Slatan / Shutterstock