11 Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 26, 2024

If you’re trying to build strong and sculpted shoulders, properly incorporating dumbbell exercises into your workout routine can be a game-changer.

With dumbbells, you can hit your shoulders from every angle using one or both arms. Plus, their versatility allows you to customize your workouts based on your specific goals and fitness level.

In this article, we’ll explore all of the benefits of using dumbbells for shoulder training. And I’ll share with you the best dumbbell shoulder exercises to include in your workouts, including an example workout you can try.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Benefits of Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Before we get into the list of dumbbell shoulder exercises, let’s first look at why you might want to incorporate more dumbbell movements into your shoulder training regimen.

1. Improved Muscle Balance and Stability

One critical advantage of dumbbells for shoulder exercises is promoting muscle balance and stability. Unlike barbells or machines that restrict movement to a fixed plane, dumbbells require you to independently engage and stabilize your shoulder muscles.

Furthermore, this unilateral training helps address strength imbalances between your left and right shoulders. And dumbbell training can enhance your functional fitness and improve posture and injury prevention.

In addition, dumbbell exercises engage the shoulders and the surrounding stabilizer muscles. Throughout each exercise, your rotator cuff muscles, upper back, and core actively stabilize your body, promoting better overall strength and stability.

2. Enhanced Range of Motion

Dumbbell exercises allow for a greater range of motion than many other resistance training equipment types. This increased freedom of movement enables you to perform exercises such as shoulder presses and front raises with a complete and natural range of motion.

By maximizing the range of motion, you stimulate the muscles to a greater extent, improving muscle development and overall shoulder mobility.

3. Versatility and Progressive Overload

Dumbbells offer an extensive array of exercises, allowing you to target different aspects of the shoulder muscles from various angles. This versatility ensures you can constantly vary your workouts, challenging your muscles differently and preventing plateaus.

Additionally, dumbbells can be easily adjusted to change the weight. Therefore you can gradually increase the load and apply the principle of progressive overload. Or quickly change the weight to implement drop sets.

4. Convenience and Accessibility

Another advantage of using dumbbells for shoulder training is their convenience and accessibility. Dumbbells are relatively compact and portable compared to other equipment, making them a practical choice for home workouts or training in limited spaces.

In addition, dumbbells are readily available in most fitness facilities, allowing you to perform your shoulder exercises even if all the other equipment is taken. So whether you’re a beginner or an experienced lifter, incorporating dumbbell shoulder exercises into your routine is an accessible option that can yield significant results.

Muscles Worked by Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

It’s also vital to understand the muscle anatomy of your shoulder joint. This way, you’ll know which exercises to use to target specific areas or weak points.

The shoulder is comprised of three muscles, including the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid. In practical terms, anterior is the front, lateral is the side, and posterior is the rear of your shoulder.

Many shoulder exercises also involve the trapezius or trap muscle, too. This is the large muscle that sits between your shoulders and neck.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises Muscles Worked

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Now that you understand the anatomy of all the deltoid muscles, let’s get into the best dumbbell exercises for shoulders. I’ve grouped the list into front, side, and rear delt movements to help you find exercises faster.

For reference, the front delt exercises are mostly presses, while the side delt exercises are typically raises. And the rear delt exercises can be raises or modified rows.

In addition, I’ve included the best exercise for targeting your traps with dumbbells. So make sure you check out the entire list!

Front Delt Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

These dumbbell exercises primarily work the anterior deltoid on the front of your shoulders. Moreover, building the front delt adds shoulder size while increasing strength on other push exercises like the bench press.

1. Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press

The overhead press is a fundamental shoulder exercise used by bodybuilders and powerlifters to build size and strength. While this exercise is typically performed with a barbell, you can also use dumbbells.

Doing a standing overhead press with dumbbells is a bit more challenging since you have to balance a weight in each hand. But it’s also extremely effective for building overall upper body power.

You can use your legs to get the weight moving, which is called a push press. Or keep your knees locked for a strict overhead press to make your shoulders do more of the work.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises Overhead Press

2. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The seated dumbbell shoulder press is like a strict overhead press in that you eliminate your leg drive and make the exercise more challenging. In addition, the seated variation allows you to play around with the backrest angle to incorporate more or less of the upper pectorals.

The illustration below shows the seated dumbbell press being performed with a perfectly upright backrest and torso. But you could also adjust the backrest to a 75-85 degree angle if that’s more comfortable.

3. Arnold Dumbbell Press

The Arnold dumbbell press was popularized by none other than Mr. Schwarzenegger himself. And this exercise is basically a seated shoulder press with a twist.

In other words, you start the exercise with your palms facing your shoulders and rotate your hands as you press the dumbbells. Then you rotate your hands back as you lower the weight to the starting position.

The main reason Arnold Schwarzenegger liked this exercise is that it works the shoulder through a larger range of motion from multiple angles. It’s also more challenging, so you should use a lighter weight at first.

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4. Dumbbell Front Raise

The front raise is an isolation movement involving only the shoulder joint, and it primarily targets the anterior deltoid with some help from the lateral delt, depending on your hand position.

For example, performing the dumbbell front raise with an overhand grip works the front and side delts, as illustrated below. By comparison, a neutral or hammer grip is better for isolating the front delt, and a supinated grip isolates the front delt even more.

In addition, dumbbells enable you to perform the front raise with both arms simultaneously, or you can alternate arms with each rep.

Side Delt Shoulder Dumbbell Exercises

Next, let’s look at the best dumbbell shoulder exercises for targeting the lateral or side delt. This part of your shoulder makes them look wide and round when viewed from straight on.

5. Standing Lateral Raise

The dumbbell standing lateral raise is the best exercise for working the side delt. But there are several ways to do it, each with benefits and limitations.

First, the standing lateral raise is popular among bodybuilders because you can generally use heavier dumbbells. Again, this is because you can typically generate more momentum while standing.

However, you can also use strict form on this exercise, which helps isolate the side delt.

6. Seated Lateral Raise

As with the shoulder press, a seated lateral raise helps eliminate momentum. So, you will probably need to use lighter dumbbells, but more resistance goes to the target muscle.

Also, you can perform seated lateral raises on a flat bench, upright bench, or incline bench as long as you keep your torso fairly upright throughout the exercise.

7. Leaning Lateral Raise

The leaning lateral raise involves holding onto a sturdy object with one hand while tilting your entire body at a slight sideways angle. Then you perform a single-arm dumbbell lateral raise.

One thing that differentiates the leaning lateral raise is that it changes the range of motion where your arm can extend higher towards your head. This difference in body angle means that most of the resistance is in the top half of the range of motion.

While the leaning lateral raise may help you feel a deeper contraction in the side delt, it can also involve the traps more than a standard lateral raise. And that could be good or bad depending on your goals.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises Leaning Lateral Raise

Rear Delt Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Next are dumbbell shoulder exercises involving the rear delts. This is part of the deltoid on the back of your shoulder, and it helps your shoulders stand out when viewed from the side.

8. Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly

The rear delt fly is one of the best exercises for targeting the posterior shoulders. But it can also involve a lot of back muscles. And even experienced bodybuilders often have trouble activating their rear delts.

There are a number of common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid when performing this exercise. So I recommend watching the 60-second video below for some tips on performing dumbbell rear delt flies with proper form.

9. Dumbbell Rear Delt Row

The rear delt row is a dumbbell row variation that targets the posterior shoulders. You can perform this exercise standing, like a bent-over row. But I recommend lying face-down on an incline bench.

With a dumbbell in each hand, pull straight up toward your chest while keeping your elbows flared out to the side. This movement path reduces lat involvement and helps you activate the rear delts and upper back.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises Rear Delt Row

10. Dumbbell Upright Row

Upright rows are another excellent exercise for working the rear delts. And the dumbbell variation is perfect for combining exercises in quick succession while working each arm independently.

As with other upright row variations, it’s vital to keep the dumbbells close to your body throughout the exercise to avoid shoulder injury. And think about pulling through your elbows instead of your hands to feel it in your rear delts more.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises Upright Row

Trap Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Lastly, any shoulder workout would not be complete without at least one exercise to work the trapezius. This large muscle group helps build powerful shoulders and a strong upper back.

11. Dumbbell Shrugs

Shoulder shrugs are the best exercise for targeting the traps. And dumbbell shrugs offer a few advantages over the standard barbell version.

For example, dumbbells allow you to use a greater range of motion since you aren’t restricted by the barbell hitting your thighs. And this can help you get a deeper contraction in the traps.

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Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

I recommend including at least a couple of these dumbbell shoulder exercises in your next workout. But, if you want, you could do an entire shoulder workout with only dumbbells!

One advantage of this workout is that you can rapidly change exercises, which saves time. In addition, you can burn more calories by using compound movements and working each arm individually.

I’ve included a mix of exercises for all three deltoid heads in the following dumbbell shoulder workout. You’ll also notice the rep range varies to balance strength and hypertrophy training.

Example Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
    • 3 sets 6-10 reps
  • Lateral Raise
    • 3 sets 8-12 reps
  • Rear Delt Fly
    • 2 sets 10-15 reps
  • Dumbbell Upright Row (superset with RD Fly)
    • 2 sets 8-12 reps
  • Dumbbell Shrugs
    • 3 sets 8-12 reps
  • Alternating Front/Lateral Raise
    • 3 sets as many reps as possible with 15-second rests

Before performing any shoulder workout, warming up with arm circles or internal/external rotations using a resistance band is a good idea.

For dumbbell shoulder presses, perform some warm-up sets with lighter weights. Then do your working sets with a weight you can handle with good form to failure. This heavy compound movement is excellent for building strength.

Next, the lateral raise is an isolation movement and is more challenging in the contracted part of the range of motion. So it’s excellent for isolating and feeling a burn in the side delt.

Of all the shoulder muscles, the rear delt is the hardest to isolate and target. So I like to superset an isolation movement like flies and a compound movement like upright rows. This pre-exhaust technique ensures the rear delt gets fatigued entirely.

After that, dumbbell shrugs are a great way to pump up those traps while giving your delts a short break.

Finally, the workout ends with a combined front and side dumbbell raise where you switch directions with each rep. This enables you to perform many reps before fatigue and burns out any remaining muscle fibers.

More Shoulder Exercises & Workouts

Now you should have some motivation and ideas for incorporating dumbbell shoulder exercises into your next workout. But it’s also a good idea to include other types of free weight, cable, or machine shoulder exercises.

Here are links to other relevant articles so you can continue building your ultimate shoulder workout routine.

23 Anterior Deltoid Exercises for Size and Strength

Best Lateral Deltoid Exercises With Any Equipment

23 More Posterior Deltoid Exercises (pics & videos)

All The Dumbbell Trap Exercises You Can Do

Landmine Shoulder Exercises & Workout

15 Compound Shoulder Exercises for Max Power

Ideal Shoulder Superset Workout for Growth

17 Cable Shoulder Exercises for Chiseled Delts 

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