Dumbbell shoulder press

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With the dumbbell shoulder press – ‘shoulder presses with dumbbells’ in Dutch – you train practically all the muscles of the shoulder girdle. The dumbbell shoulder press is a great alternative to the ‘classic’ version with a barbell and maybe even better from a bodybuilding perspective.


The dumbbell shoulder press is a basic exercise for your shoulders. It is mechanically a compound exercise, or multi-joint exercise . That is, two or more joints are involved.

In terms of strength (production), the dumbbell shoulder press is classified as a push or press exercise. That means, during the concentric (positive) phase of the exercise, you’re moving the weight away from your body’s center of gravity.


The dumbbell shoulder press primarily targets the anterior (deltoid anterior muscle) of the three shoulder heads. This part of your ‘delts’ is also called pars clavicularis, referring to the attachment to the collarbone (clavicle). There are several muscles that assist in the exercise, the most important of which are your middle shoulder (deltoideus lateralis muscle), triceps and upper chest.

Standard shoulder presses are therefore not sufficient to fully develop the middle shoulder heads. To do this, you will also need to include other exercises in your shoulder training. Side raises (also called lateral raises) are the best exercise for the lateral delts. But also with upright rows and the behind-the-neck shoulder press you activate more side shoulders. The latter, in particular, is a controversial exercise due to safety aspects.


The performance of the dumbbell shoulder press (standing or sitting, see below) is as follows.

Hold a pair of dumbbells next to your head, the bottoms of the dumbbells slightly below chin height. Your elbows are turned inward about 45 degrees. From this starting position, press the dumbbells out until your arms are almost or fully extended (see below, at range of motion). Bend your elbows and now lower the dumbbells back down. Lower until the dumbbells are level with the bottom of your ears. Inhale as you lower and exhale as you push up. Repeat for desired number of repetitions.

Following are a series of points to note.


Don’t let your elbows extend all the way out to the side, but bring them in slightly, at about a 45-degree angle. This is a safer position for the shoulders.


With the barbell shoulder press you can use a thumbless grip, or false grip. With the dumbbell shoulder press, however, it is important to wrap your thumb around the bar, because dumbbells are more difficult to stabilize than a barbell.


It is important to tighten your core during the exercise. This prevents you from compensating for heavier weights by bending your lower back, which is also a much less stable and less strong position.


Avoid “shrugging” when pressing the dumbbells, which helps your shoulders get help from your upper traps. Keep those traps in place and just use your shoulders.


You can often hear whether someone is doing shoulder or chest dumbbell presses. After all, it’s a popular practice to ‘clack’ the dumbbells together at the top. However, this has no function and even takes some muscle tension from the exercise. Moreover, with the dumbbell shoulder press it makes no sense to move the dumbbells towards each other, unlike with the dumbbell chest press. You move the dumbbells upwards in a more or less straight line.


You can perform the exercise standing or sitting. The standing performance requires more stabilizing activity. We therefore prefer the seated version for pure muscle growth in the shoulders. Sitting (with a backrest) it is much easier to stabilize the weight and becomes more or less an isolation exercise for your shoulders rather than a balancing trick, allowing you to use more weight. In addition, from a sitting position it is much easier to bring heavy dumbbells next to your shoulders, namely by simply giving them a push with your knees.


If you perform the exercise sitting down, you can use a flat bench or a bench with an adjustable backrest for extra support. Then place the backrest at an angle of about 75 degrees, but no lower. The greater the angle at which you perform the exercise, the more the top of the chest takes over from the shoulders. In short, don’t turn your shoulder press into an incline press.

Shoulder presses against a completely straight backrest, however, are also not recommended, due to the external rotation of the shoulders:


The shoulder press is often performed with the arms extended at the top of the movement, so with the elbows locked out. However, you can also choose to lower the dumbbells again just before the lockout, as bodybuilder Jay Cutler demonstrates below. This way you reduce the role of the triceps and maintain constant tension on the shoulders. Although this does not necessarily have to be ‘better’, because you can probably also use less weight. However, nothing stands in the way of using or alternating both variants.

At the bottom of the movement, lower until the bars of the dumbbells are in line with the bottoms of your ears—no lower, as there’s barely any tension on your shoulders.


The dumbbell shoulder press has some unique advantages over the version with a barbell bar, the barbell shoulder press.

  • Dumbbells offer you more freedom of movement. While with a barbell your grip is fixed, you can move dumbbells freely in the frontal plane. This is especially beneficial if your shoulder mobility is limited, whether or not as a result of an injury;
  • Dumbbells require more stabilization, so that although you can use less weight than with the barbell variant, your muscles still have to work hard;
  • The classic overhead press with a barbell is a real compound exercise, for your shoulders and triceps, and even a little upper chest. This also allows you to use more weight with the barbell version. But the dumbbell version activates the shoulders to a greater extent, as research has shown.

Purely for muscle growth in the shoulders, the dumbbell shoulder press seems to be the better exercise. But the barbell variant fits better in a full body routine, for strength and muscle growth in your entire upper body.


Since the “dumbbell versus barbell discussion” is purely hypothetical, we are not going to designate a “winner” of this discussion either. Nothing stands in the way of using both dumbbells and a barbell in your workout. Both offer unique benefits, so feel free to include both in your schedule, or alternate them from mesocycle to mesocycle. Keep a good record of the weight and number of repetitions you have completed a cycle, so that you know what your starting point should be for the next cycle.


According to coach Mike Israetel, most people need 6 to 8 sets of direct anterior delt exercises each week. So that is the number of sets excluding exercises such as bench press, in which your front shoulder heads also do the necessary work. You can easily meet that volume requirement by doing 3 sets of dumbell shoulder press twice a week or possibly 2-3 sets 3 times a week. You don’t need other exercises for the anterior delts, such as front raises.

For the side (lateral) delts, you do lateral raises. Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 8 sets of direct side delt work per week to make gains.

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