The barbell is often labeled the king of equipment to grow big and strong. However, dumbbells are usually a better tool when it comes to shoulders. They allow you to isolate all three heads of the shoulder and provide many exercise variations barbells don’t. So, if you love working at home or looking for new dumbbell shoulder exercises, check these out!
To maximize the size of the shoulders, you need to target all three muscles. These are:
- Anterior deltoid (front)
- Medial deltoid (side)
- Posterior deltoid (rear)
Each muscle supports a different movement of the shoulder. The anterior or front deltoid is primarily responsible for shoulder flexion and horizontal adduction. That is raising your arm in front of you (e.g., front raise) and performing a chest fly motion [1,2].
The side delts are responsible for shoulder abduction, which is the arm raised to the body’s side . This muscle creates a broader look of the upper body.
The rear deltoid provides a 3D look and will make your physique pop when looking from the side. Rear delts are responsible for shoulder extension and horizontal abduction .
Using dumbbells, we can easily isolate each muscle head to build huge shoulders.
Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises For Mass
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The shoulder press, or overhead press, is typically ignored in a muscle-building program in favor of shoulder isolation exercises. Why? Because shoulder pressing is highly fatiguing, you’re already pressing often when training the chest. Further, you can’t isolate any of the three muscle heads to maximize growth.
However, I don’t subscribe to this thought process unless you’re brutally strong and can shoulder press more than most people can bench press. I love shoulder pressing, and it’s a big mistake, in my opinion, when smaller beginner lifters skip this for various isolation exercises.
The strength and size you develop for the shoulders from overhead pressing is unparalleled. This is why it’s included as one of the best dumbbell shoulder exercises. Here’s how to do it:
- Hoist the dumbbells to your shoulders. Your elbow position should not be flared or pointed directly to the side. Instead, move them slightly forward to create a 30° angle from your back.
- From this position, press the dumbbells vertically and lock out your elbows. You do not have to bring the dumbbells together.
- Slowly lower them to the starting position. Avoid leaning back while pressing.
1-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The 1-arm variation of the dumbbell shoulder press allows you to go heavier than the 2-arm version. At some point, you may struggle to get both dumbbells to your shoulders to start the overhead press.
Using one dumbbell, you can use both hands to get it to your shoulders, allowing you to push heavier weight overhead. Further, you’ll find you can one-arm press more than you can two-arm press. Here’s how to do it:
- Gripping the handle with one hand and holding the dumbbell head with the other, hoist it to your shoulder. It should be in the same position as the 2-arm dumbbell press.
- You can have your free arm pointing straight to the side for balance. Press the dumbbell overhead with minimal trunk bend.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell to the starting position.
The Arnold press is a dumbbell shoulder press variation targeting the front deltoids. It was created by the legend himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’ve ever tried these, you know the disgusting burning sensation you feel in your front delts. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold the dumbbells in front of your shoulders with your palms facing you. As you start to press, you’ll rotate the dumbbells, so they end overhead with your palms facing forward.
- When lowering the dumbbells, you’ll reverse the motion rotating them in.
Dumbbell Front Raise
Powerful front delts will power up the size of your shoulders and your pressing strength. Since the front delts are heavily recruited when bench pressing, bigger and stronger front delts can help you press more weight.
Safe to say, the average lifting enthusiast probably doesn’t need to perform front raises. The vast amount of pressing within a typical training program is more than enough to stimulate and grow the front delts.
But if you can’t overhead press due to injury or want to add more front delt volume, you can add the front raise to isolate the front delts.
You’re not limited to using dumbbells. EZ bars, barbells, kettlebells, and even sandbags are great equipment options. Here’s how to get the most from the front raise:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand while standing so your palms are resting against the front of your thighs.
- Keep your arms straight and raise them in front until they parallel the floor.
Simple as that. You can be seated to minimize body momentum and make them more difficult.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The staple side delt exercise is the lateral raise. I would consider this the best side delt exercise you can do.
It loads the exact movement the side delts are responsible for, backed by the research showing lateral raises eliciting the most significant activation of the side delts .
Every shoulder workout routine should have a lateral raise variation in it. The side delts will build a broad physique that will be missing if you are not training them directly. Unfortunately, while the overhead press does activate the side delts, it is not enough to create that round shoulder shape.
Here is how to do the perfect lateral raise:
- Stand with the dumbbells at your side or in front of your body. Have a soft elbow, so it is slightly bent. You’ll get a better side delt contraction with a slight arm bend vs. a straight arm.
- Lead with the elbows as you raise your arms to the side until your arms are parallel to the floor.
- This means your elbows should be higher than your wrists through the movement. As you raise the dumbbells, think about pouring two drinks so you rotate your thumbs down slightly.
When lateral raising, one big mistake is focusing on the hands above the elbows. This won’t give you the same feeling. You can also do these with cables to hit the side delts from a different angle.
Dumbbell Lean Away Lateral Raise
The lean-away lateral raise changes the strength curve, placing more tension on the medial delts than the regular lateral raise. You spend more time at the top of the lateral raise under peak tension by leaning. Here’s how to do it:
- Holding a rack by your side, place your feet next to it and lean away, supporting your bodyweight with your arm.
- With a dumbbell, on the other hand, perform the lateral raise.
Dumbbell Lu Raise
One of the most popular Chinese Olympic Weightlifters, Lu Xiaojun, made these famous a few years ago. You can see why by his massive shoulders. These are full range of motion lateral raises where the dumbbells or plates finish overhead.
You’ve probably heard the argument not to go past horizontal because the upper traps take over. But who cares. You probably want big traps too! So, nail them both with this exercise. The execution of the Lu raise is quite different from the traditional lateral raise, so here’s how to do it:
- Start with dumbbells at your side.
- Initiate the lateral raise with straight arms. As you raise your arms, slowly rotate your hands so your thumb is facing up (palms facing forward) when you’re in the horizontal position.
- Continue until your arms are overhead.
Dumbbell Upright Row
The upright row has a bad name, previously canceled by the fitness world for fear of shoulder impingement. While that’s a different debate, the upright row has made a comeback and is excellent for attacking the medial delts.
If regular barbells or EZ bars irritate your shoulders when doing these, the dumbbell variation might be your sweet spot. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold the dumbbells in front of your body with your arms straight.
- Pull the dumbbells vertically as close to your body as possible. It should be almost brushing your shirt. To do this, your elbows must point up and back.
- Once you reach approximately nipple height, lower the dumbbells slowly to the starting position.
Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Fly
This is the next best exercise if you don’t have access to a reverse pec deck. You can mimic a similar motion when bent over parallel to the floor by holding dumbbells. Treat the reverse fly like a relaxed swinging motion to reduce the involvement of larger muscles like the rhomboids and traps.
- Hold light dumbbells and bend over so your torso is parallel to the floor or close to it. Have soft elbows, so they are slightly bent.
- Perform the reverse fly motion in a wide arc Y shape, not directly to the side. Turn your thumbs slightly down as you perform the movement like you are pouring two drinks from the bottle.
Your shoulder blades should be left as still as possible, with only the arms moving. This will isolate the rear delts and reduce the involvement of the mid traps and rhomboids. It will feel like a swinging motion which is perfectly fine.
Seated Dumbbell Reverse Fly
The seated bent-over reverse fly is another variation to target the rear delts alongside the mid and upper traps. This version is lower back-friendly if you have lower back problems that prevent you from doing the bent-over variation.
Because you can’t completely bend your torso over, you’ll involve more traps, which is a less potent rear delt builder. But still a great one to cycle into your training. Here’s how to do it:
- Lying on an incline bench, hold two dumbbells hanging by your side.
- Initiate the reverse fly by raising them to your side with your arms slightly bent. Slowly lower them back to the starting position.
This is a hard exercise to get wrong, so it is excellent for beginners to get extra upper back volume.
Heavy Rear Delt Swings
This is a John Meadows special. It combines heavyweights with high reps. The ultimate combination for packing on rear delt mass. These will be partial reps, and for extra posterior delt stimulation, you can superset them with normal reverse flies. Here’s how to do them:
- Lie on an incline bench holding two heavy dumbbells. Use straps, as you’ll be holding these for a while.
- Initiate the reverse fly motion but only halfway up. You won’t be able to get higher anyway due to how heavy the dumbbells are. Continue in a swing-like motion for high reps.
It’s that simple. As you get to ultra-high rep sets, your rear delts will be on fire.
Dumbbell Face Pull
The dumbbell face pull is a powerful exercise to target the rear delts. You’ll find your upper traps also get destroyed with this exercise giving you a two-for-one. If you have the option, supporting your chest on an incline bench or your head on the top of a bench is a great option to isolate the rear delts further. Here’s how to do it:
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, perform a Romanian deadlift and hold the bottom position. This is where you will remain for the entire exercise.
- Have the dumbbells hang with your arms vertically. Initiate the movement by pulling with your rear delts. You should pull up and slightly out so the dumbbells are on either side of your head. Think about leading with the elbows.
- You need to row and externally rotate your arms simultaneously; otherwise, it is like performing a high row.
Dumbbell Shoulder Workout For Huge Delts
A1) Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4 x 8-10
B1) Lean Away Lateral Raise 3 x 10-12
C1) Bent Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly 3 x 15-20
D1) Dumbbell Upright Row 2 x 10-15
D2) Seated Bent Over Reverse Fly 2 x 15-20
You can build incredible round shoulders if you’re limited to dumbbells for your shoulder workouts. Bodybuilders have done it for years with this simple piece of equipment. It’s important you don’t make the common mistake of spending most of your training time pressing overhead and doing front raises. The rear and side delts need love too!
1. Campos, Y. A., Vianna, J. M., Guimarães, M. P., Oliveira, J. L., Hernández-Mosqueira, C., da Silva, S. F., & Marchetti, P. H. (2020). Different shoulder exercises affect the activation of deltoid portions in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of Human Kinetics, 75(1), 5-14.
2. Franke, A. R., Botton, C. E., Rodrigues, R., Pinto, R., & Lima, C. (2015). Analysis of anterior, middle, and posterior deltoid activation during single and multijoint exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 55, 714-721.