Try These Dumbbell Shoulder Workouts to Build Strength, Size, or Get Flexible

When you think of dumbbells, the first exercise that comes to mind is undoubtedly some variation of a curl. After all, dumbbells are fantastic tools for building your arms. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t pack beef onto other parts of your body with dumbbells and a solid workout in your pocket. 

The shoulders may seem like a smaller muscle group but they pack a ton of training potential. Whether you’re a beginner looking to build muscle or training for bulletproof shoulder stability, stepping away from the barbell and introducing dumbbells is a fantastic way to generate new avenues to progress through. There are many subtle intricacies involved in a well designed shoulder day, and these five workouts will show you how to do it for each goal.  

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Workouts

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Workout for Beginners

Shoulder workouts for beginners are usually pretty straightforward. Your focus should be on turning over the biggest rocks for long term success — exercises that will give you the biggest overall bang for your buck. In this case, learning a good pressing movement, overhead mobility and stability, and scapular strength are great priorities to set yourself up for the future.

The Workout

To simplify things for a beginner workout, use a few straight-forward stability-based exercises paired with dumbbell pressing to cover all your bases. Choosing exercises that require core stability are a great way to keep the overall weight manageable for the longest runway of progression per exercise. Take advantage of beginner gains to shore up all the small moving parts of your shoulder stability before they can limit your progress.

  • Dumbbell I-Y-T: 2×10 per position.
  • Dumbbell Z-Press: 3×10
  • Chest-Supported Row: 3×15
  • Dumbbell Single-Arm Overhead Carry: 2×20 steps per arm.

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Workout for Building Muscle

Muscle-building shoulder workouts can be one of the most creative and fun — although challenging — experiences for any new gymgoer. An emphasis on overload and getting each muscle group close to fatigue during each set is the best way to stimulate growth, but the shoulder itself has a ton of different nooks and crannies. In order to optimally grow the whole shoulder, isolating exercises using different types of pressing, raises, and repetition schemes are going to be your best option.

The Workout

One of the biggest factors in growing muscle is how close to complete fatigue you can get. With the shoulder, there are pressing motions that target the area more generally, as well as exercises that help isolate individual parts. Since your shoulder muscles are smaller, it’s easy for them to become overwhelmed and draw on either momentum or other unwanted muscles to help. Using a wide range of repetitions schemes, often with higher repetition counts than other muscle groups, is extremely useful here.

Coach’s Tip: The single-dumbbell front raise should be held in both hands to perform the exercise, mimicking the motion of a plate raise for trapezius development.

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Workout for Strength

Building strong shoulders can have a huge spillover into building an overall strong body and there are a lot of great options to accomplish this using dumbbells. The key is understanding how you can manipulate your set up and loading style to best leverage the goal. Strong shoulders should prioritize pressing the most load, whereas, a strong body comes from integrating the core. Dumbbells can help you train both at once!

The Workout

Developing your shoulder strength is contingent upon incorporating a bit of stability work beforehand. Making sure your shoulders are warmed up and ready to stabilize the heavier loads is crucial to not slipping up and tweaking something as you go. Once it’s go time, it’s go time. Load it up and train on the heavier side. As the weight goes up, your total exercises and repetitions should come down.

  • Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 2×10 per side.
  • Bent-Over Dumbbell Y-Raise: 2×12
  • Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×6-8
  • Incline Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×8

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Workout for Power

Power training for the shoulders has a great carryover to general athletic ability and particularly reinforces many Olympic lifting techniques. The crux of your power training is that it’s meant to be explosive and fast but never sloppy. Simply throwing your dumbbells around is a great way to move a lot but get little done, so your power-based shoulder training should always follow the tried-and-true principle of technique before load.

The Workout

There are many barbell Olympic lifting techniques that you can break down into unilateral dumbbell variations. Not only will it help build up your skill and coordination, but power output and overall core strength will skyrocket as well. When you’re training for power, your rest periods should be longer than you think. Even though it may seem overkill, use a 1-to-5 to 1-to-10 work-to-rest ratio to fully recover your power. For example, 5 seconds of exercise should use 25 to 50 seconds of rest between each set.

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Workout for Stability

Most shoulder workouts will place some demand on shoulder stability, so it makes sense that you could organize a shoulder workout for that express purpose. Anything that draws the arm overhead will place some stability burden on the rotator cuff and serratus anterior to secure the arm in the shoulder socket.

woman performing shoulder press
Credit: Dirima / Shutterstock

An overwhelmed rotator cuff and serratus anterior are common ways a shoulder injury might occur, so staying ahead of them has huge value.

The Workout

If you’re looking to train for stability, reducing absolute load and placing the key muscles of shoulder stability on trial is going to be the goal. You can accomplish this by using overhead exercises and other tools such as tempo training to make sure the right muscles are stressed, but not overwhelmed. Spending time in unstable positions with manageable loads is the best way to prepare you for other high-intensity tasks.

  • Dumbbell I-Y-T: 3×12–15 per position.
  • Tempo Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×10 per arm.
  • Overhead Dumbbell Shoulder Protractions: 2×10
  • Dumbbell Single-Arm Overhead Carry: 3×20 steps per arm.

Anatomy of the Shoulder

Shoulder anatomy can be broken up into the three major muscle heads — the anterior, posterior, and medial deltoid. Taken together, boulder shoulders and healthy joints can be one and the same. Here’s how everything works.

Anterior Deltoid

The anterior deltoid is the front shoulder muscle that sits just above the chest. The origin and insertion is from the anterior and lateral portion of the collarbone to the deltoid tuberosity of the upper arm. The location of the muscle means it can help draw the arm towards the midline of the body and flex the shoulder — think a dumbbell front raise, or any type of bench press.

Posterior Deltoid

The posterior deltoid mirrors the anterior deltoid. It similarly has its origin and insertion from the spine and posterior border of the scapula to the deltoid tuberosity. Given the location of the muscle group, it’s primarily going to perform the opposite action of the anterior deltoid. The posterior deltoid will perform shoulder extension and draw the arm backwards away from the midline of the body.

Medial Deltoid

The medial deltoid sits right in between the anterior and posterior parts of the shoulder muscles. Its origin and insertion are on the acromion process (the lateral tip of the collarbone) to the deltoid tuberosity.

Given its location, it will be the dominant muscle group in laterally raising the arm away from the body (hint: lateral raises).

Rotator Cuff

While not classically thought of in terms of muscle-building goals, the rotator cuff is very involved in the performance of shoulder exercises. The rotator cuff is made up of a handful of muscles found on the backside of the body. They are responsible for stabilizing the arm by securing the humerus, your upper arm, to the shoulder joint and also help with fine movements like internal and external rotation of the upper arm.

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior performs a similar stabilizing role as the rotator cuff — except on the anterior part of the body. Exercises that help protract the shoulder call upon the serratus anterior and it often acts in unison with the rotator cuff to stabilize the shoulder during overhead exercise.

Benefits of Working With Dumbbells

Shoulders are an extremely fun muscle group to train. They have three different muscle heads, a wide range of functions, and receive unique stimulation from many different training implements. Dumbbells are particularly effective at fully training the shoulders because of their ability to emphasize unilateral development, crack open a wide range of exercises to choose from, and constantly integrate the core.

Unilateral Development

Unilateral development is particularly important for muscle groups that are closely related to key joints. The hips and shoulders, for example, are very important for a huge array of daily and exercise-related movements — so using dumbbells as a primary method of training your shoulders is extremely beneficial. Strength, stability, or muscle mass differences from one side of the body to another are much easier to mask using a barbell. Dumbbell shoulder workouts will not only account for rebalancing any issues, but they will also open up many opportunities to optimize your setup for your body.

Improved Exercise Selection

Barbells and machines are effective training tools for the shoulders as well, but the reality is they are somewhat restrictive. A barbell can only be manipulated in so many ways to suit an individual, and the same is equally true for machines.

man doing lateral raise with dumbbell
Credit: FotoAndalucia / Shutterstock

Where a particular range of motion or joint position may not be too favorable for your body using a barbell or machine, dumbbells are more customizable and accessible. The ability to tailor an exercise to your individual needs using dumbbells is a key factor in their value to your workout.

Core Integration

Different stances, unilateral or bilateral loading, and ranges of motion using dumbbells inherently draws on a ton of core integration. Unilateral exercises are going to force you to constantly battle the uneven load. Using a bench, standing, or kneeling for shoulder exercises are other options to broadly customize your core challenge per workout as well. Raises or fly exercises have arcs of challenge depending on what range of motion of the exercise you’re in. Truly, dumbbells are a sneaky way to keep your core locked in and prevent a dependence on machine based stability.

Wrapping Up

Dumbbell shoulder workouts deliver a wide range of benefits that make a strong argument for keeping them a staple in any program. The ability to keep the shoulder joint happy and healthy, build a ton of muscle, and integrate any number of strength, power, or stability-based training makes them hard to beat.

Your shoulders are comprised of intricate, complex muscular systems. A barbell is great, but you might be painting with broad strokes if you never put it down. Working with dumbbells allow you to be more delicate and precise about your training. Your shoulders will thank you, and you’ll look better to boot. Try out these dumbbell workouts today and start building your standout boulder shoulders.

Featured Image: FotoAndalucia / Shutterstock

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