10 Ultimate Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Building great looking shoulders takes your physique to another level.

Think back to the animated action heroes. They had wide shoulders, thick lats, and a small waist to create a coveted shape known as the V-taper.

A V-taper gives any person an aesthetic look. I can testify, my T-shirts fit better after I started developing my shoulders. 

Shoulders can be hard to grow for many people, but these 10 dumbbell shoulder exercises will definitely get you swole.

Many of these are fundamental moves that once learned, will carry you forward to healthy and strong shoulders.  

I’ve been using the dumbbell shoulder movements below for 7 years. It definitely took me practice to gain muscle memory for these exercises.

My shoulders were stubborn for a while, but I stayed consistent and the results came over time. Now my shoulders are bigger, stronger, and more defined than when I first began. 

You can get started on a healthier future for your shoulders too!

Fact Checked and Reviewed By

Milena Mitre, CPT

Here’s what’s coming up. 

Why Train Shoulders? 

dumbbell shoulder exercises

The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint supported by many ligaments and muscles. Exercising shoulders improves their mobility for less pain and more function. 

In this study participants had mild rotator cuff pain. One group did no shoulder exercises, while the other group did shoulder exercises at home for three weeks.

The exercise group saw modest, but significant improvements in their shoulders.

Shoulder Anatomy 

The focus of shoulder exercises is on the triangular muscles known as the deltoids, or “delts.”

These cap your shoulders and give the signature 3D effect of development. Delts help rotate your arm and keep your shoulders safe from dislocation while lifting heavy loads. 

The deltoids have three heads: the anterior (front) head, the lateral (side) head, and the posterior (rear) head. 

The delts are part of the intrinsic muscles of your shoulders, muscles that originate from your shoulder blade (scapula) and collar bone (clavicle). The intrinsic muscles attach to your big arm bone (humerus). 

Other intrinsic muscles include the rotator cuff and the teres major. The rotator cuff is a combination of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint to prevent dislocation.

The teres major assists an extrinsic muscle, the latissimus dorsi (“lat”), to extend and internally rotate your arm. 

The extrinsic muscles of your shoulders originate at your torso and attach to your shoulder blade, collar bone, and big arm bone.

The trapezius muscles, or “traps,” are traditionally done on shoulder day as well because they provide major support to your shoulders and arms. 

The latissimus dorsi muscles (“lats”) mentioned above, are the largest muscles in your back.

They are also called “wings” because they give the appearance of wings when you stretch them. The lats help to extend and internally rotate your arms.

The levator scapulae muscle helps lift your scapula. The rhomboids are found between your shoulder blades and help to pull them together. These muscles also make up the mid back.

All of these muscles work in harmony to provide mobility to your shoulders. That’s why it is key to have proper form, use a manageable weight, and warm up to prevent injury.  

Injury Prevention  

The shoulders are complex and can be trained in a healthy way to maximize their use. At the same time, shoulders can easily get stiff, imbalanced, and be vulnerable to injury. 

Once damage is done, it can be difficult to get back to 100 percent. Many gym goers suffer from shoulder tweaks, impingements, or worse. Injuries like these can keep you out of the gym for weeks or months.

I don’t mean to scare you away from working out your shoulders. In fact, I mean the opposite! Learn the proper techniques and warm ups to prolong the life of your shoulder joints.

Warm Up

Spend 5-10 minutes warming up by activating your rotator cuff muscles and doing a range of motion exercises. Here’s 4 warmups I’ve used and found helpful. 

Bent Over Arm Circles

  • Slightly arch your back, hinge at the hips and let your arms dangle.
  • Move in circles clockwise for 30 seconds, then counterclockwise 30 seconds. 
  • Repeat for another minute or as long as you need. 

External Rotator Cuff with Dumbbell

  • Sit on the ground or a bench. 
  • Elevate your right knee but keep your foot on the ground.
  • Rest your elbow comfortably against the inside of your thigh with a light dumbbell in hand. Move your wrist back to externally rotate your elbow.
  • Don’t worry. This is safe and good for your shoulder. Don’t jerk your arm, but go smoothly and repeat. 
  • Do 8-10 reps with both arms. 

Y  

  • Lay down on your stomach and face the floor 
  • Straighten your arms and make a Y shape. 
  • Lift your arms off the floor but focus on your shoulder and upper back. Repeat for 8-10 reps.  

T 

  • Lay down on your stomach and face the floor 
  • Straighten your arms and make a T shape. 
  • Lift your arms off the floor but focus on your shoulder and upper back. 
  • Repeat for 8-10 reps.  

W

  • Lay down on your stomach and face the floor 
  • Bend your elbows and tuck them at your sides to make a W shape. 
  • Straighten your arms into a Y shape then return to a W shape 
  • Focus on your shoulders and lats. 
  • Repeat for 8-10 reps.

Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises 

Control the movements as you do these exercises. On the way up you can be explosive, but don’t swing the weight. On the way down, control the weight and have an even tempo. 

Remember to keep a balanced workout by focusing on all three heads on the deltoid. 

Commonly, the front delt gets a lot of attention with chest exercises and overhead presses.

What I’ve experienced is that focusing on the warm up, side delts, and especially rear delts has helped me achieve a balanced physique and healthier shoulders. 

Two kinds of shoulder exercises are compound movements and isolation movements. 

Compound movements work many muscles in one move, like presses. Isolation movements focus on one part of the muscle, like the side delt.

Trap exercises are also incorporated with shoulder workouts because traps help lift the shoulders. 

Compound movements can be done at a lower rep range with moderate to heavy weight for 6 to 10 reps.

Isolation movements are good with light to moderate weight for 12-20 reps. 

To keep it going, here’s 11 dumbbell exercises! 

Overhead Shoulder Press

  • This compound exercise can be done seated or standing. 
  • Hold dumbbells shoulder level with palms facing away from your body. 
  • Elbows should be slightly tucked at a 45 degree angle. 
  • Press the dumbbells up and exhale.
  • Keep your core tight and return back to the starting position. Repeat.
  • Target: Front delts with some side and rear delts as stabilizers. 

Z Press

  • This variation of the overhead press involves more core activation. 
  • Sit on the floor and extend your legs in front of your body at a comfortable width. 
  • Repeat the moments for the overhead press. 
  • Target: Core, front delts, and some side and rear delts as stabilizers.

Push Press 

  • This variation of the overhead press involves more leg activation. 
  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart with knees slightly bent. 
  • Have the dumbbells resting on your front delts with palms facing each other. 
  • Squat slightly to load up your legs then straighten your legs and drive the weights up. 
  • Return to the starting position and repeat. 
  • Target: Front delts with some legs and cardio. 

Arnold Press

  • This compound exercise can be done seated or standing. 
  • Stand with dumbbells held shoulder level with palms facing your body. Hands are shoulder width apart. 
  • Press the dumbbells overhead in a fluid motion. Turn your wrists as you press to face your palms outward. 
  • Return back to the starting position and repeat. 
  • Target: Front delts and some side delts. 

Crucifix Hold

  • This isometric exercise is done standing while holding one position. 
  • Stand with feet slightly apart. Raise the dumbbells with palms facing down. 
  • An alternate way is to raise your arms with thumbs pointing up. Both positions work in different ways so try both for variety. 
  • Hold for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat. 
  • Target: Side delts and some traps. 

Lateral Raise 

  • This isolation exercise can be done seated or standing. 
  • Try grip variations with palms facing down, thumbs pointing up, or pinkies pointing up. 
  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart, shoulders back and core tight. 
  • Without swinging, slowly raise the dumbbell to just above shoulder height. 
  • Imagine elbows rising to the ceiling and your arms traveling in an arc motion. 
  • Return to the starting position and repeat. Play with the speed of the repetitions to feel more of a burn. 
  • Target: Side delt 

Bent-Over Lateral Raise

  • This compound exercise can be done in a standing (bent-over) or seated position. 
  • Start with feet shoulder width apart holding the dumbbells at your side with palms facing each other. 
  • With head and back straight, hinge at your hips and bend forward.
  • Raise the dumbbells to about shoulder level. 
  • Slowly lower to the starting position and repeat. 
  • Target: Side delts, rear delts, traps, and upper back muscles. 

Rear Delt Fly 

  • This compound exercise can be done in a standing (bent-over) or seated position. 
  • Start with feet shoulder width apart holding the dumbbells at your side with palms facing your body 
  • Bend forward and bring your elbows back with your thumbs facing down. 
  • Repeat the position and focus on your rear delts. 
  • Target: Rear delts, traps, rhomboids 

V Raise 

  • This isolation exercise can be done seated or standing. 
  • The safest grip is neutral grip, with palms facing each other. 
  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart, shoulders back and core tight. 
  • Without swinging, slowly raise the dumbbells in a V shape to just above shoulder height 
  • Return to the starting position and repeat. Play with the speed of the repetitions and the angle of the V. 
  • Target: Front delt

Dumbbell Shrugs 

  • This isolation exercise can be done seated or standing. It’s done with moderate to heavy weight. 
  • Stand with your feet slightly apart with dumbbells at your side and palms facing each other. 
  • Shrug the weight up and back using your traps. There is no need to roll your shoulders. 
  • Target: Traps

Bottom Line 

Get moving with these exercises for stronger and healthier shoulders. Workout with control and balance, and target all parts of your shoulder, especially your rear delts. 

Building great looking shoulders is in your future, so today is a good day to get started. 

Looking for more? Check out 15 Vital Exercises for Daily Wellness.

AUTHOR

Shalom is a content creator, musician, and a teacher at heart. As a certified personal trainer, his goal is to encourage others to lead healthier lives and to get buff in the process!