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The 6 Best Shoulder Workout With Dumbbells To Strengthen Your Body

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Who doesn’t dream of boulder shoulders? The shoulders contribute to an overall athletic physique, providing the perfect “Doritos-bod.” 

Dumbbells are an excellent method for training the shoulders, as they provide versatility, stability, and increased muscle activation.

A man performing a shoulder workout with dumbbells
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But what’s the best shoulder workout dumbbell routine? Here’s everything you know to build Arnold shoulders. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

The shoulder muscles are critical for looking good and for daily activities. Boulder shoulders provide a wider, athletic frame and come with distinct advantages. Strong shoulders come in handy for throwing, pulling, or pressing activities. 

You can use any piece of equipment to train the shoulders, but dumbbells have a few advantages, including the following: 

  • Increased muscle activation: Dumbbells offer a different range of motion than machines or barbells, which can engage the shoulder muscles more. You can also target each side independently, helping with imbalances and strength. 
  • Improved stability and balance: The body must use more stabilizing muscles when you perform dumbbell shoulder exercises. This can help strengthen the smaller muscles around the shoulder joint, improving shoulder stability and balance. 
  • Enhanced functional strength: You use your shoulders every day, whether it’s for lifting, pushing, pulling, or reaching overhead. Strengthening the shoulder muscles will give you more functional strength, making every day a bit easier. 
  • Injury prevention: Strengthening the muscles around the shoulder joint through dumbbell exercises can help prevent injuries, such as rotator cuff strains, impingements, and instability. By improving shoulder strength and stability, you create a more resilient and injury-resistant shoulder complex.
  • Versatility and convenience: There are countless exercises and variations you can perform with dumbbells. Because they’re affordable and can be stored in nearly any environment, dumbbells become an incredibly convenient exercise tool.

Understanding Shoulder Anatomy

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Source: Washington University

To achieve muscular shoulders, it’s important to have an understanding of basic shoulder anatomy. We’ll keep it simple so you can move on to the fun part. 

The deltoid muscle is a prominent muscle in the shoulder and plays a crucial role in movement and stability. The deltoid muscle is on the outer side of the shoulder and is divided into three distinct parts:

  • The anterior deltoid (front) 
  • The lateral deltoid (sides)
  • The posterior deltoid (rear)

The deltoid heads originate from different areas of the shoulder and converge to form a single tendon, which attaches to the humerus (upper arm bone).

Each deltoid head has its own specific functions and contributes to different movements of the shoulder.

  • The front deltoid is used during flexion and internal rotation of the arm. It’s especially active when you lift an object to the front of the body or throw something.
  • The side deltoids help with abduction or lifting the arm up and down. You use this deltoid head in exercises like the lateral raise.
  • The rear deltoids assist in the extension and external rotation of the arm, playing a role in movements like pulling the arm backward or throwing a frisbee.

The deltoid muscle works in conjunction with other muscles, such as the rotator cuff muscles, to provide stability and control during shoulder movements.

Understanding the anatomy of the deltoid muscle will help you identify lagging areas in your shoulders. This can help you determine which exercises will help you build the most shoulder mass.

A man performing warm-up exercises before doing shoulder workouts with dumbbells
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Warm-Up Exercises for Shoulder Mobility

So, it’s shoulder day; you’re ready to load your adjustable dumbbells and hit the weights—not so fast! 

The shoulder joint is complex, as it has a large range of motion but has a greater risk of instability and injury. Fortunately, a proper warm-up will help you avoid shoulder pain and give you healthier shoulders over time. 


YTWs get their name from the shapes you make with the arms. It’s an isolation or single-joint movement, but it involves several muscles, including the deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids, and rotator cuff. 

YTWs don’t require any equipment and can be performed on the ground, sitting, or standing. The movement will help prepare your shoulders for heavy loads and may increase scapular stability.

Cross-Body Shoulder Stretch

The cross-body shoulder stretch is a common warm-up in dynamic routines before training or athletic events. It’s an easy move that can be performed anywhere to loosen up the shoulder joints.

Alternating Chest Hugs

Alternating chest hugs are another dynamic warm-up that opens up the upper body and back. It can help increase the range of motion and flexibility of the shoulder joints, helping you perform your best during a dumbbell workout.

Straight Arm Circles 

Straight arm circles will loosen up the shoulder joint and get the muscles warm. You can use varying sizes of circles to really loosen up the muscle before dumbbell shoulder workouts. It’s another easy movement that can also be performed anywhere.

What Weight Should I Use?

After a proper shoulder warm-up, it’s time to hit the weights. But what weights should you grab from the rack?

It’s best to have a set of heavy and light dumbbells, as you can use more weight in compound movements. Heavy dumbbells aren’t ideal for isolation exercises and may increase the chance of injury.

The exact weight will vary, but the lighter dumbbells may be a weight you can perform comfortably for 12-15 reps. The heavier dumbbells may be closer to 6–8 or 8–12 reps. You may have to experiment with the weights to see what works for you, depending on your fitness level.

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The Essential Exercises

There’s a wide range of effective shoulder exercises to select from. However, a well-rounded shoulder workout will target the front, side, and rear delts, alongside the traps. Here are some essential shoulder dumbbell exercises to add to your gym workouts. 

1. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is an essential movement in any workout routine. It’s a compound exercise targeting the front and side deltoids. The dumbbell shoulder press works well with heavy weights, as you can easily build size and strength.

  1. Stand straight with the feet shoulder-width apart. 
  2. With a dumbbell in both hands, lift them up to shoulder level with the palms facing away from you.
  3. Take a deep breath and tighten the core. 
  4. Press the dumbbells toward the ceiling as you exhale, keeping your arms straight.
  5. Take a breath at the top of the movement and lower the weight back to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range. 

The standing shoulder press is a fantastic option, as it engages the core. Variations like the seated dumbbell shoulder press and incline bench shoulder press can also be effective exercises to try.

2. Dumbbell Upright Row

The dumbbell upright row is another fantastic exercise that targets the shoulder muscles. Adjusting your grip width can engage the traps or delts more, making it relatively versatile. It’s a compound movement, so you can opt for heavyweights in the 8–12 rep range. 

  1. Stand tall with a straight back and dumbbells in both hands resting at the front of the thighs. The palms should be facing the floor.
  2. Activate the side delts, lifting the hands and elbows up to shoulder level. The palms should be facing the ground. 
  3. Contract the muscles and pause at the top for a brief moment.
  4. Return to the starting position to finish one repetition.

3. Dumbbell Front Raise

The best movement for isolating the front deltoids is the front delt raise. This is another dumbbell workout that’s best with light weights. The key is to maintain control and effectively engage the front delts. 

  1. Grip a pair of dumbbells in both hands. The arms should be in front of your thighs, with the palms facing the thighs.
  2. Slowly lift the dumbbells straight forward, keeping the arms straight. Lift the weight until you reach shoulder height.
  3. Slowly lower the weight to the starting position to finish one repetition. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range. 

You can also lift one arm at a time if you prefer. This may help you control the movement more and focus on a mind-to-muscle connection.

4. Reverse Dumbbell Fly

Don’t forget your rear deltoids. The rear delts are critical for dense shoulders, performance, and daily functions. If you forget the rear delts, they can quickly become underdeveloped and make your lifts a bit weaker. 

Although the reverse dumbbell flye doesn’t isolate the rear delt completely, it’s an excellent exercise for increasing strength in the muscle. It’s better to use lighter weights with this movement, so you can fully engage the rear deltoid muscles.

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and lean forward so the chest is near parallel with the ground. Allow the arms to hang toward the ground.
  2. With a slight bend in the elbows, carefully lift the weights by lifting your arms to the sides with a wide arc.
  3. Lower the weight back to the starting position to finish one repetition. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range or 8–12 reps.

5. Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

Isolation exercises, like the dumbbell lateral raise, isolate the deltoids, improve shoulder stability, and help you develop more shoulder size. These lifts are best for lighter weights, as you want to engage the correct muscles and avoid injury. 

  1. Grip a dumbbell in both hands with your arms at the sides and palms facing the thighs.
  2. Slowly raise the weights out to your sides until the arms are horizontal and the dumbbells are at shoulder height.
  3. Slowly lower the dumbbells to the original position to finish one repetition.
  4. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range.

6. Dumbbell Shrugs

We can’t forget dumbbell shrugs. Although shrugs don’t target the deltoids, they activate the upper traps, which will give you a fuller neck and back. Don’t go too heavy with this exercise, and use a moderate load instead.

  1. Grip a dumbbell in each palm with the weights by your side. The elbows should be relaxed with a slight bend.
  2. Now, shrug your shoulders up towards the ears. Pause for a moment before lowering the weight back to the starting position.
  3. Repeat the movement for three sets of 8–12 reps.

How to Incorporate Dumbell Shoulder Workouts Into Your Routine

Chances are, you’re not only training the shoulders and are working for the other major muscle groups. It might not be realistic to add all these exercises to your weight training regimen. 

Instead, you may want to incorporate 3-4 different shoulder exercises into your weekly schedule. 

But what would this routine look like each week, and what are some options? 

Upper/Lower Split 

An Upper/Lower Split is a workout routine where you target muscles in the upper body on one day and muscles in the lower body on the next. It’s typically done four days a week, with two days for each muscle group. An example schedule may look like the following:

  • Monday: Upper body
  • Tuesday: Lower body
  • Wednesday: Rest day
  • Thursday: Upper body
  • Friday: Lower body

You could incorporate 3-4 different shoulder exercises during the upper body days. It may be useful to alternate the exercises or include variations, so you’re targeting the muscles effectively.

A man who incorporated different dumbbell shoulder workouts in his training routine
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Three-Day Training Split

Three days a week is a common training volume, regardless of the individual fitness level or fitness journey. This regimen allows you to have a wide range of exercises, as you can go harder each session. Here’s a quick example:

  • Monday: Chest and back
  • Tuesday: Shoulders, biceps, and triceps
  • Wednesday: Quads, hamstrings, and calves 

You may want to use this schedule six days a week, repeating the split twice per week. This will give you ample training volume to develop muscle mass and perfect your technique. 

Five-Day Training Split

The five-day training split refers to working one or two muscle groups per session. This training schedule is sometimes called a “bro-split.” It’s easy to execute, doesn’t take much time, and is fantastic for home workouts with dumbbells. 

An example routine may include the following:

  • Monday: Chest and core
  • Tuesday: Back
  • Wednesday: Shoulders
  • Thursday: Legs
  • Friday: Biceps and triceps

One criticism people have of the five-day training split is that you’re only training each muscle group once per week. This may not be enough training volume for maximal strength gains—but if it works for you, don’t let anyone stop you.

A man being injured during his shoulder workout with dumbbells
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How to Prevent Injuries

As mentioned earlier, the shoulder muscles are susceptible to injury, strain, and overuse. It’s vital to follow the right protocols to avoid injury so you can keep training and build more muscle mass. 

Always Warm Up

A proper warm-up is necessary for any training session, but especially for the shoulders. It’s tempting to skip this step and head straight into your lifts, but you may regret it over time. Instead, take 5–15 minutes to do a proper shoulder warm-up to loosen up the muscles and strengthen your mobility. 

Get Enough Rest

Adequate rest is critical for all facets of life, whether it’s building muscle strength or performing at work. Aiming for 7–9 hours of rest each night is a bare minimum, but it isn’t always possible.

Recovery also includes rest between sets. Resting between sets helps you maintain enough strength for the next lift. Depending on your fitness routine, you may take a 45–120 second rest break between each set.

But don’t forget to rest between workouts! 

Depending on your shoulder exercise routine, you may have 1–2 rest days before each shoulder day. This will give your body enough time to recover and repair the muscles, reducing the chance of injury or overtraining. 

Adjust Your Training Volume

Many lifters consider an increase in volume so they can build strength faster. However, this may lead to overtraining, injury, or strain, depending on your fitness regimen. 

Instead, always listen to your body and adjust your training schedule accordingly. Other factors in life, like sleep and work, can impact your results in the gym. You may need an additional rest day, fewer workout variations, or more rest between sets so you don’t overdo it.

A man doing a shoulder workout with dumbbells at a specific training volume
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How Can I Build My Shoulders With Dumbbells?

There are countless exercises for shoulder muscles that you can do with dumbbells. The best way to build your shoulders with dumbbells is to target the front, rear, and side delts. This way, you’ll build fuller, dense shoulders.

Are Dumbbells Best for Shoulders?

Dumbbell movements provide excellent exercise for the shoulders. They offer versatility and more range of motion and can help you build more stability in the muscle. It’s best to use lighter weights for isolation exercises and heavier weights for compound lifts, like overhead presses.

Do Shoulders Like High Reps?

Many shoulder exercises benefit from higher reps, as many of the movements isolate the deltoids. Heavier weights work well for overhead presses and rows. For exercises like side and front raises, higher reps are generally better.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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