If you’re trying to build a muscular physique, then nothing impresses more than well-developed shoulders.
Dumbbell shoulder exercises are one of the best ways to put on some serious shoulder mass. Not only do they help give you that full, dense look, but they are also critical if you’re trying to build a v-taper body — that wide frame with a narrow looking waist.
This article will go through some of the top dumbbell shoulder exercises to add mass to your shoulders, and ways to implement them into your training routine.
The shoulder muscles
When talking about training shoulders this usually means the deltoids (delts). The shoulder joint is extremely mobile when compared to others on the body like the knee or elbow as it is what is known as a ball-and-socket joint. This allows the shoulders to move in any direction — upwards, backwards, sideways, and your arms to rotate inward and outwards.
The external shoulder muscles consist of 3 main parts: the anterior deltoid head (front shoulder), lateral deltoid head (side shoulder), and posterior deltoid head (back/rear shoulder).
Compound exercises that target multiple muscles, alongside isolation movements, that focus on one specific muscle are not only beneficial for aesthetic purposes, but also for everyday function.
6 best dumbbell shoulder exercises to build mass
We’ve put together a list of six dumbbell exercises that target different muscles in your shoulders.
Dumbbells are the most accessible free weight, so they’re usually the first exercise people will try in the gym or as part of a home workout.
1. Dumbbell shoulder press
The dumbbell shoulder press is one of the best exercises for building shoulder mass and strength, as it uses multiple muscles at once, which allows you to lift a large amount of weight. The dumbbell shoulder press primarily targets the anterior delts as well as the triceps.
The dumbbell shoulder press can be done either seated or standing. The seated version is better for building shoulder mass as it will take out any supportive momentum gained by using the legs and swaying the lower back.
The most common repetition range that causes muscle growth is 8 to 12 reps. A big mistake that some people make during a dumbbell shoulder press is trying to use weights that are too heavy. The shoulder is a mobile joint so it’s not a good idea to try and do very heavy low reps, as the shoulder joint needs to work harder to stabilise the arm and the risk of injury increases.
How to do the dumbbell shoulder press
1. Pick a suitable weight for your required number of reps. Raise each weight up and let the dumbbells sit on the shoulders (or just above) with your palms facing forwards.
2. Push the weight up above the head and touch the dumbbells together above the head. Then, lower the weight back down until the dumbbells sit back on the shoulder.
3. Make sure you do full reps — all the way up and back down. The greater the range of motion, the more muscle fibres will be used which means bigger muscles growth for the shoulders.
4. Repeat the steps for your chosen number of reps and sets. Try to keep the weight the same throughout your workout.
2. Dumbbell front shoulder raise
The dumbbell front shoulder raise is a great exercise for building shoulder mass, that primarily targets the anterior delts. This is an isolation exercise as it works mainly the front head of the shoulder. With isolation exercises, you might need to use lighter weights as more load (pressure) is placed on one specific part of the body.
As a lighter weight is used, a higher number of reps can be used; anything from 10 to 20 reps. One thing to avoid is swinging or momentum. Each rep must be controlled and you must engage the shoulder muscles to do the work.
How to do the dumbbell front shoulder raise
1. Stand tall while holding a set of dumbbells against your thighs with your palms facing you.
2. Raise one dumbbell in front of you at a time, so that the dumbbell comes just above your shoulder line, parallel to the follow. Your arm should be almost straight but the elbow soft, palms facing towards the floor. The opposite arm should be resting against the thigh.
3. Hold at the top for a second and slowly lower back down. Then raise the opposite arm and repeat the sequence.
4. Aim for 10 to 15 reps per arm.
3. Dumbbell side lateral raise
The dumbbell side lateral raise works the side of the shoulders, known as the lateral head. This muscle is one of the shoulder muscles that give the impressive appearance of width and mass to the shoulders. This muscle is developed through shoulder abduction — moving the arm away from the body.
This exercise can work well with a medium to light weight for higher reps. It’s a difficult exercise to do with heavy weight so focus on growing the muscles rather than maxing out on a heavy weight.
This shoulder exercise can be done seated or standing. The benefit of seated is that it reduces how much the lower back is used, meaning the shoulders are forced to work harder.
How to do the dumbbell side lateral raise
1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand and sit on a bench with your palms facing inwards, next to your thighs.
2. Lift your arms up to the side so that your knuckles are in line with your shoulders and your weights are parallel to the floor. Hold this position at the top for a second and slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position.
3. Focus on the shoulder head doing the work as it is easy for the trap muscles to take some of the strain. This deactivates the lateral head and it will reduce the amount of muscle growth.
4. For the standing variation of the exercise, assume the same standing position as the front raises but with hands at the side.
5. Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
4. Dumbbell bent-over raise
The dumbbell bent-over raise exercise targets the posterior delts located at the back of the shoulder. For most people, this will be undeveloped compared to the other parts of the shoulder but it is responsible for giving the large, rounded appearance.
If you want defined shoulders with large muscle mass, then don’t neglect the posterior delts.
This exercise can be done seated or standing. Similar to the front and side raises, the dumbbell bent-over raise can be done with lower weight and higher reps. Don’t be surprised if you can’t use much weight in the beginning as this muscle is often underdeveloped.
How to do the dumbbell bent-over raise
1. For the standing option, keep your lower back straight and fold your body over, so that your torso is just above parallel to the floor. Your head should be in a neutral position and avoid extending your neck upwards.
2. Your arms should be down in front of you, dumbbells in hand, and palms facing each other. The elbows should not be locked but relaxed with a very slight bend.
3. Engage the rear delts and pull the elbows up toward the ceiling in a reverse fly motion. The weights should end up close to parallel to the floor with your palms facing the floor.
4. Avoid bouncing your torso and relying on momentum. Keep the core engaged throughout the movement.
5. Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
5. Dumbbell upright row
The dumbbell upright row can be used to target your shoulders or traps. This will be dependent on how wide or narrow you keep your elbows during the movement. The closer you keep your hands together, the more the exercise works your traps. The wider you keep them, the more it works the side delts of your shoulders.
This exercise is a compound one and it can allow for heavier weights to be used.
How to do the dumbbell upright row
1. Grab a set up dumbbells and stand up straight with the weights resting on the front of your thighs, outside the hips and with your palms facing downwards.
2. Engage your shoulders (the muscles on the side) and lift the hands and elbows upwards, keeping the palms facing the floor.
3. At the top of the movement when the muscles are fully contracted, the weights in your hands should be in line with your shoulder facing forward and there should almost be a 90° bend from the elbow to the shoulder.
4. Hold this position for a second and slowly return to starting position.
5. To work the traps more, keep the weights closer together inside the thighs.
6. Aim for 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.
6. Dumbbell shoulder shrugs
If you’re wanting to develop your neck and traps, then look no further than dumbbell shrugs. Dumbbell shrugs are relatively simple to perform, but form and technique are important.
One common mistake made during this exercise is selecting a weight that’s too heavy, and neglecting one of the most important aspects of training — full range of motion.
Dumbbell shrugs can be effectively trained in a large rep range — anywhere from 6 to 15 reps.
How to do the dumbbell shrug
1. Pick up a dumbbell in each hand and hold the weights outside the hips, by the side of your thighs.
2. Your arms should be fully extended with the elbows relaxed and not locked out. Lift the dumbbells up as high as you can with your traps by shrugging your shoulders up towards your ears and hold for a second before lowering them back down to the starting position.
3. Avoid pushing your head forwards. This is a common mistake but it shortens the movement and makes it less effective.
4. Engage your core and repeat.
5. Aim for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps for optimal mass growth.
Shoulder workout plan for building mass
This workout contains multiple dumbbell shoulder exercises, that are designed to target all the muscles in your shoulder and increase overall muscle mass.
|Exercise||Sets and reps|
|Dumbbell shoulder press||3 sets x 10 reps|
|Dumbbell side lateral raise||3 sets x 12 reps|
|Bent over rear delt raises||3 sets x 15 reps|
|Wide grip dumbbell upright row||2 sets x 12 reps|
|Dumbbell shrug||2 sets x 12 reps|
Take home message
Dumbbells can be some of the most effective pieces of equipment for growing well-developed shoulders. They can be used in shoulder workouts to hit all angles and muscles of the shoulder group.
Dumbbell shoulder exercises are best used for muscle mass gain rather than maximal strength as the movements are less stable than barbell exercises. You can do both compound and isolation movements and, best of all, these can be done in a gym or in the convenience of your home.
No time for the gym? Try our home shoulder workout…
No time for the gym? Smash your shoulders with this home workout.