Shoulder dumbbell workout: build upper-body muscles with these six moves

The fitness industry's top trainers offer up the best shoulder dumbbell workout for stronger, bigger shoulders

Woman performs a seated dumbbell press
(Image credit: Getty)

Why try this shoulder dumbbell workout? Well, having strong shoulders is not just desirable from an aesthetics standpoint, it can also bring benefits to your everyday life. For one, it'll make daily tasks much easier, from putting the shopping away on the top shelf to picking up the kids. It will also help you to stay injury free.

But how does working the shoulders achieve this? And how do you build shoulder strength and size - is it possible with only dumbbells? 

We've put together a guide offering up the best shoulder dumbbell workout, with the help of some of the fitness industry's top experts.

Looking for the top dumbbells to use for these exercises? Check out our guide best adjustable dumbbells guide. 

Are dumbbells the best weight to build shoulder muscle with?

If you're looking to build muscle and strength in your shoulders, there are a plethora of ways to go about it. But a simple look around the gym would suggest dumbbells are the most common pieces of equipment to use. 

Antoine Dunn, PT, and trainer at Circuit Society, a boutique fitness studio based in London, tells Fit&Well that dumbbells are a "brilliant and varied" way of building your shoulders - if done correctly and consistently, that is.

“Dumbbells increase fluid movement, as opposed to a resistance or Smith’s machine, which can restrict the natural movement of the joint and cause injury if loaded too heavily or aligned incorrectly," Dunn explains.

“With dumbbells, you have the ability to perfect form first with a lightweight, and then increase the load as you go, without causing yourself injury."

They also increase core stability, which is paramount to good form, he says.

The benefits of having strong shoulders?

So what are the benefits of training your shoulders to be stronger and bigger? Is it really worth the effort?

Dunn explains how having strong shoulders is far more important than having 'big' shoulders.

"The most important thing is to have functional, mobile and flexible shoulders that are well proportioned with your back and chest with no limitation to rotation," says Dunn. 

"This will help reduce injury when you're training, and in everyday life, and will greatly improve your posture if your posterior delts are trained consistently alongside anterior and lateral deltoids."

Dunn adds how training the shoulders will also help with both functional and weight training, as they will be more resistant to loading thus reducing the risk of a tear and injury.

Six-move shoulder dumbbell workout

Our shoulders are super complex and play a role in almost all upper body movements, according to Kat Merchant, Rugby World Cup Champion and elite sport and body transformation coach. 

"Injuring your shoulder can be really annoying, but with the right exercises, you can build those shoulder muscles, gain strength, and bullet-proof your shoulders," she says, adding how the shoulder is made up of three muscles.

"You've got the anterior deltoid, which is the front part, the medial or lateral deltoid, the middle part, and the Posterior deltoid, the rear part.

"We want our shoulder training to hit each area."

Merchant has given us what she deems the six best workouts for building bigger, stronger shoulders:

Kat Merchant
Kat Merchant

Kat Merchant is a Rugby World Cup Champion and elite sport and body transformation coach. Her program Elite-14 offers game-changing fitness, nutrition and lifestyle coaching to achieve sustainable fat loss and increased lean muscle.  

1. Single Arm Half-Kneeling Shoulder Press: 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps 

Kat Merchant

(Image credit: Kat Merchant)
  • Start this movement in the half kneeling position
  • Then hold a dumbbell in the hand opposite from the knee that is on the ground
  • Hold the dumbbell at shoulder height and press up until your arm is straight
  • Then return to the starting position
  • That's one rep

2. Seated Arnold Press: 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps 

Kat Merchant

(Image credit: Kat Merchant)
  • You start this movement sitting on a bench
  • Hold a dumbbell in both hands, in front of your shoulders with your palms facing towards you
  • Then extend your arms straight up while rotating your right hand to the right and left hand to the left
  • Then lower the dumbbells back to your starting position
  • That's one rep

3. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps 

Kat Merchant

(Image credit: Kat Merchant)

You can do this sitting on a bench with or without some form of back support.

  • Start sitting on a bench holding dumbbells towards the front of your shoulders
  • Your elbows should not be flared out completely but tucked in at a slightly tighter angle
  • Press the dumbbells up until your arms are straight
  • Then return to the top of your shoulders
  • That's one rep. 

4. Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 12-15 reps 

Kat Merchant

(Image credit: Kat Merchant)

This is a great movement to work your lateral (middle) delts.

  • Start with a dumbbell in each hand by your sides
  • Lean forwards slightly and raise both arms out to the side to form a T shape
  • Lower your arms back to your sides in a controlled manner
  • That's one rep

5. Reverse Flyes: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps 

Kat Merchant

(Image credit: Kat Merchant)

This move focus on hitting the rear delts.

  • Start with a dumbbell in each hand
  • Hinge at the hips so that you are bent over - with your upper body not quite parallel to the ground but close
  • Raise your arms out to the side to form a T shape
  • Lower your arms back to your sides in a controlled manner
  • That's one rep

 6. Cuban Press: 3 sets of 12-15 reps 

Kat Merchant

(Image credit: Kat Merchant)

This is a really good exercise to use as a warm-up before a shoulder or chest session or as part of the main session. Keep it light and focus on quality movement with perfect form. 

  • Start with a dumbbell in each hand held in front of your body with your palms facing towards you
  • Pull the dumbbells up like an upright row - stop when your arms are at a 90-degree angle
  • Very slowly, rotate your forearms up 90 degrees until you form a U shape with your arms. Then press the dumbbells overhead
  • Do this movement in reverse, slow and controlled, until you are back to the start position
  • That's one rep. 

The Cuban press is a great move as it combines the upright row, external rotations, and overhead press. Strengthening your delts, traps, and rotator cuff.

"To maximize your progress, your first goal should be to master all of the above movements first," Merchant advises. "Start light and build up as you get more confident and once you are a movement legend, start to build up the weight."

She also recommends not adding all of these shoulder movements at the start if you don't feel up to it.

"Keep the number of sets down as you get used to it. After a few weeks, aim to hit 10 or 12 sets of shoulder exercises across each week. Make sure you include exercises to focus on each part of the shoulder."

Looking for a shoulder workout minus the weights, try these shoulder bodyweight exercises or find out the answer to; how long does it take to see results from working out?

Lee Bell

Lee Bell is a London-based journalist, copywriter, specializing in all things tech and lifestyle. He is also a qualified personal trainer. He started his journalism career a decade ago as a reporter covering the latest gadgets and innovations at tech tabloid The Inquirer. Lee went freelance in 2016 to broaden his expertise, moving into news, reviews and feature writing for a host of national print and online lifestyle titles such as GQ, Forbes, Esquire, Men’s Health, Wired, The Metro, and The Mirror. He has an insatiable appetite for travel, Dharma yoga, and the odd outdoor challenge.