When you’re looking to build a solid upper body, the shoulders are one of the key areas you need to trainThe barbell shoulder press and the dumbbell shoulder press are one of the best ways to train the shoulder muscles.  

In this article, I'll be placing the barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press head to head with each other and discuss the similarities and differences between these two popular shoulder building exercises.

The barbell shoulder press is one of the most effective movements you can perform for developing strong, well-rounded deltoids (shoulder muscles). The barbell shoulder press primarily targets the shoulders and hits the upper back, mid back, and your core.  

Due to it working more than one muscle, this compound exercise is popular amongst athletes as it’s highly functional. But, it’s also useful for beginners as it helps them develop excellent upper body strength in more than one muscle group.  

There are several variations on the barbell shoulder press; they are as follows: 


The seated shoulder press is a more direct approach to working the shoulders and removes most of the core work required for a standing barbell shoulder press.  

How to perform:

To perform this movement, simply sit on an adjustable bench with the seat at 90 degrees and press a barbell from shoulder height until your arms are fully extended.  


Standing shoulder press is brilliant for athletes and beginners looking to build muscle mass in a short amount of time. It works the core muscles a lot more than seated press and is better suited for sports specific training.  

How to perform:

To perform the standing barbell shoulder press, pick the bar up, place it at shoulder height, and press it above your head until your arms are fully extended 

Behind The Neck

Behind the neck barbell press is an excellent way of building shoulder stability, which is perfect for sports-specific training, e.g., boxing, MMA, etc.  

But, it can be risky if you use the incorrect form, and it does place a lot of stress on your rotator cuffs [1]. Therefore, I recommend only performing this if you're advanced or have the supervision of a trainer.  

How to perform:

To perform this movement, place the bar above your head and bring it down slowly behind your neck until the bar is just above the bottom of your neck, then press upwards.  

4 Benefits Of Barbell Shoulder Press

  • Increase Your Overall Body Strength
    By performing the barbell shoulder press, you’ll gain overall strength that will transfer into your other lifts such as bench press, dips, press-ups, triceps press, and more. This will allow you to increase the weight you use on each of these exercises. 
  • A Good Exercise For People Of All Fitness Levels
    One of the best aspects of the barbell shoulder press is that it's suitable for almost anyone, no matter how fit (or unfit) you may be. You can start by pressing just a bar, then work up to adding a small amount of weight over time.  
  • Helps Improve Your Posture
    If you want to have a better posture, then the barbell shoulder press could be the answer. The barbell shoulder press will help strengthen the shoulder girdle, causing it to stabilize your shoulder joint and prevent the rounding of the shoulders [2]. You'll also strengthen your core which is never a bad thing. 
  • Prevention Of injuries
    The barbell shoulder press will strengthen your shoulder girdle (shoulder blade); this, in turn, will help prevent niggling injuries from occurring during other movements. The fewer injuries you have, the more time you have to train.  
woman doing a standing barbell shoulder press

Pros and cons of Barbell Shoulder Press


  • Can lift more weight than the dumbbell shoulder press
  • Better for building overall strength
  • Trains other upper body muscles
  • Improves other lifts


  • Shoulder mobility can be a limitation
  • Recruits more chest than the dumbbell version

Dumbbell Shoulder Press (Overview & Variations)


As with the seated barbell shoulder press, the seated dumbbell shoulder press is an excellent exercise for targeting the deltoids.

This movement variation is ideal for beginners as it removes the need to stabilize the core, so you can focus solely on working the shoulders efficiently. 

How to perform:

Sit on a bench with the dumbbells at shoulder height (palms outward), then press them upward until your arms are straight above. Then reverse the movement.  


The standing dumbbell shoulder press will primarily target the deltoids and hit the upper back, legs, hips, and core muscles (for stabilization).  

This movement is excellent for all levels but can prove to be more challenging to perform with good form.

How to perform:

To perform this move efficiently, hold the dumbbells at shoulder height (palms outward), bracing your core muscles press the dumbbells above your head. Then return to starting position.   

Neutral Grip 

This is virtually identical to the previous two movements, except your hands are placed in a neutral position (palms facing each other).  

How to perform:

Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height with both of your palms facing each other, then press the dumbbells above your head. Reverse the movement in a controlled manner, then repeat.   

Arnold Shoulder Press

Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced this movement to the bodybuilding world in the 70s and 80s. It hits all three heads of the deltoids, making it one hell of a shoulder exercise. 

How to perform:

Take hold of the Dumbbells at shoulder height (palms facing you), then slowly rotate the hands and arms outward as you press the weight upward. At the top of the movement, your palms should be facing outwards.

3 Benefits Of Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  • Increase Your Muscle Mass
    The dumbbell shoulder press movement is one of the best ways to build muscular hypertrophy. You'll stimulate the muscle fibers for growth and benefit significantly from the unilateral movement.  
  • Increase Joint Strength And Flexibility
    If you perform the dumbbell shoulder press correctly, you will increase your joint strength and increase your shoulder flexibility. This will help with your other lifts, such as the deadlift, bench press, dips, and many more.  
  • Address Movement And Muscular Asymmetries
    Due to the unilateral nature of the dumbbell shoulder press, you'll iron out any muscular asymmetries and will improve your movement patterns. This will yet again help with other lifts but can also help improve your posture too.  
man doing a dumbbell shoulder press

pros and cons of Dumbbell Shoulder Press


  • Targets the posterior deltoid better than the barbell press
  • Trains the stabalizer muscles which improves shoulder health
  • Improves balance between the two sides
  • Targets all three heads of the deltoids


  • Doesn't build as much strength as the barbell

Barbell Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Which Is Best For Building Muscle?

When it comes to a barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press comparison, I looked at numerous factors.

Such as what muscles are worked during each movement, which is best for muscle growth, how difficult each movement is to perform, and more that I'll cover in a moment.  

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For Muscles Worked 

Firstly, when looking at barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press, the muscles worked are pretty much identical. Both movements work the deltoids extremely effectively and will give you that nice rounded "boulder shoulder" look.  

Depending on what variation of shoulder press you perform, you’ll work other muscles in a secondary manner, such as the upper back, core, and even your legs and hips (for standing press variations).  

It could be argued that one of the main differences between barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press muscles worked is the shoulder stabilizers.

During a dumbbell shoulder press, the movement is unilateral and will require you to stabilize the joint more than you would for a barbell press. The difference isn't majorly noticeable, but if you've got a weakness in your movement chain, then the dumbbell shoulder press will find it quickly.  

Due to the unilateral nature of the dumbbell press, you'll find that it's more challenging to increase the weight on this movement than it is with the barbell shoulder press.  

For Muscle Growth 

When it comes to comparing barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press for muscle growth, I've always been a huge fan of combining the two types of movements in a way that will complement each other.  

For example, I would start with heavy barbell shoulder press and then move on to lighter Arnold press (using dumbbells).

By doing this, you'll not only get the benefit of using a barbell, but you'll work each head of the deltoids effectively and iron out any muscular asymmetry using the dumbbells.  

If I were to perform a barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press weight comparison, the likelihood is that I'd be able to lift more weight using the barbell. This is because the more weight you can lift, the more your muscles will be stimulated for growth.  

This makes the barbell shoulder press the best movement for overall mass building. It's worth noting that even though you can majorly increase the weight using a barbell, sometimes you shouldn't. Poor form will get you nowhere fast, hinder your muscle-building potential, or worse, leave you injured.  

For Total Upper Body Development 

If you’re looking for total upper body development, then again, a combination of the two would be ideal. However, if you find yourself unable to have both dumbbells and barbell in your gym, then you should choose dumbbells 

My main reasoning behind it is that dumbbells are pretty much suitable for all levels. Sure, the barbell is great for beginners, but sometimes the barbell alone can prove to be too heavy for some users.

So, in this instance, dumbbells will allow you to develop your upper body effectively without developing any muscular imbalances that can occur using a barbell.  

Difficulty To Perform (Technique) 

While comparing the barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press technique, I've found that the light dumbbell shoulder press is much easier for beginners to perform than the barbell shoulder press. 

Dumbbells allow you to go a little lighter and focus on your form while strengthening the shoulder joints unilaterally.  

For intermediate to advanced users, I’ve found that the barbell is fantastic if you really want to overload the shoulder muscles. It's easier to push heavier loads with a barbell as the weight is distributed across the barbell.   

Equipment Weight 

The last thing I looked at during the barbell shoulder press vs dumbbell shoulder press is the weight of the actual equipment.  

The dumbbells are much lighter (without added weight) than the barbell, as I've mentioned previously. A standard barbell weighs around 45lbs which is significantly heavier than dumbbells, but the barbell does allow you to add weight in 5.5lb increments (average).  

Barbells are great for most users, but if you don't have the base strength to lift the barbell minus additional weight, then you'll need to use dumbbells.  

Dumbbells are great for anyone to use regardless of their level; their weight can range from 2.2lbs – over 200lbs (which is ridiculous).  

From my experience, I've found that once you reach a certain weight using dumbbells, it can be difficult lifting them to your shoulders before you've even started your set.

So unless I have a spotter to help me set up, I'd use a barbell, which is much easier to set up, especially if it’s on a rack. 

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man doing a barbell shoulder press

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Who are these exercises best suited for? 

Both barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses are suitable for beginners to advanced exercisers. However, I would recommend that beginners stick with the standard type of movement before changing to a variant such as behind the neck shoulder press.  

Who are these exercises not suitable for? 

The only people who should avoid overhead pressing are those of you who’ve got high blood pressure and anyone who’s got shoulder issues and are following guidance from a physiotherapist. If you have either of these problems, consult your doctor before performing the shoulder press movement.

Which is better if you are on a tight budget? 

When looking at the price difference, you'll generally find that dumbbells are cheaper compared to a barbell. However, it's worth remembering that a barbell will only require two sets of weights (one for each side), whereas dumbbells will either be a set weight or require additional plates; this can add to the overall costing. Personally, I'd choose a barbell. But, dumbbells will provide a brilliant workout regardless.  


After pitting together the barbell vs dumbbell overhead press, I’ve concluded that for an overall great workout, you should aim to mix it up a little.

Working with both the barbell and dumbbell set will help iron out any weaknesses in your movement chain. It will also help keep your workout feeling fresh. 

Both movements are suitable for most people, but beginners should try and master the standard movement before moving on to variations.  

I’m a massive fan of the barbell shoulder press as I can lift a lot heavier using the barbell. But at the end of the day, it'll come down to preference.  

If you’re looking to build muscle and strengthen your upper body, performing shoulder press, regardless of whether it's using a barbell or dumbbells, will be highly beneficial.  




Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor

Hi, I’m Jo. I love sunrise swims, cold water immersion and cats. I have been dedicated to strength training for the past 14 years. I became a qualified Personal Trainer in 2020, and am passionate about helping my clients get stronger. Visit Jo Taylors Website