Did someone say boulder shoulders?

If you want to fill your T-shirt with muscle, you must have a killer set of deltoids.

To do that, you need to use the right exercises to give your shoulders the stimulus they need to grow. The problem is it can be tricky to know which exercises are the best.

Luckily, by the end of this article, you'll learn how to completely destroy your delts for gargantuan growth using this dumbbell shoulder workout routine.

1. Dumbbell Shoulder Press (Seated Or Standing)

Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press should be one of the key movements in your shoulder routine. Not only will it help you develop shoulder mass and strength, but it’ll work your triceps too.

Overhead pressing also helps with shoulder stability, so I highly recommend you add this exercise to your workout.

There are two ways to perform the dumbbell shoulder press; either standing or seated.

I’m always an advocate of the standing dumbbell press, which incorporates your core muscles as they work extra hard to keep your body stable.

However, if you want to focus solely on working your upper arms, you can sit on a bench.

The seated version is also beneficial if you’ve got lower back issues, as it places less strain on your back.

How To Do It:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height with your palms facing outwards.
  3. Push your shoulder blades into the seat/bench. (Or, if you’re standing, stand with your core braced).
  4. Press the dumbbells overhead above your head, stopping before your elbows lock.
  5. Repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

Bring the dumbbells down to your shoulder level to get the maximum stretch in the delts. 

2. Arnold Press

Standing Arnold Press

The Arnold press was created and named after the legendary bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold was well known for his incredibly muscular shoulders, so you should take a page from his book and perform this movement.

I like this exercise as it works all the muscles (three heads) of your deltoids. I usually perform this movement during most shoulder workouts, as I rate it as one of the best muscle builders around.

However, if you’re a beginner, you might find this movement difficult as it requires coordination alongside wrist and shoulder mobility.

If you suffer from mobility issues, you’ll be best performing the regular dumbbell shoulder press versus the Arnold press.

How To Do It:

  1. Hold a set of dumbbells shoulder-width apart with your palms facing you.
  2. Open your arms until your palms are facing outwards.
  3. Press the weight up above your head.
  4. Stop before your elbows lock (keeping the tension on your shoulder joint).
  5. Slowly lower to the starting position.
  6. Repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

Use a lower weight than you would for a regular dumbbell press; this movement is all about being controlled and not using momentum. 

3. Dumbbell Push Press

Dumbbell Push Press

The dumbbell push press is an excellent shoulder exercise for overloading your deltoids and challenging your upper body.  

As you’ll be using momentum from your legs to lift the dumbbells above your head, you can generally lift more weight than usual.

This helps you develop strength, power, and muscle mass.

The exercise is an ideal movement for sports-specific training as it’s been shown to improve sports performance in athletes.[1]

However, I wouldn't recommend this movement for beginners. Ideally, you want to build your base strength before adding this upper-body movement to your shoulder workout.

How To Do It:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pick up two dumbbells and lift them to your shoulders.
  3. Bend your knees slightly and rapidly straighten them while pushing the dumbbells above your head.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells and repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

Perform this movement after shoulder presses to help you get a few reps out, increasing your training volume. 

Related Article - Overhead Press Vs Push Press

4. Dumbbell Side Raises

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raises

The dumbbell side raise is one of my favorite isolation exercises to do at home, and I always include a variation of it in my dumbbell shoulder workout.

This exercise works the lateral head of your deltoid, giving your shoulder the roundness you see from the front.

It’s a challenging exercise where you lift the dumbbells to the side until they’re parallel to the floor. It can be performed seated or standing.

How To Do It:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart (legs straight) while holding a set of dumbbells.
  2. Keep your arms slightly bent.
  3. Draw each shoulder blade back.
  4. Slowly raise your arms until they’re parallel to the floor.
  5. Lower in a controlled manner.
  6. Repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

A common mistake I often see with the lateral raise, is people raising the weight too high and engaging too much of their traps. Once you raise the dumbbells to shoulder height, pause there and slowly return to the start.

5. Dumbbell Front Raises

Dumbbell Front Raises

This exercise is one of the best dumbbell shoulder exercises for building mass. I highly recommend you add this to your dumbbell shoulder workout.

The movement primarily targets the front head of your deltoids (anterior delt). 

As it’s an isolation movement, you’ll need to use lighter dumbbells during this movement and focus on technique.

Don't make the typical "gym bro" mistake of swinging the dumbbell upwards; you'll get better results by taking it slow and controlled. This is not the one-arm dumbbell swing.

This is an excellent exercise for building the upper chest as well.

How To Do It:

  1. Stand tall while holding a set of dumbbells at your side with straight arms.
  2. Slightly bend your elbows and ensure your shoulder blades pulled back.
  3. Slowly raise the dumbbells vertically to head height, pausing for a second.
  4. Lower slowly and repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

You can perform this movement with your palms facing inward or downward. Whichever is most comfortable for your shoulder. 

6. Bent Over Dumbbell Side Raises

Bent Over Dumbbell Side Raises

This exercise helps build your posterior deltoids (rear delts), which are often neglected by many gym-goers.

Failure to work this muscle will leave you with underdeveloped shoulders and weakness in your chain.

Training the rear delt reduces your risk of injury as it helps to stabilize your shoulder joint during other movements during your chest and shoulder workout.

How To Do It:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lean forward from your hips with your knees slightly bent.
  3. Have a very slight bend in your elbows.
  4. Raise the arms to the side until they’re shoulder height.
  5. Lower slowly and repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you have an adjustable bench, you can rest your head on an incline bench for stability. 

7. Leaning Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Leaning Dumbbell Lateral Raises

The leaning dumbbell lateral raise is very similar to the standard lateral raise, except it places your body on an angle to increase the movement’s range of motion.

This exercise places your middle delt under a lot of stress, giving you everything you need for round-looking shoulders.

It’s an excellent isolation exercise when performed correctly. I recommend beginners skip this one for now and focus on the traditional lateral raises.

How To Do It:

  1. Hold onto a fixed pole or machine (any vertical pole will do) with your left hand.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand.
  3. Place your feet close to the foot of the bar and lean away.
  4. Keep your left arm straight (so your body is on an angle).
  5. Let the dumbbell hang and slowly lift it to shoulder height.
  6. Lower it slowly, finish your reps and repeat with the opposite arm.

Tips From A Trainer!

Always avoid swinging the weight, I often see people go too heavy and use momentum to lift the dumbbell. Poor form won't target and work the muscles properly. Drop the weight and keep it under control.  

8. Dumbbell Pullover

Dumbbell Pullover

While traditionally the dumbbell pullover is classed as a chest movement, it can make an excellent addition to your front shoulder workout.

This movement is an old-school bodybuilding exercise that the likes of Franco Columbu, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dorian Yates, et al. would have performed.

You can easily perform this exercise at home in your home gym.

How To Do It:

  1. Lie on a bench or on the floor.
  2. Hold a dumbbell using both hands above your chest.
  3. Lift it past your head, stretching your chest and shoulders.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

Avoid this movement if you have shoulder pain/issues or any other joint problems. It can sometimes aggravate an existing injury, there are plenty of other excellent exercises on this list you can try.

9. Dumbbell Shoulder Shrugs

Dumbbell Shoulder Shrugs

You need to grow your neck and traps if you want impressive shoulders.

Dumbbell shoulder shrugs are one of the best exercises you can do to add mass to your traps and will set you apart from other lifters.

It’s a simple exercise to perform, but using the correct technique is crucial.

How To Do It:

  1. Hold a set of dumbbells at your sides and draw your shoulder blades back.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, shrug your shoulder upward (towards your ears).
  3. Pause at the top.
  4. Lower slowly to the start.
  5. Repeat

Tips From A Trainer!

Always use a full range of motion. Sometimes it can be beneficial to reduce weight and focus on your form. 

10. Dumbbell Upright Row

Dumbbell Upright Row

This dumbbell exercise is a compound movement that works your delts, traps, and biceps. As it’s a compound shoulder exercise, you can usually use heavier weights.

However, while this movement is excellent for shoulder development, not everyone will be comfortable performing it.

If you’ve got wrist or shoulder issues, the upright row might aggravate your joints.

How To Do It:

  1. Pick up a set of dumbbells and hold them in front of your hips.
  2. Raise the dumbbells while elevating your elbows (elbows higher than your wrists).
  3. Pause at the top and lower in a controlled manner.
  4. Repeat.

Tips From A Trainer!

Drive the elbows high for the upright row, but don't let your upper arm go past parallel as this can increase the risk of impingement in the shoulders.  

Weekly Training Program For Shoulder Gains!

Now that you have a list of the best exercises to build strong shoulders, we need to talk about how often to train your shoulders.

To get stronger and see muscle growth, in general, you want to make sure you are doing 10-20 weekly working sets per muscle group, training twice per week.

Start on the lower end of the range and increase throughout the training block so you are utilizing progressive overload, one of the key aspects of ensuring you are progressing.

I have provided a training program below you can use to train your shoulders. 

Monday

Exercises

Sets

Reps

Rest

Standing dumbbell press

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Seated Arnold press

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Standing lateral raises

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Dumbbell front raise

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Bent over lateral raises

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Tuesday

  • Back and biceps day - Perform pulling movements

Wednesday

  • Chest and triceps day - Perform pressing movements

Thursday

  • Leg day - Perform leg movements

Friday

Exercises

Sets

Reps

Rest

Dumbbell push press

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Leaning lateral raise 

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Dumbbell front raise

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Dumbbell shoulder shrugs

3

8-12

30-35 Secs

Dumbbell upright row

2

8-12

30-35 Secs

Weekend

  • Rest

Tips From A Trainer!

The best shoulder workouts have rest days. You can structure these however you like; the above is my preference. 

Shoulder Muscles 101 – Anatomy Explained!

Anterior Deltoid

The anterior deltoid is located at the front of your shoulder muscle, sitting just above your chest. It helps you draw your arm towards the middle of your body, placing your shoulder in flexion.

It's an important muscle that assists major lifts such as bench pressing and overhead press. In addition, your front delt gives you shoulder strength and helps stabilize the joint.

Posterior Deltoid

The posterior deltoid is opposite your anterior delt, located on the back of your shoulder. It’s one of the most neglected muscles in the body (in my opinion).

It's responsible for shoulder extension (drawing the arm backwards); if it's undertrained or weak, you'll have a weakness in your chain of movement.

This often results in minor injuries or shoulder pain.

Medial Deltoid

Your medial deltoid or middle shoulder muscle is what gives your shoulder the “roundness” that you can see when people look at you from the front.

It's responsible for raising your arm out to the sides away from your body (e.g., during the lateral raise).

By developing impressive medial delts, you’ll fill your t-shirts and have impressive-looking shoulders.

Rotator Cuff

While it's not usually an area you'd target for muscle building, the rotator cuff is an important muscle that helps protract your shoulder while stabilizing the joint.

If you want healthy shoulder movement, you’ll look after this small muscle and train it equally as you would with all muscle groups.

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior is similar to the rotator cuff as it helps stabilize the shoulder joint. It works in unison with the rotator cuff, mainly during overhead exercises.  

Man Stretching his Shoulders on a Power Rack Upright

3 Benefits Of Working Out Deltoids With Dumbbells

There are several benefits to working out with dumbbells, especially while you’re performing dumbbell shoulder exercises.

1. Unilateral Development

When you use dumbbells during your shoulder workout, each arm has to work independently from the other. This is also known as unilateral development.

As each arm works unilaterally, it helps you develop an even amount of size and strength in both arms without developing any imbalances.

Muscular imbalances are relatively common amongst beginners but can occur at any point throughout your muscle-building journey. And trust me, it’s annoying when it happens.

Dumbbells also improve your shoulder stability as the weight truly is free moving.

However, your shoulder's stabilizing muscles must work extra hard to steady the dumbbell as you work your upper arm.

2. Improved Exercise Selection

Using barbells is great, but you’re often limited in the exercises you can perform. This is particularly true when it comes to your shoulder workout.

Dumbbells are the perfect tool to have in your arsenal if you want to develop impressive-looking shoulders.

By using dumbbells, you can perform a wide range of exercises that you couldn’t do with a barbell, including lateral raise, Arnold press, real delt raise, single arm press, and more.

With dumbbells, you can hit your shoulders from every angle. This is ideal as it allows you to adjust any movement to how your body naturally wants to move, helping you avoid injuries or strains.

3. Core Integration

I've already mentioned that dumbbells increase the amount your shoulder's stabilizers are activated during each movement. Your core also works incredibly hard too.

When you use dumbbells, there are a wide variety of stances, unilateral and bilateral loading, and ranges of motion that can be used.

Unilateral loading creates a constant battle as your body tries to keep your standing, sitting, or kneeling upright.

I love including unilateral dumbbell movements in my client’s shoulder workouts; it provides them with a real challenge that integrates their core. 

Man Sitting on a Tire Outside Doing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

4 Important Tips When Doing Shoulder Workouts

1. Always Warm-Up The Shoulder

Before you begin any workout, you should always warm the muscles up. This is especially the case with your shoulders.

The shoulders are a complex area that needs to be primed before you start your shoulder workout. The last thing you want is to injure yourself and set yourself back a few weeks.

A good warm-up should include a mixture of arm swings and arm rotations, along with some basic shoulder and arm movements. I highly recommend using a light resistance band to help with your warm-up.

A complete dynamic warm-up and a short 5-minute row does the trick for me.

2. Get Hydrated

You want to perform well, right? - If so, you need to ensure you’re adequately hydrated.

Not only does proper hydration help with your performance, but it also helps with your post-training recovery.

Drinking water or electrolytes during and after exercise is highly recommended, especially if you want to maximize your recovery and increase the size of your shoulder muscles.

3. Eat A Healthy Diet With Good Nutrition

Nutrition is key to developing your body’s muscles. Your body can’t grow without the correct level of nutrients, leaving you with lackluster results.

Placing your body in a slight caloric surplus will help you increase your overall muscle mass. Personally, I've found one of the most important factors is eating the right amount of protein.

You should aim for roughly 1g of protein per lb of body weight.

4. Get Plenty Of Rest (For Muscles Growth)

I know it sounds simple, but most of us don’t get enough rest. However, to maximize muscle growth, you must rest your body adequately. There are two ways to do so:

  1. Get enough sleep each night (at least 7 hours).
  2. Plan rest days into your workout routines.

Yeah, rest days are essential. Think of them as “growth days” if it makes you feel better.

Common Questions About Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Is training shoulders once a week enough?

While training your shoulders once per week is enough to develop your muscles, research has shown that you’ll get the best results from training each muscle group twice weekly.[2] However, personally, I’ve had excellent results training my and my client’s shoulders once per week.

Do shoulders respond better to higher reps?

It depends on your goals; if you want to grow your shoulders (which is the point of this article), then recent studies have shown that reps and loading aren’t quite as important as initially thought. So long as you’re taking the muscles to the same level of fatigue, it doesn’t matter if you’re using 10 reps or 20 reps.[3]

How long does it take to build bigger shoulders?

Muscle building takes a lot longer than losing fat. Generally, you’ll notice shoulder gains within 12 weeks, but I recommend playing the long game here and planning your shoulder growth over the next year or more.

Can I train my shoulders every day?

It all depends on how much volume you do and the intensity of your dumbbell shoulder workout. Ideally, you want to leave at least 72 hours between shoulder workouts to allow for adequate recovery. Always remember that rest is crucial for muscle recovery (and muscle growth).

Conclusion

If you want boulder-like shoulders, you need to have a killer workout to give your shoulders the stimulus they need to grow.

Still, it can be challenging to know which exercises are the best.

Luckily, the article above gives you the best shoulder workouts with dumbbells that you can perform in your home gym.

Add them to your workout, and you’ll be buying new t-shirts in no time.

References: 

  1. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2014/09000/power_and_impulse_applied_during_push_press.19.aspx
  2. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8
  3. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/9/2/32
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