9 exercises to build swole shoulders using just dumbbells

Forget machines and barbells, addd serious size to your shoulders using the humble dumbbell

Man performing shoulder press exercise with dumbbells
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Training shoulders is almost as fun as training biceps because it can leave you with a good ol’pump and make the upper body look mighty, contributing to that superhero V-shape that we all want. 

While there are a ton of great weight machines, barbell exercises (and even bodyweight exercises) out there that can help pack on size to your shoulders, today we’re going back to the classic and the humble dumbbell. Not only is a pair of dumbbells an accessible piece of home gym equipment, but your shoulders will get plenty of benefit from training with them too. 

Whether you need exercises to add to your push day or just want to focus on your shoulders entirely, you can take your pick from our favourite dumbbell shoulder exercises below.

Shoulder anatomy

A picture of the front and rear deltoid muscles

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are three main portions of the shoulder muscle: the front, middle, and rear deltoids. If you want to add dimension to your shoulders you need to hit all three. So, before we jump into the exercises, here’s a brief breakdown of them:

  • Anterior deltoid – This is located at the front of your shoulder and it helps to move your arms upwards, for example reaching to grab an item off a shelf. It also helps your shoulder rotate internally too.
  • Lateral deltoid – This is located in the middle of your shoulder and it helps to move your arms away from the body. Training the middle deltoids can help your shoulders appear wider.
  • Posterior deltoid – This is located on the back of your shoulder and it helps to keep them pulled back, alongside muscles in the back too. This prevents your shoulders from hunching forward, which can lead to stress in the shoulders and back. It’s a smaller muscle that can often get overlooked by the larger front and middle deltoid muscles, but it’s important to include in your training.

Benefits of using dumbbells for shoulder exercises

  • Can train unilaterally (using one arm at a time) helping prevent imbalances
  • Wider variety of weight, so good option for beginners
  • Allows for a greater range of motion
  • Safer if training alone

Dumbbell shoulder exercises

1. Shoulder press

Man doing dumbbell shoulder press

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

This is the most common exercise you’ll see people busting out on the gym floor. Although it predominantly works the front of your shoulders, it’s a compound move and also works the triceps, upper back, and chest. Perform either standing or seated on a weight bench. However, note that for the former you will probably have to decrease your weight to do these properly and not use too much momentum from your lower body. 

2. Arnold press

Man performing Arnold press

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Want to take your shoulder press a step further? Give the Arnold press a go. Named after Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, this exercise hits all three deltoid heads, but also the traps, triceps, and upper chest. Nick Mitchell, Founder of Ultimate Performance, previously told us that by rotating your palms throughout this movement you engage more muscle fibres, which means more gains. After all, who doesn’t want shoulders like Arnie? 

3. Alternating front raises

man doing front raises with dumbbells

(Image credit: Getty Images)

This exercise is regarded as ‘one of the best’ shoulder exercises in one of by Strength and Conditioning Coach and Founder of Athlean X, Jeff Cavaliere, and it fires up the front delts. This exercise can be performed with a straight bar, but using dumbbells allows you to work unilaterally, using one arm at a time. In a YouTube video Jeff  says: “This affords us the benefit of getting a really strong focus on the muscle we’re trying to build and focus on getting a good contraction at the same time.” 

4. Lateral raises

Man performing Poliquin raises in his home

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Lateral raises are excellent for hitting the middle delt, which is the area that gives your shoulder that ‘capped look’ we’re all after. However, to reap its benefits you've got to do it properly. We’re talking slow, controlled reps, so that you really feel that contraction at the top of the movement and then lowering the dumbbells steadily. To do this, you’ll want to opt for a lighter weight, so best to leave your ego at the door for this one.

  • Want to make the lateral raises more challenging? Try the Poliquin raise

5. Chest supported rear delt flys

A picture of someone performing rear delt flyes on a weight bench

(Image credit: Getty Images)

As the name states, this exercise hits the back of your shoulders, which, as a smaller muscle, can be harder to target with some other shoulder exercises. It will also hit your upper back muscles too. Rear delt flyes can be performed either standing in a hip hinge position, or sat down, but we suggest using an adjustable weight bench and setting it on an incline to support your chest. This will stop other muscles, like the lower back, from getting too involved. Keep the weight light and pause at the top.

6. Upright rows

Man performing dumbbell upright row

(Image credit: Getty Images)

These work the front and middle deltoids, as well as the traps. They are, however, a slightly controversial exercise, that some people love and others hate. This is because it can cause shoulder impingement in some people (where the tendon in your shoulder catches and rubs on the nearby bone called the acromion). To help prevent this, nailing your form is key: maintain a neutral back, lift the dumbbells so that your shoulders are in line with your elbows, and don't have your hands any closer together than shoulder width apart. 

7. Incline Y raises

Woman performing Y raises in gym

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Another one for the back of your shoulders and upper back. Don't be surprised that you'll be dropping the weight quite a bit with these, as they're hard! Again, you can perform standing, but you may be inclined to start swinging with your body for extra momentum. We therefore suggest supporting your chest on an inclined bench instead for some extra stability which will help you hone in on those rear delts muscles.

8. Seesaw press

A man performing seesaw shoulder press

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The seesaw press is similar to an alternating shoulder press, but your hands are in a neutral grip (palms facing inwards) and you move the dumbbells interchangeably – so when one dumbbell is in the air the other is in front of the shoulder, then as you bring the dumbbell that's in the air down, you move the other dumbbell upwards at the same time. It works the front deltoids mostly, as well as the triceps, traps and core. It's more geared towards strength than hypertrophy, as using the arms interchangeably allows you to push more weight.

9. Shrugs

A woman performing dumbbell shoulder shrugs

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Ok, dumbbell shrugs don't primarily target the shoulders, they actually target your traps, which is a large muscle that starts at the bottom of the neck and runs along the back of your shoulders and down your back. So, while it may not primarily target the deltoid muscles, it can certainly enhance their overall appearance and make them look more dimensional. It's a great exercise for all abilities too, so beginners can take it on too. Just make sure you reach for a weight that you can actually shrug with proper form.

Bryony Firth-Bernard
Staff Writer, Active

Bryony’s T3’s official ‘gym-bunny’ and Active Staff Writer, covering all things fitness. In her spare time, you will find her in her natural habitat - the gym - where her style of training is a hybrid of bodybuilding and powerlifting. Bryony loves writing about accessible workouts, nutrition and testing innovative fitness products that help you reach your fitness goals and take your training to the next level.