How to shoulder press: grab some dumbbells and say hello to cannonball shoulders

The seated dumbbell shoulder press is a move everyone should have in their big arms arsenal

Alex Crockford
(Image credit: Alex Crockford)

Mastering the dumbbell overhead press is a surefire way of building solid shoulders, strengthening an often weak area and generally bulking up the top of the arms for a desirable ‘V-shaped’ physique.

Not to be confused with the standing shoulder press, or military press, this exercise hones in on the shoulders by requiring you to sit on the  best weight bench you can lay your hands – and body  – on. Or find a stable surface, at least, so removing any additional power provided by the legs and core muscles. It’s also predominantly carried out with the best dumbbells, rather than a barbell, meaning you can go much lighter with the weight, focussing on form and ironing out any imbalances in the left and right shoulder muscles.

It is a great exercise if you find the overhead press a little daunting and who doesn’t? Raising an iron bar above your head without whacking your chin or straining your neck is tricky and takes a bit of time to master. 

Instead, the seated dumbbell shoulder press makes a great addition to an upper body push routine, perhaps sprinkled in with the bench press and other more specific tricep and shoulder exercises. 

Take a look below for some of our suggested workouts to compliment this exercise:

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

Protect your shoulders

According to the International Journal of Sports Medicine, the most commonly injured body part during intense strength training workouts is the shoulder, closely followed by the elbow, lumbar spine and knee regions.

This is because your rotator cuff, which consists of four muscles that surround the shoulder blade (scapula) and help to hold the arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder joint, often places mobility before stability. It’s also a massively complicated joint that is made up of lots of parts, so it’s difficult to work out what is causing an issue.

As a species, we also now spend a lot of time at desks, on smartphones, driving or generally slumped on the sofa with rounded shoulders, so suddenly introducing resistance exercises can be a shock to the joint, especially if it isn’t positioned correctly for the move.

With that in mind, it’s important to properly warm up the shoulders before embarking on the seated dumbbell overhead press. Don’t assume that just shaking your arms around is enough. Try this instead: 

Build bigger, stronger shoulders


(Image credit: Grenade)

How to perform a seated dumbbell overhead press

For this move, you’ll need a set of dumbbells and a workout bench, preferably one where you can adjust the angle. You can find our suggestions for great dumbbells here, and a look at some of the best workout benches on sale right now here.

If access to these items is tricky, simply find a stable surface, like a sturdy chair or step, and hunt down some heavy items to hold in each hands. Just make sure they are of equal weight, so you’re not building in unwanted imbalances.

1. Absolute beginners should start by setting up a bench so there is no support for the back and neck, as this will encourage you to create a stronger, more solid core and better posture, rather than forcing you to push your head and neck into the pad upon pressing, which can lead to injury.

2. Start with a light weight, even if that’s only 2kg in each hand, as this will act as a warm-up set for the more advanced lifters and won’t put excess strain on the shoulders for newcomers.

3. From a seated position, with feet planted on the ground, an upright torso and gaze looking directly in front, grip the dumbbells with an overhand grip (knuckles facing towards your body) and lift them so they are resting on your shoulders, so knuckles point towards your neck.

4. Now, slowly rotate the elbows outwards so they are parallel with the floor below and form a 45-degree angle with the body. Keep the wrists straight (don’t let them bend backwards), pull the scapula back slightly and press the weights above your head, exhaling as you do so.

5. Ensure there is no pressure on the lower back, if there is, the weights are too heavy, and try not to lock out the elbows at the top of the move. This will only disengage the muscles you are trying to work. Slowly lower back until the weights are inline with the ears, no lower, controlling the descent and keeping the shoulder muscles under tension for longer.

How to make the seated dumbbell overhead press harder

As with any strength training routine, the idea is to gradually overload the muscle group with time and the same can be said here. The seated dumbbell overhead press can be performed with some pretty heavy weights, but we wouldn’t recommend it until you are very comfortable with the movement and are 100 per cent sure it is just the shoulder muscles being worked, nothing else.

Introducing a back rest once familiar with the mechanics is a good way of removing any intervention from the core muscles, so long as you aren’t digging the back of your head into the pad every time you press. This will only put strain on your neck and lead to injury or pain over time.

Tempo is likely to be the most beneficial factor here and slowing down your movements while very gradually adding weight will lead to the biggest gains. A slow upward press (concentric) and a controlled lowering phase (eccentric) will keep the major muscles of the shoulder under tension, leading to a deep burning sensation as the reps climb. This shouldn’t be mistaken for shoulder pain, as you’re merely working those muscles hard. Let the gains begin.

On recovery and nutrition

To avoid any injuries and to help recovery, stretch after every strength training session (and after every cardio sessions as well). Foam rollers can be found in most gyms and you can buy them on Amazon too, a quick and inexpensive way to massage the tired muscles.

Resistance bands are not only great for workouts but they are also an effective way to stretch your shoulder muscles out after a workout or warm them up prior.

You might want to keep an eye out for your protein intake as well. If you are doing strength training, try taking in around 2 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 70 kg, you'll need to eat 140 grams of protein per day. Humans haven't got protein reserves, so you have to continuously take protein in throughout the day. 

And make sure you drink plenty of water as well. A decent gym water bottle doesn't cost all that much.

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Leon Poultney
Leon Poultney

Leon has been writing about automotive and consumer tech for longer than he cares to divulge. If he’s not testing the latest fitness wearable and action camera, he’s out in a shed fawning over his motorcycles or trying not to kill himself on a mountain bike/surfboard/other extreme thing.