The Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises To Build Bigger Shoulders

Huge, rounded shoulders are impossible to miss. Whether you’re wearing a tank top or a suit, they provide a statement; you’re a person who’s fit, strong, and powerful. Wide shoulders also accentuate the classic ‘V’ shaped upper body that is the trademark of an athlete. Building boulder shoulders, though, takes some serious effort. The good news is that you can do it with nothing but a pair of dumbbells.

As a certified personal trainer I’ve been helping men and women to build wider, more rounded shoulders for decades. Often those workouts take place in home gyms with limited equipment. As a result, I’ve had to swap out some of my favorite delt destroyers like the front cable shoulder press, prowler sled, and wall ball exercises with dumbbell alternatives. 

I recommend that, if they haven’t already got a set, my clients invest in a pair of adjustable dumbbells. In this article, I lay out the exact same workout that I use with my home-based clients who are striving to max out the size of their shoulders. 

Shoulder Anatomy

The muscle that we refer to as the shoulders or deltoids, is actually made up of three different portions, known as heads. Each muscle head has its own point of origin and insertion on your bones. As a result, they each have a unique function and direction of movement. 

This is a vital point to comprehend. Most of the skeletal muscles have more than one ‘head’. But the vast majority of them, such as the biceps, have the same origin and insertion points. That means that they have the same function, only being able to move in unison. That is not the case with the shoulders. Each of the three heads needs to be worked through a different direction of movement. That means that, when you’re working your shoulders, you need to be doing different exercises to target each of the three heads.

The three heads of the shoulders are …

  • Anterior (front) head
  • Lateral (medial) head
  • Posterior (rear) head

The anterior, or front, deltoid originates on the outer half of the clavicle and inserts on the deltoid tuberosity, at the top of your upper arm.  Any movement that involves pulling the upper arm forwards or upward involves this muscle group. 

The best movement, however, is one that starts with the humerus alongside the body, near the ribs, and somewhat behind the torso, then moves the arms forwards and upward such that the hands meet in line with the clavicles. This will move the anterior head through its full range of movement.

The lateral head originates on the outer edge of the acromion process, and scapula, at the base of the neck and inserts on the deltoid tuberosity, which is located at the top of the humerus, or upper arm. This muscle's function is to elevate your arm from your sides outward and upward until it is parallel to the floor.

The posterior, or rear, delts originate on the upper ridge of the scapula (shoulder blades), and insert on the deltoid tuberosity, along with the other two heads. Its main job is to move the upper arm (humerus) out and down. 

The Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

As we’ve established, an effective shoulder workout will target each of the three heads of the deltoids separately. Here are the best dumbbell exercises for each head.

2 Best Dumbbell Exercises for the Anterior Deltoids

How To Do It:

  1. Grab an adjustable bench, and set it to a 90-degree incline. Dumbbells in hand, sit on the bench and place your arms by your sides.
  2. Bring the weights up to ear level, with your hands facing away from your body and forearms pointed upward. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor.
  3. Press the dumbbells above your head. Keep your shoulders relaxed, not stiff. Stop just short of lockup to maintain time under tension.
  4. Lower under control to take advantage of the eccentric portion of the rep.

Personal Trainer Tips:

  • Keep your back straight and focus just on moving your arms, not the rest of your body. 
  • Use a weight that won't require you to sway your back to lift it. If you can, use a spotter for your final set.

You don’t have to miss your workouts when you’re on the road. Here’s how you can maintain your fitness routine even while traveling

Lying Front Deltoid Press

How To Do It:

  1. Lie on a flat bench with a pair of dumbbells held with an underhand grip (palms facing the ceiling).
  2. In the start position the dumbbells should be held alongside your waist, with your elbows below the level of the bench. The elbows should be tucked in at your sides.
  3. Press the dumbbells up to meet together above your clavicles.
  4. Lower under control and repeat.

Personal Trainer Tips:

  • Your arms should come up in a scooping motion. 

3 Best Dumbbell Exercises for the Lateral Deltoids

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

How To Do It:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a pair of dumbbells held at arm's length.
  2. In the starting position the dumbbells should be touching in front of your body with your elbows slightly bent.
  3. Pivot from the elbow, to bring the arms out to a perpendicular position to the torso.
  4. Lower under control to the start position. 

Personal Trainer Tips:

  • Keep your elbows slightly bent but locked in position throughout the exercise. The only movement should be through the shoulder joint.
  • Do not use a weight that is too heavy or you’ll be forced to swing.
  • Control the dumbbells all the way down to prevent momentum.

Unilateral Wall Press Lateral Raise

How To Do It:

  1. Stand alongside a wall with a dumbbell in your outer hand at your side. Press your inner arm into the wall for stability.
  2. Pivot from the shoulder joint to bring the outer arm up and out until it is at shoulder level.
  3. Lower under control to return to an arm at your side position.
  4. Do all of your reps with one and arm and then switch sides. 

Personal Trainer Tips:

  • Do not bend your elbow while doing the exercise - the only movement is through the shoulder joint.
  • Do not come up any higher than shoulder level.
  • Resist the pull of gravity on the descent. 

Kneeling Lateral Raise

How To Do It:

  1. Kneel on the floor with a pair of dumbbells held in front of your body. Maintain an upright torso position with a neutral spine. 
  2. In the starting position the dumbbells should be touching in front of your body with your elbows slightly bent.
  3. Pivot from the elbow, to bring the arms out to a perpendicular position to the torso.
  4. Lower under control to the start position. 

Personal Trainer Tips:

  • This is a stricter version of the lateral raise because it takes the lower body out of the movement. You may have to use a slightly lighter weight to maintain good form. 

Best Dumbbell Exercise for the Posterior Deltoids

Rear Delt Flyes

How To Do It:

  1. Sit on the edge of a bench with your feet together and a light pair of dumbbells in your hands. Lean forward so that your torso is at 45-degrees to the floor. Maintain a neutral spine position as you bring the dumbbells together in front of your shins. Your elbows should be slightly bent and locked in position.
  2. Pivot from the shoulder joint to bring your arm up to shoulder level and slightly back.
  3. Lower under control and repeat.

Personal Trainer Tips:

  • Use a lightweight - this is a small muscle group.
  • Do not move your torso to avoid bringing momentum into the movement. 

Putting It All Together

Here's a 4 exercise workout that hits all three deltoid heads for a complete training experience. 




Seated Shoulder Press



Lying Front Deltoid Press


30, 20, 15, 10

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raises


30, 20, 15, 10

Rear Delt Flyes


30, 20, 15, 10


Why Train Your Shoulders?

We’ve already established that developing your shoulders is going to make you look more muscular, powerful and athletic. But building your shoulders is about more than just looking good. Building up those shoulders can be a functional thing as well, such as when you're lifting heavy boxes or engaging in some sort of sports related hobby like archery. And if you’ve ever spent time painting or sanding a ceiling, you’ll appreciate how much easier those jobs will be when you’ve got well developed delts. 


Many people develop shoulder pain as they get older. This is often due to constant bending over a desk at work. Remember, you want to be an athlete for life so as long as you take care of your body, your body will take care of you well into old age. 


A regular, well-structured shoulder workout will enhance shoulder stability and mobility, helping to relieve shoulder pain. It will also increase the strength of the rotator cuff muscles, which support shoulder stability. 


Shoulder workouts can also improve a person’s posture. You’ll be able to reduce shoulder tension with stronger and more active posterior deltoids to pull your shoulders back. 

The Benefits of Dumbbells for Shoulder Training

Let me be completely straight up with you here. Dumbbells are not my favorite shoulder training tool. But they are my second favorite. The number one spot goes to the cable machine. That’s because cables allow you to load the muscle with a resistance that is in line with the direction of the muscle fiber. When you use dumbbells, the direction of resistance is always straight up and down in line with gravity. Cables also provide constant tension, which is not the case with dumbbells.


Of course, not everybody has access to a cable pulley machine. That’s where dumbbells come in. I always use dumbbells rather than barbells when working shoulders Here’s why …

External Rotation


When carrying loads at the gym, it's crucial to prevent internal shoulder rotation. As your shoulders start to rotate internally with weight, the joint space between the humerus (upper arm bone) and clavicle (collarbone) becomes more restricted. Basically, this is when the shoulder joint rotates in a clockwise direction. If it internally rotates too much, the rotator cuff tendons and ligaments may be compressed, causing pain and eventually damaging those tendons.


When using dumbbells, you have free hand movement that makes it much easier to achieve and maintain an external rotation position than when using a barbell, which locks you into a light internal rotation position. 

Unilateral Training

Unilateral training is when you train each side of a muscle independently. You can’t do that with a barbell. That’s because a single weight is being pushed by both sides of the muscle. Your stronger side will take a disproportionate amount of the weight, leading to lopsided strength and muscle development.


When you’re working with dumbbells, though, each side of your shoulder muscles has its own load. That forces it to take the entire load. Using dumbbells also forces the rotator cuff muscles to be more fully engaged in order to stabilize the shoulders as you are handling the dumbbells. 

Wrap Up

This is the exact program that I’ve been using with bodybuilders, athletes, and everyday Joes for decades, with amazing results. The targeted exercises and varied rep range will hit every single muscle fiber, giving your shoulder no option but to grow. Do this workout twice per week, with at least 48 hours to recover between sessions (you’ll need it!). 

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