Woman does dumbbell shoulder exercises outside

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Want to Strengthen Your Shoulders? Grab Your Dumbbells—and Try These 5 Exercises

It's definitely arm day.

By Amber SayerFebruary 5, 2024

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When it comes to your arm workouts, you may be focused on building your biceps and triceps. But it’s just as important to strengthen your shoulders. And dumbbell shoulder exercises are an effective way to work the major muscles in your shoulders, as well as the smaller ones that provide stability to these critical joints. 

Here, Jermaine Johnson, a Peloton instructor, breaks down the benefits of dumbbell shoulder exercises and offers a few to try. 

What Muscles Do Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises Work? 

You’ve likely familiar with your deltoids, commonly referred to as your “delts.” They consist of three sections: your anterior deltoids, your middle or lateral deltoids, and your posterior or rear deltoids.

Your anterior deltoids help with shoulder flexion, the motion in which you bring your arm straight in front of your body and then back overhead. Your middle or lateral deltoids aid in shoulder abduction, the motion in which you bring your arms out to the side. And your rear deltoids assist with shoulder extension, the action of bringing your arm behind your body.

Although most dumbbell shoulder exercises primarily target the deltoids, a well-rounded workout will also strengthen the smaller stabilizing muscles of the shoulder joint. This includes your rotator cuff muscles, a group of four smaller muscles that provide stability to your shoulder joint.

The Benefits of Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

The importance of dumbbell shoulder exercises goes beyond just building strength for that overhead lift or extended plank hold. “Strengthening the muscles in your shoulders is crucial, as they play a pivotal role in supporting various daily activities,” Jermaine says. “These muscles are vital for maintaining proper posture, stability, and range of motion in your upper body. From reaching for items overhead to lifting and carrying objects, strong shoulder muscles contribute significantly to functional movements in everyday life.” 

Below, Jermaine lists some of the other benefits of dumbbell shoulder exercises:

  • Enhances your shoulder stability

  • Improves your muscular endurance

  • Promotes muscle development 

  • Helps your mobility

How to Warm Up Your Shoulders Before Working Out

As always, make sure to warm up your body before doing any type of exercise. Jermaine adds that preparing your shoulders for a workout is crucial to preventing injury and optimizing your performance.

“Warm-up exercises like arm circles, shoulder rolls, and gentle stretches help increase blood flow and flexibility in the shoulder joints,” he says. “Additionally, performing light sets of the intended exercises with proper form helps activate and prepare the shoulder muscles for more intense movements.” Don’t be afraid to run through these exercises with just your body weight before adding dumbbells. Unsure of where to start? Try a warm-up on the Peloton App.

5 Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises to Try 

Man does an overhead press, a dumbbell shoulder exercise

1. Dumbbell Overhead Presses

Check to see if you can do this exercise with the correct form before adding dumbbells, Jermaine says. “Ensure your posture is correct throughout the movement, with controlled and deliberate movement,” he adds. “If unsure, seeking guidance from a certified fitness professional can help ensure proper technique and reduce the risk of injury.”

  1. Begin kneeling or standing. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Your palms should face forward. 

  2. Press the dumbbells overhead, fully extending your arms. Avoid locking out your elbows. 

  3. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to shoulder height. Repeat for the desired number of reps. Focus on maintaining a stable core, keeping your back straight, and avoiding excessive arching. 

Man does a frontal raise, dumbbell shoulder exercises

2. Dumbbell Frontal Raises

This exercise targets the anterior fibers of your deltoids.

  1. Stand upright with good posture. Keep your core tight, your chest up, and your shoulders relaxed and down away from your ears. Your feet should be hip-width apart. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed between your feet. 

  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms straight down in front of your body. Your palms should face your body. 

  3. Keeping your core and glutes tight, inhale as you bring the dumbbells straight out in front of your body. Pause when your arms are parallel to the floor and the dumbbells are at chest height. Squeeze your shoulders and keep your chest up. 

  4. Slowly lower your arms back down. 

  5. Perform eight to 12 reps.

Man does a lateral raise with dumbbells, dumbbell shoulder exercises

3. Dumbbell Lateral Raises

This move targets the middle fibers of your deltoids.

  1. Stand upright with good posture. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your arms straight down at your sides. Your palms should face your body. 

  2. Keeping your core and glutes tight, inhale as you bring the dumbbells straight out to the sides of your body. Your arms should form the letter T. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Keep your chest up.

  3. Pause at the top position. Your arms should be parallel to the ground.  

  4. Slowly lower your arms back down to your sides.

  5. Perform eight to 12 reps.

Man does a reverse fly, a dumbbell shoulder exercise

4. Dumbbell Reverse Fly

The reverse fly is one of the best dumbbell exercises for your posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and middle traps. Plus, it helps combat poor posture. 

  1. Stand upright with good posture. Position your feet hip-width distance apart. Hold one dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms. Your palms should face your body. 

  2. Hinge from your hips to create a flat back as you bend forward and push your glutes back. Avoid rounding your back. Think about pressing your chest up. 

  3. Lift your arms out to the sides of your body. (Imagine you’re a bird flapping your wings.) Squeeze your shoulder blades together. 

  4. Hold the squeeze at the top position for one to two seconds. 

  5. Slowly lower the weights back down until they meet together under your body. Your arms should hang straight down below your chest. Perform eight to 12 reps.

Dumbbell Thrusters

Dumbbell Thrusters

For a full body exercise that works your legs, core, and shoulders, practice thrusters with dumbbells. In this movement, you’ll use the power from your squat to help lift the weight overhead. As a result, you may be able to use a heavier weight than you would typically select for an overhead press. 

  1. Stand upright with good posture. Keep your core tight, your chest up, and your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears. Your feet should be hip-width apart with your weight evenly distributed between your feet.

  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Your palms should face forward or inward. 

  3. Keeping your core and glutes tight, inhale as you bend your knees and sit your hips back into a partial squat. 

  4. When your knees are almost bent to 90 degrees, push through your heels to stand all the way up. 

  5. As you straighten, explosively press the dumbbells straight overhead.

  6. Pause briefly. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to shoulder height as you bend your hips and knees, moving into the next squat to start your next rep.

  7. Perform 10 to 15 reps.

How to Select Your Weight for Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Depending on the strength of your shoulders, you may need to start with light dumbbells for some of these exercises, around two to five pounds. Once you’re able to do eight to 12 reps with good form, you can consider a heavier weight. 

On the other hand, if you’re struggling to eke out eight reps with proper form, or you’re “cheating“ by using momentum or gravity to help hoist the dumbbells, use a lighter weight.

If you experience any pain, pinching, instability, or tightness in your shoulders when you are practicing these shoulder exercises, you should stop the exercise immediately. Consider working with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer to ensure that you’re completing the exercise properly and don’t have any underlying shoulder injuries.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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