The 8 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Shoulders

The 8 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Shoulders

There’s perhaps no more underrated part of the body than the shoulders, which are called upon to perform countless tasks in sports and everyday life. There’s a reason it’s called “shouldering a burden” rather than “bicepting” or “kneeing” a burden.

No muscle group carries a load more effectively, while looking as powerful, like the shoulders. Quarterbacks, swimmers, tennis players, and baseball pitchers rely upon their shoulders, along with their hips and core, to drive their arms and deliver powerful strokes and throws.

Unfortunately, our shoulders take a beating in everyday life from sitting hunched over computers, behind steering wheels, and gazing at smartphones. As a result, we’re more prone than previous generations to be hunched over. Studies show that 18 to 26 percent of adults experience shoulder pain at any given time.

Dumbbells are especially effective at challenging the shoulders since the dumbbells force us to stabilize at the joint, creating both strength and stability.

With this dumbbell workout, we’ll work through four sets of these eight moves in a circuit fashion to produce shoulders and traps capable of handling most any burdens. We will alternate between pushing and pulling movements, so we can produce maximum results with minimal time and equipment, resting only briefly between sets.

Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press

What it does: The alternating dumbbell press challenges the shoulders to stabilize more than a barbell bench. The extra pulse at the end also works the shoulders.

How to do it: Lying faceup on a bench, holding dumbbells at the outside of your shoulders and with palms facing your thighs, lift both dumbbells over your chest. Keeping on arm straight, lower the other dumbbell, touch the outside of your shoulder, and push it back up. At the top of the movement, push farther with both hands, as if trying to punch the ceiling.

How many? 4 sets of 10 reps

Dumbbell Incline Row

What it does: With your chest down, it places more of an emphasis on moving from your shoulders, providing the intended benefit to the back and shoulders.

How to do it: Lie chest down on an adjustable bench set at a comfortable angle between 30 and 45 degrees. With a dumbbell in each hand, bring your shoulder blades back and together as you row the weights to your sides. Return to starting position.

How many? 4 sets of 10 reps.

Dumbbell Bench – One Arm

What it does: This provides all of the shoulder and chest benefits of a traditional dumbbell press while also placing more emphasis on stabilizing the shoulder.

How to do it: Lie on a bench with your left glute and left shoulder blade on the bench and right glute and right shoulder blade off the bench. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand and hold on to the bench with your left hand above your head. Lower the weight until your elbow is in line with your shoulder. Return to starting position. Continue for 10 reps and then switch sides.

How many? 4 sets of 10 reps.

Dumbbell Upright Row

What it does: It’s a familiar yet effective compound movement that strengthens and stabilizes the shoulders and upper back while also challenging the triceps.

How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells palms down in front of your body. While keeping the shoulder blades back and chest up, raise dumbbells vertically, lifting elbows to the ceiling. Return to starting position.

How many? 4 sets of 10.

Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Flys

What it does: It hits your rhomboids, which support shoulder movement, open up the chest and help give you a broad back.

How to do it: Holding a dumbbell in each hand with feet shoulder-width apart, keep your back straight as you lean forward to become slightly bent over. Hold the weights together and then slowly bring them out to the sides. Keep the arms slightly bent and pull the elbows out behind. This is more of a back and shoulder move than a chest exercise.

How many? 4 sets of 10 reps.

One-Arm, One-Leg Dumbbell Row

What it does: This is a total body exercise that works the hamstrings and lats, but the deep row targets the shoulders, too.

How to do it: Stand on one leg, gripping a stable surface in front of you (perhaps the dumbbell rack) with one hand. Bend by dropping your chest and lifting the leg opposite your free hand. Grab a dumbbell with your free hand. Pull it to the side of your waist and then lower it. Do 10 and switch sides.

How many? 4 sets of 10 reps per side.

Farmer’s Carry

What it does: This improves overall core strength, but the key to it is to keep the shoulders back and down. They truly shoulder the burden on this move.

How to do it: While holding dumbbells, walk 10 yards out and 10 yards back. Don’t hunch over. Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down and fire your glutes as you walk. This can be a challenging move at first, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you’re able to walk further or increase the weight.

How many? 4 sets.

Renegade Rows

What it does: It’s a simple yet challenging move that hits the shoulders, and also the triceps, biceps, and back.

How to do it: Start in the top position of a pushup with your hands on dumbbells shoulder-width apart. Row one dumbbell toward the side of your body while balancing on the opposite hand and feet. Pause for one second at the top and return the weight slowly to the start position. Repeat on the other side.

How many? 4 sets of 10 reps per side.


Pete Williams is a NASM-CPT and the author or co-author of several fitness books, including Core Performance and Every Day is Game Day. His work has appeared in publications such as Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, and USA Today.