Dumbbell Shoulder Press (How To, Muscles Worked, Benefits)

The dumbbell shoulder press is a great movement for upper body strength. The dumbbell implement allows the shoulders to move very naturally and engages the stabilizing musculature to keep the shoulders healthy.

The dumbbell press and its variations are used by strength and conditioning specialists, physical therapists, powerlifters, bodybuilders, and general population lifters for overhead pressing strength.

In this guide, I will go over how to do the dumbbell overhead press, coaching points, common mistakes, muscles worked, and more.

How To Do Dumbbell Shoulder Presses

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Stand with the dumbbells next to you.
  • Hinge and the waist and bend the knees until you can grab the dumbbells.
  • Keep a neutral spine, and a nice flat back, and lift the dumbbells into your pressing position.
  • I recommend palms face away or toward each other (whichever feels more comfortable).
  • Brace the abdominal muscles and engage the upper back.
  • Press the dumbbells directly overhead. The dumbbells should not track forward.
  • Lock the reps out and pause for about 1 second with each repetition.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position to prepare for the next repetition.

Coaching Points

Keep the core engaged as you press. If you feel you are arching your back as you reach closer to lockout, consider going down in weight.

Remember this is not a push press. This is a purely upper-body pressing movement. If you are using your legs, even slightly, this would be called a Push Press. The push press is a great movement as well BUT a shoulder press should be focused on the shoulders, no cheating.

How Many Reps?

Dumbbell Shoulder Press is a primary shoulder strength exercise. However, going too low in reps per set can create a logistical issue of just getting them to the shoulder in a proper starting position. This should be taken into consideration when programming.

I like to program Dumbbell Shoulder Presses as 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 reps per set.

Muscles Worked

The dumbbell shoulder press engages more muscles than you think and for different reasons.

  • Anterior delts (Primary concentric movers)
  • Medial and rear delts (Primary eccentric and isometric stabilizers)
  • Lats and biceps (Secondary eccentric and isometric stabilizers)
  • Triceps (Lockout)
  • Abdominal and lower back muscles (Stabilizers in most compound movements)

Dumbbell Shoulder Press Variations

Here are a few DB Shoulder Press variations that only require a slight tweak in either body position or equipment used. Need even more options? Here are my 15 favorite Dumbbell Shoulder Press Alternatives and Variations.

Seated DB Shoulder Press

Seated DB Shoulder Press

The simplest variation to the Dumbbell Shoulder Press is to turn it into a seated movement – Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press. This could be sitting freely on a bench or box or with a bench adjusted up to 90 degrees allowing the lift then brace against.

Pressing from a seated position helps eliminate the ability to cheat reps by using the legs and it works as a great alternative for anyone with a lower-body injury that prevents them from standing easily.

Single Arm Shoulder Press

The Single Arm Shoulder Press is a great variation for anyone with an injury to one arm (could be a hand, wrist, elbow, etc). The variation here is pretty simple. Instead of pressing dumbbells with both arms, just use one.

This variation doesn’t have to be used just because of an injury either. Pressing only one dumbbell at a time forces the core to engage more to keep the torso balanced and stable.

Alternating DB Shoulder Press

For this variation, press both dumbbells overhead. Leave one dumbbell overhead while you lower down and press the other. Continue alternating back and forth like this until all reps are completed – always leaving one dumbbell in the pressed-out position.

This variation works great because it creates a lot of time under tension and forces the shoulder to stabilize the weight in the overhead position.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press Alternatives

Looking to change up your workout a bit? Here are some great alternatives to try out.

Front Press

Female Athlete Doing a Push Press

If you don’t have dumbbells but you have a barbell then I would suggest giving Front Press a try.

Front Press, also known as Standing Shoulder Press, is a barbell shoulder press from a standing position. It’s one of the best upper body movements for building mass and strength.

Landmine Single Arm Press

Push one end of your barbell into a corner or stable surface. Load the other end with some weight. I would recommend starting very light at first as you get used to this movement that is most likely new.  Standing in an athletic position, perform single-arm presses with the “landmine”.

Don’t have a landmine (and don’t want to pay $100 for one)? Here’s how you can make your own landmine with just a tennis ball.

Kneeling Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Put one knee down and keep the other up. If your right knee is up, put the dumbbell in your left hand and knock out your presses. The Kneeling DB Shoulder Press is a great movement for novice lifters that need to progress their way through overhead pressing movements.

More Info and Links

Looking for some more great supplemental work for your pressing day? Head over to our exercise library to find step-by-step exercises to help you reach your athletic potential.

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