If you’re trying to impress with a muscular physique then few things make a bigger impact than broad, well-developed shoulders. They not only give you a fuller, denser look, but will work wonders in producing that classic v-shape – adding definition to your overall physique and giving the appearance of a slimmer waist.
In order to build an impressive set of shoulders you need to target them from different angles to activate the three heads of the deltoid muscle, and dumbbells are perfect for this.
Here we’ll go through what I consider to be the best shoulder workout with dumbbells – utilising a number of really effective exercises that will hit those delts hard and force them into new growth.
A Quick Look At The Shoulder Muscles
When we talk of training shoulders we generally mean the deltoids (or delts) which form part of your intrinsic shoulder muscles – the other muscles in this group being the rotator cuff which holds your upper arm bone in place and surrounds the shoulder joint, and the Teres Major – a small muscle that runs from underneath the shoulder joint towards the rear of the armpit. When focusing on shoulder exercises, these are the muscles you will hit primarily and which the exercises below focus on building. There is also a secondary group of muscles, referred to as the extrinsic shoulder muscles, which are located more in your back and link to the shoulder bones and include the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae and the rhomboids which will get some work from these exercises but tend to get targeted more when specifically working your upper back.
Why Dumbbells Are Best For Training The Shoulders
As I mentioned briefly above, in order to build big, defined shoulders you need to hit the deltoid muscles from multiple angles to target all three heads Whilst barbell and weight machines tend to fix your movement in one plane of motion, dumbbells are perfect for mixing things up as they force you to use all your stabiliser muscles, and require a tight core to hold everything in place adding shed loads more versatility with each exercise.
Before We Begin
1. Remember to warm-up your muscles
Before starting any heavy lifting or vigorous exercise it’s important to warm up. Not only does this prime your muscles with fresh, oxygenated blood to help them perform, but it also helps to prevent injury.
You don’t need to turn your warm-up into a workout in itself though. I generally find a few minutes jogging on a treadmill or just on the spot helps to get the blood flowing. I then follow this up with doing a few sets of one or two of the exercises I’m about to do with a light weight to get my body used to the movement and to prepare the muscles before I add a heavier weight.
2. Slow and steady and squeeze at the top
I recommend this with all my workouts. To put your muscles under the most tension I recommend holding the weight, and squeezing the muscle, at the top of each movement (when they’re under the most strain/fully contracted) for a second or so and then slowly lowering back down to a count of 3-4 before commencing your next rep. This helps ensure maximum time under tension to help break down the muscle fibres.
3. Rest between sets
If adding size and strength is your goal then progressively adding more weight to your exercises is key. It’s therefore essential to recover adequately between sets to ensure your muscles have enough time to recuperate to continue lifting at your maximum potential – you want to aim to increase your reps and your weight consistently to trigger growth. I recommend between 2-3 minutes rest between sets in this workout for optimal recovery time.
All my workouts are designed to be done at home with limited space so there is always minimal equipment required. All you’ll need for this workout is a pair of dumbbells – preferably adjustable or selectorised which means you can add or take off more weight as needed, or have a range of fixed dumbbells available going from light (around 2Kg) to heavy (12Kg+ depending on what muscles you’re targeting).
This workout targets all the different muscles in your shoulders through multiple exercises. Aim to complete three sets of between 10 – 12 reps of each exercise before resting up to three minutes and then moving onto the next.
1. Reverse Flye
Muscles targeted: Posterior (rear) deltoids (primary) as well as the rhomboids and trapezius (secondary)
How to perform it: Take a dumbbell in each hand, bend at your knees slightly and lean forward from your hips to about 45 degrees. Holding the dumbbells together below you, and with your arms slightly bent at the elbows, raise the dumbbells out to the side until your forearms are parallel to the floor. Squeeze for a second at the top here before slowly lowering back to the start position and repeating. Perform 10 – 12 reps to complete the set, rest and then perform two more sets.
2. Shoulder Press
Muscles targeted: Anterior (front) deltoids (primary) as well as the trapezius and triceps (secondary)
How to perform it: With a dumbbell in each hand, raise the weights up and let them sit on, or just above, the shoulders with your palms facing out in front of you. Now push both your arms upwards above your head and try to touch the dumbbells together. Pause and squeeze at the top here for a second before slowly lowering the weight back down to the start position. Perform 12 reps to complete the set, rest and then do two more sets.
3. Side Lateral Raise
Muscles targeted: The lateral (middle) head of the deltoid (primary) as well as the anterior and posterior heads (secondary)
How to perform it: You may want a lighter set of dumbbells for this one as it’s challenging to do with heavy weights. With a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing in towards you and down by your sides, lift your arms out to the sides until your hands are in line with your shoulders and palms parallel to the floor. Hold this for a second and squeeze your shoulder muscles before slowly lowering back down to the start and repeating. Perform 12 reps to complete the set, rest and then do two further sets.
4. Front Raise
Muscles targeted: The anterior (front) deltoid as well as the lateral deltoid, trapezius, serratus anterior and biceps (secondary)
How to perform it: Like the side lateral raise, this is another isolation exercise so a lighter weight may be best. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest your arms against your thighs with palms facing inwards. Raise one dumbbell in front of you at a time until the weight reaches just above your shoulder and parallel to the floor. Keep your arm straight but with a slight bend in the elbow with the opposite arm resting by your side. You can either alternate between arms until you’ve reached the required number of reps on both sides or raise both arms at once as shown in the video below. As you’re using a lighter weight, feel free to increase the amount of reps you do, especially with this exercise – anything from 10 to 20 reps to complete one set. Then rest and repeat for two more sets on both arms.
5. Upright Row
Muscles targeted: The anterior (front) and lateral (middle) deltoids (primary) as well as the trapezius, rhomboids and biceps (secondary)
How to perform it: Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand with the weights resting on the front of your legs and outside the hips with palms facing inwards. Engaging your shoulder muscles, lift your hands and elbows upwards whilst keeping your palms facing the floor until the weights are in line with the front of your shoulders. Hold and squeeze the shoulder muscles at the top for a second before slowly lowering back to the start position. To keep the emphasis on the delts, keep your hands wider apart, or, to hit the trapezius muscle a bit more, bring your hands in closer together. Perform 8 to 12 reps to complete the set, rest, and then go for two more sets.
6. Dumbbell Shrug
Muscles targeted: Trapezius and rhomboids (primary)
How to perform it: This exercise shifts the focus away from the deltoid heads and onto the extrinsic muscles that connect to your shoulders but run from your neck to your upper back. With a dumbbell in each hand and held down by your sides and outside your hips and arms fully extended but not locked out, raise the dumbbells up as high as you can go by using your traps and shrugging your shoulders up towards your ears. Hold here for a second before slowly lowering back to the start and repeating for a total of 8 to 12 reps. Rest then perform another two sets.
Give It A Go
When it comes to growing your shoulders, dumbbells are one of the most versatile and effective pieces of kit that will hit your muscles from all different angles. If you’re looking for maximal strength gains over muscular gains then consider using a barbell which provides more stability, but if developing a set of boulders is your aim then dumbbells will provide you with a range of both isolation and compound movements that can be done either in the gym or in the surroundings of your own home.
What are your favourite exercises for growing your shoulders? Do you use dumbbells, barbells, machines or a combination of all three? Comment underneath and let me know.