Dumbbell Shoulder Press: The Ultimate Guide

The dumbbell shoulder press is a versatile, time-tested exercise that can help you build well-developed, muscular shoulders. In theory, it is a simple exercise – press the weights vertically overhead. However, performing them improperly can lead to shoulder instability and rotator cuff injuries that can hinder your gains and cause immense discomfort.

This article will dive into the proper technique to perform the dumbbell shoulder press and its various benefits. We will also learn the most common mistakes and how to fix them. Many dumbbell shoulder press variations can be adjusted to hit different heads of the deltoids, especially the front and side delts, the best of which we will discuss today.

How To Do A Dumbbell Shoulder Press?


While the seated and standing dumbbell shoulder press can be used interchangeably, the standing version involves much more coordination and core strength. The seated version also helps you lift more weight, and the back support can help you add a few extra reps. Thus, the seated dumbbell shoulder press is generally recommended over the standing version, especially for beginners.

The best way to learn how to do a dumbbell shoulder press is to divide it into three distinct phases:

1) The Setup

Learning to set up correctly is crucial if you want to progress injury-free on the dumbbell shoulder press. It helps you build a stable shelf that you can press from.

Hold a dumbbell in each hand and place one on each thigh while seated on a bench. Beginners can typically start with lighter weights to learn the proper form and movement pattern before progressing.

Give the dumbbells a push with your thighs to raise them, so you are holding them just over your shoulders with your palms facing away from you. For heavier dumbbells, you might also need to use a bit of body momentum to lift them to your shoulders.

Drive your feet firmly into the floor while pushing your upper and mid-back against the backrest. Pull your shoulder blades down and together while pushing your chest out.

2) The Press

Press the dumbbells vertically upward towards the ceiling until your elbows are almost locked. As your elbows straighten, the dumbbells should naturally drift closer. Make sure they do not bang against each other since it can affect your setup and cause injuries, especially with heavier loads.

Avoid excessively arching your lower back. Remember, this is not a chest press. Many people with underdeveloped shoulders compensate by leaning back and changing the movement into something resembling an incline dumbbell press. This is a dangerous position for your shoulders to be in.

3) The Descend

Lower the dumbbells until they’re just above your shoulders. Typically, the handles end up in line with your ears.

Control the eccentric portion of the movement for better muscle contraction and hypertrophy. Before initiating the next rep, make sure your setup is holding firm.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Overhead Press

Although dumbbell shoulder press is primarily considered a shoulder exercise, it is also effective at targeting the chest, triceps, and trapezius. The standing version will test your abdominal strength, while other versions can hit the arms, forearms, and even rear delts.

The main benefits of the dumbbell shoulder press are:

  • Build outstanding upper body strength
  • Improved posture, healthy and pain-free back
  • Versatility – Can be used as part of a circuit for fat loss or rehab for those with injuries
  • Carryover to other exercises like the overhead barbell press and bench press

Other Variations of the Dumbbell Overhead Press

1) Arnold Press


Popularized by legendary bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is an excellent exercise for targeting every head of the deltoids. As you rotate your wrists, some emphasis is put on the side delts. Well-developed side delts give the illusion of width and are among the most important muscle groups to train for men.

2) Seated Barbell Shoulder Press


Switch out the dumbbells for the barbell. The significant advantage of this exercise is that most people can press significantly more weight (about 10-20%), leading to better gains.

However, it has a shorter range of motion and may cause muscle imbalances if done exclusively.

3) Standing Barbell Overhead Press


This exercise is the OG of all upper body movements. It is a whole-body movement that requires balance and coordination. If done correctly, they can help you build healthy, boulder shoulders.

4) Landmine Shoulder Press


Athletes, boxers and combat athletes commonly use it to develop punching power and core strength. Once it is done unilaterally, it can help identify and correct any strength imbalances. Due to its diagonal bar path, it is also more comfortable for those with shoulder issues.

Common Mistakes

1) Pressing arms unevenly

This is a common sight in many gyms – ego lifters pushing weights they cannot handle, ending up injured in the process.

The fix: If one side/ arm is weaker, you must work with lighter dumbbells. Simultaneously, perform isolation movements to strengthen your triceps and core.

2) Slamming the dumbbells against each other

As discussed earlier, this will throw off your balance and setup.

The fix: Think about launching the dumbbells into the ceiling. Not only will this help you lift more weight, but it will also help you focus on pressing the dumbbells straight overhead.

3) Not using a full range of motion

It may be tempting to lift heavy weights with a smaller range of motion to impress your buddies. However, this can cause severe injuries and diminished muscle gains over time.

The fix: Perform total, complete reps while performing the dumbbell shoulder press. Control the descent and focus on keeping tension on the deltoids.

Safety and Precautions

Always get a green signal from your doctor/ healthcare provider before starting any workout routine.

If you have a shoulder, neck, or back injury, staying away from the dumbbell shoulder press is advisable.

Start with light weights. Do not hesitate to end the session immediately if you feel pain while performing the exercise. While elite athletes have found the right balance between pain and discomfort, beginners are often influenced by statements such as ‘push past the pain.’ This can prove detrimental and lead to lifelong injuries.


What is the difference between a shoulder press and an overhead press?

These are interchangeably used terms. The barbell standing version is often referred to as the “overhead press,” while any dumbbell/machine alternative is called the “shoulder press.”

How much weight should I be able to overhead press?

This will vary from person to person, depending on gender, height, weight, training experience, and genetics.

However, with consistent effort, most women should be able to overhead press over 100 lbs, while most men can lift over 135 lbs for multiple repetitions.

Will overhead press build abs?

Overhead pressing, especially with heavy weights, requires excellent abdominal bracing and trunk coordination. They can help build your abs and obliques.

How many reps of the overhead press should I do?

It is advisable to stay within the 8-25 rep range for hypertrophy. Powerlifters and strongmen often work with 1-rep maxes and 3-rep maxes to test their strength.

If you want to look good and stay fit, staying within 8-12 reps (while ensuring progressive overload) is a good goal.

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