Forget push-ups — 7 best dumbbell shoulder exercises to sculpt muscle definition

a photo of a man holding dumbbells
(Image credit: Getty/Mike Harrington)

These seven dumbbell shoulder exercises build strength, muscle and 3D definition. If your goal is to sculpt sizzling shoulders like Jennifer Aniston or Chris Hemsworth (those two have shoulder goals written all over them) — these should be your go-to.

You can use the best adjustable dumbbells to do them or kettlebells if you prefer. But however you approach them, the moves are bang for your buck shoulder exercises, hitting other major muscle groups and activating your core muscles at the same time. 

When rippling shoulders are the goal, free weights are the most versatile way to train them; you can isolate a muscle group or hit several using compound exercises like presses and push-ups. But forget push-ups for now. It’s time to get creative with seven of the best dumbbell exercises for strengthening your shoulder muscles. 

Benefits of dumbbells for shoulders

We love an adjustable dumbbell at Tom’s Guide. Free weights are ideal for scaling up and down quickly if you prefer using a mix of isolation vs compound exercises, and they provide a free range of motion compared with barbells.

But strong shoulders aren’t just aesthetically pleasing. They function to keep the body injury-free too. Building strong, stable and mobile shoulders will help you lift heavier weights and move better day-to-day.

Each of the best dumbbell shoulder exercises below is compound, primarily stimulating the three muscle heads — anterior, lateral and posterior deltoids — activating the core muscles responsible for stabilization and posture, the rotator cuff muscles that help stabilize and move the shoulder joints, back muscles like the upper traps, arms and pectoral muscles in your chest. 

Whether you single or double-load dumbbells, free weights challenge balance and stability and help isolate the left and right sides of the body. You’ll also improve core activation, coordination and power. So, let’s hop to it.

7 best dumbbell shoulder exercises for building muscle definition

1. Dumbbell shoulder press

The shoulder press requires coordination, balance and power to drive both weights overhead without your stronger side picking up slack as they would using a barbell. It’s a solid shoulder exercise for ironing out muscular imbalances, targeting your triceps, pectoral muscles and anterior deltoids. 

Here’s how to overhead press and variations for more detail.

  • Clean your dumbbells to your shoulders (here’s more on clean and presses)
  • Engage your core and lift your elbows slightly forward
  • Take a deep breath, then as you exhale, drive the weight overhead and lock out your arms at the top
  • Keep your knees gently bent, squeeze your shoulder blades together and avoid arching your lower back
  • Lower the dumbbells down to your shoulders for one rep. You can move from this position for a strict press, or repeat the clean.

2. Dumbbell pike push-up

an image of a man doing a push pike

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Pike push-ups look similar to downward dog and feature in CrossFit workouts as a modification for handstand push-ups. By touching the top of your head to the ground from a vertical position, the emphasis shifts from the standard push-up to a shoulder press, targeting more of your shoulder muscles and triceps.

Here’s what happened when our writer did 20 pike push-ups every day for a week and how to do it in detail.

  • Begin in a push-up position on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms straight and shoulder-width apart
  • Engage your core, raise your hips and walk both feet toward your hands to form an upside-down V
  • Rest on your tiptoes, then slowly bend your elbows and lower your head to touch the floor slightly ahead of your fingers, keeping your elbows tucked
  • Push back up until your elbows are straight.

3. Dumbbell Arnold press

We love all things Arnie. We committed to 50 Arnold presses every day for one week in a recent fitness challenge and detail how to do an Arnold press here. 

The unique shoulder exercise stimulates all three muscle heads using rotational hand movements, so it’s up there with the best shoulder exercises for efficiency and building well-rounded, popping shoulder muscles.

  • Engage your core and stand with your feet hip-width apart
  • Hold your dumbbells in a bicep curl position close to your chest, palms facing toward you
  • Press the dumbbells above your head as you rotate your palms to face forward at the top
  • Reverse the steps back to your starting position.

4. Dumbbell shoulder shrugs

Personal trainer holding two dumbbells performing a dumbbell shrug against grey backdrop

(Image credit: Shutterstock images)

Undecided on what shoulder move to tackle next? Shrug it out. The up-and-down movement hits the trapezius (upper back muscles), rhomboids and forearms and tests grip strength. Nailing the dumbbell shrug exercise also carries over to exercises like deadlifts and pull-ups, to name a few.

  • Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides, palms facing each other.
  • Engage your core and set your shoulders back and down.
  • Drive both shoulders upward toward the ceiling without rounding your shoulders. Keep your chest proud.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades and upper back, pause, then slowly lower both shoulders back to the starting position.

5. Dumbbell upright row

Personal trainer performing an upright row using two dumbbells against grey backdrop

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The exercise is a heavy hitter for the traps and lateral delts, activating the biceps and frontal deltoids. It can aggravate shoulder pain, so check your form with a personal trainer first and prevent internally rotating the shoulders by following the steps below using dumbbells.

Here’s how to do an upright row in more detail. 

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding your dumbbells with palms facing you.
  • Engage your core.
  • Pull the dumbbells upward and drive your elbows outward.
  • As your elbows reach shoulder height, slightly pull back by drawing your shoulder blades together and squeezing your back muscles (imagine a rowing motion).
  • Lower with control to the starting position.

6. Dumbbell reverse fly

Benefits of the reverse fly include stronger back muscles and activation in the posterior deltoids. The move also targets your upper back, including the traps and rhomboids, and rotator cuff muscles that stabilize your shoulders. These muscle groups also support good posture.

  • Place your feet hip-width distance apart. Slightly bend your knees and hinge forward at the hips to 45 degrees
  • Engage your core and keep your neck in a neutral position, looking slightly forward with a flat back
  • Hold the dumbbells in a neutral grip (facing each other) in front of your legs in a hang position. Maintain a gentle elbow bend
  • Raise the dumbbells out to the sides and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you drive the weights back
  • Slowly return to the starting position.

7. Dumbbell face pull

Vector of man against white background performing a dumbbell face pull in two stages

(Image credit: Shutterstock images)

Face pulls target the upper back and shoulders, namely the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, traps and rotator cuff muscles. The shoulder exercise strengthens the muscles responsible for posture.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width or shoulder-width distance apart. Slightly bend your knees and hinge forward at the hips until your chest is parallel to the floor
  • Hold the dumbbells in front of your legs, close to your body, with palms facing toward you
  • Engage your core and keep your neck in a neutral position, looking slightly forward with a flat back
  • Bend your elbows as you lift the weights to either side of your ears, sending the elbows wide
  • Squeeze your back muscles and shoulder blades together. Pause, then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.