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The Best Dumbbell-Only Shoulder Workout

Build bigger shoulders and improve muscular imbalances with this three-move routine.
Beth Bischoff

Your average trainer can think of only two ways to work your shoulders with dumbbells—presses and raises. And while those work just find, they're hardly the end-all-be-all of shoulder training. We’ve got a third to add to the mix—and this three-pronged attack can build shoulders as round and dense as cannonballs.


The first exercise, a neutral-grip overhead press, is the safest way to do any pressing movement. If you’ve backed off of shoulder work in the past because it hurt to execute, relief can be as simple as turning your palms to face each other. In this position, your upper-arm bones can glide through the shoulder joints without risk of impingement. You’ll follow this up with a variety of shoulder raises, ending with a crucifix hold, in which you keep your arms raised for time. This is an exercise popular among strongman competitors, whose shoulders are the size of pumpkins.

Finally, the workout ends with seated dumbbell cleans. If you’ve ever done power cleans, you know how challenging it can be to heft a weight up from the floor to shoulder level. This seated variation isolates them even more. It’s as simple to do as it sounds: Heave the weights up. Brute force builds big shoulders.

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The Workout


Complete all sets for one exercise before moving on to the next.

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Sets: 5 Reps: 8 Rest: 60 sec.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level with palms facing each other and elbows pointing forward. Brace your core and press the weights straight overhead. At the top, shrug your shoulders and hold for a second.


Sets: 3 Reps: 12–15 Rest: See below
Hold dumbbells at your sides with palms facing you. Raise the weights up in front of you to shoulder level with thumbs pointing up. Complete 12–15 reps and then raise the weights out to your sides 90 degrees (bend your elbows a bit as you lift). Complete your reps and then switch to a lighter pair of dumbbells. Raise them out to your sides and up to ear level with straight arms and thumbs pointing up. Hold this position 30 seconds. Squeeze your glutes to help support you.


Sets: 3 Reps: 12–15 Rest: 60 sec.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand and sit on the edge of a bench. Keeping your lower back flat, lean forward. Explosively straighten your body and shrug the weights so your arms rise. Allow the momentum to flip your wrists so you catch the weights at shoulder level.

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