This Simple Exercise Targets Your Shoulders and Triceps at the Same Time

If you’re looking to work the small but mighty muscles in the front of your upper body, the dumbbell shoulder press is a great way to do so. The simple yet effective exercise can help you build strength, sure, but it’ll also help set the stage for healthier joints.

You use your shoulder muscles in tons of everyday scenarios—think lifting a heavy grocery bag, retrieving an object from a high shelf, sitting or standing up tall, placing a suitcase in an overhead bin, and playing sports. The stronger and healthier your shoulders are, the more effectively and safely you’ll be able to perform these movements. And exercises like the dumbbell shoulder press can help you achieve those gains. So let’s get pressing, shall we?

What muscles does the dumbbell shoulder press work?

The dumbbell overhead press is a pushing exercise that primarily works your anterior deltoids, or anterior delts, which are your front shoulder muscles, Evan Williams, CSCS, CPT, founder of E2G Performance, tells SELF. It also engages your lateral deltoids (side shoulder muscles), triceps (a muscle group on the backside of your upper arm), and trapezius (upper back and neck muscles), he adds. So while it’s considered a “shoulder exercise,” it does double duty by challenging other upper-body muscles too.

What are the benefits of the dumbbell shoulder press?

Do this exercise regularly and you’ll reap some pretty awesome perks, including two major ones: better shoulder health and reduced risk of injury to that area, Williams says. That’s because it engages your shoulder stabilizer muscles, helping them become stronger and more efficient at supporting movement there—and thus lowering your chances of injury when you’re pushing or doing other similar motions.

The dumbbell press can also help build upper-body strength and power, as well as make your core stronger and more stable, he adds. Plus it can improve your posture, since executing the move correctly requires you to stand up tall, helping you practice that habit for carryover into your daily life.

What are some common mistakes with the dumbbell shoulder press?

People often flare out their ribs and overextend their lower back when overhead pressing, which can cause strain, Williams says. Another common mistake is pressing the weight forward instead of directly overhead. That can cause shoulder impingement (a painful condition when the top of your shoulder blade rubs your rotator cuff), Williams adds.

To prevent the former, think about engaging your core and maintaining a neutral spine (not arched or rounded) as you perform reps, he advises. To avoid the latter, focus on pressing the weight all the way up in a straight line so that your biceps are parallel to your ears. Important caveat: If you feel pain or tightness when trying to push the weight overhead, you may want to see a fitness pro (like a certified personal trainer or physical therapist) to understand the root of the issue—for example, if it’s muscle or joint weakness, caused by overuse, or perhaps a form error. They may recommend corrective exercises to help address the issue—for example, these four upper-body exercises are ideal for folks with sensitive deltoid muscles.

How can you make the dumbbell shoulder press harder or easier?

A modified version that’s especially ideal for beginners and people with restricted shoulder mobility is the landmine shoulder press. This involves pressing an angled barbell up and away from your body, and “it’s a great way to get familiar with the shoulder press movement while finding a comfortable range of motion,” Williams says.

From there, folks can progress to the seated dumbbell shoulder press, which has you sitting on a bench with your back against a backrest and performing reps from there. “The support can help with the stability of this movement,” Williams explains.

Once that move feels easy, you can progress to a standing dumbbell shoulder press, which “requires more core stability, shoulder stability, and strength,” Williams says. Then there are other standing versions you can try, like the Arnold press, which demands more stability and engagement from your deltoids, or the single-arm overhead press, which is great for identifying muscle imbalances and sneakily working your core. To up the ante even more, advanced lifters comfortable with heavy weights may consider the standing barbell overhead press (also commonly called the military press). Then there’s the barbell push press, which uses leg and glute strength to press the weight overhead.

No matter what version of the overhead press you opt for, scope your form in a mirror to make sure you’re maintaining good posture and positioning as you bust out reps, Williams suggests. Also important: If at any time you feel pain or discomfort, stop and consult a trainer or physical therapist. Continuing to lift weights when your shoulder is aching can lead to strains or tears in your rotator cuff, which may even require surgery, as SELF previously reported.

How can you include the dumbbell shoulder press in your workout routine?

The dumbbell shoulder press is a great exercise to include in your usual strength training or hypertrophy (muscle building) sessions, says Williams. You can slot it in as part of a total-body routine or within an upper-body workout, he says—for example, alongside moves that work other upper-half muscles like your lats, arms, and core.

If you’re new to the movement, start with a lighter weight in each hand. Once you’ve nailed proper form and it starts to feel easy, you can progress to heavier weights. In terms of volume, a safe target for general exercisers is three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions, Williams says. This rep range will help build muscle. If your goal is muscular endurance, select a lighter weight and aim for 12 or more reps per set; if you’re wanting to improve strength, go heavier and do six reps or fewer each set.

How to do the dumbbell shoulder press:

  • Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your shoulders with your palms facing forward and your elbows bent. This is the starting position.
  • Press the dumbbells overhead, straightening your elbows completely. Make sure to keep your core engaged and hips tucked to avoid arching your lower back as you lift your arms.
  • Slowly bend your elbows to lower the weight back down to the starting position. This is 1 rep.


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