The Best Dumbbell-only Shoulder Workout

Man Lifting Dumbbells In Shoulder Raise

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.

How it works

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.

The workout


1. Neutral-Grip Overhead Press

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.

2. Dumbbell Raise Complex

Sets: 3 Reps: 12–15
This exercise has three components. Check our visual guide on how to do this complex.
A. Hold dumbbells at your sides with palms facing you. Raise the weights up in front of you to shoulder level with thumbs pointing up. (This is called a neutral-grip dumbbell raise.) Complete 12–15 neutral grip raises.
B. After the last neutral-grip raise, keep your arms raised and rotate your arms out to your sides. Now do 12-15 side raises, making sure to keep your arms slightly forward so you don’t stress your shoulder joints.
C. For the last exercise, switch to a lighter pair of dumbbells. Raise the weights 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.

3. Dumbbell Clean

Sets: 3 Reps: 12–15 Rest: 60 sec.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand. 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. [See photos of how to do a dumbbell clean.]

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