The Best Science-Based Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises for Muscle Mass

Strong shoulders will help you in numerous other daily as well as other lifts in the gym.

This might as well be the best science-based dumbbell shoulder exercises a person can do for improved muscle mass. At least, according to Jeremy Ethier.

Jeremy Ethier is a fitness enthusiast, certified kinesiologist, co-founder of Built With Science, and the creator of the fitness-focused YouTube channel “Jeremy Ethier.” He is known for providing evidence-based fitness and training advice, backed by scientific research. Jeremy shares workout routines, exercise tutorials, and nutrition tips to help individuals achieve their fitness goals. His content often emphasizes the importance of proper form, effective workout strategies, and understanding the science behind fitness practices

In the pursuit of a well-defined and balanced upper body, Jeremy Ethier emphasises the pivotal role of shoulders. Achieving broad, powerful shoulders is a challenging feat, and one common mistake in shoulder training is neglecting sufficient incorporation of dumbbell exercises. Jeremy stresses the importance of including dumbbell exercises to prevent imbalances or asymmetries in shoulder development and highlights the various advantages that can elevate shoulder growth to the next level.

As usual, Ethier looked at research done among the best shoulder exercises when it comes to muscle stimulation. And below you will find a list of the 4 best science-based dumbbell shoulder exercises for muscle mass.

Best Upper Chest Dumbbell Exercises You Can Do With No BenchSource: DreamLens Production on Pexels

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The Best Science-Based Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises for Muscle Mass

For those seeking to boost shoulder development by integrating more dumbbell work or for individuals with limited equipment access, see below a comprehensive guide to the best dumbbell exercises targeting each aspect of the shoulder.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press:

Jeremy introduces the dumbbell shoulder press, a versatile exercise that can be performed either standing or seated. Both variations effectively target the front deltoid, with contributions from the middle and rear delts. This exercise serves as the main heavy compound movement for the shoulders. The choice between standing and seated depends on individual preferences and goals.

The standing version, as supported by a 2013 electromyography (EMG) analysis, offers increased activation of front, lateral, and rear delts, along with greater engagement of core muscles. However, lifting lighter weights may be a drawback. Conversely, the seated version allows for heavier weights and effective overloading. Proper form is crucial, emphasizing elbow positioning and maintaining core stability to ensure a safe and powerful press.

Lateral Raises with a Lean:

To target the often overlooked lateral deltoids, Jeremy recommends lateral raises. To enhance the effectiveness of the movement, he suggests a slight lean in the direction of the raise. This modification is based on a study highlighting the importance of supraspinatus activation and the need to shift focus to the side delts throughout the entire range of motion. Emphasizing lighter weights and higher reps, Jeremy advises leading the raise with elbows, not hands, to activate the side delts and avoid undue strain on the upper traps.

Rear Delt Dumbbell Row:

For developing the rear delts, Jeremy introduces the rear delt dumbbell row. This exercise targets the rear delts, back muscles, and biceps. Jeremy demonstrates a modification in form, allowing the elbow to drift upwards and away from the sides. This adjustment minimizes lat involvement, directing tension toward the rear delts. Maintaining a square body position, avoiding excessive twisting, arching, or rounding of the lower back, ensures optimal effectiveness. He recommends using heavier weights in the moderate rep range of 6 to 12 reps.

Dumbbell Facepulls:

To further target the rear delts and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, mid, and lower traps, Jeremy introduces the dumbbell version of the traditional rope face pull. This exercise incorporates external rotation, a critical function of the rear delts. Proper execution involves performing the exercise on a 45-degree incline bench to minimize lower back involvement. Using light dumbbells, individuals rotate their hands up and out to the side, creating a ‘W’ shape at the top position. Emphasizing a neutral spine and avoiding compensatory movements ensures maximal effectiveness. Jeremy recommends lighter weights and a higher rep range of 10 to 15 reps.

This routine can be performed independently or integrated into existing workouts to enhance shoulder development. In short, these are the sets and reps of the best science-based dumbbell shoulder exercises for muscle mass:

  1. Standing or seating shoulder press: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  2. Lean-away dumbbell lateral raise: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps
  3. Rear delt dumbbell row: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  4. Dumbbell facepull: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps

It is important not only to choose the right exercises but also to perform them correctly to maximize muscle growth and prevent injury.

To watch Ethier’s explanation while showcasing the best science-based dumbbell shoulder exercises mentioned above, watch the following video.

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Strengthening shoulder muscles is crucial for maintaining overall upper body health and functionality. The shoulders play a pivotal role in numerous daily activities, from lifting objects and reaching overhead to pushing and pulling movements. Well-developed shoulder muscles contribute to improved posture, stability, and range of motion, enhancing one’s ability to perform daily tasks efficiently and without discomfort.

Additionally, strong shoulder muscles are essential for injury prevention. The shoulders are a complex joint system, and weakness in the supporting muscles can lead to instability, increasing the risk of injuries such as strains, dislocations, or rotator cuff issues. Strengthening these muscles helps create a robust and stable shoulder girdle, reducing vulnerability to common injuries, especially for individuals engaged in physical activities or sports that involve repetitive arm movements.

Furthermore, aesthetically, well-defined and balanced shoulders contribute to a pleasing physique. Many individuals seek shoulder development as a key component of achieving a symmetrical and attractive upper body appearance. Beyond the cosmetic aspect, a strong shoulder foundation positively influences overall strength and athletic performance, making it an integral part of any comprehensive fitness routine. In essence, shoulder muscle strength is not only about looking good but also about ensuring optimal function, resilience against injuries, and the ability to engage in a wide range of physical activities with confidence and ease.

Let’s break down the pros and cons of incorporating dumbbell exercises into a fitness routine:


  1. Versatility: Dumbbells offer a wide range of exercises that target various muscle groups. From compound movements to isolation exercises, they allow for a versatile workout routine.
  2. Stabilization: Unlike machines that provide stability, dumbbells require more control and stabilization from the muscles. This engages stabilizer muscles, contributing to overall strength and balance.
  3. Individualized Workouts: Dumbbells are available in different weights, making it easy to customize workouts based on individual strength levels. This is beneficial for beginners and advanced lifters alike.
  4. Functional Movement: Many dumbbell exercises mimic everyday movements, promoting functional strength that can be applied to daily activities.
  5. Home Workout Option: Dumbbells are relatively compact and can be used at home, providing a convenient option for those who prefer working out in their own space.
  6. Joint Range of Motion: Dumbbell exercises often allow for a more natural range of motion, promoting flexibility and joint health.

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  1. Weight Limit: Dumbbells have a weight limit, and for advanced lifters seeking extremely heavy loads, barbells or machines may be more suitable.
  2. Learning Curve: Some exercises, especially those involving free weights, may have a learning curve for beginners. Proper form is crucial to avoid injuries.
  3. Uneven Strength Development: If not used properly, one side of the body may become stronger than the other, leading to muscle imbalances. This can be addressed by incorporating unilateral exercises.
  4. Limited Isolation: While dumbbells are great for compound movements, some isolation exercises may require specialized machines for optimal muscle isolation.
  5. Safety Concerns: Without a spotter or proper form, there’s a risk of injury, especially when lifting heavier weights. It’s crucial to start with appropriate weights and gradually progress.
  6. Equipment Availability: In a crowded gym, finding the right set of dumbbells can sometimes be challenging. Home users may need to invest in a variety of dumbbell weights for a comprehensive workout.
  7. Progression Challenges: As strength increases, it may become challenging to find heavier dumbbells. This is where barbells or machines may offer a more scalable progression.

In summary, while dumbbells have numerous advantages, it’s essential to consider individual fitness goals, preferences, and safety considerations. Integrating a mix of free weights, machines, and bodyweight exercises can provide a well-rounded and effective workout routine.

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