The Dumbbell Shoulder Workout To Build Cannonball Shoulders

Dumbbell shoulder workout
Dumbbell shoulder workouts are, in many ways, the best shoulder workouts (Image credit: Getty Images)

There’s a good case for saying dumbbells are the best tool for training your shoulders. While there are plenty of great shoulder workouts that use barbell exercises or cable machines, using dumbbells is not only safer—the shoulder is injury-prone, so avoiding the heaviest type of free weight is wise—but also allows you to work your shoulders from more angles.

And it really is all about the angles if you want to train your shoulders effectively. This three-part dumbbell shoulder workout from trainer Tom Dyer targets all three heads of your deltoids so you build rounded, balanced shoulders.

Using dumbbells allows you to work each shoulder individually, so the weaker one doesn’t get an easy ride, and to adjust the angle and muscle you’re primarily targeting with each exercise. If you don’t have a set of weights to hand (or a gym membership), then check out our round-up of the best dumbbells for options to suit all comers. Your investment will open up a world of dumbbell workouts in the process.

This workout is programmed as a tri-set. Complete 10 reps of the three moves without stopping or putting the weights down. This will keep the target muscles under tension throughout to maximize the strength-building benefits. Once you’ve done a set of each of the three moves, rest for 90 seconds, then go again for three rounds in total.

How To Warm Up For This Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

This dumbbell workout might not be long, but it is intense, and you don’t want to go into it cold. It’s never wise to take any risks with your shoulders, which are complex joints more prone to injury than other parts of the body, and if you want to achieve the best results from the session then a good shoulder warm-up is a must. 

If you’re not sure what to do, then this eight-move shoulder warm-up is guaranteed to get you ready for your workout. The eight exercises target the shoulder from all angles so every part of the joint is ready to go when you start your workout proper. Depending on your fitness level, you might need a light dumbbell plus a resistance band for the warm-up, or access to a cable machine if you're training in the gym.

Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

1A Reverse flye

Man performs reverse flye with dumbbells

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Dyer says “The rear deltoids are the weakest muscles in the shoulders so it’s best to start with them when you’ve got the most energy. Aim to hold the top of the lift for a second before lowering.”

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, bend your knees slightly and lean forward 45° from your hips. Hold the dumbbells together below you and keep your shoulder blades retracted. With your arms slightly bent, raise the weights out to your sides until your arms are parallel to the floor. Slowly return them to the start.

Form fix As soon as you use a bit of extra momentum from your legs or hips you’ll be shifting the tension away from your rear deltoids and rendering this exercise useless – reduce the weight rather than giving your muscles extra help. Using “weedy”-looking dumbbells might make you feel slightly emasculated, but this muscle wasn’t designed for shifting huge weights.

1B Lateral raise

Man performs lateral raise with dumbbells

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Dyer says “This involves a similar movement but by standing upright you’re switching the focus to the medial deltoids, the middle muscles of the shoulder. Focus on keeping your form, lowering the weight slowly to challenge the muscles on both sections of the lift.”

For this part of your dumbbell shoulder workout, stand tall with your core braced and feet together. Hold the dumbbells together in front of your abdomen with palms facing each other. Leading with your elbows, raise the weights out to the sides, making sure you use your muscles and not momentum. Stop at shoulder height, then slowly return to the start.

Form fix This is probably the most misused and abused move you’ll see in a gym. As with reverse flyes, you’ll see people hulking the weights up, rushing through a set and strutting off smugly after dumping the weights on the floor five reps in. That’s missing the point entirely. Go light, go slow and keep your body upright and neck relaxed so you don’t shift the emphasis onto your traps. To truly get the best out of this lift, at the top of the move tilt your wrists forwards as if pouring from a jug.

1C Arnold press

Man performs Arnold press with dumbbells

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 90sec

Dyer says “By now your shoulders should be screaming. Finish off with the Arnold press, a move pioneered by the Austrian Oak during his bodybuilding days. It uses all three heads of the deltoids so even when you’re tiring you can work all the muscles of the shoulder harder for the biggest growth and strength gains.”

Curl the dumbbells up and bring them in front of you so your palms face you. Press the weights above your head until your arms are straight, twisting them as you go so your palms end up facing forwards. Reverse the movement so that the weights are in front of your chest again. That’s one rep.

Form fix As with both previous moves, the aim is to maintain tension on your shoulder muscles as long as possible to make them grow back stronger. To do this, stop fractionally short of full extension at the top of the move, and only lower the weights until your upper arms are parallel with the floor.

Find out more about trainer Tom Dyer, visit

Max Anderton

Max was the head of digital content for Men's Fitness which worked alongside Coach between 2015 and 2019.

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