“The seated dumbbell shoulder press is a vertical pressing exercise performed with dumbbells, and it’s a great unilateral compound—or multi-joint—exercise for upper body strength and muscular development,” says John Shackleton, CSCS, performance coach for the men’s basketball program at Villanova University.
The move specifically targets and strengthens all of the muscles around the shoulder complex. The deltoids—you have two; one that covers each shoulder—are the main muscles working here, since you are pressing the dumbbells overhead. Each deltoid has three distinct parts, all of which are worked during a seated dumbbell shoulder press. The middle deltoids (also known as the acromial deltoids) are the primary movers, while the anterior and posterior deltoids assist and stabilize the shoulder joint throughout movement.
“Overall, the seated dumbbell shoulder press is a great pressing variation that will keep your shoulders strong and healthy when performed correctly,” Shackleton says. Want to try it? Here’s a step-by-step, courtesy of Shackleton.
How to set up for a seated dumbbell shoulder press
To do this move safely, you’re going to need two dumbbells (start with lighter ones for your first time) and a bench.
Begin seated on a bench with your feet directly under your knees and back flat against the pad. Bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders and pull your elbows out away from your body, in line with your wrists. The heads of the dumbbells should be slightly touching the outside of your shoulders. “Think ribcage down rather than flared to keep the low back against the pad and the core locked in and tight,” Shackleton says.
“It is important to make sure the hands are right outside the shoulders with the heads of the dumbbells in contact with the head, as this is the optimal hand width placement for shoulder health and performance, as the shoulder joint is packed in tight,” he adds.
You also want to keep your elbows lined up under the dumbbells before you begin to push. “You want the force to be directed right up into the dumbbells. If the elbows are flared out to the sides, it places unnecessary stress on the shoulders and you will not be able to push as much weight and can risk injury,” he says.
How to do a seated dumbbell shoulder press
1. From the starting position, take a deep breath in through the nose. Push the dumbbells straight up overhead on the exhale. When you finish the press, your biceps should be in line with your ears.
2. Hold the dumbbells overhead for 1-2 seconds.
3. Bring the dumbbells down to the starting position under control for a 3-4 second eccentric muscle contraction. “This will protect the shoulder joint and let the shoulder stabilizers do their job,” he says.
Watch this video from our friends at Livestrong to see exactly how to do a dumbbell shoulder press:
Who is the seated dumbbell shoulder press best for?
You can customize the weight of your dumbbells depending on your fitness level, making this a great entry-level move for strengthening shoulders and arms. (It also requires slightly less core strength than a standing dumbbell shoulder press.) However, if you have a pre-existing shoulder injury, you don’t want to do this move. Also, “if you lack shoulder mobility, you will want to make sure you have a fully functional shoulders before pressing overhead,” Shackleton says.
You can do a mobility test to see how much range of motion you have available. Here’s how: Standing up with arms at your sides, raise your arms straight up overhead and keep your elbows fully extended throughout the move. Check to see how far you can extend. If you can get your biceps to be in line with your ears without feeling any sensation of pain, then you have good range of motion for this move.
If you get stuck in front of your ears or head, it means there’s a weakness, and you should work on boosting your shoulder mobility before pressing overhead and attempting a seated dumbbell shoulder press. Work with a trainer on a mobility fitness program to progress and strengthen the shoulder area first.
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