Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 Key Differences | Humane Muscle (2023)

You want to know the differences between the barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press, right?

Here are the five key differences between the two:

  1. You can lift heavier weight with barbell shoulder press
  2. Dumbbell shoulder press activates deltoids and stabilizers more
  3. Dumbbell shoulder press has more variations
  4. Barbell shoulder press will have more carryover to other lifts (especially bench)
  5. Dumbbell shoulder press is easier on the shoulders

Which is the better strength training exercise? And which one should you prioritize in your training routine?

Contents show

Barbell and Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Muscles Worked

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 Key Differences | Humane Muscle (1)

Both the barbell and dumbbell shoulder press work the following muscles directly:

  • Deltoids (Anterior and Medial heads)
  • Triceps
  • Pectoralis Major

And work these muscles indirectly:

  • Abdominals
  • Obliques
  • Trapezius

The main target muscle group for both forms of shoulder press are the deltoids, specifically the anterior deltoid:

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 Key Differences | Humane Muscle (2)

Triceps are the secondary target muscle group in the shoulder press. The pecs should only account for a tiny percentage of the muscles worked because the angle of the shoulder press minimizes their involvement significantly.

As for the indirect muscles worked, the key here is to keep these stabilizing muscles tight throughout the lift.

One way to keep your abdominals and obliques tight is to wear a weightlifting belt. I’ve written an entire article on just that subject here.

How to Barbell and Dumbbell Shoulder Press Correctly

There are tons of variations of the shoulder press. But, we’re going to focus here on the two most common: the standing (military) press and the seated shoulder press.

Before moving on to the differences between the barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press, we have to establish what proper technique looks like for each. If you aren’t doing the exercise the right way, knowing the differences between them won’t do you any good.

How to Barbell Shoulder Press (Standing and Seated)

Standing (Military) Barbell Shoulder Press:

One quick tip I would add to the video above is you don’t have to do a thumbless grip like he demonstrates. Instead, if you experience wrist pain or significant bending, simply use wrist wraps (like I do).

I recommend going with these wrist wraps from Strength Shop USA:

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 Key Differences | Humane Muscle (3)

I bought these several months ago and LOVE them. No signs of wear and tear after three months of heavy usage. They feel and look like they will last for years.

(Video) Dumbbell Shoulder Press VS Barbell Shoulder Press | WHICH BUILDS BIGGER SHOULDERS FASTER?

Seated Barbell Shoulder Press:

There are two caveats I would add to Scott’s excellent breakdown:

  1. Personally, I only lower the barbell down to chin level because of previous shoulder injuries. It eases the stress on my shoulders in the initial portion of the lift. So, if you experience any shoulder discomfort or pain in the lower portion of the lift, feel free to stop at chin level.
  2. Scott chose a relatively (but not too) wide grip. Feel free to use a closer grip if it’s more comfortable for you.

How to Dumbbell Shoulder Press (Standing and Seated)

Standing (Military) Dumbbell Shoulder Press:

One note I would add to the video is the possibility of pulling your elbows in close to your sides and doing neutral grip shoulder presses.

He does mention playing around with arm/hand placement to find what works best for you. And I agree.

I like to keep my elbows tucked in a little bit more than he does in the video. And sometimes I do full neutral grip (with elbows fully tucked in to sides) as well.

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press:

Again, I recommend experimenting with different grips and trying it with the elbows in closer to the body.

To reiterate a point Scott made in the video, you want the dumbbells to be (at least) slightly in front of your body, especially on the eccentric (lowering) portion. This will ensure you aren’t digging into your rotator cuff and causing unnecessary injuries.

5 Key Differences Between Barbell and Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Okay, now we are all on the same page about how to perform both versions correctly. So, what exactly are the differences between barbell vs dumbbell shoulder press?

Here are 5 key differences you need to know:

#1 – You Can Lift Heavier Weight With the Barbell Shoulder Press

A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the barbell version of both the seated and standing shoulder press had a higher one rep maximum (1rm) than the dumbbell versions.

According to the study:

  • The standing dumbbell shoulder press had ~7% lower 1rm than the standing barbell shoulder press
  • Seated barbell vs seated dumbbell 1rm was extremely close with a slight edge to the seated barbell
  • Standing and seated barbell 1rm strength was extremely close, with a slight edge to seated

These numbers demonstrate the superiority of barbells for shoulder press 1rm strength.

The truth is, with pretty much any dumbbell vs barbell exercise, you’re going to be able to lift more weight with a barbell.

The reason being, dumbbells are harder to stabilize than barbells. They force your body to use extra stabilizing muscles in order to lift the weight. Barbells allow you to spread the stress equally throughout your muscle groups because both hands are gripping the bar. However, with dumbbells you are holding one in each hand, forcing each side to work independently.

Because dumbbells are harder to stabilize, you can’t lift as much weight with them. But, why is it important to lift heavier weight?

One reason: progressive overload. I’ve written in more detail about this all-important training concept here. Progressive overload is the idea that you must continually increase the stress on your muscles in new ways in order to stimulate growth (hypertrophy).

There are many ways to achieve this (see the article linked above). But, the main way to achieve progressive overload is by adding weight to the bar.

(Video) Barbells vs Dumbbells for Muscle Growth

Given that you will be able to lift more weight with the barbell shoulder press, and adding more weight to the bar is paramount for muscle growth, the barbell shoulder press gains a point here.

But, the dumbbell shoulder press has some benefits of its own. Such as…

#2 – Dumbbell Shoulder Press Activates Deltoids and Stabilizers More

In the same study referenced above, the researchers found that the standing dumbbell shoulder press elicited the highest deltoid activation out of any of the variations (seated/standing barbell and seated/standing dumbbell).

For the anterior head of the deltoid, standing dumbbell EMG activity was 15% higher than with standing barbell. And for the medial head, it was 7% higher for the standing dumbbell variation.

So, despite not being able to lift as much weight with the dumbbell shoulder press, it actually activates more of the deltoid muscle than its barbell counterpart, according to this study. And, as mentioned earlier, the main focus of the shoulder press is to develop the deltoids. Huge point here for the dumbbell shoulder press!

As I mentioned in the previous section, dumbbells are harder to stabilize than barbells. And this forces your body to use more muscle to stabilize the weight.

One way to think about is the plane of motion. For example, all machine exercises travel through a fixed plane of motion. Meaning, when you perform a machine lift, the path of the movement is already set. So, it requires less stabilization and thus less muscular involvement than free weight exercises.

Barbells move in a slightly more fixed plane of motion than dumbbells. This is because you don’t have to stabilize or balance a barbell unilaterally.

The big benefit of increasing the stress on stabilizing muscles is twofold:

  1. You develop more overall musculature. This aids in both strength and hypertrophy.
  2. Increasing your ability to stabilize and balance increases your overall athletic ability. This is why unilateral dumbbell movements are often preferred to barbell squats when training athletes.

There’s one final benefit to increasing the stress on stabilizing muscles: you are able to address muscular imbalances.

If you only do barbell shoulder press, then it’s possible one side of your body is compensating for a weaker side. You may have noticed on your harder reps the barbell being off balance as you complete the rep. This means you are favoring one side because it is stronger (and unbalanced).

The dumbbell shoulder press eliminates this because you are performing it unilaterally. So, it’s much harder to develop muscular imbalances.

#3 – Dumbbell Shoulder Press Has More Variations

There are really only three different variations you can do with the barbell shoulder press:

  1. Standing (Military) Press
  2. Seated Shoulder Press
  3. Behind-the-neck Shoulder Press

And that’s pretty much it. I really don’t recommend doing behind-the-neck shoulder press because it puts your shoulders in a compromised position, especially if you’re not using proper technique.

The one other barbell variation you can try is the push press. Instead of doing a strict military press, you use your legs to initially drive the weight up. You can do a lot more weight doing it this way. But, you can also do the push press with dumbbells.

So, the dumbbell shoulder press offers a bit more variation.

One awesome exercise you can do is the Arnold Press:

And, as mentioned previously, you can change up your grip with the dumbbell shoulder press. With a barbell, you can only change the width of your grip. But, with dumbbells you can change the position of your grip: fully overhand, partial overhand/neutral, and full neutral grip.

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 Key Differences | Humane Muscle (4)

#4 – Barbell Shoulder Press Will Have More Carryover to Other Lifts

This is one of those claims I’ve come to believe in strongly throughout my 13 years of weight training. And, talking to other lifters has reinforced it.

But, it’s hard to prove.

Generally, barbell exercises will carryover to other barbell exercises more so than a dumbbell exercise will. This is probably because of the similar plane of motion and the heavier weight being lifted with a barbell.

The bench press will be the prime exercise which will benefit from a barbell shoulder press. Powerlifters tend to focus on building their triceps as the fastest way to increase their bench.

The same study I referenced earlier compared electromyography (EMG) activity in the triceps between the dumbbell shoulder press vs barbell shoulder press (both seated and standing versions of each exercise were compared). Fifteen healthy men were evaluated.

The researchers found a 39% increase in triceps activation with the standing barbell vs standing dumbbell shoulder press.


That’s a huge difference! This could explain why I and many other lifters notice a greater carryover from the barbell shoulder press than dumbbell to the bench press.

Additionally, the researchers found that triceps activation was 20% lower for seated vs standing barbell. So, if you’re prime goal is to use the shoulder press to increase your bench press, you’re probably going to want to focus on the standing barbell variation.

#5 – Dumbbell Shoulder Press is Easier on the Shoulders

We’ve already covered the different grip variations you can use with the dumbbell shoulder press. And one more benefit of having options to choose from is you are less likely to screw your shoulders up.

Everyone’s biomechanics and injury history will be slightly different. Because of this, having several variations to choose from means you can select the one which doesn’t hurt you.

Beyond that, the dumbbell shoulder press allows your arms to travel in a more natural plane of motion:

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 Key Differences | Humane Muscle (5)

The ability to bring your arms into your body slightly as you press upwards shifts the stress from your shoulders to your triceps and elbows, which are better situated to handle it.

And the barbell shoulder press doesn’t allow you to do this (which is why I prefer using a closer grip with a barbell).

Is the Shoulder Press Overrated?

Many people on the internet seem to think so! Discover the controversial truth as to why the shoulder press is the best upper body exercise to develop monstrous deltoids.

Learn More

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Which is Better?

Barbell Shoulder Press

  • Can lift heavier weight
  • More carryover to other lifts

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  • Uses more stabilizing muscles
  • Higher deltoid activation
  • More variations
  • Easier on the shoulders

Here’s the punchline: both shoulder press variations have their pros and cons. And both definitely have their place in any sensible weight training routine.

Generally speaking, I use the barbell shoulder press for heavier weights, to increase my raw strength.

And I use the dumbbell shoulder press to more directly target the deltoids and stimulate hypertrophy. Of course, you might find you like doing the reverse!

Either way, you now have enough knowledge of the differences between the two to know which you’d prefer. I really recommend utilizing both in your routine. One way you could program it is to do four-week blocks of barbell, then switch to dumbbell, and vice versa.

(Video) Which Press is Best for Bigger Shoulders? (IRON FACE/OFF)

This way, you get the benefits of both versions.

Never get lost comparing and over analyzing different exercises. Try them for yourself. Keep doing them (with proper form) over and over for long enough until you are able to see results. And then you will know what works for you.

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(Video) Dumbbell vs Barbell Shoulder Presses


What is the difference between barbell and dumbbell shoulder press? ›

If you are interested in building overall upper body strength and mass then a barbell press is better. You can lift more weight and build more strength with the barbell press than you can with dumbbells. If you want to build more rounded shoulders for aesthetics rather than pure strength then the dumbbells are better.

What is the difference between dumbbell shoulder press and machine shoulder press? ›

The key difference between free weights and machines are that machines provide a more stable base from which to push through a fixed mechanism, unlike free weights that require more stability to perform the exercise as intended. The Shoulder Press Machine is no different in this regard.

Is a barbell better than a dumbell for muscle growth? ›

Each has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks. Dumbbells can provide a greater range of motion, help improve muscular imbalances, and allow for more natural feeling movements, whereas barbells can allow for heavier loads and can be more suitable for compound movements.

What muscles do dumbbell shoulder presses work out? ›

The seated dumbbell shoulder press primarily works your front deltoids but also your triceps and lateral deltoids. Compared to the classic barbell overhead press, the dumbbells allow for moving your arms more to the sides, which activates your lateral deltoids a bit more.


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