Seated Barbell VS Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Shoulder presses, lateral raises, upright rows and shrugs are all..

Seated Barbell VS Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Shoulder presses, lateral raises, upright rows and shrugs are all well-known tools of the trade and required lifts for anyone who dreams of big deltoids becoming reality.

But what about picking the very best mass builder for your delts?

The shoulder press is the granddaddy of all delt destroyers with several variations and techniques and has the ability to quickly pack on the mass and also lend support to other lifts as well.

The two most common are the barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses. Each has their own unique advantage. But let’s break these two basic lifts down to their parts and see which rises to the top as the superior move.

Dumbbell Pros

Dumbbells make for a less stable military press. Meaning your muscles have to work harder just to keep you from losing form.

A standing or seated dumbbell press actually activates the fronts of your shoulders — the anterior deltoids — 11 percent to 15 percent more than a standing or seated barbell press. Showed a small study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The researchers also found that a standing military press done with dumbbells activated the medial deltoid — the top of the shoulder — 7 percent more than a standing military press with a barbell.

Dumbbell Cons

Dumbbells are less safe than barbells when you’re working with heavy weight. You do a heavy barbell lift inside a power rack; when your muscles fail, you can quickly rerack it.

Dumbbells are harder to control and must be hoisted from the floor for you to use for the military press.

You could, of course, have a spotter help you — but if you don’t have a willing workout partner, it’s possible you could drop a weight and injure yourself.

Barbell Pros

A barbell generally allows you to lift more weight as the bar is more stable.

With a dumbbell, your shoulders share the weight, so a stronger side can compensate for a weaker one.

The 2013 study showed that, when it comes to a one-repetition maximum — the most weight you can lift one time only — the barbell allowed for lifters to heave 7 percent more weight than they could with dumbbells.

The more weight you lift, the more you stimulate muscle growth. When your goal is to just build more muscle and strength, the barbell is the way to go.

Barbells also allow you to add weight in increments of 2.5-pound weight plates.

This is a more gradual way to increase the challenge on your muscles compared to the standard increase of 5 pounds when you graduate to a heavier dumbbell.

Increasing weight to quickly may compromise your progress and limit your results.

Barbell Cons

If you’re new to lifting and not ready to hoist a lot of weight overhead, a barbell military press might just be out of your reach.

The standard bar alone weighs 45 pounds.

You might need to start with dumbbells and work up to an empty bar and add plates as you gain strength.

How To Do Seated Shoulder Press

  1. While holding a dumbbell in each hand, sit on a military press bench or utility bench that has back support. Place the dumbbells upright on top of your thighs.
  2. Now raise the dumbbells to shoulder height one at a time using your thighs to help propel them up into position.
  3. Make sure to rotate your wrists so that the palms of your hands are facing forward. This is your starting position.
  4. Now, exhale and push the dumbbells upward until they touch at the top.
  5. Then, after a brief pause at the top contracted position, slowly lower the weights back down to the starting position while inhaling.
  6. Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.



You can perform the exercise standing or sitting on a regular flat bench. For people with lower back problems, the version described is the recommended one.

You can also perform the exercise as Arnold Schwarzenegger used to do it.

Which is to start holding the dumbbells with a supinated grip (palms facing you) in front of your shoulders and then.

As you start pushing up, you align the dumbbells in the starting position described on step 3 by rotating your wrists and touch the dumbbells at the top.

As you come down, then you would go back to the starting position by rotating the wrist throughout the lowering portion until the palms of your hands are facing you.

This variation is called the Arnold Press. However, this may not recommended if you have rotator cuff problems.

How To Do Seated Barbell Press

  1. Sit on a Military Press Bench with a bar behind your head and either have a spotter give you the bar (better on the rotator cuff this way) or pick it up yourself carefully with a pronated grip (palms facing forward). Tip: Your grip should be wider than shoulder width and it should create a 90-degree angle between the forearm and the upper arm as the barbell goes down.
  2. Once you pick up the barbell with the correct grip length, lift the bar up over your head by locking your arms. Hold at about shoulder level and slightly in front of your head. This is your starting position.
  3. Lower the bar down to the collarbone slowly as you inhale.
  4. Lift the bar back up to the starting position as you exhale.
  5. Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.



This exercise can also be performed standing but those with lower back problems are better off performing this seated variety.

The behind the neck variation is not recommended for people with shoulder problems as it can be hard on the rotator cuff due to the hyperextension created by bringing the bar behind the neck.

The verdict

Of course the choice is ultimately yours depending on your personal preference, comfort levels and injury proneness.

As both have practical, real-world application the barbell version will tax your front delts more with a heavier load and the dumbbell version will help round-out the entire deltoid area with a necessity for more control and technique.

You could easily inject both of these moves into your current routines rotating the barbell press for heavier, strength days and the dumbbell press for lighter, higher rep hypertrophy days.

The choice is yours but both will serve you well.

Daniel Messer, RNutr, CPT

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