When it comes time to build your upper body, there are a few tried-and-true strength training moves to choose. The seated dumbbell shoulder press is a popular upper body exercise for lifters of all levels. When it comes to building stronger and bigger delts (lateral and anterior) and upper traps, dumbbell shoulder press variations are among the most common moves trainers include in programming.
In this guide, we’re going to break down the seated dumbbell shoulder press and discuss how to use the exercise more strategically when we want to focus on building a stronger upper body. We’ll also cover the best seated dumbbell shoulder press tips to consider and most common mistakes you should avoid.
Before getting started, you’ll need a weight bench and dumbbells. Set up the bench to its top position, so that the pad and seat form a 90 degree angle. You can also perform the exercise without an incline bench—just be ready to put an extra focus on bracing your torso to maintain a safe position as you lift.
How to Do Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Presses
When performing seated dumbbell shoulder presses, I like to bucket how I’m executing reps into my goals at hand. For strength specifically, those buckets, or points of focus, include developing strength and displaying strength.
When it comes to developing strength, I’m a bit more mindful of positioning, ranges of motion, and the overall efficacy of every rep’s execution. Displaying strength includes self-organizing the body in a position to produce reps that match the intensities being used.
For the seated dumbbell shoulder press, we’re going to use a technique that limits torso extension to ensure we’re keeping the most amount of tension possible on the vertical pressing muscles.
1. Perfect the Setup
Grab your dumbbells and kick them up (use your knees to help you to prop the weights up to shoulder height). I prefer to do that one dumbbell at a time. Then, establish your setup positioning. This entails positioning the torso for the goals at hand (development of strength) and ensuring we’re creating some tension in the legs, feet, and hips so we have a firm base to press from and can lever the seat’s stability to its fullest potential.
2. Establish Bottom Position
Once you’ve kicked your dumbbells up and you’ve created a consistent and stable base, you’ll then establish where you’ll be ending each rep in the eccentric (lowering movement pattern). This is important as it will help us to be cognizant of consistent rep performance and build starting strength mechanics for vertical pressing.
3. Press, “Lockout”, and Mind the Torso
Based on the weight you’re using and your setup, it’s now time to brace accordingly for the task at hand and press. I say accordingly because we need to adapt fluid bracing strategies that feed into what we’re trying to accomplish, which in this case is the development of vertical pressing strength.
At lockout, if the goal is the development of strength and hypertrophy, it can be useful to perform a softer lockout—in other words, don’t totally lock your elbows at the top of the press. This will keep tension on the upper body muscles and limit the potential to clank dumbbells overhead. I like the cue, “bring the biceps and delts to the ears,”—and using that, cue the vertical pressing motion while stopping shy of full elbow extension.
When it comes to torso positioning, I like to coach a light level of contact with the bench (if you’re using an incline bench setup) to allow the scapulas to more with more ease during the press. We also want to limit torso extension to keep our focus on the vertical pressing muscles—so maintaining light contact with a majority of the torso is a decent cue to explore and use.
The Muscles You Work With the Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
There are multiple muscles worked in the seated dumbbell overhead press, and various muscles will alter their activity based on the strategy we adopt when performing this exercise. When we’re performing a press with less torso extension, the following muscles will be targeted:
These are not the only muscles at play, but they’re the prime movers. The more we extend the torso to press, we’ll shift the emphasis of these muscle’s work slightly and have more involvement from muscles like the pec major (clavicular head more specifically).
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press Tips
I have two primary tips that I like to keep in mind with the seated dumbbell shoulder press.
Tip 1: Define Your Goals
Define your goals and understand how to adopt different strategies based on what you’re trying to achieve. This would mean shifting movement mechanics for specific purposes and adaptations such as extending more for more maximal displays of strength versus keeping a more rigid form for developing strength.
On top of that, you could alter mechanics with the goal of producing more tension on the upper body muscles if your goals are hypertrophy-focused.
Tip 2: Mindful Positioning
We discussed in the how-to, but I think it can be really useful to pay attention to how much pressure you’re applying to the bench in order to produce reps. If you’re driving hard into the bench with the upper back, then you’re likely extending more than intended, or taking away work from some of the upper body muscles responsible for fluid vertical presses.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press Mistakes
I often see two major mistakes in the gym when people perform the seated dumbbell shoulder presses.
Mistake 1: Inconsistent Reps
Inconsistent reps can throw off our pressing path and fluidity when executing various sets. This could look like speeds that vary during every lowering and pressing portion of the movement, or being inconsistent with where we’re stopping presses at the bottom. To fix this, simply video yourself and watch where inconsistencies occur.
Mistake 2: Clinking Dumbbells Together
There is no reason to clink the dumbbell heads together overhead when you do seated dumbbell shoulder presses. All this is going to do is throw off your mechanics at the top of the movement when you transition from the pressing to the lowering portion.
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