Dumbbells vs Barbells: Dumbbell Shoulder Press vs Barbell Shoulder Press

Dumbbell Shoulder Press vs Barbell Shoulder Press

Barbells vs Dumbbells

In the first article in the Barbell vs. Dumbbell series we compared the Bench Press with the Dumbbell Press. In this second article in the Barbell vs. Dumbbell series we analyze which variant is the most effective for muscle growth for shoulder muscles: The Military Press (Barbell Shoulder Press) or the Dumbbell Shoulder Press. The Military Press is another classic barbell exercise and an essential part of a weightlifters’ training in which a barbell is pressed from just above shoulder height to above the head with outstretched arms. The Military press is performed while standing, although it is possible to perform it seated and decrease stability requirements. The Dumbbell Shoulder Press is a variant of this exercise but is usually performed while seated. It is perfectly possible to perform this exercise while standing however. Both exercises target the deltoid and triceps brachii muscles. Since both these exercises can be done both seated and standing, the effects of posture and which is more effective will be discussed as well.

Military Press vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Advantages Barbell:


No advantage for barbells while seated, but a significant (7% in the referenced study) difference in favor of the barbell while standing.

-Muscle activity:

Significantly higher muscle activation in biceps brachii muscle while seated and triceps brachii muscle while standing.

Advantages Dumbbells: 

-Range of Motion:

The dumbbell shoulder press, both while seated and standing, allows for a greater range of motion during the exercise. Unlike when holding a barbell, dumbbells allow the arms to come closer together during the last phase of the press. In addition the lowest point a barbell can reach during a shoulder press can be limited by the chest.

-Muscle activity:

Significantly higher muscle activation in the anterior part of the deltoid muscle while both seated and standing and in the medial part of the deltoid muscle while standing. Comparable muscle activity in the posterior deltoid during seated and standing variants of these exercises.

Advantages standing vs. seated shoulder press: 

-Muscle activity:

Performing the exercise standing resulted in more strongly activated deltoid muscles (Dumbbells: anterior, medial and posterior part of the deltoid and biceps brachii. Barbell: medial and posterior part of the deltoid and triceps brachii) or similar muscle activation levels. (Dumbbells: triceps brachii, Barbell: anterior part of the deltoid muscle and biceps brachii) indicating that for shoulder training performing these exercises while standing is superior.

Verdict Hypertrophy: Although to this date no long term studies have been done to evaluate which of these exercises is more effective for muscle hypertrophy in the shoulder muscles, based on these data, the dumbbell shoulder press is more effective for producing shoulder muscle hypertrophy. The dumbbell shoulder press causes stronger or at least equal muscle activation in the different parts of the deltoid muscle. In addition the range of motion that can be performed while using dumbbells is equal to or larger than using a barbell which is an important factor as well while training to increase muscle size. Couple this with the fact that only slightly less weight can be used when using dumbbells and it seems clear that the dumbbell variant of this exercise is more effective for shoulder muscle hypertrophy.

Does the barbell shoulder press have no redeeming qualities? Yes it does activate the triceps brachii muscle to a greater extent while standing. This however would not be the most important factor in choosing a shoulder muscle exercise. Another advantage of using a barbell is that it will allow more weight to be used if performing the exercise while standing.

In addition, body position is an important factor during these exercises. Generally the standing variant of both exercises elicited stronger shoulder muscle activation than the seated, which is an important factor for muscle growth.

See also:

-Dumbbells vs Barbells: Barbell Bench Press vs Dumbbell Press

-The most effective chest exercises


-Saeterbakken, A.H. Effects of Body Position and Loading Modality on Muscle Activity and Strength in Shoulder Presses. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 2013, 27, 7, 1824-1831.