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Barbell Shoulder Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press

If your goal is top-end pressing strength, then the barbell overhead press can be a great variation to use. For general strength and hypertrophy, the dumbbell shoulder press is a great exercise to explore.

To build big and strong shoulders your workout program will need some variation of consistent pressing. I’m constantly asked about programming the barbell overhead press, also referred to as the barbell shoulder press, versus the dumbbell shoulder press.

Both of these shoulder exercises can be awesome for shoulder hypertrophy and strength, and selecting the right variation should be based on your training context, goals, and needs.

In this article, I’m going to discuss the barbell overhead press versus the dumbbell shoulder press and cover when to use each in your workout programs.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press Considerations

Consideration 1

The barbell overhead press is a great option for lifters wanting to train their press with more weight. This shoulder exercise is a little more technical than the dumbbell shoulder press and it has more strength sports carryover.

Consideration 2

The dumbbell shoulder press is typically a little more beginner-friendly. It can feel easier to perform because you can shift your elbow and press mechanics easier since your hands are not fixed.

Consideration 3

For most recreational lifters, a blend of using both shoulder exercises is a good bet if you have a shoulder-focused goal. Use the barbell for top-end strength work and dumbbells for hypertrophy-focused sessions.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press Differences

When programming and considering the barbell overhead press versus the dumbbell shoulder press, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with their key differences.

If you can better understand which upper body variation will be best depending on your goals, then you can build more productive training blocks and track data better for which exercise you respond best to.

Difference 1: Hand Position

The first and most notable difference between the barbell overhead press and the dumbbell shoulder press is the hand position you’ll assume when completing reps.

When we barbell overhead press, our hands are fixed on the barbell, and they move very little throughout reps. This fixed position results in less elbow movement.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press Hand Position Differences

When the hands are fixed, everything else used to press the weight overhead gets a little more limited with the range of motion they can move. There’s less availability for deviation and tweaking mechanics.

With the dumbbell shoulder press, our hands are fixed on the dumbbells, but since they’re separate from one another, we can easily shift the dumbbell’s position, which will then influence our pressing mechanics to a greater degree.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press Differences

For example, you can bring your hands out and press in-line with the body, which will bring the elbows out and shift which muscles are used. Alternatively, we could bring the elbows more in front of the body, and we’ll notice a similar flow of changes throughout.

This ability to manipulate the dumbbell and hand position more easily can make the dumbbell shoulder press a little more inclusive regarding who can benefit from this pressing variation.

Difference 2: Skill Level

Another difference that’s worth discussing between the barbell overhead press and the dumbbell shoulder press is how much skill is needed to perform both.

In general, the barbell overhead press will have a steeper learning curve. This exercise can be a little more technical, and the baseline range of motion requirements will be greater when barbell overhead presses are performed.

Basically, the barbell overhead press has many moving parts. For example, you’ll need to ensure your stance, hips, and torso are all aligned with your pressing style to be efficient as you gain weight.

Barbell Overhead Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is a little more beginner-friendly because it’s easier to manipulate and take lighter. With the barbell overhead press, your starting weight is either a 35 lb barbell (women’s barbell) or a 45 lb barbell (traditional barbell).

With the dumbbell shoulder press, you can start as light as 2.5 lbs and since you can position the dumbbells in multiple ways these will often be easier for lifters who have limitations in their overhead range of motion.

Coach’s Note: Both variations can be great for lifters at all skill levels and this point is to deter you from using one variation over the other but more so to discuss what comes along with performing each.

Difference 3: Fatigue and Goals

The final difference that I want to discuss between these two shoulder exercise variations is the fatigue differences and how each can be applied to certain shoulder training goals.

In general, the barbell overhead press will be a more fatiguing overhead press variation. This exercise has a higher skill threshold which can be more taxing mentally and the entire body will be working to some degree when doing barbell overhead presses.

Barbell Shoulder Press for Strength

Plus, you can take barbell overhead presses heavier which will typically result in more total work output from a tonnage point of view, or how much total load you’re moving throughout your sets.

Since the dumbbell shoulder press can be more easily manipulated and taken lighter, this variation will usually be a little fatiguing from a neural output context. Your volume and intensity will influence the muscular fatigue of your dumbbell shoulder presses.

In the context of goals, the barbell overhead press will usually be the best option for lifters with the goal of pressing the most amount of weight possible overhead. It’s also a great option for strength sports athletes that needs a strong press for competition.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

For example, strongman, CrossFit, and weightlifting athletes can find a ton of strength sports carryover by improving and building their barbell overhead press.

The dumbbell shoulder press is great for building general overhead pressing strength and increasing the mass of the delts, and it can be a great option for lifters with existing shoulder issues or range of motion limitations.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press Muscles Worked

Regarding what muscles the barbell overhead press and dumbbell shoulder press work there will be a lot of carryover between the two exercises. Execution and intensity will be factors that can create different biases in the muscles worked.

Coach’s Note: Since this exercise comparison is primarily focused on the shoulders I’m going to break the delts into their three regions below versus listing them as one.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press Muscles Worked

Barbell Overhead Press Muscles Worked

Barbell Overhead Press Muscles Worked

  • Anterior Deltoid
  • Medial Deltoid
  • Rear Deltoid
  • Upper Traps
  • Pec Major
  • Triceps

*bolded indicates a higher degree of involvement

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Dumbbell Shoulder Press Muscles Worked

  • Anterior Deltoid
  • Medial Deltoid
  • Rear Deltoid
  • Upper Traps
  • Pec Major
  • Triceps

*bolded indicates a higher degree of involvement

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press for General Strength

The barbell overhead press and dumbbell shoulder press can both be awesome options for lifters wanting to improve their general overhead pressing strength.

The barbell overhead press can be great for strengthening the anterior deltoids and traps and the dumbbell shoulder press can be great for building the anterior and medial deltoids and the traps.

Barbell Overhead Press for Strength

Which to Use: For recreational lifters wanting to build foundational pressing strength, it can be a good idea to use and experiment with both variations. Try using the barbell overhead press as a main compound and the dumbbell shoulder press as an accessory.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press for Max Strength

If you’re training for max strength and you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter, then opting more regularly for the barbell overhead press can be a great option for pressing the most weight possible.

In general, lifters will be able to press more with the barbell because the fixed hand position adds an additional layer of stability and you’ll have more muscles across the body working to help you press weight.

Barbell Overhead Press for Maximal Strength

That said, the dumbbell shoulder press can also work really well for max strength, but its stability component will be a limiter for some lifters and it may have less carryover for strength sports athletes opting for one of these variations for sport carryover.

Which to Use: The barbell overhead press will usually be the best variation for lifters wanting to press heavy 1-RMs and the dumbbell shoulder press can be awesome for beginners and lifters with a max strength and stability-focused goal.

Barbell Overhead Press Vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press for Hypertrophy

Both of these variations can be great for hypertrophy and building shoulder mass, however, the dumbbell shoulder press will usually take the edge for lifters fully focused on building shoulder mass.

As stated above, the dumbbell shoulder press has more variability which can be great for biasing different parts of the shoulder. The deltoids are composed of three major heads including the anterior, medial, and rear deltoids.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press for Strength

When we’re pressing in front of the body, like we do the barbell overhead press, then the anterior deltoids and clavicular pec region will be highly active. In the context of building these muscles, the barbell overhead press can be great.

Conversely, the dumbbell shoulder press can be a better option for lifters wanting to train the anterior and medial deltoid heads as you can shift how you’re pressing to bias the delts differently.

For example, if you want more medial deltoid, then you’ll want to press with the elbows flared out a little more, and if you want more anterior deltoid then you’ll press with the elbows more in front of the body or at an angle from the torso.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press for Hypertrophy

The dumbbell overhead press can also be easier to perform for higher volumes which is great for building shoulder mass. Plus, it can be easier to utilize tempo with dumbbell shoulder presses to increase time under tension.

Which to Use: Generally speaking, the dumbbell shoulder press will be the better option for hypertrophy and mass-focused lifters. Also, note the rear deltoid will always be working during these overhead press variations as it plays a role in stabilization.

Seated Vs Standing Shoulder Presses

If you’ve debated between going seated versus standing with your barbell overhead press and dumbbell shoulder presses, then you’ll want to factor in your goals.

When performing either of these variations seated you’ll have an added level of stability. The bench you’re using to sit on will serve as a constraint and means to help you increase stability and balance when performing reps.

In general, lifters will find that it’s easier to stay stricter with their form when performing these variations seated which can be useful for ensuring you’re hitting the muscles you’re working to target.

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press for Hypertrophy

A great example here is the lifter that extends a ton when doing a barbell or standing shoulder press. This excessive torso extension will involve more pec and take away work from the delts, so in the context of hypertrophy, seated presses may be better.

For sports and strength, both standing and seated can be great options. Standing will typically allow you to press more because your body can more easily self-organize to move the weight at hand while sitting will keep you stricter.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q:
Is the barbell shoulder press good for beginners?

A:
The barbell shoulder press is a great exercise for lifters at all skill levels. The ability to vertically press heavy weight overhead is a skill that can have benefits for sports, strength sports, and day to day life.

Q:
Is the dumbbell or barbell shoulder press better?

A:
The dumbbell and barbell shoulder press are both great exercises for improving your delt strength and hypertrophy. They can also be useful for strengthening the traps, triceps, and can passively benefit your core.

Takeaway Thoughts

The barbell overhead press versus the dumbbell shoulder press is a fun topic to cover because the nuances between both of these exercises can dictate which you should perform per your training goals.

For top-end strength and strength sports carryover, the barbell overhead press can be a great option to utilize. For general strength and hypertrophy, the dumbbell shoulder press is an awesome pick.

If you have additional questions about the barbell overhead press versus the dumbbell shoulder press, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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