Barbell vs. Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Which Builds More Delt Mass?

Improve your delt training and build a more impressive torso by comparing the most two potent shoulder building exercises: dumbbell overhead press and military press.

Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.

Big, muscular deltoids can really set you apart from the pack when it comes to displaying a big, broad physique. Width is an instant indicator of being powerful, strong and in incredible shape. As an avid trainer your goal is to reap the reward of all your sweat, sacrifice and hard work you tirelessly dedicate to the gym so, why not get the best bang for your buck?

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.

Barbell shoulder press

Included on the same list as bench presses, squats and rows, the barbell shoulder press is the one and only go-to exercise for those looking to get big delts, period. Being a multi-joint exercise the barbell shoulder press allows you to use more weight for overload spelling more muscle in the long term. Practiced as either a standing or seated exercise, the technique is similar for both versions. Grasp the barbell a few inches wider than your shoulders with an overhand grip.

Start with the barbell just an inch or so from your collar bones but not resting. With one motion press the weight all the way up in front of your face with your elbows approximately 45 degrees from your upper body. While the bar travels up it will gradually angle over your head as it reaches the top. At this point the bar should be over your head and not in front of it. Without locking your elbows squeeze your delts and descend in a controlled fashion.

Pros: Being multi-joint in nature, the barbell shoulder press has the ability to pack on the mass and strength like no other. Simple, basic and related to practical uses it is the big boy on the block. Activating both the anterior (front) and medial (middle) heads of the deltoid complex, the barbell shoulder press also has advantages for building muscle and strength in other areas such as traps, triceps and upper chest.

Cons: As overall mass is the main advantage of the barbell version, it lacks to distribute the load to the rear deltoids and can be potentially harmful if practiced incorrectly. Short ranges of motion and the tendency to use too much weight are two red flags when talking of injury. The ego often rears its ugly head and the shoulder press becomes a shoulder burner instead of a builder. Impingements, chronic soreness and upper and lower back pulls are common when you take it to extremes.

Dumbbell Press

Dumbbell shoulder press

The dumbbell shoulder press is another exercise you will see ad nauseam at your local gym. Normally preferred over the barbell version due to equipment availability (the barbell shoulder press rack is usually taken) the dumbbell press is a highly effective move for complete muscle development. As with the barbell version, this exercise can be done either seated or standing. For the purposes of this article we will talk about doing them seated.

Grasp a pair of dumbbells and start with them up over your shoulders and palms facing front. With your elbows pointed out (not forward) press the dumbbells up and in a slightly arching motion over your head until they are met at the top position without locking your elbows and without touching the weights. Lower the dumbbells under control all the way down until they are about to touch your shoulders.

Pros: Since you are using two independently moving dumbbells this press version forces you to use more supportive muscle. Also, with the elbows pointing out to the sides (unlike the barbell version where they are pointing slightly forward) you recruit more muscle fibers from the medial (middle) and posterior (rear) deltoids. Finally, since you will be using more of an independent range of motion you won’t have to use such large amounts of weight cutting your injury risk down.

Cons: If balance, range of motion or ego is a problem for you, the dumbbell shoulder press won’t be the right choice. If you perform half reps with massive amounts of weight you are asking for trouble down the road. Some also have difficulty getting the weight up to the starting position to begin with. Lastly, be sure to keep an upright upper body position on the bench or seat. I see too many sinking into the seat as the set goes on turning a shoulder press into an incline bench press.

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.