Alternating Dumbbell Press

If you’re trying to improve the strength or size of your shoulders, the alternating dumbbell press is a great exercise. When performed correctly, you can incorporate it into your training regimen to achieve the desired results!

In this guide, we explain the ins and outs of this effective exercise. This includes how to perform them, the muscles targeted, and correct programming. Once this exercise is in your routine, you’ll improve your shoulder muscle strength, achieving the ultimate fitness progress.

How To Do

  1. Get a bench with a backrest and two dumbbells for this exercise. 
  2. Sit on the bench with your back against the backrest. Bring both dumbbells to shoulder height by using your knees. Kick each leg up one at a time to help. 
  3. Take a deep breath in and engage your core. Press one dumbbell up to the ceiling by extending your arm. Once your elbow is almost extended, pause at the top position.  
  4. In a controlled manner, return to the starting position. Exhale as you bring the dumbbell back down.
  5. Repeat with the other arm. 
  6. Continue this pattern for the desired amount of sets and reps.

Tips From Expert

  • Use your mind-to-muscle connection. Activate your shoulder muscles throughout the movement to discourage overcompensation from other muscle groups. 
  • Incorporate visual instructions, such as driving the fists straight up to the ceiling. Another example is moving the biceps to the ear in the pressing movement.
  • Do not hold the dumbbells over the shoulders but slightly in front of them. 
  • Maintain a straight back with eyes focused forward. This reduces unnecessary strain on the neck and back muscles during the movement.

Optimal Sets and Reps

Depending on your goals, the training style you incorporate will affect the number of sets and reps performed. Take a look at the programming table below.

Training Type Sets Reps
Strength Training 3–5 3–4
Hypertrophy 3–4 8–10
Endurance Training 3–4 12–20
Power Training 3–5 1–3

How to Put in Your Workout Split

The alternating dumbbell press is an excellent upper-body exercise for engaging the shoulder muscles. It is often used to improve the strength and size of your anterior and lateral deltoids. Alternating each arm enhances the stability of your core and shoulders. It also helps to address any potential imbalances. 

There are various ways this exercise can be programmed into a split. It greatly depends on the type of workout split you incorporate into your routine. The most common types are the upper and lower body split, the push or pull split, and the bro split. This is where you split sessions into different muscle groups.

Depending on what type of split you choose, add the alternating dumbbell press to either upper body, push, or shoulder days

The set and rep range you choose should be based on your fitness goals, like hypertrophy or endurance. It is best to start with lighter weights to warm up and practice proper form before leaning towards heavier weights. 

Primary Muscle Groups

Anterior Deltoid

Muscles located at the front of your shoulder region

Lateral Deltoid

Muscles located at the side of your shoulder which gives your shoulders a rounded appearance.

Anterior Deltoid

The anterior deltoid, also known as the clavicular head, is a muscle located at the front of the shoulder. This muscle is responsible for engaging movements like internal rotation of the shoulder joint and moving the arm forward. 

In the alternating dumbbell press, your anterior deltoid raises your arm to drive the weight up. 

Lateral Deltoid

The lateral deltoid is located in the middle of your shoulder between your anterior and posterior deltoids. It is vital in movements like shoulder flexion and abduction when internal rotation of the shoulder joint is enacted. 

The seated alternating dumbbell press activates the lateral deltoid. This muscle is necessary to drive the dumbbell in an upward motion while maintaining joint stability.

Secondary Muscle Groups

Serratus Anterior

Small, fan shaped muscle that lies deep under your chest and scapula.

Triceps Lateral Heads

Muscles located on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Medial Heads

Small muscles located at the back of your arms. Deep to the triceps long heads between the shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Long Heads

Large muscles located at the back of your arms between your shoulder and elbow. Most outside portion of the tricep.

Triceps Lateral Heads

The triceps lateral heads are located on the outside of your upper arm. They help bend the arm straight at the elbow and push things like a door. 

During the alternating dumbbell press, the triceps lateral heads are a secondary mover. They work to straighten the arm at the elbow. They help to push the dumbbell upward and support the shoulder muscles throughout the exercise. 

Triceps Medial Heads

Located at the back of the arm, the triceps medial head is smaller than the triceps long head. The triceps medial heads are activated when extending the elbow joint. 

Since the triceps medial heads are not attached to the scapula, the muscle is not utilized in movement or stabilization of the shoulder joint. Instead, this joint is stabilized by the rotator cuff muscles

In an alternating dumbbell press, the triceps medial heads are engaged during the extension of the forearm. 

Triceps Long Heads

The triceps long heads are the largest of the triceps muscles. They extend down the back of the arms and originate from your shoulder blades or scapula. Compared to the other heads of the triceps brachii, the triceps long heads more prominently contribute to elbow extension at shoulder elevation

They’re also responsible for the slight movement of the shoulder joint due to their attachment. 

Because the elbow extends in the alternating dumbbell press, your triceps long heads are engaged alongside your other tricep heads.

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior is a large, fan-shaped muscle responsible for stabilizing the scapula. It promotes upward rotation and protraction of the scapula joint. The muscle is divided into three parts based on its position in the ribs. These are the serratus anterior inferior, serratus anterior intermediate, and serratus anterior superior. 

During the seated alternating dumbbell press, the serratus anterior is activated to promote stabilization and movement of the scapula. 

Equipment

Dumbbells

Flat Bench Without Rack

Dumbbells

You can use these for a wide range of unilateral and bilateral exercises. Avoid using momentum to lift. Ensure a secure grip to prevent drops.

Flat Bench Without Rack

This is great for pressing and pulling movements. Ensure the safety catch is firmly locked in. If you can't find this bench, use one with a rack for barbell exercises.

Variations

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the same equipment.

Alternatives

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the different equipment.

Pike Push-Ups

Arm Circles

Bear Crawls

Who Should Do?

Bodybuilders

Bodybuilding involves training to develop muscles through diet and exercise. This form of training is often incorporated to promote general health and fitness and instigate muscular development. 

The alternating dumbbell press works multiple upper body muscles, promoting improvements in muscle strength and growth. Both are desirable attributes that bodybuilders seek to improve their physique and physical well-being. 

Bodybuilders would benefit from the alternating dumbbell press to address potential muscular imbalances in the shoulder muscles. It’s also a great way to build the anterior and lateral deltoids, improving the shoulders as a whole.

Individuals Seeking Shoulder Mobility Improvement

The alternating dumbbell press is an excellent exercise for improving shoulder mobility. It actively engages each shoulder one at a time in a unilateral movement. This encourages a mind-to-muscle connection and targets any imbalances in mobility

Inserting this exercise into your training routine can be productive in addressing any mobility concerns and weaknesses. 

Individuals Looking To Improve Shoulder Strength

Prioritizing shoulder strength is vital for supporting everyday movements like lifting groceries, opening doors, and pushing a cabinet closed. 

The alternating dumbbell press engages numerous muscles around the shoulder joint, like the serratus anterior. These muscles stabilize the shoulder joint; without them, the shoulder would not function properly. 

In a weakened state, these muscles are more likely to be injured or unable to take increased stress. Therefore, it is essential to maintain strength in the shoulder joint and muscles through exercises like the alternating dumbbell press. 

Who Should Not Do?

Anyone With Shoulder Injuries

If you have a current shoulder injury, it is recommended not to perform an alternating dumbbell press. This is because this movement can aggravate or worsen the injury by placing strain on the shoulder joints and muscles.  

Unless you receive the go-ahead from your doctor to perform shoulder exercises, you should not do the alternating dumbbell press. 

Benefits Of The Exercise

Boosted Muscle Activation

The alternating dumbbell press is excellent for boosting muscle activation thanks to its alternating unilateral movement. It helps the lifter focus on mind-to-muscle connection and engage the correct muscles throughout the movement. 

Shoulder And Upper Back Strength

The alternating dumbbell press is a compound movement that incorporates various upper body muscles, like the lateral deltoid. These muscles are used to press the dumbbell upward and lower the weight back down. 

Consistently incorporating this exercise into your training regimen can promote improvements in shoulder and upper back strength.

Enhanced Core Stability

The alternating dumbbell press requires you to lift one arm at a time. Because of this, your core works to keep a stable body position. Regular performance of this exercise can enhance core stability and strength

Improved Coordination

Due to this exercise’s alternating unilateral movement, the lifter must prioritize the coordination of various limbs and muscle engagement. 

The core must be actively engaged to maintain the stability of the upper body. The arms must move in a controlled movement pattern, ensuring the shoulder muscles are activated to press the dumbbell. Because of this, regularly performing the alternating press may improve limb coordination.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is alternating dumbbell press good?

The alternating dumbbell press is a good exercise to incorporate into anyone’s training regimen. It activates various upper body muscles, including the deltoids, to perform the upward pressing movement.

Is the single-arm shoulder press better than the double?

The single-arm shoulder press may be better for beginners or individuals looking to practice muscle engagement. The double-arm press’s alternating movement may be better for experienced athletes who can learn the alternating movement without compromising form.

Do shoulder presses work the entire shoulder?

Shoulder presses primarily target the anterior deltoid and lateral deltoid. For the posterior deltoid, it might be best to use an exercise like the cable machine high pull.

Resources

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  2. Tiwana, M.S., Sinkler, M.A. and Bordoni, B. (2023). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Triceps Muscle. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK536996/#:~:text=The%20triceps%20brachii%20is%20a,extension%20of%20the%20elbow%20joint.
  3. Smita Maruvada, Madrazo-Ibarra, A. and Varacallo, M. (2023). Anatomy, Rotator Cuff. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441844/.
  4. Kholinne, E., Rizki Fajar Zulkarnain, Yu Cheng Sun, Lim, S., Chun, J.-M. and Jeon, I.-H. (2018). The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta orthopaedica et traumatologica Turcica/Acta orthopaedica et traumatologica turcica, [online] 52(3), pp.201–205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005.
  5. Lung, K., Kayla St Lucia and Lui, F. (2024). Anatomy, Thorax, Serratus Anterior Muscles. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531457/#:~:text=The%20serratus%20anterior%20is%20a%20fan%2Dshaped%20muscle%20that%20originates%20on%20the%20superolateral%20surfaces%20of%20the%20first%20to%20eighth%20ribs%20or%20the%20first%20to%20ninth%20ribs%20at%20the%20lateral%20wall%20of%20the%20thorax%20and%20inserts%20along%20the%20superior%20angle%2C%20medial%20border%2C%20and%20inferior%20angle%20of%20the%20scapula.
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  8. Neumann, D.A. and Camargo, P.R. (2019). Kinesiologic considerations for targeting activation of scapulothoracic muscles – part 1: serratus anterior. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, [online] 23(6), pp.459–466. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2019.01.008.
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