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Want to tone your arms? Add the shoulder press to your routine

The overhead shoulder press will help you see muscle definition in your upper body.
Illustration of woman lifting weights above her hear
The shoulder press works the shoulder muscles, triceps, trapezius and core.TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

Upper-body strength is essential in performing everyday tasks, whether it be carrying a heavy laundry basket, lifting a suitcase or picking up a child.

A lot of my clients don’t focus on working their upper body because they’re afraid of bulking up. But the right exercises can actually have the opposite effect, helping you to slim and tone the arms.

To achieve these results, I recommend starting with lighter weights and smaller movements. There are plenty of upper-body moves that can help strengthen and tone your arms without building too much muscle. The shoulder press with dumbbells is one of those moves. It's a great place to start for people who aren’t used to training their upper body on a consistent basis.

What does the shoulder press do for the body?

Strength-training moves like the shoulder press increase muscle mass, which helps you burn more calories at rest.

The shoulder press targets the shoulder muscles, triceps, trapezius and core. Because it works so many upper-body muscles, performing it consistently can lead to real changes in your arms and shoulders, including a more toned figure.

The common mistakes people make when doing the shoulder press

When performing this move, I find a lot of my clients sacrificing their form for heavier weights. Although it’s good to push yourself, form should always remain your top priority.

When performing repetitions of the shoulder press, the first part of your form to be aware of is your posture. A lot of people allow their backs to arch, causing injury and discomfort. I also find a lot of my clients hit the top of the exercise with the weights too far back, instead of in front of their heads where they can see the weights with their peripheral vision. To fix these common mistakes, keep these tips in mind:

  • Make sure not to arch your back. If you find yourself arching, drop to a lighter weight.
  • Press the weights up at a slight angle so that if you’re looking forward with your head, you can see them if you look up with your eyes. Make sure not to reach the weights over top of your head or even worse, behind your head!
  • Squeeze your abdominals before lifting to prevent losing proper form.

How to do a modified shoulder press

There are a few options when it comes to modifying the shoulder press. The first is just choosing a lighter weight — even starting with one pound is okay! Once you begin to feel more confident, increase the weight.

Another option is to perform the shoulder press with one arm at a time. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and bring your arms to a goal post position. Using only the right arm, perform an overhead press for 10 repetitions. Then switch to the left arm and perform 10 repetitions.

Another way to modify the shoulder press is to decrease the range of motion. Instead of straightening your arms and lifting the weights in to a full extension, lift the weights half way and keep a bent elbow throughout the exercise. Because you’re not fully extending your arms, lifting will feel easier.

How to perform the shoulder press correctly

The first step in performing the shoulder press correctly is choosing weights that work for you. If you’re between two weights, go with the lighter one for the first couple of rounds so that you can focus on your form.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold your dumbbells (one in each hand) with your elbows bent at 90 degrees in a goal post position.
  3. Keep your wrists and palms facing forward.
  4. While maintaining good posture and engaging your core, extend your elbows and push the weights towards the sky, slightly in front of your head.
  5. Return to starting position and repeat.

4 exercises that will help you perform the shoulder press

If you’re not one to normally work on upper-body strength, hopping right into the shoulder press with heavy weights can be difficult. However, there are plenty of moves you can do to strengthen your arms to make the shoulder press easier.

Modified pushup

Pushups work almost all the same muscles as the shoulder press without having to use weights. Come into a modified plank position on your knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees behind your hips. Bend your elbows out to the sides and bring your chest towards the floor. Straighten your arms to press your body back up. Repeat 10 times.

Shoulder circles

While standing or sitting, simply reach your arms out to the sides of the room at shoulder height. Perform 10 small circles to the front and then reverse and perform 10 circles to the back.

Arm raises

With one dumbbell in each hand, stand up straight with your arms resting at your sides. Lift one arm up and out to the side at shoulder height, then bring the arm down. Repeat with the other arm for a total of 10 repetitions per side.

Bicep curls

Stand with feet hips-distance apart. With one dumbbell in each hand, bend at the elbows bringing the dumbbells up to your shoulders using your bicep muscle. Gently bring your arms back down. Repeat 10 times.

More ways to master the move: