Dumbbell Shoulder Squats: What They Are and How to Do Them

Woman with dumbbells on her shoulders

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Squats are a lower-body move that improve strength in your legs, especially in your glutes and quads. While they are challenging on their own, especially for beginners, for people whose bodies have grown accustomed to them, they may become commonplace and simple. In these instances, squats can be made more challenging through the addition of dumbbells.

There are a few different ways that a person can hold dumbbells while doing squats, but one of the most comfortable ways is when the dumbbells are held at the shoulders. That's because usually when you do squats, you place your hands behind your neck or shoulders. Doing them this way requires the least manipulation of that standard squatting positioning, making it a natural way to make squats more difficult without having to learn an entirely new skill. Read on to learn all about dumbbell shoulder squats, from what their benefits are to how to perform them perfectly.

Meet the Expert

  • Deb Averett is a NASM-certified personal trainer and master coach at Row House.
  • Cassie Ellis is a NASM-certified personal trainer and lead coach at Row House.

What Are Dumbbell Shoulder Squats?

Dumbbell shoulder squats are the act of placing dumbbells on your shoulders when you do squats. Even light dumbbells that weigh only two or three pounds will add a considerable amount of difficulty to your squats, especially if you do many reps of them. Cassie tells us that dumbbell shoulder squats are "an excellent functional movement that will help create more strength and stability in your life that can be done anywhere, anytime!" If you use light dumbbells at high reps, you'll improve your muscle tone and cardiac capacity. Using heavier dumbbells will help to sculpt a larger, perkier rear end.

Benefits of Dumbbell Shoulder Squats

Using squats with dumbbells on your shoulders provides all the benefits of squats, such as increasing strength in your legs and glutes, and it offers additional benefits too. Averett tells us that they're great for both your posture and your core. "Doing this movement properly requires our entire core (anterior and posterior) to be engaged," she says. "Squats promote great posture and also help stabilize our hip flexors, which will help core activation as a whole." She also tells us that they reduce the risk of injury in daily life, noting that "this is a functional movement and allows us to move well in life. From sitting in a chair to getting out of bed, we use our core and the muscles in our lower body. Doing squats will allow us to develop strength and move more comfortably throughout life."

Squats are an easy exercise to perform on the go because they don't take up space beyond where you are standing. Averett notes that in a pinch, they can even be done with light props that aren't dumbbells, such as water bottles or a pair of heavy books.

How to Do Them

  • 1. Stand with dumbbells raised to your shoulders, and rest them gently on your shoulders. Your feet should be hip-width apart, and Ellis instructs us to "keep your chest proud, and engage the core."
  • 2. Sit downward into a squatting position. Keep your weight in your heels, avoiding the weight moving forward toward your toes, so that you can keep your balance in check. Your heels should remain flat through the entire squat. Ellis says to "think of it like you're going to sit back in a chair." It is typically recommended that for the safety of your knees, you do not squat lower than low enough for your knees to be perpendicular to your thighs, and that your knees never jut out past your toes.
  • 3. Continuing to keep your core engaged, press into the floor to pull yourself back up to a standing position through your legs.

Modifications

Weighted squats can, of course, be done without weights by anyone who isn't yet at a level of fitness to incorporate them.

If you want to do dumbbell shoulder squats but they feel a bit challenging even with small dumbbells, Averett recommends reducing your range of motion. She says that "you have the ability to do a half squat (halfway down) or a quarter squat (a quarter of the way down)" rather than perform the move with a full range of motion. She also suggests widening your foot stance outward to allow for more mobility through the move.

Should you have the strength to use dumbbells in your squats but have difficulty with balancing, a wall sit is a good option. Averett says that this will offer you more stability, which is important when it comes to proper form and preventing injury.

Dumbbell Shoulder Squats vs. Barbell Squats

When using dumbbells on your shoulders for squats, you have a lot of options when it comes to the weight of the dumbbells. Specifically, using dumbbells gives you the chance to begin with very low weights, and it allows you to get comfortable with the feeling of using weights on your shoulders as you squat without going too far outside your comfort zone. For people who are already used to heavier dumbbells on their shoulders when squatting, barbells are often employed. A barbell alone weighs about 45 pounds. That means that even before you add any weight to it, you're adding the weight of the barbell to your squat. It can be more comfortable than you might expect, because the weight of the barbell does rest atop and across your shoulders. However, when using dumbbells, you have to keep focus on their placement on your shoulders. Beyond placement, the main difference between dumbbell shoulder squats and barbell shoulder squats is that the dumbbell version can be done with significantly less weight than with barbell squats.

Safety Considerations

Dumbbell shoulder squats shouldn't be performed by anyone with knee injuries, as it can cause further injury to add weight to exercises you do while bending your knees. People with lower-back issues also need to exercise caution when doing squats. It can be difficult to maintain proper form if you have a back injury, and improper form issues like leaning forward or rounding your back can potentially make your problems worse. When we add dumbbells on our shoulders to the squatting motion, we also need to be sure our shoulders and arms are strong enough so it won't cause pain. If you have shoulder injuries, these should be avoided.

The Takeaway

Dumbbell shoulder squats are a great way to level up your squatting game. They're similar to doing squats, but with the addition of dumbbells on your shoulders while doing them. The dumbbells can be as heavy or as light as you desire, making this a flexible move that many people can do. They're an easier exercise than barbell squats, which require you to be able to handle a minimum of 45 pounds of barbell weight even before adding any plates to the barbell. Dumbbell shoulder squats should be avoided by anyone with knee injuries, lower-back problems, or difficulties with their shoulders. For everyone else, dumbbell shoulder squats are a simple way to get more out of your squatting routine.

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