Master the Arnold Press for Broad, Stable Shoulders

Training like Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t for the faint of heart — but it’s also not only available to elite athletes. But working out like the man himself isn’t all that inaccessible, at least when it comes to shoulder training. The Arnold press is a classic shoulder-building exercise made famous by none other than its namesake. This lift is a variation of the dumbbell shoulder press, and you’ll want to add it to your repertoire when you’re looking for bigger, stronger delts that will pop the sleeves of any shirt.

The Arnold press takes your muscles through a fuller range of motion than the ordinary dumbbell press. And, unlike the traditional version, the Arnold gives you a way to hit all three heads of the deltoids. By moving your elbows inwards and rotating your palms throughout the lift, you’re going to hit your rear, middle, and front delts with every rep. That’s huge for when you want to build broad shoulders — like Arnold himself.

How to Do the Arnold Press

You can perform the Arnold press seated on a weight bench or standing. If you do sit, you also have the option of whether to use a back support or not. This guide will assume that you’re seated, but you’ll follow pretty much the same steps for performing this standing, too.

Step 1 — Set Up

Credit: J2FIT Strength & Conditioning / YouTube

Grab a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand. Sit down at the end of a weight bench. Hold the dumbbells slightly in front of you, at face height. Keep your palms facing you.

Coach’s Tip: Make sure your chest is up. Do not let your shoulders lean forwards.

Step 2 — Rotate Your Palms and Press Up

A person sits on a bench and presses two dumbbells overhead.
Credit: J2FIT Strength & Conditioning / YouTube

Press the dumbbells overhead while simultaneously rotating your palms so that they’re facing forward. When the dumbbells lock out overhead, your palms should be facing away from you.

Coach’s Tip: Your elbows should slightly flare out as you press up to allow the dumbbells to get wider at the top.

Step 3 — Lower the Weights and Rotate Your Palms Back

A person is seen from behind while sitting on a bench with dumbbells held at his chin.
Credit: J2FIT Strength & Conditioning / YouTube

Lower the weights slowly. Simultaneously rotate your palms so that they face towards you at the bottom of the movement. 

Coach’s Tip: Lowering the weights under control is key. This can help develop muscle tissue throughout the eccentric phase.

Arnold Press Sets and Reps

Performing the Arnold press can help you get stronger, but it’s not the best option for pure pressing strength. That’s because its wide range of motion and fine movements around your shoulder joints can become tricky with heavy loads. Instead, use the Arnold press to supplement your shoulder routine through muscle-building and endurance.

  • For Muscle-Building: Perform two to four sets of eight to 15 reps, approaching failure toward the end.
  • For Endurance: Do two to four sets of 15 to 25 reps.

Common Arnold Press Mistakes

The Arnold press is a great move to use — it looks really cool, and it’s named after quite the legend. But you need to know what you’re doing to get the most out of it.

Using Too Much Weight

It might be tempting to load up the Arnold press as heavy as you possibly can. But generally speaking, you want to avoid loading this lift as heavily as you would for regular dumbbell presses. Since you’ll be rotating your palms throughout the range of motion, using extremely heavy weights might jeopardize your shoulder health and integrity. Instead, focus on using this move as a muscle-builder and an accessory lift for building endurance.

Using Too Little Weight

Sure, you don’t want to go too heavy — but you don’t want to lose out on the gains, either. Make sure you’re using enough weight to be approaching failure toward the end of your sets and reps. Breezing through this lift will leave potential muscle growth on the table. So take your time finding the right weight through gradual progressive overload.

Not Rotating Enough

Don’t let the Arnold press become a regular dumbbell press. If you don’t focus — or if you’re loading up too heavy — you might neglect to bring your palms back to facing you between each rep. This can also happen if you’re rushing to push through the next rep instead of taking the time you need to reset between each one. Without full rotations, this move loses the benefits of working all three heads of your delts. And without that, you might as well be performing regular dumbbell presses.

Arnold Press Variations

The Arnold press is a pretty unique overhead exercise. Since it is highly unique, there aren’t too many variations out there. But, they do exist and are worth considering when you want to hone in on your gains.

Partial ROM Arnold Press

Performing partial repetitions during the Arnold press is a good way to place more emphasis and overload on the various heads of the deltoid. For example, if you were to restrict the top part of the press, you would isolate the middle and rear delts more.

Conversely, you could not go down all the way and minimize the demands on the rear delts and do more of a three-quarters Arnold press. The options are endless and can be used to suit the needs of any individual and their goals.

Tempo Arnold Press

Using tempo training during the Arnold press can help increase muscle growth, stability, and place added emphasis on a certain range of motions. Generally speaking, you can slow down the eccentric phase of the movements to further increase muscle growth.

You can also use isometrics and pauses at different points in the lift to isolate various ranges of motion and muscles as well.

Arnold Press Alternatives

If you need more sport-specific options for training the shoulder press, you might opt for barbell and traditional dumbbell versions of this lift. You won’t be getting the rotation and emphasis on your rear delts, but you’ll still be reaping the benefits of classic overhead lifting.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is almost identical to the Arnold press. But in the original version, your palms won’t rotate toward you, then away from you, then back again throughout a rep.

Because you won’t have as much movement at the bottom of the press, you can often train this lift much heavier than the Arnold press. You can also use this lift to just focus on your front and mid delts, and opt to supplement rear delt raises and other rear delt-focused exercises to flesh out your shoulder development.

Barbell Shoulder Press

The barbell shoulder press also trains your shoulders, primarily the middle and front delts. Like the Arnold press, you can do this seated to isolate your shoulders even more.

But if you’re searching for a more sport-specific application, perform this lift standing so you can directly translate it into other overhead movements like jerks or push presses.

Muscles Worked by the Arnold Press

Primarily, the Arnold press will — like all overhead movements — place a major emphasis on your shoulders. Like all pressing movements, both horizontal and vertical, this move will also call on your triceps for a major assist.

Deltoids

The shoulder has three main heads; the front, middle (or lateral), and rear deltoid. Most shoulder pressing movements only target the front and middle delts. The innovation of the Arnold press lies in its rotation and shoulder abduction at the bottom of the movement — that’s how this move goes a step further and brings your rear delts into the fold.

Triceps

Your triceps also come out to play in the elbow extension phase of the Arnold press — when you’re pressing up. As with other pressing moves, your triceps will work indirectly to help you achieve lockout at the top of the lift.

Benefits of the Arnold Press

The Arnold press is all about building size and definition in your shoulders. Using it can help get you that much closer to matching those Arnold posters you had in your room when you were a teenager.

Train Multiple Heads of the Deltoids at Once

Unlike the regular dumbbell shoulder press, the Arnold press adds in a rotation. This increases the demands on the rear delts. By starting with your elbows in front of the body and then moving them outwards as you press upwards, you horizontally abduct the shoulder. That process targets your rear delts. This modification makes an already middle and front delt exercise even more effective at targeting all three heads of the shoulders.

Why does that matter? Simple answer: boulder shoulders. The more attention you pay to all aspects of your shoulders, especially your oft-neglected rear delts, the bigger and broader your shoulders can become.

Increased Range of Motion

During regular shoulder presses, you’ll often lower the weights to chin level or to the point where the dumbbells touch the tops of the shoulders. In the Arnold press, the dumbbells not only are lowered to the shoulders, or even slightly lower, your hands are also rotated so that your palms face your face at the bottom. This increases the range of motion of the movement. Increasing the range of motion means you are hitting more muscles. You can then have very effective workouts with less weight needed when compared to the overhead press.

Who Should Do the Arnold Press

The Arnold press isn’t likely going to become your main shoulder strength exercise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable add-on to many a training program. Athletes with a wide variety of training protocols and goals would be well-served by adding this lift to their accessory moves.

Bodybuilders

Achieving well-rounded shoulders isn’t just a goal for bodybuilders — it’s a competition necessity. The Arnold press is an effective lift to add to a bodybuilder’s repertoire precisely because it’s so efficient. It targets all three heads of the deltoid at once, encouraging more symmetrical growth without adding three separate moves to a routine.

Strength Athletes

Whether you’re a weightlifter or a strongman athlete, you’ve got overhead lifts in your competitions. Because the Arnold press adds both volume and precision to your overhead training, it won’t just help you build all-around shoulder mass. It’ll also help increase the stability and strength of your rear delts in pressing movements. This move can also be a good way for strength athletes to develop muscle tissue in overhead movements with less loading relative to strict pressing. All of this can carry over into stronger competition lifts without too much extra strain.

Even powerlifters can benefit from this move. They might not have any vertical pressing in competition, but it behooves powerlifters to have a strong, stable set of delts. The Arnold press accomplishes this while not encouraging lifters to go so heavy that they’ll interfere too much with bench press recovery.

Recreational Lifters

Regular gymgoers can benefit from the Arnold press as it can help increase shoulder strength, muscle mass, and attack all three heads of the deltoids at once. If you are limited in time and want stronger, broader shoulders, the Arnold press can give you the efficient one-two punch you’re looking for. 

Final Word

The Arnold press certainly earns its name. Unlike most presses, this move is designed to actively recruit all three heads of your deltoids, rear delts included. In most pressing programs, lifters run the risk of neglecting their rear delts. But this leaves maximum shoulder size and stability stuck in the dumbbell rack.

Instead, using the Arnold press sweeps your rear delts up into the press and makes sure you’re bringing them along for the ride. When you’re looking to build shoulders like Arnold, this move will help you along the path to sweeping rear delts, broader shoulders, and general bodybuilding glory.

FAQs

The Arnold press requires some skill to perform correctly, as well as an understanding of the shoulder joint and how your body moves. Below are a few common questions we get about the Arnold press, and how to better use them in your training.

How wide/narrow should your arms be in the Arnold press?

This will depend on your individual limb length and shoulder mobility. In general, though, you want to try to keep your arms perpendicular to the floor and parallel to each other. Too narrow and you will feel your front shoulders too much. Go too wide, and the weights will feel like they will be falling out the sides.

How heavy should you train during the Arnold press?

The Arnold press is not a strength movement that you should be training to max weights. However, you can still train it with heavier loads in the eight to 12 rep range, taking it toward failure with controlled movements.

Can you do the Arnold press standing?

Yes. You can do this move seated or standing. Sitting down will allow you to keep most of the emphasis on your shoulders because it takes out any assistance, even minor assistance, from the rest of your body. You can stand up if you want to recruit more of your core for stability purposes — but just make sure to squeeze your quads and glutes to avoid overextending your lower back.

Featured Image: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

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