The Arnold Press Is the Upper-Body Exercise You Need for Strong, Capped Shoulders

The Arnold press is the perfect variation to target different parts of your shoulder than the standard press.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

If you want to do something right, learn from the best. So if one of your fitness goals is to build strong shoulders, include the Arnold press in your workouts.

Advertisement

Why? Because this twisting version of a dumbbell shoulder press was popularized by (and named for) one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Arnold wanted to fill out his anterior deltoid (the front part of the cap of the shoulder)," Steven Head, owner of Headstrong Fitness, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Schwarzenegger felt that by starting with his palms facing his chest and twisting as he lifted, he got more activation in that area — and research has shown he was onto something.

Advertisement

That's not the only benefit of performing dumbbell presses in Arnold's style, though. The Arnold shoulder press can help activate other parts of your shoulder more effectively, and can make overhead pressing hurt less.

Here's everything you need to know to perform the Arnold press with perfect form.

Advertisement

  • What is the Arnold press?​ It's a vertical pressing exercise where a lifter starts holding dumbbells in front of their chest, palms in, then twists their palms forward as they press the weights straight overhead. You can do the Arnold press standing or seated.
  • What muscles does an Arnold press work?​ It works the anterior (front) and medial (side) deltoid, which are the caps of your shoulders. It also works your triceps as you press the weights overhead, your biceps as you control the weights back down and your core as you stabilize your body. Your supraspinatus — one of the muscles in your rotator cuff — gets involved during the rotational portion of the move.
  • Who can do this exercise?​ Anyone without a shoulder injury or limited shoulder range of motion and who can perform the move without pain or overextending the low back.

Advertisement

How to Do the Arnold Press With Perfect Form

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your chest as if you’ve just performed a biceps curl: Your elbows should be bent, palms facing your body.
  2. Maintaining an upright torso and not over-arching your back, press the dumbbells straight up while simultaneously twisting your hands out so that your palms face forward.
  3. At the top of the move, you should have a slight bend in your elbows, and your palms should face forward as at the top of a standard dumbbell shoulder press.
  4. Reverse the move, twisting your hands as you control the weights back down and bend your elbows to return to the starting position.

Watch the Full Tutorial

JW Player placeholder image

Arnold Press vs. Shoulder Press

Of course, bodybuilding legend and former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn't have lent his name to a shoulder press variation if it wasn't at least a little different. But is the Arnold press better than a standard dumbbell shoulder press? What about a barbell press? Here are the main differences:

Arnold Press vs. Dumbbell Shoulder Press:​ During a classic dumbbell shoulder press, you press the weight overhead without twisting the weights to face a different direction. You either start and end with palms in or palms forward, depending on which grip you choose. The difference between an Arnold press and a shoulder press is that you start with your palms facing in, then turn them as you press up so they're facing forward at the top.

Arnold Press vs. Barbell Shoulder Press:​ There's also the old-school barbell shoulder press, which gives the shoulders a mighty workout. Different as they may look, the dumbbell shoulder press, Arnold press and barbell press all target the anterior deltoid (front shoulder muscle that helps you rotate your arms). Plus, they all engage the lateral deltoids, traps and triceps.

In the barbell's pros column: Compared to other overhead presses, you can lift more weight when using a barbell. Greater loads correspond to more strength gains.

The drawbacks of pressing with a barbell is that it can lead to injury of the back of the shoulder. If you lack mobility in this area, you may be more likely to lean back, overextending your low back and placing a lot of the load on it. Not good. And some lifters let their egos get involved when performing barbell presses, stacking on more weight than their shoulders can handle.

The benefits of the Arnold press likely lie in the dumbbells themselves. Though dumbbells aren't ideal for heavy reps, they encourage both limbs to do the same amount of work — and tend to be a bit friendlier on the joints. And the starting hand position (palms facing in) is easier to maintain without over-arching your back.

3 Arnold Press Benefits

1. Works More of the Shoulder

A July 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that both the anterior (front) and medial (side) heads of the deltoid, or shoulder cap, were activated more by standard dumbbell overhead presses than by barbell overhead presses.

And in a small October 2017 study from the Indian Journal of Public Health Research and Development the Arnold press activated the anterior and medial of the deltoid more than the standard overhead press.

So, if standard dumbbell presses are better than barbell presses, and Arnold presses are superior to standard dumbbell presses, Arnold seems to have gotten it right.

2. Promotes More Muscle Balance

Another purported benefit of performing moves like a shoulder press with dumbbells instead of the barbell is that each arm must do equal work: When you're lifting a barbell, your stronger side may do more work, increasing the imbalance between your two arms. When you use dumbbells, each arm has to lift the whole weight.

3. May Be Gentler on the Shoulders and Back

The starting position of the Arnold press — palms facing inward — can make the move more shoulder- and back-friendly. When your hands are in the standard shoulder press position — your palms facing forward — you may start to lean way back, hyperextending and overloading your low back. That's a no-no.

The standard shoulder press starting position can also cause some twinges in the shoulder itself that you may not feel when your palms are facing in.

Warning

The Arnold press ​may​ hurt your shoulders less, but it’s not risk-free. Twisting the dumbbells as you press involves your rotator cuffs, which have a high incidence of pain and injury.

If you feel pain when doing this or any overhead press, lighten the load or stop doing the move. If you have a history of rotator cuff injuries, the Arnold press might not be the best shoulder press variation for you.

5 Arnold Press Form Tips

1. Twist and Press Simultaneously

One of the main form misses on the Arnold press is "moving out and then going up, as opposed to moving up and out at the same time," Head says.

The point of the Arnold press is to load the anterior delt more, and that happens when the hand presses up while the palm is still facing your chest. If you open your hands out and then press up, you're just doing a normal dumbbell press with an extra step.

2. Only Twist Until It's Comfortable

If you feel a twinge of discomfort in your shoulders at the top of the press, you don't have to twist that far. Instead, twist so your palms are at a 45-degree angle at the top of the move.

3. Use Your Glutes and Abs

Actively focus on squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs before each rep. This can help keep you from swinging your hips as you press, focusing more on the shoulders, and also can prevent you from arching backward and putting your low back at risk of pain or injury.

4. Don’t Lock Your Elbows

Keep a tiny bend in your elbows at the top of the move. This can keep you from overextending your elbows when you have a heavy weight overhead.

5. Maintain a Punching Position

Don't let your wrist fall backward into the same position as a waiter holding a tray. This can put unnecessary strain on your wrist, leading to overuse injuries. Instead, keep your hand and wrist in a punching position.

4 Arnold Press Variations

1. Seated Arnold Press

Performing shoulder presses while seated means your core has to stabilize your body less. This can help keep you from over-arching your back.

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms and Shoulders
  1. Sit on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, torso upright.
  2. Hold dumbbells in front of your chest as if you’ve just performed a biceps curl: Your elbows should be bent, and your palms facing your body.
  3. Maintain an upright torso — shoulders over hips and bellybutton pulled in — and don't over-arch your back as you press the dumbbells straight up while simultaneously twisting your hands so that your palms face forward.
  4. At the top of the move, you should have a slight bend in your elbows, and your palms should face forward.
  5. Reverse the move, twisting your hands as you control the weights back down and bend your elbows to return to the starting position.

2. Single-Arm Kettlebell Arnold Press

Using a kettlebell can make it easier to keep your wrist in a "punch" position, since the weight can rest against your forearm. "I also find it more shoulder-friendly," Head says. "I call it going from the 'rack' position to the 'stack' position," where the weight is stacked above you.

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Kettlebell Workout
Body Part Arms and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a kettlebell in your right hand in front of the right side of your chest, palm facing in. The bell should rest against the outside of your right forearm. Keep your left hand at your side and shoulders square.
  2. Maintaining an upright torso and without over-arching your back, press the kettlebell straight up while twisting your hand so that your palm faces forward.
  3. At the top of the move, you should have a slight bend in your elbow, and your palm should face forward.
  4. Reverse the move, twisting your hand as you control the weight back down and bend your elbow to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat all reps on this side, then switch sides and repeat.

3. Dumbbell Curl to Arnold Press

This move does double duty, adding a curl before you press. But because you can probably curl less than you can press, Head says, the smaller load should make it easier to perform the Arnold press portion.

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding dumbbells at your sides, palms in.
  2. Keeping an upright torso, bend your elbows to curl the weights up, twisting your hands as you do so that at the top of the curl, your palms face your chest.
  3. Without over-arching your back, press the dumbbells straight up while twisting your hands so that your palms face forward.
  4. At the top of the move, you should have a slight bend in your elbows, and your palms should face forward.
  5. Reverse the move, twisting your hands as you control the weights back down and bend your elbows to return to the top of the curl.
  6. Straighten your elbows and lower the weights back to the starting position.

4. Alternating Arnold Press

This is a more challenging, single-arm Arnold press variation where you'll alternate the arms you press. Pressing one dumbbell at a time means you have to stabilize your core from side to side with each press. It also means holding the dumbbells in front of you for longer, which can give your biceps some extra work.

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Intermediate
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms, Shoulders and Abs
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your chest as if you’re just performed a biceps curl: elbows bent and palms facing your chest.
  2. Maintaining an upright torso and without over-arching your back, press the right dumbbell up while twisting your hand so that your palm faces forward.
  3. At the top of the move, you should have a slight bend in your elbow, and your palm should face forward.
  4. Reverse the move, twisting your hand as you control the weight back down and bend your elbow to return to the starting position.
  5. Now repeat, pressing the left dumbbell up overhead.
  6. Continuing alternating sides for all reps.

Arnold Press Alternative

Bent-Over Lateral Raise

Many people do the Arnold press to try to hammer the posterior (rear) deltoid. The bent-over lateral raise is another effective way to target this area.

In fact, a September 2014 study by the American Council on Exercise found that this move activated the rear delts at seven times the rate of regular shoulder presses. Though they used the seated bent-over lateral raise in the study, the standing version lets you practice your hip hinge.

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Shoulders
  1. Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, held at your sides with palms facing in.
  2. Push your hips back to hinge forward, maintaining a flat back, and let the dumbbells hang down at arm’s length from your shoulders. This is the starting position.
  3. Maintaining a flat back and keeping your arms mostly straight, separate your hands and raise your arms up and out to the sides so that your torso forms a “T” shape.
  4. Control the dumbbells as you return them to hanging.

Advertisement

references