Arnold Press vs. Barbell Press

Young man beginning an "Arnold" dumbbell press.
The "Arnold" and barbell press differ in execution, but both target the shoulders. (Image: MaxRiesgo/iStock/Getty Images)

The old-school barbell press and the "Arnold" dumbbell press are two different beasts that share a similar goal — these strength-training exercises both give the shoulders a mighty workout.

Different as they may look in execution, they actually both target the anterior deltoid, or the front shoulder muscle that helps you rotate your arms. 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.

Don't let you lower back sway to get the bar over your head.
Don't let you lower back sway to get the bar over your head. (Image: Adobe Stock/Tyler Olson)

The Classic Barbell Press

The deltoid-targeting barbell shoulder press is a gym staple not just for its shoulder-working action, but because it requires gear that usually lives in the gym rather than at home.

HOW TO DO IT: Seated upright at a Smith machine with your palms facing out, grasp the barbell a little wider than shoulder width. Release the bar from the rack and hold it at your upper chest for your starting position.

Raise the bar upward and exhale as you extend your arms, without locking your elbows. Inhale as you lower the bar to starting position. As an overhead press, this exercise has a recommended rep range of five to eight reps per set.

With the Arnold press, hands end facing outward.
With the Arnold press, hands end facing outward. (Image: Adobe Stock/blackday)

The "Arnold" Dumbbell Press

As the name implies, Ah-nold's own shoulder press turns to dumbbells — you can do this portable routine standing or seated on a sturdy bench or stool.

HOW TO DO IT: Start with your back straight and feet planted shoulder-width apart. Hold two dumbbells level to your shoulders with your palms facing inward — that's called a pronated grip.

Bring your elbows out to your sides as you raise the weights and exhale. As you raise your arms overhead, lean forward very slightly and rotate your wrists to the supinated position, so that they face outward. Inhale, return to your first position and repeat for about eight reps.

To put additional focus on the triceps, lats and pecs, perform the lift lying flat on a bench at a 90-degree incline and rotate the bells at the bottom of the movement rather than the top.

So What's the Difference?

On a practical level, these two exercises each use different gear — so if you're looking to work your shoulders and only have access to either a barbell or a set of dumbbells, the choice between them is clear.

In terms of secondary target muscles, they both engage the lateral deltoids, traps and triceps as syngergists, or muscles that help other muscles perform a movement.

So why did the cigar-chomping "Oak" Schwarzenegger come up with his own press? The benefits likely lie in the dumbbells themselves. Though dumbbells aren't ideal for heavy reps, they encourage unilateral movement — forcing both limbs to do the same amount of work — and tend to be a bit friendlier on the joints.

What's Your Shoulder Style?

What do your shoulders say? Do you prefer an old-school press, or do your delts study at the school or Arnold? Make your case for team barbell or team dumbbell in the comments below.

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