When you think of famous bodybuilders, it’s very likely that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name immediately pops into your head. Aside from being a seven-time Mr. Olympia winner, he also went on to become the Terminator, Robocop, and, of course, the Governor of California.
But it could be argued that his greatest accomplishment is introducing the Arnold Press, a highly effective variation on the standard Overhead Dumbbell Press. It’s an exercise guaranteed to help you sculpt shoulder muscles as powerful and well-formed as Arnie’s.
Below, we’re going to take a deep dive into the Arnold Press, looking at what muscles it works, how to perform it correctly, what variations exist, as well as the benefits and risks of the exercise. By the end of this article, you’ll be ready to incorporate this beautifully efficient shoulder movement into your workouts for maximum muscle growth.
Arnold Press Muscles Worked
What makes the Arnold Press such a great exercise is that it engages all three deltoid muscle heads: anterior (front), lateral (outer), and posterior (rear). The standard Shoulder Press typically focuses more on the anterior and lateral deltoid heads, but it fails to pay sufficient attention to the less-worked posterior head.
Note: Without proper focus on the posterior deltoids, your muscles could develop at an imbalance. Larger anterior deltoids could actually pull your shoulders forward, giving you a rounded, semi-hunched look. It’s imperative that you train all three parts of the deltoid muscles for a well-balanced look and proper posture maintenance.
The Arnold Press, however, engages all three muscle heads, which not only develops pushing power in the anterior deltoid, but also maximizes width and thickness in the lateral deltoid and shoulder joint stability in the posterior deltoid.
Of course, as a bonus, it also recruits the forearms (gripping the weight) and the triceps (needed to push the weight upward). It’s a classic “Push” exercise that will make you stronger for Push-Ups, Bench Presses, and Dips because of the focus on the specific shoulder and arm muscles engaged in whole-body push movements.
How to Perform the Arnold Press
The Arnold Press, like all shoulder exercises, does carry some risks (as you’ll see below). To protect your shoulder joints, it’s important to perform the movement with proper form. The Arnold Press is slightly more complex than the basic Shoulder Press, but it’s easy enough to master and significantly more effective for building powerful shoulders once you get it right.
Here are step-by-step instructions to perform the Arnold Press:
- Get your weights. This exercise uses dumbbells (the instability maximizes muscle recruitment and the one-handed weights allow for greater mobility), so grab a pair and bring them to the spot where you’ll be performing the Arnold Press.
- Set your form. Plant your feet solidly in a stance that feels comfortable and maintains proper stability in your upper body through your core and legs. Your arms should be the
only things moving during this exercise.
- Bring the weights up to ready position. Hold the dumbbells up beside your ears, with your palms facing toward you and your elbows at a roughly 90-degree angle. Don’t worry so much about the form immediately—find a ready position that feels right for your wrists, shoulders, and elbows.
- Push up and twist. Using only your shoulder and triceps muscles, push the weights upward until your arms are fully extended above your head (but DO NOT lock your elbows). As you push, twist your wrists (thumbs turning inward) to rotate the weight 180-degrees. At the peak of the press, you should end with your palms now facing away from your body. This full rotation helps to engage all three deltoid heads for maximum muscle recruitment.
- Hold for a 1-count. With your elbows bent and shoulders and triceps muscles engaged, you’ll increase time under tension by holding the weight at the peak for a second.
- Lower and twist. Bring the weights back down to the ready position, controlling their descent (more muscle engagement during the concentric phase of the exercise). As you lower the weights, twist your wrists in the opposite direction (thumbs turning outward) so you end once more in the ready position with the dumbbells by your head and your palms facing inward.
- Hold for a 1-count and repeat. Again, a slight pause at the bottom of the exercise will increase time under tension, and will prevent you from using your momentum to “cheat” and facilitate an easier next rep.
- Breathe correctly. You should exhale as you push the weights up, and inhale as you bring them down. This proper breathing pattern will maximize muscle oxygenation and increase your muscular endurance.
It’s absolutely imperative that you control both your ascent (pushing upward) and descent (lowering the weight). Steady, smooth movements will not only increase muscle engagement and time under tension, but reduce your risk of wrist, shoulder, and elbow injury.
Benefits of the Arnold Press
What makes the Arnold Press such a great shoulder exercise? There are a lot of truly excellent benefits to incorporating this movement into your workouts:
Greater time under tension
Because of the added rotation, it actually takes you a second or two longer to complete each Arnold Press repetition than it would to complete a standard
Overhead Press. This means greater time under tension for your deltoid muscles, which may lead to better muscle hypertrophy.
Rather than just training the anterior and lateral heads (like many shoulder-focused exercises do), the Arnold Press engages the posterior head as well, thanks to the rotation of your wrists. This may result in increased strength and hypertrophy.
Improved posture and form
The difficulty of the Arnold Press forces you to focus more on your posture and form as you perform this exercise. You have to keep each movement smooth and controlled in order to protect your joints. By being more conscientious in your training, you’ll notice improvements in your posture even outside the gym.
Enhanced muscle definition
A lot of exercises—including Pull-Ups, Push-Ups, and Bench Presses—focus chiefly on the anterior deltoid, with some lateral deltoid engagement but very little posterior deltoid work. This can lead to strength deficits, but also imbalanced muscle definition. Using the Arnold Press will help to define the posterior deltoid muscles to give you broad, well-rounded shoulders.
It’s definitely an exercise worth adding into your shoulder day!
Risks of Arnold Press
For all the benefits of this exercise, it does carry a few minor risks. You need to be aware of these potential downsides so you can anticipate them and take steps to prevent them.
The risks of the Arnold Press include:
Doing the Arnold Press with its added rotation does increase your risk of shoulder impingement. This injury occurs when the rotator cuff (a stabilizer muscle that works with your deltoids) rubs against the humerus (arm bone) and the top outer edge of your shoulder.
The friction can cause swelling, irritation, pain, and reduced mobility. Many trainers and physical therapists will counsel against exercises that cause internal muscle rotation (like the Arnold Press) because over the long-term, it raises your risk of shoulder injury and pain.
Related: 10 Best Face Pull Alternatives: Exercises for Better Posture and Shoulder Health.
For those who are lacking in sufficient grip strength or who have limited mobility in their wrists, the Arnold Press can cause wrist pain because of the added rotation of the weight. The wrists are doing a lot of the twisting work in this exercise, so wrist joints without proper muscle support or strength may be damaged or worn down.
If you experience any pain in your wrists or shoulders while performing the Arnold Press, it may be a good idea to find another exercise to incorporate into your workout routine—rather than risk injury.
See our top wrist wraps picks that can make all the difference for your training.
Arnold Press Tips for Success
For those incorporating the Arnold Press into their training regimens, here are some good tips to maximize muscle engagement, increase safety, and reduce injury risk:
- Keep your neck soft and your head steady. You’ll be tempted to tense your neck muscles to help the shoulder muscles push harder, but that’s just going to increase the strain to your already-delicate spinal muscles. Make sure your head stays steady and let your neck muscles relax to place all the focus on your shoulders.
- Control the range of motion. When pushing, stop your elbows from straightening fully, as that takes the strain off your muscles and places it directly on your bones and joints. When lowering, stop your elbows just before they pass the 90-degree angle (called the “lockout point”) to increase the time under tension for your deltoids.
- Stretch your shoulders and back. Increasing your upper back and shoulder mobility will make it easier for you to safely move through the full range of motion on this exercise without experiencing excessive tension or stiffness. It’s always worth spending a few minutes doing targeted upper back and shoulder stretches or foam rolling your muscles and joints before you start your workout.
- Use your core muscles to keep your upper body steady. Your abs, obliques, and lower back will support your body to keep you motionless while your arms and shoulders do all the work.
- Adjust your weight. If you feel your body moving a lot or you feel the need to “cheat” when you press, lower the weight of your dumbbells and focus on really isolating the motion. This should be smooth, controlled, and cautious.
Arnold Press Variations
The Arnold Press is an excellent exercise, and its variations will give you options on how you approach your workout:
1. Seated Arnold Press
For those recovering from lower back injuries, the seated variation provides additional support for your lower back without taking the focus off the deltoid muscles. It’s also excellent for beginners trying to improve their form and concentrate on smooth, fluid movement through the ascent and descent.
2. One-Handed Arnold Press
This variation doubles down on the effectiveness of this exercise, turning it from a shoulder/triceps-focused movement to one that also engages your abs and obliques as well. Unilateral (one-sided) exercises force your core muscles to work to provide stability and maintain your balance.
3. Resistance Band Arnold Press
For those with wrist injuries or pain, the weight of a heavy dumbbell may place undue strain on a weakened, stiff, or sore joint. Using resistance bands eliminates the weight directly on your wrist completely.
However, the effectiveness of the shoulder workout is fractionally reduced because there is less instability forcing the shoulder muscles to engage to keep a dumbbell steady throughout the rotation.
4. Cable Machine Arnold Press
This is another excellent variation to decrease the load directly on your wrists without significantly compromising the effectiveness of the shoulder workout. As long as you have a cable machine, you can perform this exercise easily—both seated and standing.
Arnold Press – Wrapping Up
The Arnold Press is, hands down, one of the best exercises to develop well-rounded, sculpted shoulder muscles. It focuses not just on the commonly targeted anterior deltoid, but also increases engagement of the lateral and posterior deltoid. The result: bigger, broader, better-balanced musculature that will look great and give you a serious power boost.
It’s an exercise that will take time and effort to master, but once you’ve learned how to do it safely and smoothly, it will be one of the best in your arsenal of shoulder-shredding workouts.