How To Master The Arnold Press (Yes, That Arnold)
Build boulder shoulders with Schwarzenegger’s patented lift
If you want to build the kind of broad, muscular shoulders that can win a handshake-off with Carl Weathers, best the Predator and control an entire class of kindergarten-age children, then you need to take a leaf out of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s training manual.
Arnie’s take on the dumbbell overhead press is undoubtedly one of the best shoulder exercises because it recruits all three sections of your deltoids – the round muscles at the tops of your upper arms – with the result that you build fuller, wider, more defined shoulders, and improve your posture to boot.
Arnold Press Benefits
You don’t have to go too heavy with the weight to achieve excellent results with the Arnold press (a bonus if the CIA has had you pushing too many pencils at your desk lately). The exercise keeps your muscles under tension longer and puts them through a greater range of motion than standard overhead presses do, meaning that despite the lighter weight you’ll still be stimulating plenty of new muscle growth.
The Arnold press also hits often neglected muscles and will help you improve your performance in other lifts, too. The anterior (front) deltoid tends to get plenty of work from press-ups and bench presses, but the medial (lateral) and posterior (rear) often get neglected. However, the Arnold press works all these evenly along with the stabiliser muscles, helping draw back the shoulders for a straight posture and assisting with big pulling moves such as deadlifts, pull-ups and rows.
How to Do the Arnold Press
It’s important to pick a light weight to begin with until you master the form. To start the movement, hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms bent and your palms facing towards you, as in the top of a biceps curl. Press the dumbbells upwards while simultaneously rotating your palms to face forwards. Your elbows should move laterally, and the dumbbells should always be moving upwards in one fluid motion.
The top of the movement should look just like a dumbbell overhead press, with the weights overhead, your arms not quite locked out and your biceps close to your ears. Return to the starting position to complete a rep. To build shoulder muscle, aim for a rep range of between eight to 12 for four sets with 60-90 seconds of rest between each set.
Arnold Press Form Tips
There are a few pitfalls to avoid when performing the Arnold press. First and foremost, it’s important to perform it as one fluid motion, rather than moving your elbows (and the dumbbells) laterally and then pressing them overhead. Instead, the weights should be moving upwards throughout the movement, ensuring your shoulders remain under the intended tension and you stimulate all three heads of your deltoids effectively.
Our other top tip is to push your head forwards at the top of the rep to ensure a full range of motion.
Arnold Press Variations
Seated Arnold press
As well as hitting all three sections of your delts, the standing Arnold press recruits a number of stabilising muscles in your back, which is one reason it’s such a good exercise. The seated Arnold press doesn’t have this same bonus, but by sitting against a bench it does help you achieve good form – and it can work your shoulder muscles even harder as a result. Make sure your back is flat against an exercise bench throughout the movement to ensure it’s your arms and shoulders doing all the work.
Dumbbell overhead press
The magic of the Arnold press is that it works so many different muscles in the shoulders. But, because of the rotation it requires, it can be a riskier exercise to perform than a standard press if you have any shoulder niggles. Of course, any kind of overhead press is unwise if you’re recovering from a shoulder injury, but if you’re simply worried about the risk to your shoulders of the Arnold press, sticking with the dumbbell shoulder press is a solid alternative.
Hold the dumbbells by your shoulders with your palms facing forwards, upper arms pointing out to the sides and your elbows bent at a 90° angle. Press the weights overhead, then bring them back down. By not rotating you can also lift slightly heavier weights than in Arnold’s variation.
Now you understand how to perform the Arnold press correctly, you’re no doubt itching to put it into practice. We can help with that, because naturally the Arnold press has featured in a range of workouts.
- The seated Arnold press makes an appearance in our best shoulder workout routine, supersetted with the seated lateral raise.
- The Arnold press rounds out a challenging tri-set in this dumbbell shoulder workout.
- If you’re looking for a full-body training plan, try this series of dumbbell workouts – which includes the Arnold press in the final of the four weekly workouts.
- Round off any workout with this four-move finisher, a full-body effort which culminates with the Arnold press.
- If you have a pair of dumbbells and a kettlebell, give this 20-minute home workout a go which combines the Arnold press with the biceps curl.
- To finish off, and to finish you off, give this dumbbell complex a whirl. The Arnold press caps off the combination of moves.
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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix (opens in new tab). Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.
- Harry BullmoreStaff writer
- Nick Harris-FrySenior writer