How To Do The Arnold Press Shoulder Exercise

By: Chris Freytag, CPT // September 21, 2022

If you want an upper body strength move that targets several muscle groups simultaneously, the Arnold press is it. The Arnold press is an upper-body move that strengthens all three heads of your shoulders, as well as your back. If strong, sculpted back and shoulder muscles are your goal, this is a strength exercise you need to add to your routine. Learn how to practice this move with proper form, Arnold press muscles worked, and how to include them in your workouts.

Yes, the Arnold press was created by – you guessed it – Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Mr. Olympia Champ turned actor and then governor knew a few things about strength training back in his day. He combined shoulder rotation with an overhead press for this great combo move. Learn how to do this upper body movement, and you will have one move that conquers many upper body muscles. Add this to your shoulder workout day for sure! 

Click the links below to quickly navigate this guide:

How To Do A Dumbbell Arnold Press

To start, you need a pair of dumbbells to perform this exercise. 

The challenge when performing the dumbbell Arnold press is to choose the appropriate weight. Because it involves all three heads of your shoulders, you may want to start lighter than you would with a basic overhead shoulder press.

Arnold Press Form

Here is the step-by-step standing Arnold press form:

1) Stand with feet hip-distance apart, holding dumbbells at shoulder height with arms tight to the body, and palms facing in.

2) Rotate arms out to the sides. Palms face forward and continue to lift up into an overhead shoulder press. 

3) Pause and reverse to return to the start position with elbows in tight, palms face in at shoulder height. 

Perform a set of 12-15 repetitions.  

Arnold Press Muscles Worked

All three heads of the shoulder are put to use when doing an Arnold press. That means the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids are all worked in one move. 

When it comes to efficiency, this move is it. Your back muscles are activated while performing this move, and it’s important to remember that your core activates in a standing dumbbell exercise, including this standing `Arnold press. You need to be conscious of the correct Arnold press form by engaging your core muscles and tucking your pelvis slightly under to keep from arching and protect your low back.  

Caution: If you suffer from low back pain or feel this movement in your low back, you can also perform this move from a seated position. 

For example, use a chair or a bench that offers back support and perform the movement solely focusing on your upper body and shoulders. 

Arnold Press vs. Shoulder Press

What is the difference between an Arnold press and a dumbbell shoulder press? Let’s first look at the shoulder press and compare the two movements. 

The overhead shoulder press is a common exercise included in most upper body workouts since being able to raise your arms overhead is important as you age. 

Many seniors lose their range of motion as they age and soon find they can’t lift something up onto a shelf or put away a dish in an upper cabinet. Therefore, these are skills we want to preserve as we age. 

How To Do Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 

Chris Freytag demonstrating Shoulder Overhead Press with black dumbbells

Here are the steps to perform the Shoulder Overhead Press

  1. Start with feet hip distance apart. Bring the elbows out to the side, creating a goal post position with the arms, dumbbells are at the side of the head, and abdominals are tight. 
  2. Press dumbbells slowly up until arms are straight. Slowly return to the start position with control. Repeat for the desired number of reps. 

While both movements strengthen the shoulder, the Arnold press is the overhead press with added benefits! 

The overhead shoulder press primarily works the top of your shoulder (medial deltoid). But the Arnold press also includes your front shoulder (anterior deltoid) and rear shoulder (posterior deltoid). It’s important to strengthen all three heads of the shoulder for stability and overall strength of the joint. The anterior deltoids assist in front reaching motions, while the rear deltoids assist in better posture. 

In addition, your back muscles are involved, and your core muscles should be engaged at all times to keep your low back from arching and taking the brunt of the exercise. If your lower back bothers you, you can perform this exercise seated.  

How To Incorporate An Arnold Press Into Your Workouts

When creating an upper body strength workout, add the Arnold press instead of the basic overhead shoulder press. Remember, this exercise is performed with dumbbells, so make sure to pick a weight that will give you some muscle fatigue in 12-15 repetitions.  Check out the Arnold press in our workout 5 moves for fabulous arms.

Arnold Press Variations 

1. Seated Arnold Press 

Master the Arnold press by starting seated in a chair, this will help to engage the core and protect the lower back. Start in a seated position with the dumbbells and palms facing inward. Rotate the elbows out to a goal post position and press the arms overhead to a shoulder press. Rotate the palms back down and into their starting position. 

Chris Freytag, wearing a blue tank top and black pants) seated on a chair. Holding dumbbells and demonstrating how to do a seated dumbbell arnold shoulder press.

2. Standing Arnold Press 

This is your traditional Arnold Press. Progressing from the seated Arnold press, come to a standing position separating the feet about shoulder-width apart. Slightly tuck the tailbone and soften the knees to engage the core. By squeezing the abdominals tight, this protect the low back as you lift the dumbbells overhead. 

Chris Freytag, wearing a blue tank top and black leggings, performing the dumbbell arnold press

3. Single Arm Arnold Press 

Begin by standing with the feet shoulder-width apart, grabbing one single dumbbell in one hand. 

Slowly raise the dumbbell to starting position with the palm facing towards your body at shoulder height. Then rotate the palm outwards in a goal post position. Pressing the weight overhead in a shoulder press. 

Return the weight back to the starting position and continue with the desired amount of reps one on side. Switch and perform on the other arm! 

Chris Freytag, wearing blue tank and black leggings, performing a single arm arnold press.

4. Alternating Arnold Press 

An alternating Arnold press begins in the starting position with both palms facing in towards the body at chest height. 

Without moving one arm (holding in the starting position), rotate the opposite arm to goal post and press the dumbbell overhead. Rotate the arm back to starting position to get ready to hold and isolate. Rotate the next arm to goal post position and press overhead to a shoulder press. 

Continue to alternate right arm and left arm for desired amount of repetitions or to fatigue. 

Chris Freytag, wearing blue tank top and black leggings, performing an alternating arnold press.

5. Squat To Arnold Press 

Add the Arnold press to squat and create a compound movement. This compound movement includes the squat, holding the weights in the starting position. 

By squatting and holding the weights in the starting position of an Arnold press, the core is braced and engaged. At the top of the squat, rotate the arms to goal post position and press the arms overhead. The biceps squeezing next to the ears at the top. Return the weights back to starting position and squat low! 

Incorporate the squat to overhead Arnold press when you are looking to take an upper body exercise and turn it into a compound total body exercise. This compound movement engages all three heads of the shoulders, the glutes, and hamstrings while also incorporating the core. Give this a try in your next total body workout! 

Chris Freytag wearing a blue tank top and black leggings, demonstrating how to do a dumbbell squat to overhead arnold press.

Other Exercises Similar To An Arnold Press

If you’re interested in other exercises similar to a standing Arnold press, check out these moves:

Arnold Press FAQs

How Fast Should I Move?

Always perform this move very slowly for the correct Arnold press form. The essence of strengthening muscles is to focus on the time under tension. The slower you move, the more time your muscles spend under tension and the better results you will have. In addition, you will have better form and avoid swinging or using momentum.

How Heavy Should I Go?

It’s always smart to start lighter and work your way heavier to avoid any possible rotator cuff injuries. You want to feel fatigued but not pain after a set of 12-15 repetitions. It’s important to remember the shoulder is a ball and socket joint with circumduction and a big range of motion. This is different from, say a hinge joint like your elbow. You need to be paying close attention to your form.  

Will I Bulk Up?

Once you have practiced the move with lighter weights and feel more confident, move up a few pounds in each arm. Don’t be afraid of bulking up; sculpted shoulders look great in sleeveless shirts and halter necklines,  but also allow you to perform everyday activities with ease as you age. To get truly big and bulky, you must spend hours in your workout mode, feed your muscles with lots and lots of calories, and have enough testosterone. Go heavy: you will get sculpted, lean muscles.

Exercise Form, Fitness

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