In addition to being a world-renowned actor and politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the most famous bodybuilder of all time. Like Arnold himself, the Arnold press is a well-known shoulder exercise. The movement takes the conventional dumbbell shoulder press and rotates it in extension to make it even more challenging and effective.
The Arnold press is a great addition to your routine if you want to build bigger and stronger shoulders. This article will cover the benefits of the Arnold press and which muscles it targets to help determine if the exercise is a worthy addition to a weightlifting program.
Top 5 Benefits of the Arnold Press
- Effective for developing shoulder muscle and strength
- Helps achieve a symmetrical physique
- Minimal equipment is required to perform the movement
- Allows for a greater range of motion and time under tension
- Has a lower risk of injury than other shoulder exercises
Effective for building shoulder muscle and strength
The Arnold press is a compound exercise that’s very effective for building bigger and stronger shoulders. Compared to other vertical press movements, the Arnold press is unique because it hits all three heads of the deltoid, including the front, lateral, and rear.
Most shoulder press variations only target the front and side delts, which is why some people struggle with underdeveloped rear delts. Three-dimensional shoulders require training the rear delts as much as the front and lateral. Likewise, overtraining the anterior delts can lead to poor posture, shoulder pain, and a higher risk of injury.
The Arnold press has great carry-over to other exercises such as the overhead press, jerk, push-press and throwing. The exercise also trains better movement patterns and assists with daily activity.
Helps achieve a symmetrical physique
Unlike a barbell shoulder press, the Arnold press can be performed as a unilateral exercise – or one limb working at a time – because dumbbells are used instead. Unilateral exercises can prevent or correct muscular and/or strength imbalances.
Performing the Arnold press can help correct asymmetry in size and strength. To help correct the muscle or strength imbalance, perform the exercise with the weaker arm first, then match the number of reps with the stronger arm.
Over time, this should help correct the muscular imbalance, leading to better performance and lower injury risk compared with bilateral shoulder exercises. The Arnold press can be performed standing or sitting. When performed standing, it can also help develop core strength and stability.
Minimal equipment is required to perform the movement
The Arnold press only requires a pair of dumbbells. Although the Arnold press is most commonly performed seated on a bench, you can also use a basic chair.
Since the Arnold press requires minimal equipment, tracking progress over time is easier, especially when traveling or working out at different gyms, or if access to equipment is limited. Dumbbells are dumbbells no matter where you go, so accurately assessing progress is possible anywhere.
Unlike other movements that require special equipment or specific machines to perform, the Arnold press is a versatile shoulder exercise that can be performed in a variety of settings or locations.
Allows for a greater range of motion and time under tension
Compared to a standard dumbbell shoulder press, barbell shoulder press, or machine barbell shoulder press, the Arnold press has the most range of motion. More often than not, an exercise with a greater range of motion results in more muscle growth.
One of the reasons an exercise with a greater range of motion leads to more muscle growth is because there’s more time under tension on the muscle. Time under tension isn’t the most important stimulus for hypertrophy, but it does play a role. The more tension placed on the muscle, the more likely it will be forced to adapt and grow.
Has a lower risk of injury than other shoulder exercises
Since the Arnold press is a vertical press involving rotation and a greater range of motion, it’s arguably more functional than other shoulder exercises.
The Arnold press is a more complex movement to perform than a basic overhead press, so weight does not have to be heavy which allows focus on perfect form and consequently reduces injury risk. It’s also very difficult to use momentum to lift the weight.
The Arnold press requires maximum stability, especially when standing, to perform the movement properly. The barbell shoulder press, on the other hand, can easily be switched to a push press by using your lower body to move the weight overhead.
Arnold Press Muscles Worked
- Anterior Deltoids
- Side Deltoids
- Rear Deltoids
- Upper Traps
- Pectoralis Major
One of the primary muscles that the Arnold press works is the anterior – or front – delt. The anterior delt is one of the most superficial muscles covering the shoulder joint’s front side.
The anterior delt is responsible for shoulder flexion, raising the arm out in front of the body. The anterior delt is activated with any horizontal and vertical pressing motion. A strong anterior delt is crucial for various movements, including picking things up, throwing, and lifting objects overhead.
Another large muscle the Arnold press works is the side deltoid, or the lateral delt. The side delt is responsible for the abduction of the arm, so it gets activated whenever you raise your upper arm to the side.
The side delt plays a huge role in various movements, especially throwing and lifting objects overhead. Regarding aesthetics, getting capped shoulders mainly comes from having well-developed side delts. This is something that bodybuilding judges look for on stage.
You can do lateral raises with dumbbells, cables, or a machine to target your lateral delt even more. Unlike most other overhead press movements, the Arnold press is great for hitting the side delt because rotation is involved.
As the Arnold press benefits section mentioned, this exercise is one of the few vertical press movements targeting the rear delt. The rear delt, also known as the posterior deltoid, is primarily responsible for shoulder horizontal abduction.
Because of its origin, insertion, and action, the rear delt is typically inactive in most vertical press movements. That said, it’s more involved when performing an Arnold press because rotation is involved.
A well-developed rear delt is important for several reasons. The rear delt helps create a 3-dimensional-looking shoulder. Stronger rear delt helps balance out the shoulder for better posture, less risk of shoulder impingement, and optimal performance. Overall, the rear delt is often neglected in training, so finding ways to emphasize it is a good idea.
The Arnold press works the triceps via elbow extension. The tricep is more of a secondary muscle during this exercise than the delts, but it’s still very involved.
As the name suggests, the tricep brachii has three heads – medial, long, and lateral. All three heads work together to extend the elbow. The triceps are important for any pressing movement, whether that’s a horizontal press or vertical press.
Strong triceps are ideal for powerlifters, cross-fitters, Olympic weightlifters, and other activities outside of strength sports. Aesthetically, the triceps make up 2/3rds of the upper arm, so having larger triceps will drastically increase the overall size of your upper arms.
Since you’re lifting your arms overhead, the Arnold press engages the upper trapezius muscles. The upper traps are involved in shoulder elevation, neck extension, and upward rotation of the shoulder blades. The trapezius is a large, superficial muscle that has a similar shape to a trapezoid.
Three sections of the traps perform different actions, including the upper, middle, and lower traps. The upper traps primarily do shoulder elevation; think of shrugging your shoulders. The middle traps help retract the shoulder blades, whereas the lower traps perform shoulder depression, so they are both activated during any horizontal row movement.
Well-developed traps are equally as important for performance and aesthetics.
In addition to the shoulders and triceps, the Arnold press works the upper chest, specifically the clavicular head of the pectoralis major. The upper chest is the only part of the pectoralis major muscle that contributes to the flexion of the upper arm. It’s also involved in adduction and medial rotation of the upper arms.
Anytime you perform a press with an inclined bench, it activates more of the upper chest. The higher the incline, the less the chest is involved and the more the shoulders have to work to perform the movement.
Overall, the Arnold press is a killer exercise for the entire upper body because it trains so many different muscles. You get more bang for your buck, especially if you’re short on time.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Arnold and standard shoulder press are effective exercises for building bigger, stronger shoulders. However, the Arnold press is superior for hypertrophy because it activates all three heads of the delt, including the front, side, and rear delt. Whereas the shoulder press only targets the side and front delt.
It also forces you to use a larger range of motion, which is typically better for muscle growth. On the other hand, if lifting heavy weight is the goal, then a shoulder press is better than the Arnold press. For the overall function and stability of the shoulder joint, the Arnold press is superior because it involves more shoulder joint movements.
As long as the movement is performed correctly and an individual doesn’t have a pre-existing shoulder joint injury, the Arnold press is not dangerous. Beginners should start with using lighter weights and doing more reps to get the movement pattern down.
Once the beginner is moving with confidence, they can increase weight and do fewer reps. We don’t recommend doing less than 6-8 reps with the Arnold press because it’s ideal for maximal strength. To improve the safety of the exercise, we suggest doing the seated Arnold press instead of standing.
The Arnold press is an upper body exercise that works the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest. It’s mainly used to build and strengthen the deltoid muscles, especially the anterior and lateral deltoids.
However, the upper traps, triceps, and clavicular head of the pectoralis major are also involved. Overall, the Arnold press is phenomenal for growing the upper body, especially the shoulder muscles