Master the Arnold Press for Sculpted Shoulders
Named after the iconic Governator himself, the Arnold press adds elements of rotation and muscle fatigue to the standard dumbbell press. It’s perfect for upper body training days and an excellent accessory piece to aid in your quest for massive big-girl boulder shoulders. And it’s actually just… super fun.
Because who doesn’t want delts like cannonballs?
If you’re used to doing high-rep or explosive overhead work with mostly barbells, the Arnold press feels like a break from all that. It’s a unique combination of movements with a challenging flow that gets nice and spicy with tempo or high reps.
If you have healthy shoulders, this staple bodybuilding movement will add serious mass and shape to your upper trunk. Developing wider, fuller shoulder meat can improve your gross rounded posture by drawing your shoulders back. Strong delts also assist with big pulling moves like cleans and deadlifts.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the great gods of bodybuilding, popularized this pressing variation with the goal of hitting all three heads of the deltoid at once. (Turns out guys can multitask after all! Jokes.)
Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a portrait session in 1985 in Los Angeles, California | Harry Langdon/Getty Images
The shoulder is a complex joint of interlocking parts that articulate in a ton of different directions. The most visible muscle of the shoulder is the triangular, three-headed deltoid.
The deltoid comes in a set of three sections: front, side, and rear. The entire muscle is responsible for raising your arm, but the front delts help more with pushing movements (bench press) and the rear delts do a little more pulling (ring rows). It’s common to see overdeveloped front delts and underdeveloped rear/mid delts in athletes who focus a lot more on pushing movements.
Your delts are also responsible for making sure your arms don’t dislocate when you carry things. If you feel the sides of your shoulders working during farmer’s carry, it’s because they help stabilize the weight at a safe distance from your body.
Fun fact: the name “deltoid” comes from the muscle being shaped like the Greek capital letter delta (Δ). We love naming things after how they look.
If the tissues and tendons in your shoulder joints aren’t super healthy, you risk aggravating an old injury or tearing a new one with the Arnold press. That’s not to scare you away from it, just consider whether or not your shoulders can handle the combination of pressing and rotating under load.
Take time to master the movement with lower weights and avoid over-rotating at the top. Big shoulders are good for nothing if your labrum or rotator cuff is in shambles.
How to do the Arnold Press
Start seated on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold them both at about the height of your upper chest with your elbows down and palms facing your body (like the top of a bicep curl). This reverse grip, palms-in starting position targets the front delts and upper pecs.
Initiate the movement by raising the dumbbells in front of you and rotating your arms out to the side at the same time. Your elbows will gradually flare out and your palms will face forward. In one seamless motion, press the dumbbells up overhead into lockout. Reverse the movement to bring the weights back down.
Since you can only do the Arnold press with a pair of dumbbells (not a barbell), you’ll be using those stabilizing/supporting muscle groups in your chest and back. Triple whammy.
Sitting vs. Standing
Arnold himself usually did this exercise seated in order to keep the movement strict, but you can also try it standing to use your legs as shock absorbers for the receiving position (especially for heavier weight). Just be wary of bending too much into your knees and using leg drive at the start of the movement.
Don’t do it like this!
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Make the Arnold Press harder
We love making challenging exercises even harder. For this one, try not to let your elbows drop and rest against your body at the start of the movement. Maintain tension through the entire set by holding your elbows away from your ribs.
If you want to get wild and throw in some bicep work, just start the movement at the bottom of a bicep curl. Perform a bicep curl, then go into an Arnold press and complain to us later about how sore you are.
Still not satisfied? Try doing tempo sets on the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement—count 3-5 seconds as you bring the weight from overhead back down into your chest-height starting position.
Wanna make yourself cry? Add in 3-5 second tempo at two eccentric points: from overhead to chest-height, then again from chest-height to the bottom of your bicep curl. It’ll be the longest movement of your life, but the pump is insane.
Lily is TrainHeroic’s Marketing Content Creator and a CF-L1 with an English background. She was a successful freelance marketer for the functional fitness industry until being scooped up by TrainHeroic. An uncommon combo of bookish, artsy word-nerd and lifelong athlete, Lily is passionately devoted to weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, dance, and aerial acrobatics. Find her showcasing her artist-athlete hobbies on IG @lilylectric.