14 Best Arnold Press Alternatives (With Pictures)

Best Arnold Press Alternatives

Nothing targets the three heads of the shoulder quite like the Arnold press, which is my favorite exercise across the board. 

However, the Arnold press cannot be the sole exercise of an effective shoulder routine and can prove to be redundant if implemented year-round.

Luckily, this is a minor hurdle since there is an abundant selection of exercises specifically targeting the shoulder in various ways.

The 14 best Arnold press alternatives are:

  • Smith-Machine Behind The Neck Shoulder Press
  • Smith-Machine Single-Arm Shoulder Press
  • Seated Machine Shoulder Press
  • Dumbbell Shrugs
  • Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • Barbell Z-Press
  • Standing Single-Arm Shoulder Press
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Cuban Press
  • Cable Lateral Raises
  • Cable Front Raises
  • Banded Rear-Delt Flys
  • Banded Single-Arm Shoulder Press
  • Banded Face Pulls

For this article, I have provided shoulder exercises that are most effective at building shoulder mass and strength. I will also provide shoulder circuits that make great finishers for the end of your workouts.

In this selection of exercises, I have provided my favorite barbell, Smith machine, machine, and banded variations to create dynamic and strong muscles in the shoulder.

Let’s begin!

What Makes A Good Arnold Press Alternative?

Arnold Press

A good Arnold press alternative will accomplish one of the following:

  1. Uses similar muscles as the Arnold press, and
  1. Builds the shoulder muscles, or
  1. Builds shoulder strength

Muscles Used In The Arnold Press:

The muscles used in the Arnold press are:

  • Delts (the three heads of the shoulder – anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid)
  • Trapezius (the muscles that run along the back of the neck and shoulders and extend down to the mid-back – the upper, middle, and lower trapezius)
  • Triceps (triceps brachii long and short head)

The Arnold press is a dynamic shoulder exercise that promotes shoulder joint mobility while targeting all three heads of the delts, the trapezius, and triceps.

Takeaway: The Arnold press effectively targets all of the shoulder muscles while increasing the shoulder’s mobility and strength. A good Arnold press alternative should also accomplish both goals.

Shoulder Development

One of the primary reasons for implementing the Arnold press is its high demand for dynamic movement, which consequently targets all of the shoulder muscles and mobilizes the shoulder joint.

For this reason, the Arnold press is frequently implemented into workout routines to build size in the shoulder. This is key for functional overhead movements, such as reaching up to cupboards, or the performance of overhead activities like throwing a baseball, doing a push jerk, and rowing a boat.

Shoulder development is extremely difficult for most, which is why the Arnold press is revered by strength and conditioning professionals, bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters alike.

Takeaway: The exercises that are used in place of the Arnold press should assist in building shoulder size.

Shoulder Strength

Arnold Press shoulder strength

Vertical pressing movements are a fundamental component of successful programming for sports (i.e., bodybuilding, powerlifting, baseball, basketball) and general populations (i.e., daily activities, pushing heavy doors, reaching overhead).

Implementation of an Arnold press can be extremely effective for this purpose, and a strong substitute should achieve the same. However, there are Arnold press alternatives that are more effective at strengthening the shoulder rather than building the mass of the shoulder.

For this reason, this article is divided into Arnold press exercises that are best for strength or size.

Takeaway: A good Arnold press alternative should strengthen an individual’s ability to press vertically, which should consequently carry over to their primary activity of choice.

Arnold Press Alternatives For Muscle Development

1. Smith Machine Behind The Neck Shoulder Press

The Smith machine behind the neck shoulder press allows one to focus on engaging the shoulder muscles through an unconventional range of motion, which makes this exercise alternative a great muscle-building Arnold press alternative.

It is commonly believed that pressing behind the head can lead to shoulder injuries. While this is true sometimes, this variation of the behind the neck shoulder press can be a useful tool when done correctly to stimulate growth of the shoulder muscles.

How To Do It

  • Be seated on a flat bench or seat under the Smith machine.
  • Ensure that you are seated in front of the bar with an upright posture.
  • Place your hands outside of shoulder-width apart.
  • To unrack the bar, press the bar until your elbows are at complete extension.
  • For the downward phase of this movement, control the bar down to the knot in the back of your head.
  • To complete the repetition, push the bar overhead until your elbows are at complete extension.

Pro Tip

To increase the difficulty of this movement or to get closer to absolute failure with submaximal weight (50-75% of a recent 1 rep max), set a target rep goal for each set. Upon achieving the rep goal, have a partner apply pressure against the bar during the upward phase of the movement until complete exhaustion. 

Added pressure from a partner can cultivate additional tension to allow heightened levels of fatigue, which can lead to additional muscle growth.

2. Smith Machine Single-Arm Shoulder Press

Unlike the Smith machine behind the neck overhead press, this exercise engages the individual muscles of a single shoulder. This allows you to achieve a greater range of motion, which makes it a great alternative to the Arnold press.

For the Smith machine single-arm shoulder press, your body will be positioned perpendicular to the rack, allowing for a unique engagement of the shoulder muscles.

I would especially recommend the Smith machine single-arm shoulder press if you are concerned with imbalances between your two sides.

How To Do It

  • Be seated on a flat bench or upright seat positioned perpendicular to the Smith machine.
  • Place the vertically positioned bar into the base of your hand, then press your single arm until it is almost fully locked out.
  • Bend your elbow and control the bar down until it is positioned at about chin level.
  • To complete the repetition, press the elbow out until your arm is almost completely straight again and the bar returns to the starting position.

Pro Tip

Focus on implementing lighter loads of (50-75% of a recent 1 rep max) with a higher rep count (6 to 15 reps) to experience greater fatigue resulting in a greater effect of building mass.

3. Seated Machine Shoulder Press

The seated machine shoulder press is a simple and effective exercise for targeting the shoulder muscles, making it a great muscle-building alternative to the Arnold press.

How To Do It

  • Set up the seat to where the knees are flexed at 90 degrees, and you’re able to maintain an upright posture.
  • Position the handles to be just above the shoulders so that the upper arms are parallel to the floor.
  • With a slight bend in your wrist, hold the handles in the base of your hand so the load is stacked over your wrist joint.
  • Press the handles up until your elbows are straight. The handles should be just over the shoulder joint at the final position.
  • Bend the elbows to return the handles to the starting position.
  • Throughout, maintain an upright posture and a big open chest to ensure you aren’t dumping the load forward or placing unnecessary stress on the joints and supporting muscle groups. 

Pro Tip

Doing burnout sets with a seated machine shoulder press is more feasible since the risk of injury is lower. Implement a couple of sets until complete failure at the end of your workout to emphasize achieving muscular fatigue.

Otherwise, you can implement 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps towards the beginning of your workout to promote hypertrophy. 

4. Dumbbell Shrugs

Dumbbell shrugs are a great alternative to the Arnold press for specifically targeting the trapezius muscles.

In addition to one of the vertical pressing exercises provided by this article (seated shoulder press, lateral raises, standing overhead barbell press), dumbbell shrugs are a great addition for comprehensive muscular development of the shoulder/trap area.

How To Do It

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing you.
  • Keep both arms straight and allow the dumbbells to entirely rest in your hands.
  • Drive both your shoulders towards the ceiling to shrug the dumbbells up your thigh. A cue to effectively drive this movement is an “I don’t know” shrugging gesture.
  • Return to the starting position by lowering your shoulders to the starting position.

Pro Tip

Due to the simplicity of this movement, you can use heavy loads. This will allow you to promote both forearm and trap muscularity.

A pair of straps can allow for greater load selection and complete isolation of the trapezius muscles while limiting forearm/grip involvement. 

Arnold Press Alternatives For Strength

1. Standing Barbell Overhead Press

As a strength and conditioning coach, my opinion is that the standing overhead press is a fundamental movement that can achieve a wide variety of goals. For this reason, the standing barbell overhead press is a great Arnold press alternative for building shoulder strength.

I am an extreme advocate of implementing a cycle or two of standing overhead barbell press, especially for novice to intermediate lifters.   

How To Do It

  • Adjust a rack so the bar is just above the chest.
  • Grip the barbell with your hands just outside of shoulder-width apart and unrack the bar.
  • Ensure that the elbows are cocked in front of the bar to assist with driving the bar into the end position.
  • Maintain a nice upright posture and think about breaking the bar in half with your hands to increase the tension of your back muscles.
  • Take a big breath to increase intra-abdominal pressure and ensure there is complete rigidity in the core muscles of the back and abdomen.
  • While pushing your head back, push the bar up and back so the end position is right atop the shoulder joint while being in line with the knot in the back of your head.
  • At the end position, the elbows should be straight and the barbell should be completely overhead.
  • To complete the repetition, allow the bar to return to the starting position.

Pro Tip

To effectively get the most out of this exercise, you can do lower rep counts within the 1 to 5 range to entirely focus on strength development. At least once a week, place the standing overhead barbell press as your primary starting movement to strengthen your pressing ability.

Implementing a cycle of about 4-8 weeks of strengthening the standing overhead barbell press can have direct carry over to movements such as bench press, push press, and push jerk.

Learn more about how the overhead press can improve your bench press in Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?

2. Barbell Z Press

As a powerlifter, I have used the barbell Z press to better learn how to engage my core, which has had tremendous carry over to strengthening all of my lifts. This makes the barbell Z press a great shoulder strength alternative to the Arnold press.

How To Do It

  • Set up the safeties in a squat rack to be in line with the upper chest or just above shoulder level.
  • Sit under the bar in an upright postural position and your legs completely extended in front of you.
  • Place your hands on the bar wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Ensure that the elbows are cocked in front of the bar to assist with driving the bar into the end position.
  • Maintain a nice upright posture and think about breaking the bar in half with your hands to increase the tension of your back muscles.
  • Create a big brace by taking a breath through your abdomen to increase pressure and rigidity through the spine.
  • Similar to the overhead press, press out until the elbows are completely extended. The bar position should be just over the shoulder joint and in line with the knot in the back of your head.
  • Return the bar down to the safeties to end the repetition.

Pro Tip

While this article mentions the barbell variation of this movement, the Z press can be done with kettlebells or dumbbells as well. Dumbbell and kettlebell variations are much easier and allow for the shoulder joint to move through a greater range of motion. 

The greater range of motion allowed by dumbbells and kettlebells can allow one to prioritize mobilizing and building shoulder mass.

3. Standing Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The standing single-arm dumbbell shoulder press is an excellent Arnold press alternative which allows for a greater range of motion while strengthening the core to effectively target all the muscles in the body.

Typically, people will do seated pressing, which is effective but doesn’t achieve the same level of core activation. As a bodybuilder, I think there is a lot of value in implementing the standing variation of exercises to achieve greater core and abdominal development.

How To Do It

  • Have a single dumbbell in one of your arms.
  • Start with the elbow bent and the dumbbell resting just below the chin/at the upper chest.
  • Press the dumbbell up and over your head until the elbow is completely straight.
  • Throughout the movement, ensure that you are maintaining an upright posture.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbell back down to the starting position to complete the repetition.

Pro Tip

Since this is a dumbbell variation, there are greater ranges of motion to work in.

For example, the standing single-arm press can be done with the same technique as an Arnold press, resulting in a greater focus on moving the shoulder through greater ranges of motion.

4. Cuban Press

The 3D nature of the Cuban press makes it an excellent Arnold press substitute for an exercise warm-up.

The Cuban press is a dynamic movement that is effective for strengthening the smaller shoulder muscles and warming up for the bench press, overhead press, and any Olympic movement (the snatch and clean and jerk). 

How To Do It

  • Hold two 2.5 – 5 lbs plates with the palms down.
  • Initiate the movement by driving the elbows high and outside in an upright row.
  • While maintaining a fixed elbow position, rotate the shoulder until the plates are in line with the ears.
  • Press the plates up until the elbows are at complete extension.
  • At lockout, ensure that the load is in line with the knot in the back of your head or stacked atop the shoulder joint.

Pro Tip

Executing the Cuban press with a faster tempo will mobilize the shoulder joint, while a slower tempo will place a greater emphasis on time under tension, effectively increasing blood flow and activation of the shoulder muscle.

Arnold Press Alternatives For Both Strength and Muscle Development

1. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Just like the Arnold press, the seated shoulder press is a multi-purpose exercise that is excellent at strengthening and building the shoulder muscles, making it a great alternative.

Since building muscle is a necessity for getting stronger, the seated dumbbell shoulder press is also the perfect exercise to implement with the goal of strength.

How To Do It

  • Sit in an upright position with a proud chest and shoulder blades squeezed together.
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand, at about ear level.
  • Press the two dumbbells until elbows are at complete extension.
  • Return the dumbbells to the starting position to end the rep.

Pro Tip

At complete extension, slowly control the weight down with a greater focus on time under tension. This is commonly referred to as slow eccentrics. Slow eccentrics are ideal for the goals of building control, strength, and size.

Wondering what makes the seated press different from the standing press? Check out Is It Better to Do Shoulder Presses Standing or Sitting?

2. Cable Lateral Raises

Cable lateral raises place constant tension on the lateral deltoid (the middle of your shoulder), which makes this exercise a great muscle-building Arnold press substitute.

Cable lateral raises isolate the lateral deltoid, while the Arnold press targets the complete shoulder. This increase in isolation makes the cable lateral raise one of my favorite shoulder-building movements.  

How To Do It

  • Anchor the cable pulley at hip height with a single handle.
  • Stand perpendicular to the pulley.
  • With a slight bend in the elbow, raise the hand out until the hand is in line with the lower chest.
  • Return to the starting position to complete the repetition.

Pro Tip

Use slow and controlled repetitions to get the most out of this exercise. A friend can apply manual resistance against the outside of the arm on the lowering phase to achieve greater muscular fatigue

3. Cable Front Raises

Cable lateral raises place constant tension on the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder), which makes this exercise a great muscle-building Arnold press substitute.

How To Do It

  • Anchor the cable pulley at the lowest setting.
  • Stand with your back against the pulley system.
  • Raise the handle until the completely extended elbow is at shoulder level.
  • Lower the handle to the starting position to complete the repetition.

Pro Tip

Like the cable lateral raises, raise and lower the handle to a 2-second count to increase the time under tension. Implementing the use of slow and controlled reps helps to achieve the greatest growth potential on the shoulder.

Conversely, quick and explosive ballistic reps with lighter loads at 30-40% for higher 15-30 rep counts can prove to be beneficial for progression as well.

4. Banded Rear Delt Flys

Banded rear delt flys can be a great bench warm-up and a good way to target the back of your shoulders, making this exercise a great banded Arnold press substitute. 

How To Do It

  • Stand in the middle of the band.
  • Cross the band in front of yourself, and hold each end of the band as a handle.
  • With a neutral spine, hinge back until the upper torso is parallel with the ground.
  • Drive your elbows back towards the ceiling above you.
  • Return the two hands to the starting position.

Pro Tip

To program this effectively into a muscle-building program, the target rep goal can be as many as possible until complete failure.

However, when programming for strength, banded rear delt flys can be implemented into the warm-up of a bench, overhead press, or an Olympic lifting day.

For more exercises that target the rear delts, check out 18 Rear Delt Workouts (Barbell, Dumbbell, Cable, Machine).

5. Banded Single-Arm Shoulder Press

The banded single-arm shoulder press can be implemented with minimal equipment, making it a great on-the-go or at-home Arnold press alternative. 

How To Do It

  • Place the foot through one end of the band with the middle of the foot on top of the band.
  • Hold one side of the band with your elbow bent and hand in line with the ear.
  • Press the band up over the head until the elbow is at complete extension.
  • Return to the start position to complete the repetition.

Pro Tip

Banded movements tend to be easier than barbell or dumbbell variations and can require 15 – 30 repetitions per set to achieve a hypertrophy effect.

Once you can complete all sets and reps with a light band, progressively overload this movement by doubling up on light bands before advancing to a heavier band.

6. Banded Face Pulls

Face pulls are a big staple for developing the posterior chain, which makes them a great banded Arnold press alternative.

As well as the banded rear delt flys, banded face pulls are great for targeting the rear delts. This exercise is great for either warming up for bench press or finishing off a shoulder workout with burnouts.

How To

  • Anchor a band around a post on a squat rack to be in line with the lower chest.
  • Grab the end of the band with the palms facing down.
  • Stand away from the anchor point until there is desired tension on the band.
  • Drive the elbows high and outside while pulling the band towards your face.
  • Return the band to the starting position to finish the repetition.

Pro Tip

You can do the banded face pull with the rope attachment on the cable pulley system as well. 

Both face pull variations are equally effective. However, the banded variation is more effective for burnouts, and the rope attachment is good for strengthening the shoulders.

Arnold Press Alternative Circuits

Arnold Press shoulder exercise

Here I have provided several Arnold press alternative circuits that are effective for a variety of goals. Do either one of these for 1 – 4 rounds to effectively target the entire shoulder, whether for size or strength.

Circuit For Size

  • Seated DB Shoulder Press – x 8
  • Cuban Press – x 8
  • DB Shrugs – x 12
  • Lateral Raises – x AMRAP

Circuit For Strength

  • Smith-Machine Behind The Neck Shoulder Press – x 5
  • Smith-Machine Single Arm Shoulder Press – x 5 ea
  • Cable Front Raises – x 8 ea
  • Cable Lateral Raises – x AMRAP

Circuit With Bands

  • Banded Single Arm Shoulder Press – AMRAP
  • Banded Lateral Raises – AMRAP
  • Banded Face Pulls – AMRAP
  • Banded Rear Delt Flys – AMRAP

Final Thoughts

The Arnold press is a great exercise for strengthening the shoulder in multiple ranges of motion while building that 3-D look by targeting all three heads of the shoulder. However, it is not realistic to only program Arnold presses or to implement the exercise year-round.

It is important to utilize a variety of exercises to build shoulder strength and size. The overhead barbell press is my favorite Arnold press alternative for building strength, while the lateral raise is best for building size.


About The Author

Javad Bakhshinejad

Javad Bakhshinejad was born and raised in the Washington Area. Currently, he is a student at Seattle University where he’s been pursuing an MS in Kinesiology, and has been a Strength Coach in the athletic department. He was a competitive bodybuilder for 8 years where he later transitioned to competitive powerlifting for 4 years. Currently, He has his own personal coaching business, where he works with powerlifters and bodybuilders.