The Arnold press is a fantastic shoulder exercise, and like other shoulder presses, it can be a staple in any solid training program. With most exercises, there can be many variations. Here, we are looking at two of the classics; the Arnold press and the standard shoulder press.
Both of these exercises share many of the same characteristics. However, we can dig deeper and identify some of the unique benefits of both variations of the overhead press.
So what are the differences between the Arnold press vs. the shoulder press? The Arnold press and shoulder press target the same muscle groups. But the Arnold press requires additional shoulder rotation and movement and allows for potential increases in muscular hypertrophy. The shoulder press requires less movement and is better for strength gains.
It is important to note that there is never a “better” exercise; there is just the right exercise for the right job. Both the Arnold dumbbell shoulder press and regular shoulder press are ideal exercises that can be a part of any training program. But before we start training, let’s look at some of the differences.
Differences Between the Arnold Press and Shoulder Press
When we compare the shoulder press vs. the Arnold press, there are four distinct differences:
- Primary muscles targeted
- Movement in the shoulders and arms
- Training goals
1. Primary Muscles Targeted
Both exercises target the same muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper back. The main difference here is based on the execution of each movement.
I will cover the specifics in a bit, but the Arnold press will target the anterior deltoids more as well as include more of the upper back.
2. Movement in the Shoulders and Arms
Despite being very similar, the Arnold press is far more of a unique exercise when compared to the standard shoulder press. It requires more movement of the shoulder, arms, and upper back to properly complete a repetition.
When performing the Arnold press, you start with the dumbbells at your shoulders and your palms facing behind you, then rotate your arms so that your palms face forward as you press the weight up. As you lower the weight, you rotate your arms again until the dumbbells are back at your shoulders and palms face behind you again.
On the other hand, the shoulder press requires you to press the weight up in a straight line without rotating your arms.
Weight and training intensity is always relative to the individual. In this case, “relative” means that what is heavy for one person might not be heavy for someone else. Or, it can depend on your training goals.
In most circumstances, the Arnold press will be a lighter exercise when compared to the shoulder press.
4. Training Goals
Just like choosing weight, training goals will, of course, be determined by the individual. Based on the previous differences, the Arnold press can help benefit muscular hypertrophy, while the shoulder press can benefit strength.
Arnold Press: How To, Muscles Worked, Tips, Common Mistakes, Benefits, and Drawbacks
Arnold Press: How To Do It
For the Arnold press, you are restricted to using dumbbells, and the only choice you need to make (other than the amount of weight you choose) is whether or not you want to remain standing or seated. If we choose to perform the exercises seated, this can be done with and without back support.
That said, the Arnold press is usually performed seated and with some sort of back support, allowing you to lift more weight since you are in a far more stable position. Taking away the back support or choosing to stand up instead will make the exercise more difficult and could take away some of the hypertrophy benefits.
In my opinion, the most popular form of this exercise is seated with back support, so that is how I outlined the steps below. (Regardless of your choice, the steps remain largely the same).
Step 1: Choose your weight and adjust a bench so that the back is completely upright
Before getting started, select the appropriate weight (remember, you have to use dumbbells here) and find a fixed seated bench or an adjustable bench (you want support for your upper back).
Selecting weight is determined by the training goal and is usually a percentage of a one rep max (1RM) or represented by the rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
I would not recommend performing a 1RM for the Arnold press. Instead, it would be safer and more effective to use RPE. RPE is a simple scale from 1-10 (one being the easiest, 10 being the hardest) of how challenging a weight feels for you. If your goal is hypertrophy and/or strength, you should be in an RPE of 7 or above.
Step 2: Curl your arms so that the dumbbells are at your shoulders with your palms facing you
This is where the differences between the Arnold press vs. the overhead press come into play. For the Arnold press, the starting position requires a much closer grip than your typical shoulder press, and the palms should face you rather than facing in or out (this is known as supination).
Step 3: Press the dumbbells overhead as you rotate your arms so that your palms face forward at the top
Like any overhead press exercise, the goal here is to raise the weight over your head and fully extend the elbows. As you press, you will need to rotate your arms so that your palms are facing forward at the top of the repetition.
Step 4: Return to the starting position by lowering your arms and rotating your palms so that they face you again
When ready, you will need to return to the starting position. Control the descent and make sure to follow the same path. You should finish the repetition in the same spot you started it, which means you will need to rotate as you come down (remember, palms facing towards you).
Step 5: Repeat until you’ve completed all the repetitions
From there, continue the exercise for the desired amount of repetitions.
Arnold Press: Muscles Worked
Unsurprisingly, the Arnold press is primarily a shoulder (anterior deltoid), chest (pectoralis major), and arm (triceps) exercise. Since this variation requires more movement, you see more activation of your upper back muscles as well (trapezius and rhomboids).
Overall, the Arnold press targets the following muscles:
- Anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder)
- Triceps brachii (large muscle on the back of the upper arm)
- Pectoralis major (the large muscle group on the chest referred to as the “pecs”)
- Trapezius (found in the upper back referred to as the “traps”)
- Rhomboids (found in the upper back, below the traps)
The anterior deltoid and triceps are the heavy lifters for this exercise. They are responsible for moving the weight overhead. The pecs will assist in the movement but will not play as large of a role. The traps and rhomboids will primarily assist at the start of the exercise when you have to rotate the weight back.
Arnold Press: Benefits
Is the Arnold press a good exercise? Yes, and there are many reasons why.
Because of the increased movement requirement, the Arnold press can make a fantastic warm-up exercise for other heavy overhead movements.
This same movement requirement can also make it an ideal choice if your goal is muscular hypertrophy. Since the Arnold press requires the weight to sit in front of the body, there is more weight pulling the arms forward. This requires the shoulder (the anterior deltoid) to work even harder — almost like you are doing a small front raise with each rep.
This ties directly into the increased range of motion as well. The more you can move your targeted muscles, the better the environment for hypertrophy.
Typically, the Arnold press does not require as much weight (due to the complexity). Therefore, it can usually be completed with lighter weight. This can also make it a solid choice when trying to perform a burnout set (performing a set until exhaustion).
Arnold Press: Drawbacks
There are no immediate “negative” drawbacks. It comes down to the individual and what they are capable of. I would, however, consider the following (with any exercise, really):
Anytime you add something to an exercise, you increase the complexity, which would be a progression. The Arnold press would be a progression of the standard overhead press since you are required to rotate the weight as you press. This added complexity means the Arnold press is more advanced and may not be the best choice for beginners.
As mentioned, the Arnold press typically requires a lighter weight than a standard shoulder press. This means if your goal is strength, you might not be able to lift the same amount of weight.
Another drawback is the lack of variety in equipment. The Arnold press can only be performed with dumbbells.
We also need to consider shoulder mobility and any current or past shoulder injuries. Many people ask, “Is the Arnold press bad for shoulders?” While any exercise can be bad if you don’t do it properly, the Arnold press is one movement in particular that may not be an appropriate exercise for those with a history of shoulder issues.
Arnold Press: Common Mistakes
When it comes to common mistakes for any exercise, it comes down to weight. When you decide to perform the Arnold press, you need to make sure you choose an appropriate weight. Most of the time (especially if the goal is strength), people will try to Arnold press the same as they can shoulder press.
Another common mistake would be turning the Arnold press into a normal shoulder press. This usually happens when you can no longer Arnold press the weight you have chosen.
Another common mistake is allowing the weight to drop too far at the starting position. This position can be challenging to maintain. Make sure you do not let the elbows drop too far since the weight will want to drop, too.
Lastly, watch out for an overarched back. This is something common in all forms of shoulder pressing, no matter the variation. Don’t get me wrong, a slight arch is not a bad thing, you just need to make sure you do not exaggerate it.
Arnold Press: Programming Considerations
The number one consideration to make here is to think “higher reps, lower weight.” Of course, this can be relative to the individual, but it is always a solid starting spot for the Arnold press. I would say the main goal for the Arnold press is muscular hypertrophy, so you will always benefit from a slightly higher rep range (typically in the 8-12 range).
As mentioned earlier, you can also consider using the Arnold press as a warm-up exercise for bench presses or other overhead pressing movements.
This can be conducted at the beginning of your workout prior to other overhead movements. For example, before a heavy bench press or standing shoulder press, you can perform a couple of Arnold press sets to warm up your shoulders and arms.
If the Arnold press is too challenging for you, try one of these Arnold press alternatives instead.
Shoulder Press: How To, Muscles Worked, Tips, Common Mistakes, Benefits, and Drawbacks
When setting up for the shoulder press, you definitely have some options. First, consider where you will perform the exercise and what type of weight you will use. The two most common forms of shoulder press are the standing barbell shoulder press and the seated dumbbell shoulder press.
We will cover both of these variations below. The setups are pretty universal, meaning there is a lot of carryover between the setup if you decide to change the type of weight (i.e., you decide to do a standing dumbbell press or a seated barbell press).
Learn more about whether you should do the shoulder press standing or sitting in Is It Better to Do Shoulder Presses Standing or Sitting?
Standing Barbell Shoulder Press: How To Do It
Step 1: Load a barbell with your desired weight
For the standing barbell press, I recommend setting up in a power rack or a squat rack/stand. This allows the use of safety bars since it can be difficult and potentially unsafe to have a spotter here. With the safety bars in place, you have somewhere for the bar to go in case you cannot complete a rep.
If a spotter is needed, I highly recommend they are at least as tall and as strong as you. They can also act as a guide, providing cues and ensuring the space around you is clear (spotters do not always need to physically help).
For the weight, I recommend selecting an appropriate barbell. I prefer utilizing a stiffer power bar (usually indicated by a center patch of knurling and only a single marking on each side of the barbell shaft). Weight is relative to the individual. The typical barbell weight is 20 kg or 45 lbs, but other barbells are lighter.
Step 2: Grab the barbell with your hands just outside the shoulders, unrack it, and take a few steps back
For the standing shoulder press, start with your hands just outside shoulder width and elbows tucked into your sides (at about 45 degrees). Make sure your feet are firmly planted into the floor at whatever distance is comfortable for you. Supporting the weight in this position can be an exercise all in itself (it may resemble a front squat position).
Step 3: Move your head back slightly and push the barbell overhead
When pressing with a barbell, consider the bar path since your head will be in the way.
Once you start to press overhead, move your head slightly back so that the bar can move straight up. Once the bar has passed, drive your head back forward (sometimes referred to as moving your head through the window).
Like any shoulder press, the press ends when your arms are fully extended above your head.
Step 4: Return to the starting position
Control the weight and follow the same path as you return to the starting position. I like to think of the starting position as a “pocket.” This is where your arms are at the 45-degree position just outside shoulder width.
How far the bar travels down is up to you. For me, there are two end positions to consider. The first is all the way down. The second is determined by the position of your upper arm.
Sometimes I like to stop my shoulder press when my upper arm reaches about parallel to the ground (a little above or below is fine too).
Step 5: Repeat
As always, continue for the desired amount of repetitions.
If you don’t have access to a barbell or want to switch up your routine, check out our favorite overhead press alternatives.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: How To Do It
Step 1: Grab a pair of dumbbells and a bench with a back support
For the seated dumbbell variation, the setup will be almost identical to the Arnold press. Select an appropriate set of dumbbells and, ideally, a bench that offers back support.
Start with the weight at your feet or resting on your thighs while seated. Unlike the barbell overhead press, a spotter is more appropriate here. If you are using a spotter, I highly recommend they spot from the wrists, not the elbows.
Step 2: Bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders with your palms facing each other or slightly forward
The seated press will look a lot like your Arnold press, but instead of having the palms facing back, they will be in a more neutral position and/or facing out. I like to keep them in the pocket, just like the barbell press.
Step 3: Press the weight overhead
The seated dumbbell press is the exact same as the Arnold press. There is no need to rotate the weight here like in the Arnold press. Your goal is to simply move the weight above your head and fully extend your elbows.
Step 4: Return to the starting position
Just like any overhead exercise, carefully return the weight to the starting position. Ensure you follow the same path as the press.
Also, consider the same two positions as our barbell variation. The weight can stop back in the “pocket” position or when your upper arms are around parallel to the ground.
Step 5: Repeat for repetitions
Continue for the desired amount of repetitions.
Shoulder Press: Muscles Worked
As you can probably imagine, the shoulder press is primarily a shoulder exercise. However, overall, it targets the following muscles:
- Anterior and lateral deltoids (front and sides of the shoulder)
- Triceps brachii (back of the upper arm)
- Pectoralis major (the large muscle group on the chest referred to as the “pecs”)
The shoulder press can be considered a full-body exercise, depending on the variation. You may use your legs and core during the exercise, but they are not the main focus. When you perform the shoulder press, the deltoids, triceps, and pecs are the major muscles moving the weight overhead.
Shoulder Press: Benefits
The shoulder press, no matter the variation, is an ideal exercise for strength. It can act as a true test of strength and can usually be conducted with heavy weight (“heavy” is relative to the individual).
The overhead press can also improve your bench press. Functionally, they are different exercises, but they target the same muscles and use the same equipment. So, if you are trying to get a stronger bench press, you should be shoulder pressing.
The most important benefit of the shoulder press is the number of variations. There are multiple ways to perform this exercise for all levels and training goals. You can vary the equipment (i.e., using a barbell or pair of dumbbells) or do it seated or standing. This can help prevent boredom.
Shoulder Press: Drawbacks
Like any overhead exercise, there are some limitations. Despite being a great exercise for strength, I would not recommend moving directly into an overhead barbell press because it is a complex exercise.
Complexity demands time and practice. Before moving right into the barbell shoulder press, master the movement pattern with a practice bar or another training device. Once you’ve perfected the movement, it is okay to introduce a new level of complexity with the barbell.
Shoulder Press: Common Mistakes
A common mistake I see a lot in the standing shoulder press is an excessive lean back, which can lead to back pain. This is usually due to lifting too much weight. However, a minor lean is not a bad thing, so just make sure you select an appropriate weight.
Another common mistake in the barbell variation is not moving the head out of the way when pressing the weight. The bar path is important, so when you press the bar, you need to move your head back slightly. Once the bar passes, you can drive your head forward again.
Another common mistake is keeping the elbows too far out during the press. This is more common with dumbbells since you have more freedom to move the weight.
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to form. However, I recommend keeping the elbows closer to the body. I like to think of keeping about a 45-degree angle with my upper arms in relation to my shoulders.
Shoulder Press: Programming Considerations
The standard overhead press is an excellent exercise for strength. Unlike the Arnold press, you can start to think “lower reps, higher weight” here. Depending on the variation, you can start to perform lower rep sets in the range of 1-6.
This does not mean you cannot use the shoulder press for muscular hypertrophy. Sometimes, it can come down to individual preferences. When it comes to hypertrophy, all you need to do is modify the variables. Performing sets of around 6 – 12 reps at 75 – 85% of your one rep max is the range required for muscle growth.
Arnold Press vs. Shoulder Press: Which Is Better?
When comparing the Arnold press vs. the dumbbell shoulder press or barbell overhead press, it’s hard to say which is better. All of these exercises are excellent choices. Overall, the Arnold press is ideal for muscular hypertrophy, while the shoulder press is ideal for strength.
However, if I had to choose between the Arnold vs. shoulder press, I would personally select the shoulder press. It offers more variety than the Arnold press and can be modified much easier.
Also, when it comes to powerlifting, the standard shoulder press (especially the barbell variation) will translate more into the bench press.
When Should You Do the Arnold Press?
There really is no wrong time to do the Arnold press. Typically, as mentioned, if hypertrophy is your goal, then the Arnold press is an ideal exercise for you.
If you get specific to “when in the workout” you should perform this exercise, you have a few options. I already discussed using it as either a warm-up (beginning of the workout) or a burnout (near the end of the workout). Another time you can perform the exercise would be as an accessory exercise. This typically happens sometime after the main exercise.
For example, you might perform the bench press (main exercise), followed by an incline press (secondary exercise), and then the Arnold press (accessory exercise).
When Should You Do the Shoulder Press?
We can follow some of the same considerations we had for the Arnold press here. The main difference, of course, will always come back to the weight. The shoulder press (whether seated or standing or with a barbell or dumbbell) is an ideal exercise to improve strength.
When considering the individual workout, you can typically place the shoulder press into two main spots. Like the Arnold press, you can use the shoulder press as an accessory movement. Or, you can treat it as one of your primary exercises conducted at the beginning of your workout.
For example, you could start with the standing barbell shoulder press (main exercise). Or we could start with an inline press (main exercise), followed by a seated dumbbell shoulder press (secondary exercise).
Wondering how often you should do the shoulder press? Check out Can You Overhead Press Every Day? (Pros and Cons).
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the Arnold Press Better Than the Dumbbell Press?
The Arnold press is not inherently better than the dumbbell press. When choosing an exercise, you need to consider your training goals and preferences. For example, if you are trying to increase muscle mass or prefer the Arnold press over the dumbbell press, it is the “best” exercise for that situation.
Can You Do the Arnold Press Seated?
The Arnold press can be performed seated or standing. In most cases, people seem to prefer the seated variation. I do recommend using a bench with back support when performing this exercise.
How Often Should You Do Shoulder Presses?
For a standard resistance training program, you should do shoulder presses two to three times a week. This does not mean you need to perform the same variation three times a week. I would recommend using different variations throughout the week to train your muscles in different ways and prevent boredom.
Can I Do the Arnold Press Instead of the Shoulder Press?
You can do the Arnold press instead of a traditional shoulder press or to help complement your other pressing exercises. Just know that you will not be able to lift as much weight with an Arnold press as you can with a shoulder press, so it may not be ideal if you want to increase strength.
Is the Arnold Press or Shoulder Press Better for Powerlifters?
The traditional shoulder press is the better answer for powerlifters. The main reason is that you are stronger in the shoulder press than in the Arnold press. This strength will typically translate better into the bench press for competition. The Arnold press is traditionally better for bodybuilding.
Are Arnold Presses Bad for Your Shoulders?
If done incorrectly, any exercise can be “bad” for your body. The Arnold press can aggravate your shoulders if you have a history of shoulder injuries. But while more stress is placed on the rotator cuff, you can avoid serious injuries by picking an appropriate weight and understanding how to do the movement correctly.
No matter your goal, whether you want to be stronger or build muscle (or a combination of the two), shoulder press variations are great exercises for any program.
But when it comes to the Arnold press vs. shoulder press, which is better?
While both exercises can help you improve strength and build muscle, the Arnold press is better for hypertrophy, and the shoulder press is better for strength. Consider your goals and how each exercise may help you achieve them before deciding which one to add to your program.