Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press

Differences in Technique and Muscle Activation

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: June 20, 2023

When trying to design the perfect shoulder workout, exercise selection generally depends on one’s mobility, experience level, and training goals.

So choosing between the Arnold press and traditional shoulder press requires knowledge of how these exercises differ with regards to movement pattern and muscle activation.

This article teaches you how to perform the dumbbell Arnold press vs shoulder press and which one to use based on your personal situation and goals.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press Overview

Before I get into the exercise comparison, I think it’s a good idea to start with an introduction to each exercise. This way, we’re all on the same page when I start getting into more detailed exercise physiology and terminology.

What Is an Arnold Press?

The Arnold press is a well-known shoulder exercise that was popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his book, the Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger mentioned that he incorporated this exercise in every shoulder workout1.

One of the defining characteristics of the Arnold press is that your arms begin in front of your body, and you rotate your shoulders as you press the dumbbells up.

Arnold Press

What Is a Shoulder Press?

In contrast, the conventional shoulder press with dumbbells entails lifting the weight straight up with minimal rotation around the shoulder joint. This variation of the exercise resembles a typical barbell overhead press.

How to Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press

Next, I’ll show you how to do the Arnold press and the shoulder press with proper form. Both exercises can be performed standing or seated, but I will show you how to do the seated version since it helps isolate your shoulders better.

How to Arnold Press

First, grab the dumbbells and take a seat on the bench. Place one dumbbell on each thigh. Next, use your legs to lift the dumbbells to shoulder level, with your palms facing your chest. 

In a fluid motion, push the weights up until your arms are almost fully extended, rotating your hands so your palms face forward at the top.  Finally, slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Below is a 60-second video showing you how to perform the seated Arnold press.

How To Dumbbell Shoulder Press

First, sit on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. Then, use your legs to help lift the dumbbells to shoulder level, with your palms facing forward.

Starting from this position, extend your arms straight overhead and press the dumbbells upward. Continue pressing until your arms are fully extended, but do not lock your elbows.

Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position as you inhale. Repeat this movement for the desired number of repetitions.

Below is a 60-second video showing you how to do the dumbbell shoulder press.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press Comparison

Now let’s take a closer look at how these two exercises compare. To do this, we must assess each exercise regarding movement mechanics and muscle activation.

Starting Position

When comparing the Arnold press with the shoulder press, one of the most significant distinctions is the initial posture. And this starting position sets the tone for the rest of the movement.

In the Arnold press, you begin with your arms in front of your body and your palms facing your chest. On the other hand, the shoulder press starts with your arms out to the sides and your palms facing forward.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press Starting Position

Movement Planes

In anatomy, the human body is divided into three flat surfaces known as the frontal, transverse, and sagittal planes. All bodily movements take place within one or a combination of these planes.

For example, the Arnold press involves movement through all three planes due to rotating around the shoulder joint, while the shoulder press primarily occurs in the frontal plane.

Exercises that work in multiple planes are generally better for improving functional strength since real-world movements rarely occur in a single plane.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press Movement Planes

Range of Motion

When comparing different exercises, it’s important to consider the range of motion involved. The Arnold press stands out in this regard, as it requires a range of motion that is approximately 40-50% longer than that of a standard shoulder press.

You can see the extended movement path of the Arnold press in the image below, which displays the exercise from a side view. Additionally, there is a lateral movement that can be observed from the front.

Also, the longer range of motion increases the time under tension. In my experience, each rep of the Arnold press takes about 1.5 times longer than the regular shoulder press.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press Movement

Muscle Activation

Fitness-related research studies often use electromyography (EMG) sensors to measure muscle activation. And this data can be used to assist with selecting exercises for training specific muscle groups.

One study measured EMG activity in the deltoids for the Arnold press and the regular overhead press. Their results showed that the Arnold press resulted in 29% greater front delt activation and 14% greater side delt activation.

This could explain why professional bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger use this exercise for building shoulder size.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press Muscle Activation

Maximum Loading

Another factor to consider when choosing exercises is how much weight you can lift because the increasing load is an important aspect of progressive overload.

In this case, the Arnold press generally requires you to use lighter dumbbells due to the rotational forces and increased range of motion. At the same time, the standard shoulder press can typically be done with heavier dumbbells.

Therefore, the regular shoulder press may be better suited to powerlifters, Olympic lifters, or anyone trying to increase overhead pressing strength.

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press: Which Is Better?

When deciding which shoulder press variation is best for you, it’s vital to consider your training goals because each exercise has its pros and cons.

For example, the Arnold press is probably a superior exercise for bodybuilders trying to increase shoulder activation and maximize growth. Conversely, the traditional shoulder press is generally best for lifting heavier loads to maximize strength gains.

However, you don’t need to relegate yourself to one exercise or the other! And rotating the Arnold press and shoulder press every few weeks is a good way to balance hypertrophy and strength progress.

To summarize, the 60-second video below shows a side-by-side comparison of the Arnold press vs shoulder press to help you draw your own conclusions.

My YouTube channel has dozens of videos showing you how to do a variety of bodybuilding exercises. You’ll learn how to target and build specific muscle groups in 90 seconds or less. Click HERE to subscribe, or click on the button below!

Lastly, I’ve compiled a list of the pros and cons of each exercise so you can see which one might not be ideal for you or your clients.

Arnold Press Pros and Cons

Here are the benefits of the dumbbell Arnold press exercise.

Pros

  • Works through multiple movement planes
  • Greater range of motion/time under tension
  • More muscle activation with lighter weights
  • Good for anterior and lateral delts

Next, let’s look at some downsides of the Arnold press exercise.

Cons

  • Not the most stable shoulder joint position
  • Requires more practice to master good form
  • Can’t go as heavy for maximizing strength gains

Dumbbell Press Pros and Cons

Changing gears, now let’s review the pros and cons of the traditional dumbbell press.

Pros

  • Very stable shoulder joint position
  • Easier to learn and master good form
  • Can use heavier weight for max strength gains

Finally, here are the limitations of the regular shoulder press exercise.

Cons

  • Shorter range of motion/less time under tension
  • Less muscle activation

More Shoulder Exercises & Workouts

Now you know which exercise is best for your workout between the Arnold press vs shoulder press. But you’ll also need a few other exercises to round out your should day training.

So here are some additional articles that I know will help you build bigger, stronger shoulders!

Push Press vs Overhead Press Muscle Activation & Power Output

Best Lateral Deltoid Exercises

23 Top Posterior Deltoid Exercises

List of Compound Shoulder Exercises for Strength

17 Cable Shoulder Exercises for Chiseled Delts

Landmine Shoulder Exercises for Circuit Workouts

9 More Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Or, if you’ve got your shoulder workout nailed down, check out some of my other informative content below. You’ll find practical tips on everything from exercise to nutrition and supplements.

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By |June 20, 2023|Workouts|Comments Off on Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press for Size and Strength Gains
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