Updated: Jan 22, 2022
When it comes to shoulder exercises, overhead presses are usually the first movements to come into mind.
But even then, there are several different types. You can do them standing, seated, with dumbbells, barbells or machines.
And while they are all extremely similar for the most part, there is one exercise that stands out from the others for its different and unique movement pattern.
We're talking about the Arnold press.
And while it does look seem to carry a little more novelty to most people than the traditional shoulder press, it does not necessarily mean that it is a better exercise.
Is it worth your time?
Does it bring about more gains? Or would you be better off sticking with traditional overhead pressing movements?
We'll be looking into that in this post, by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the Arnold press, look into some of the science behind it, and draw a conclusion based off of that.
We'll also look into how you can incorporate your shoulder pressing into your program, and finish off with a sample shoulder workout for you.
Advantages of the Arnold Press
Higher Muscle Activation in the Delts
Perhaps the reason that so many people prefer the Arnold press over the traditional dumbbell or barbell shoulder press is the fact that it allows for higher muscle activation in the delts than the other traditional shoulder presses.
This is seen in studies such as this one by Yuri A C Campos and colleagues, which found that the "Arnold dumbbell press was more effective exercise for the activation of Anterior and Medial deltoid muscles as compared to the Overhead Dumbbell Press."
It found that the Arnold press required the shoulders to do more of the work in lifting the weight up, when compared to that of the dumbbell overhead press.
This may be due to the increased stabilization that your muscles have to do during the lift, as instead of simply pressing the weight up and down, you're twisting it and having to control it much more through space.
This is likely to be especially true for the middle or lateral head of the delts, which we know are often extremely important muscles for stabilization during exercises such as the bench press, pull up, and more.
This extra muscle involvement may mean that the Arnold press is the better exercise of the two when it comes to purely building muscle.
In terms of muscular hypertrophy, you'd likely be getting more out of each rep that you do.
More Upper Chest Engagement
The Arnold press also naturally engages the upper chest (clavicular head) a little more than the traditional shoulder press, as you bring your elbows out in front of your body instead of stopping at the shoulder level.
Building up that upper chest will help your upper body look fuller, and you'll look much more impressive from both the front, and the side.
This extra upper chest involvement might mean that in terms of an overall upper body pressing movement, the Arnold press could be the better option if you were to only pick one.
Greater Range of Motion
When it comes to the range of motion, the Arnold press also does win here. Since you're not just stopping on the dumbbells reach your shoulder level, but instead bringing the dumbbells further out in front, your muscles do more overall work under the load, resulting in a greater range of motion.
We know that more range of motion is directly correlated with more muscle hypertrophy, or at least up to a point.
This study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld concluded that: "it can be inferred that performing RT through a full ROM confers beneficial effects on hypertrophy of the lower body musculature versus training with a partial ROM."
And while research was limited, we think it's also pretty safe to assume that the same goes for the muscles of the upper body. Training with a full range of motion will lead to greater muscle gain.
The greater range of motion may also be a reason as to why the muscle activation is higher in the Arnold press when compared to that of the shoulder press.
This increased overall workload may be the reason why the muscles seem to be doing more of the work.
Because they actually are doing more work by moving the weight through a larger distance.
Lighter Equipment Requirements
The last advantage of the Arnold press over the shoulder press is the lighter equipment required to perform the exercise. And while this doesn't directly have an impact on your training performance and gains, it still can have an effect on your workouts.
For example, getting set up before a heavy dumbbell set can be extremely difficult sometimes. Trying to kick the weight up with our knees can be difficult and use up quite a lot of our energy before the set has even started. If done incorrectly, it could even cause injuries.
The ability to use lighter weights, and get similar if not better returns on your exercise with the Arnold press can really make a difference in your training over time.
All that extra energy that was wasted getting set up with heavier dumbbells would add up quickly, and those extra reps/the extra rep quality would likely make a large difference as time goes on.
Plus, there is the fact that requiring lighter dumbbells in order to perform the exercise would come in handy for those who sometimes find themselves limited on equipment, which we saw can happen very unexpectedly through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
It's definitely also a bonus for anybody who doesn't train at a public gym, and doesn't have access to the largest weight selection.
So if you train at a home gym, and you've found yourself easily hitting lots of reps on the regular overhead press with the heaviest dumbbells you have access to, it might be time to switch things up a bit and give the Arnold press a try.
Disadvantages of the Arnold Press
Less Mechanical Tension
The main disadvantage of the Arnold press is that you're able to move less weight. Since you're not just stopping at your shoulder level, but instead twisting the dumbbells and bringing them down in front of your body, you won't be able to use as much of a load as you would otherwise be able to use on a regular overhead press.
The amount of weight that we move on a given exercise is known as mechanical tension. The more weight (and more mechanical tension you can apply) with good form, the more muscle you're going to build.
If you look at some of the biggest guys and girls in the gym, they're also usually the strongest people there.
Likewise, if you were able to double the weight that you used for a certain rep range on a certain exercise over the course of a year or two, the size of your muscles will have increased.
Ideally, you want to pick lifts that allow you to move more weight and apply effective overloading onto the muscles.
That's why you'll see the people using light weights to 'tone' their muscles never really getting too much meaningful muscle gain. They're simply not using enough weight to stimulate muscle growth.
According to this study by Lei Chen and colleagues, "muscle mass and muscle strength are positively correlated".
What's the best way to get stronger? To lift more weight, and get comfortable under heavier loads. the regular overhead press is going to do that better than the Arnold press, simply due to the nature of these two exercises.
And while this study did only analyze the results of older individuals (mean age of 62.6 years of age), we think it's pretty safe to assume that the same goes for younger individuals as well.
When you look at the Arnold press vs. the standard dumbbell shoulder press, you're able to move less weight. As far as your delts know, the two exercises do the same thing.
The Arnold press just has you doing a little extra movement, which means more limiting factors when it comes to moving as much weight as possible.
This is an indication that just because the Arnold press has higher muscle activation, it is not necessarily always the better option for hypertrophy.
Mechanical tension is the main driver of hypertrophy, and the regular overhead press can offer more of that.
So while you can get a little more activation in your muscles with the Arnold press, this does not necessarily mean that it is always the better exercise.
May Put Your Shoulders at Higher Risk of Injury
The Arnold press may also put your shoulders at more of a risk for injury, due to the action of internally rotating your shoulders whilst you're pressing quite a heavy load upwards. You could potentially suffer from a strain, a shoulder impingement, or something else.
If done incorrectly, any exercise can be dangerous and cause injury. But with something like the Arnold press where you're specifically twisting the weight whilst pressing, the chances are increased.
To combat this, we recommend ensuring that you have sufficient shoulder mobility before doing this exercise with heavy loads.
Do your dynamic stretching beforehand, so that your shoulders and joints are properly warmed up and flexible enough. If you try to do this exercise with heavy weight without warming up, you're likely going to hurt yourself.
So is the Arnold Press Worth Your Time?
Well, looking at the advantages and disadvantages of this exercise, we'd say, yeah it is worth your time if you can do it safely. You get more muscle activation, more engagement from the upper chest, and a longer range of motion, for a slight trade off in loading capacity.
It's a great way to work the muscles of the shoulders, triceps and upper chest through a different range of motion.
And while it does allow you to use less weight, you can get higher muscle activation in the delts, and it's a great exercise to use if you're looking to pack on more muscle in the upper body.
We'd say overall, the regular overhead press is still the better option of the two, as it does allow for more weight to be used and better strength applications to your other lifts. However the Arnold press definitely can still be incorporated effectively into your program, for great muscle gains in the mirror.
Plus, it's an especially good choice if you're a person who works out at home, and perhaps doesn't always have access to the largest assortment of dumbbells.
You're going to eventually run out of weights heavy enough for you, and utilizing the Arnold press might push that date back a decent while, and help you continue to make gains.
So as long as you can safely perform the Arnold press, it's a great exercise that you should look to be incorporating into your program, which we'll get into in the next section.
Incorporating the Arnold Press Into Your Program
When you come to look into incorporating these exercises into your program, the main thing that you should look to do is get stronger on them.
To do this as efficiently as possible, you should look to perform them towards the beginning of your workout, and lift in heavy to moderate rep ranges that are conducive to hypertrophy.
For example, you should look to generally do 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps with the Arnold and overhead press.
Do each rep with purpose and proper technique, and ensure you're really taking your time to make the most out of it.
Sample Shoulder Day Workout
We'll wrap this up with a sample shoulder day workout for you.
5-15 Minute Warmup
Standing Barbell Military Press - 4 x 4-6
Seated Arnold Press - 3 x 6-8
Rear Delt Rows - 2 x 10-12
Cable Lean-Away Lateral Raises - 3 x 8-10
Rear Delt Flyes - 3 x 12-15
Ensure you take your warmup seriously before this workout, as we mentioned before, the Arnold press does require extra mobility and can put your shoulder at higher risk of injury.
Wrapping It Up
All in all, the Arnold press is certainly a more novel exercise than the regular overhead press. but that does not necessarily mean that it is a better exercise.
It likely has its time and place in your training program, but should not be the only form of overhead pressing that you do if you're looking to build strength and muscle.
It has its advantages and disadvantages, and it's up to you to make the judgement as to whether or not you're going to decide to include it in your training.
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