6 Clear Arnold press VS Shoulder Press Exercise Differences

Developing your shoulder muscles brings us to two standout exercises: the Arnold Press and the standard shoulder press.

The Arnold Press, which takes its name after bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a variation of the traditional shoulder press that introduces a twist to the conventional pressing movement, promising not just muscle growth but enhanced shoulder dynamics.

But how do these two popular shoulder exercises compare against one another, and which one is best for your shoulder workout? 

Recommended Reading – 9 Overhead Shoulder Press Alternatives For Deltoid Growth

Keep reading as we explore the differences and benefits of the Arnold Press vs shoulder press, along with other variations including the overhead press.

Whether your aim is broader shoulders, strength gains, or improved shoulder stability, we’ll navigate the perks and pitfalls of each exercise to help you make the best choice for your training goals.

Arnold Press VS Shoulder Press: Primary Differences

The main difference between Arnold presses and shoulder presses lies in their movement pattern.

Standard Seated Shoulder Press

While Arnold presses traverse all three planes of movement – sagittal, frontal, and transverse – the shoulder press predominantly operates within the frontal plane alone.

This means that the Arnold press allows for a greater range of motion, activating muscles from different angles, while the regular shoulder press focuses solely on movement along the frontal plane.

​PLANE OF MOTIONFrontal, Sagittal, TransverseFrontal
​STARTING GRIPPalms Facing ForwardPalms Facing Away
MUSCLES WORKEDFront & Side Delts, Upper ChestFront, Side & Rear Delts
IDEAL WEIGHT LOADLight to ModerateLight to Heavy
KEY BENEFITImproves Shoulder Mobility Due To Rotational Element.Increases Strength By Working With Heavier Weight

The starting position of each compound exercise is also different.  

The Arnold press involves holding a pair of dumbbells at shoulder level with your palms facing toward you.  

On the other hand, the shoulder press requires the palms to be facing away from you.  

In terms of muscular hypertrophy, the slight difference in the way the dumbbells are pressed up and overhead engages the deltoid heads in different ways.  

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail below.  

Arnold Press VS Shoulder Press: Muscles Worked

The deltoid muscles comprise of three heads; the anterior deltoids which are located at the front of your upper body, the lateral deltoids which are located on the sides of your shoulders and finally the posterior deltoids which are at the back of your shoulders.  

Together these muscle groups help to support the shoulder joint and allow for movements such as raising and extending your arms.  

It’s been shown that EMG measurements, which quantify the response of muscles and tendons during movement, show that the Arnold press elicits more muscle activation to the side and front of your shoulders when compared to the standard shoulder press.  

What’s more, the reverse grip when initiating an Arnold press also places focus on the upper chest muscles.  

Essentially, the Arnold press places more emphasis on your front and side delts along with your upper pecs whereas the shoulder press engages more of your rear shoulders in combination with the side deltoids.  

Arnold Press VS Shoulder Press: Proper Form

No matter what kind of shoulder exercise you’re doing, good technique is crucial for building shoulder strength while reducing any risk of injury.  

As the Arnold press incorporates a rotational movement this does make it a little more taxing on the joints and rotator cuff muscles so it’s best to stick with less weight to begin with.  

seated dumbbell shoulder press

The main difference between the standing Arnold press and seated Arnold press lies in the stability and use of momentum during the exercise.

Performing the Arnold Press from a seated position significantly reduces the opportunity to use momentum when pressing the weight.  

The same applies when doing a standard dumbbell shoulder press or any other shoulder press variation.  

Let’s look at the best way of performing each exercise. 

  1. Begin by sitting on a bench with back support, holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Your palms should be facing you.  
  2. With your upper back supported initiate the press.  As you press the dumbbells upward, pronate your wrists so that your palms face forward at the top of the movement. 
  3. Continue lifting until your arms are extended above your head. Ensure the movement is smooth and controlled, without locking your elbows at the top.
  4. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position by reversing the motion, rotating your wrists so that your palms face you again at the bottom of the movement.
  5. Throughout the exercise, keep your back firmly against the bench to support your spine and shoulder blades, and focus on moving the weights with your shoulder muscles rather than relying on momentum.
  1. Start off by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, with a slight bend in your knees for stability. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level, palms facing forward, with elbows bent and aligned with your shoulders.
  2. Brace your core muscles to maintain stability and support your lower back throughout the exercise.
  3. Exhale as you press the dumbbells upward, extending your arms fully overhead while keeping your wrists in line with your shoulders.
  4. At the top of the movement, your arms should be fully extended but not locked out, with the dumbbells positioned directly above your shoulders.
  5. After a brief pause, carefully lower the dumbbells back down to shoulder level, maintaining control and keeping your elbows in line with your shoulders.

Arnold Press & Shoulder Press Common Mistakes

Whether you’re doing the Arnold press or the shoulder dumbbell press, there are a few common mistakes to watch out for.

dumbbell deltoid press

One common mistake is using momentum to lift the weights rather than relying on the strength of the shoulder muscles.

This can reduce the effectiveness of the exercise and increase the risk of injury.  

You’re more likely to use momentum from your lower body during the standing variations and if this is the case you may be lifting too heavy.  

Try reducing the weight load.  

Arching your back too much during the shoulder press can strain the lower back muscles and reduce stability.

This is more likely to happen when doing the shoulder press or Arnold press standing.  

If you find this is happening, it may be a good idea to monitor how much you’re pressing and stick with a lower weight allowing you to maintain a neutral spine.    

Locking out your elbows at the top of the shoulder press or Arnold press can place unnecessary stress on the elbow joints.

Instead, aim to keep a slight bend in the elbows to maintain tension in the muscles and reduce the risk of injury to your joints. 

Another mistake is lifting the weights too quickly or with jerky movements.

It’s important to maintain control throughout the exercise, both during the lifting and lowering phases, to ensure proper muscle engagement and minimize the risk of injury.  

It’s worth noting that by performing the eccentric phase (lowering the dumbbells) of the exercise slowly and with control, you’ll elicit a much greater response from your muscles leading to better muscle gains.  

Failing to complete a full range of motion during the press can limit the effectiveness of the exercise and lead to muscle imbalances.

It’s important to lower the weights until the elbows are at or slightly below shoulder level and fully extend the arms overhead during the press.

Arnold Press VS Shoulder Press: Key Takeaways

While both are effective exercises, let’s look at the main benefits and drawbacks of each.

  1. The Arnold press involves a much broader range of motion when compared to the shoulder press making it better for improving shoulder mobility. 
  2. It’s not ideal for lifting heavier loads due to the rotational element which can stress the joints and rotator cuff muscles. 
  3. It can help to increase muscle mass when working with a lighter weight and higher repetitions.
  4. Because the Arnold press involves a full range of motion this makes it better for functionality and carries over to day-to-day activities. 
  1. Due to the fixed plane of motion you can lift a heavier amount of weight making it better for strength gains. 
  2. The shoulder press is easier to perform when compared to the Arnold press making it a good exercise for beginners. 
  3. Being able to press heavier weight loads could increase your risk of injury if your technique is not on point. 
  4. The shoulder press may be difficult to perform if you have poor shoulder mobility.  

Final Conclusion

Ultimately, pitting one exercise against another only really matters when you have things to consider such as your fitness level, personal goals, and pre-existing issues that may determine which exercise is better suited for you.  

We know that the primary muscles worked whether you choose the Arnold press or the shoulder press are all the heads of the deltoids.  

They’re just activated a little differently due to the movement patterns involved with each exercise.  

However, what is shown is that the Arnold press has the edge when it comes to improving the mobility of your shoulders making it a better option for the overall health of your shoulder joints.  

That being said, you should avoid pressing heavy weights when doing the Arnold press to keep stress to a minimum.  

If your ability allows, incorporating both the Arnold press and shoulder press into your shoulder routine will give you the best results in terms of size, strength and shoulder health.  

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