How to do an Arnold Press with dumbbells — form, muscles worked, and the modifications to try

A photo of arnold schwarzenegger
(Image credit: Jack Mitchell / Contributor)

You don’t get shoulders like Schwarzenegger without some seriously hard work. But if you’re looking for one of the best shoulder exercises to add to your routine, why not take inspiration from The Terminator himself? 

Arnie’s take on the dumbbell overhead press has become one of the most popular bodybuilding moves around when it comes to targeting your shoulder muscles. The Arnold press works all three sections of the deltoids (the front delt, side delt, and rear delt) which are the muscles at the top of your arms. If you’re trying to build broader, wider shoulders, this exercise keeps your muscles under tension for longer than a barbell press or overhead press. 

The good news is that your dumbbells don’t have to be anywhere near as heavy as Schwarzenegger’s for this move — you’ll still get a great workout using lighter weights. The Arnold press is hard on your shoulders, however, so if you’ve suffered a shoulder injury in the past, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor or personal trainer before taking on this popular bodybuilding exercise. 

How to do an Arnold press 

To do an Arnold press, you’ll need a set of dumbbells. If you’re working out from home, we’ve found the best adjustable dumbbells to help boost your workouts, but if you’re going to the gym, be sure to put your ego aside and start with a lighter weight until you’ve mastered your form. It’s also a good idea to do a proper shoulder warm-up before attempting this move.

Start by standing with your legs shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your elbows bent, as if you’ve just completed a dumbbell curl, with your palms facing your body. In one fluid motion, raise the dumbbells above your head and rotate your palms out away from your body. Pause at the top of the movement, when your arms are extended straight above your head, before reversing the movement so you are back at your starting position. 

If you suffer from lower back problems, it’s a good idea to do this exercise sitting down, to reduce the pressure on your back as you lift. You’ll still get a brilliant arm workout. 

It’s also important to take your time during this move — rushing, or being overly explosive actually lessens the impact of the Arnold press, so slow down! 

What are the benefits of an Arnold press? 

The Arnold press hits three sections of the deltoids, which can help you lift stronger when it comes to other lifts. The medial and posterior deltoids often get neglected in other arm workouts like press-ups and bench presses, whereas the range of motion in the Arnold press helps work all three deltoid muscles evenly. 

A standing Arnold press also works your lower back muscles, as your back works to stabilize your body as you move. A stronger back can help improve your posture and your performance during exercises like deadlifts and rows

Arnold press modifications 

Not all shoulder exercises are created equal, but this is by far one of the most challenging. If you need to modify the movement, here are a few alternatives to try: 

Seated Arnold Press: As we mentioned above, the Arnold press can be challenging if you suffer from lower back issues. If this is the case, perform the exercise as above, but sit on a chair or bench to reduce the pressure on your back. 

You can also do the move in a tall kneeling position, as you’re forced to engage your glutes and abs more to hold the position. This prevents you from arching your back in the move and helps you target your arm and shoulder muscles. 

You can read about what happened to my shoulders when I did 50 Arnold presses a day for a week.

Looking for more workout inspiration? Here are the best resistance band arm exercises to try, how to do a kettlebell swing, and the exercise that sculpts your arms and abs using just your bodyweight. And check out how this TikTok trick will help you master a push-up.

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.