Arnold press vs military press: which is best for stacked shoulders?

Two classic exercises that are a staple in push programmes, but does one benefit your shoulders more than the other?

Man performing Arnold press, the other doing a military press
(Image credit: Getty Images/Shutterstock)

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that shoulder exercises are the second most highly searched exercise on Google (just after back exercises), racking up more than 33,000 searches a month. After all, sculpted shoulders are what help us achieve that desirable V-shape, making our upper body appear broader and our waists smaller.

Two classic shoulder exercises are the military press and the Arnold press, named after Mr Schwarzenegger himself. Both compound exercises are popular in bodybuilders, powerlifters and strongmen/women’s strength plans, sharing similarities, but also some distinct differences. So, is one better than the other for building boulder shoulders? With the help of an expert, we try to answer that very question.

Is the Arnold press good?

Man performing Arnold press

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“One of the benefits of the Arnold press is that the rotational movement of your palms engages more muscle fibres, which in theory (if done correctly) should stimulate greater muscle growth,” says Nick Mitchell, CEO and founder of Ultimate Performance. “This will also improve your shoulder mobility and flexibility.” 

The Arnold press is where you hold two dumbbells at shoulder height in a supinated grip (palms towards your face), as you press them up, you externally rotate your forearms, so by the time your arms are fully extended, your hands are in a pronated grip (palms facing forwards). It targets all three deltoid heads as well as the triceps, upper chest and traps, whereas the regular shoulder press focuses on the front deltoids, so this takes it to the next level.

To execute well, you should focus on that mind-muscle connection and not go too heavy, so you really feel your shoulders working. “At all times, think ‘deltoids’ and really focus on squeezing them throughout the entire movement,” says Nick. While the exercise isn't particularly difficult to perform, the external rotation will place more pressure on the shoulder joint. If you're new to strength training you therefore may be better starting out with a regular shoulder press and then progressing onto the Arnold press.

A final tip from Nick is to keep your elbows back when extending the arms. As he explains this helps to hit your posterior and medial deltoid muscles more, "which will give  that "capped’ look to your shoulders, that everyone is after”.

What about the military press?

Woman performing military press

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If it’s functional strength you’re looking to develop in your shoulders, then the military press is a great go-to. “This is your standard press for overall shoulder development, which will primarily hit your front deltoids,” explains Nick. It also works your triceps, upper back, upper pecs and core. 

The exercise is performed standing with a barbell (although Nick says you can do it seated on a weight bench if you struggle to keep a neutral spine). Holding the barbell in front of your chest with a pronated grip, and hands just slightly wider than shoulder width apart, you then push the barbell vertically above your head and then lower it back to your chest. It’s what’s known as a ‘strict press’, so you don’t use any momentum from your legs to help you complete the lift (that’s a push press).

It’s not the most ‘beginner-friendly’ shoulder exercise as you'll require decent core strength to keep you stable and balanced. "If that’s an issue, then you can either lower the weight and slow down the time it takes to lower the bar," says Nick. "Or another option is to adopt a split stance, whereby pressure is taken off any lower back hypertension by placing one leg anything from 2 to 20 inches in front of the rear foot."

If you can master it, Nick says it's excellent for muscle activation and hypertrophy. Plus, it also has great carryover for the bench press, Olympic lifts and other overhead pressing exercises.

Arnold press Vs military press: which is best?

As always with our ‘vs’ features (such as flat bench vs incline and front squat vs back squat) this is never a black or white answer.

Nick says that both exercises are ‘mutually exclusive’, because when it comes to growing your shoulders he says the key is to hit your deltoids from all angles. By doing both the Arnold press and military press, you’ll be achieving this. Also, while neither exercises are 'easy', the military press is more advanced, because you have to maintain a stable base to lift from.

If you don't have time to do both (or simply didn’t want to) then Nick suggests thinking about your personal goals instead. “If you’re just looking for raw strength, then go for the military press, because you can really load up the barbell and get stronger in a short space of time,” he says. “If the more rounded, ‘capped’ and complete, look of your shoulders is what you’re after, then incorporating the Arnold Press (or even a Scott Press) is worthy of inclusion.”

Bryony Firth-Bernard
Staff Writer, Active

Bryony’s T3’s official ‘gym-bunny’ and Active Staff Writer, covering all things fitness. In her spare time, you will find her in her natural habitat - the gym - where her style of training is a hybrid of bodybuilding and powerlifting. Bryony loves writing about accessible workouts, nutrition and testing innovative fitness products that help you reach your fitness goals and take your training to the next level.