• Photo for This or That: Military vs. Arnold Shoulder Presses
    Photo Credit: Kevin Caudill

This or That: Military vs. Arnold Shoulder Presses

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. Last time I gave you a battle of the biceps, comparing a barbell curl and hammerhead curl. This week, let's tackle the shoulders with a deceptively similar pair of dumbbell exercises: military presses and front presses (fondly known as "Arnold presses"). Here we go!

Dumbbell Military Presses
Military presses use dumbbells to mimic an army calisthenic exercise (or punishment!), where a soldier takes his rifle in both hands and pushes it up overhead many, many times in a row. The key to doing them successfully with dumbbells, therefore, is to push straight up, rather than swinging wide in an arc (after all, a rifle doesn't stretch or bend). So, hold a pair of dumbbells just above your shoulders, with your palms facing forward. Press both weights straight up from the shoulder toward the ceiling until your arms are extended and your elbows straight (though not locked). Try to keep your shoulders down as you do this: no shrugging. Do not bring the weights around in an arc—they should not touch at the top of your lift; rather, push straight upward. From the top of your lift, bend your elbows and lower the dumbbells, again in a straight vertical line, to just above your shoulders.

So far, so good. Here are the strengths of the dumbbell military press:

  1. Focuses on outer shoulder and upper back: This exercise develops the deltoid, or the major muscle of the shoulder. Specifically, it works the medial or outer aspect of the deltoid. To a lesser degree, military presses target the upper aspects of the trapezius—that is to say, the uppermost part of the center of your back. Finally, some work will be directed to the back of the arm and shoulder, to the serratus anterior (which retracts your shoulder blade) and the triceps brachii (the back of the upper arm).
  2. Form matters: In addition to the tendency to bring the arms wide in a military press, many people will arch their backs when performing this exercise. That tendency shifts the work of the exercise to the upper chest, and away from the shoulder. But there are better ways to work the upper chest, so you want to try to avoid this shift when doing military presses. How? Try doing these seated on an incline bench with the incline vertical. Press your back flat into the bench as you do the exercise. Use this method for a while to develop strength and control; then use moving away from the bench as a progression in difficulty.
Military presses are a shoulder gold-standard exercise. But you can't spend all your time focusing on the outer aspect of your shoulder: the front and back need targeting as well. Let's start with the front, and the option of the front or Arnold press.

Dumbbell Arnold Presses
If they're good enough for the Governator, surely they're worth a try for you? Arnold presses are the industry's fond nickname for a front dumbbell press. Here's how they work: Hold dumbbells in each hand with your palms facing you at chest level and elbows bent in front of you. Press the dumbbells up and out as you turn them, so that your palms face away from your body when your arms are fully vertically extended. The dumbbells should be shoulder-width apart at the top. Bring the dumbbells back down the same way, turning them as you bend your elbows, so that you end with them once again facing you.

Here are the benefits of the Arnold presses:
  1. Works the front of the shoulder: Arnold presses, like military presses, target the deltoids, but put more focus on the anterior or front aspect of the deltoids. Additionally, this version also engages the uppermost aspect of the pectoralis major (the large upper chest muscle) near the collar bone. It will also, like the military press, impact the triceps, the upper aspects of the trapezius, and the serratus anterior.
  2. Increased range of motion: The Arnold Press, by coming in front of the body, allows a larger range of motion where the shoulder is engaged than does the military press. On the one hand, this offers possibilities for broadening your training. On the other, it brings risk of overdoing it. In any shoulder exercise, you need to be careful about using too much weight—but that is particularly true of an Arnold Press. Start this exercise with lighter weights and carefully build up.
Here's the short version: If you want to work the outer aspect of the shoulder, go with the military press. If the front of the shoulder is your goal, try the Arnold press. If you want to use a little more weight, go military. Looking for range of motion? Arnold. But here's the thing—and this can't be said enough: Shoulders are delicate. Go at them hard with too much weight and poor form and you run the risk of a painful and persistent injury. So no matter which of these exercises you choose, start with light weights and work up carefully and gradually. Your shoulders will thank you for it.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.