How Arnold Trained Shoulders

How Arnold Trained Shoulders

The Schwarzenegger Shoulder Blueprint

Steal Arnold’s classic shoulder routine to build delts like the Oak himself.

We all want to carve out shoulders like the Austrian Oak. No bodybuilder before or since has matched the pure angles and aesthetics that Arnold had. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a bodybuilder, CrossFitter, or just want to be healthier. Arnold’s upper body development is the stuff of legend, and we can all benefit from copping from the methods that forged it.  

How did Arnold Schwarzenegger train shoulders what was his routine you're about to find out

Whether it’s his classic physique, with the ideal combo of muscularity, proportions and symmetry, or his confident, born-to-do-this-sh*t swag -- the guy had it down.

And one of the muscle groups that really put Arnold apart from the others was his massive delts.

If you’ve ever watched Pumping Iron, you know what we’re talking about (and if you haven’t seen it, what are you still doing here? Go watch that joint!).

Building powerful shoulders goes beyond aesthetics though – they anchor, stabilize, and support all the other upper body work you do. If your shoulders are a weak point, your chest, arms, and back won’t ever reach their full potential.

Schwarzenegger didn’t drone through workouts – he attacked muscle building: High-volume, heavy weights and blasting each of the three deltoid heads with equal ferocity.

And now you’ve got access to his methods and workout.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's shoulder workout


No Fluff: Proven Exercises

Before peer-reviewed studies, electromyography, and other science-y sh*t, old school lifters relied on trial and error.

They spent thousands of hours trying different techniques.

If something didn’t work, it ended up in the bin. If it did work, it stuck. Hard.

So what does their earned-in-the-trenches experience have to teach us?

Arnold Schwarzenegger built shoulders with heavy over-head pressing


Use both high-volume & heavy weights

We know now that because of the types of muscle fibers in the shoulders, they respond best to a mix of rep ranges, heavy weight and high volume.

And these are exactly the principles that Arnold followed.

Using different rep ranges and playing around with overall training volume allows you to target every single muscle fiber in your delts.

Don’t just stick to the same workout over and over again. Make minor adjustments based on how you feel, and what you did last time.

Set a strength PR last workout? Increase the reps for a workout or two, focusing on the pump instead of chasing max weights. 

Or slow the reps down, holding at the finish, and embrace the burn.

The point is, don’t get too rigid, and don’t ever just go through the motions. Show up with a plan and ready to work.

Arnold Schwarzenegger used lateral raises and tilted his pinkies up at the end of each rep


Vary the exercises and angles

If you rely on one single exercise to build a pair of cannonball delts, you’re going to be disappointed.

Your shoulders are made up of three single muscles or ‘heads’.

  • Anterior head – The ‘front delt’ is located at the front of your body just above your biceps. It’s involved in movement where you lift your arms in front of your body.
  • Medial head – This is the outermost muscle at the side of your shoulders. It’s used when you move your arms out to the side.
  • Posterior head – The ‘rear’ muscle of your delts lies just above your triceps. It kicks in during movements where you pull your upper arm behind you, like when you grab your wallet.

Hit all three movements and regions of the delts in your training to maximize muscle mass. 

Presses are great for the anterior head, lateral raises and upright row variations will hit medial head, and reverse flyes and rows will have your rear delts popping with that 3-D shoulder look.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's shoulder workout high volume heavy weight lots of reps and sets


Don’t over-complicate it

The old school approach that bodybuilders like Arnold used was all about sticking to what worked best.

Forget all the fancy lifts with bands attached to cables, attached to dumbbells, attached to some other ‘functional training’ nonsense.

It’s not the circus.

Instead, stick to tried and tested exercises that maximize bang for your buck.

  • Go heavy on presses
  • Aim for high reps on everything else
  • Stick to the core exercises, but vary the approach by mixing in the methods described below


Use Drop Sets and go “Down the Rack”

Not many people know this, but it was during the time when Arnold was training with Franco Columbo that they discovered drop sets.

Drop sets involve training to failure on an exercise, but rather than resting and recovering, you drop the weight a bit (by 5 to 10 pounds) and keep grinding out reps with the lighter weight. When you slam into that next wall, you then drop again and force out more reps until your delts feel like they’ve just been inflated with battery acid.

In a good way.

Fun fact: Arnold and Franco called it going “down the rack”, as their drop sets were sometimes so massive they consisted of starting at one end of the dumbbell rack and working through each weight until they ended up collapsing, humbled and exhausted, at the little 5 pounders.

Sometimes they'd even do it using the oft-mocked Smith machine, starting with a ton of plates and stripping them off with each set. If it works, it ain't wrong.      

Arnold's shoulder training tricks Tri-sets and running the rack


Try Tri-sets

Another technique Arnold used was tri-sets. Think of it as a superset from hell – three exercises done to failure, back to back, with no rest.

It’s a powerful tool for muscle mass and produces a skin-tearing pump.

The Oak often did heavy overhead presses to failure, followed by upright rows and high-volume lateral raises.

*We change it up a bit in order to make the workout friendlier for anyone with shoulder issues, but feel free to use Arnold’s own tri-set.


Break some rules

People paying close attention to some of the featured pics of Arnold may have noticed something odd.

He takes front and lateral raises well beyond shoulder level – something most experts will tell you is a strict no-no. His front raises even go all the way to 12 o’clock, sending cringes through modern-day personal trainers worldwide.

Arnold Schwarzenegger broke some rules and went beyond shoulder level on later and front raises

But that’s the way Arnold rolled, and it’s tough to argue with the results.

Everyone’s shoulders are different, and not everyone can safely take their raises north of shoulder height. However, if your shoulders feel up to it, consider giving it a go. The increased range of motion can unlock previously untapped gains.

If you’re going to take a walk on the wild side and go well past shoulder level, be sure to raise and lower the weights under control. Don’t use “body English” or leg drive to cheat. Make the delts do the work.  


Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Shoulder Workout

arnold schwarzenegger shoulder workout routine reps sets and exercises

Most of these exercises should be self-explanatory (or can be figured out with a quick Google in a pinch), but we couldn’t cover Arnold’s shoulder routine without highlighting the Arnold Press (exercise #2).

How to do the Arnold Press

Here’s a breakdown of the Arnold Press by none other than Arnold himself (for extra gains, read it in Ah-nold’s Austrian accent):

“Probably my most noteworthy technique was the exercise named after me, the Arnold Press.

You begin with dumbbells in the finish position of a biceps curl (palms facing you, dumbbells at shoulder height with elbows fully flexed).

Press the weights up from there while twisting them so that your palms face forward at the top, and you finish in a standard overhead press position.

The low starting point offers a much longer range of motion and, in my opinion, greater muscle building benefits and better development of the front deltoids.”

 Admit it, you totally read it in Arnold's accent. 


Summed Up

  • Lift heavy, keep the intensity high, and use a variety of lifts/angles to hit all 3 heads of the deltoid.
  • Take it up a notch every couple workouts by adding Drop Sets and Tri-Sets.
  • Hit the gym on a mission – don’t just go through the motions.

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