Strong and defined arms do a whole lot more for your fitness than you might think.
A pair of big arms can do a lot more for you than just grabbing attention at the beach. From bear hugs to bench press competitions, your biceps and triceps are involved in almost everything you do in and out of the gym.
While some will puff their chests and declare that they built their arms with pull-ups, presses, or — somehow — squatting, most lifters who have been in the game awhile will concede that if you want big arms, you have to train for big arms.
The question then becomes how to go about it. Whether you want to bench better or rip the seams on all your shirts, when it comes to arm workouts, we’ve got you covered.
Best Arm Workouts
- Best Arm Workout for Size
- Best Arm Workout for Strength
- Best Arm Workout for Beginners
- Best Arm Workout for Weightlifters
- Best Bodyweight Arm Workout
Note: The notation prescribed in these routines is (sets) x (reps).
Best Arm Workout for Size
When it comes to bodybuilding, if you were to ask five of the most successful competitors ever how they built their arms, you’d probably get five different — but valid — answers. Arnold himself was infamous for his grueling, superset-heavy high-volume biceps and triceps training. Dorian Yates, however, believed in pushing intensity as high as possible for fewer total sets.
Naturally, the best line to walk is probably straight down the middle. Whether it is your triceps or trapezius, the tenets of muscle growth are mostly the same. Train hard (but not too hard), pick the right exercises, and, most importantly, fuel your body well.
Since your arms have supporting roles in basically all upper body training, direct arm sessions needn’t be performed with extremely high frequency. Extra sessions might be helpful if you’re a particularly advanced trainee, but be sure to modulate your training volume accordingly.
These exercise selections are well-rounded suggestions, but remember that bodybuilding is highly individual. If you struggle to elicit a good contraction with an exercise, don’t force a square peg into a round hole. Substituting exercises that don’t serve you well can potentially spare you injury and keep you on the fast track to progress.
- Cheat Curl or Barbell Curl: 3 x 6, two minutes rest
- Incline Dumbbell Hammer Curl or Reverse Curl: 3 x 8 -10, 90 seconds rest
- Dumbbell Spider Curl or Preacher Curl: 2 x 12 – 15, 60 seconds rest
- Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 x 6 – 8, two minutes rest
- Cable Pressdown (V-Bar or Cambered Bar): 3 x 8 – 10, 90 seconds rest
- Rope Overhead Extension or Cable Kickback: 2 x 12 – 15, 60 seconds rest
Training Tip: The exercise order is intentional. Performing biceps exercises first will also serve as an effective warm-up for the elbow joint, so you’re ready for the extension-heavy triceps training that follows.
Best Arm Workout for Strength
If you’re more inclined towards pushing your limits with the barbell, direct arm work still merits a place in your routine. From a powerlifter’s bench press to a strongman’s Atlas stone lift, the arms play a critical role in strength sports.
The two main factors when integrating arm work into a strength routine are 1) the exercises should complement your primary lifts or activities, and 2) the training should not hamper your performance elsewhere. As such, perform this workout on its own day or after your primary training, and don’t be afraid to adjust volume as needed.
- Hammer Curl: 4 x 6, two minutes rest
- JM Press: 4 x 6, two minutes rest
- Reverse Preacher Curl: 2 x 10 – 12, 90 seconds rest
- Overhead Rope Extension: 2 x 12 – 15, 90 seconds rest
- Plate Pinch: 2-3 sets to failure, 60 seconds rest
Training Tip: Since the goal of the session isn’t maximal fatigue, exercises are alternated. This will allow more rest time between flexion and extension movements, allowing for greater force output that should translate to your main lifts. Plate pinches are included to double-dip forearm work and grip training.
Best Arm Workout for Beginners
If you’re just getting started in the gym, you have a lot more going for you than you might think. Between rapid gains in strength, hypertrophy, work capacity, or even flexibility, your first few years of training are an embarrassment of riches.
That said, making the most of it is what matters. If you want your guns to be the most impressive part of your physique arsenal, a well-calibrated arm workout is your best friend in the weight room.
For exercise newbies, one of the best things about your training “economy” is your rate of return. In simple terms, this means that first-timers can get a lot out of a little. More volume and intensity will be required with more years of training under your lifting belt, but beginner programs should be lean and mean.
Perform this workout once per week to start, adding weight or reducing rest times as it gets easier.
- EZ-Bar Skull Crusher: 3 x 8, two minutes rest
- Standing Dumbbell Curl: 3 x 8, two minutes rest
- Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 2 x 10 – 12, 60 seconds rest
- EZ-Bar Reverse Curl: 2 x 12 – 15, 60 seconds rest
Training Tip: Trainees taking their first steps in the gym should value variety. Exposing yourself to a wide array of exercises and equipment helps to build a well-rounded base that can set you up for a long, healthy fitness career.
Best Arm Workout for Weightlifters
If you’re a devoted follower of Olympic lifting, you may have started snatching precisely because you’re not interested in getting a pump or slapping on a bunch of lifting gear to bench press. However, beyond the obvious — your arms physically hold that heavy barbell overhead, after all — giving your biceps some love can actually improve your performance in the training hall.
Elbow stability is a critical element of weightlifting, both in training and during competition. Contrary to popular belief, bulging biceps don’t interfere with your ability to fully extend the elbow, as long as your triceps training is proportional and you stretch regularly.
Further, diligent accessory training may help diminish elbow and shoulder pain, both of which commonly plague Olympic lifters and can interfere with programming if left unaddressed.
Perform this session two to three times per week depending on what phase of training you’re in — if you’ve got a meet coming up, consider taking it a little easier on secondary exercises.
- Barbell Reverse Curl + Barbell Overhead Extension: 2 x 8-12, 60 second rest
- Kettlebell Curl + Kettlebell Skull Crusher: 2 x 12-15, 60 second rest
- Zottman Curl: 2 x 15, one minute rest.
- Band Overhead Extension: 2 x 15-20, 60 second rest
Training Tip: Olympic lifting routines can take a long time to complete. Accessory work shouldn’t significantly add to that, so pairing up exercises as supersets can save time as well as help synergize your biceps and triceps to stabilize the elbow joint.
Best Bodyweight Arm Workout
Anyone who tells you that you need a gym membership to build your arms is lying. While you may not grow a pair of pythons that would make Arnold blush, you can still pack on size without ever touching a barbell or cable machine.
When it comes to calisthenics and muscle growth, the key is leverage. More specifically, compromising your leverage as much as possible, so you’re utilizing as much of your own weight as you can for a sort of pseudo-overload.
Hit this workout twice per week to start, focusing on reducing rest times and stressing your eccentric tempo to drive progress. We’ve included both a beginner and advanced option so you can tailor your training specifically to your fitness level.
- Diamond Push-Up or Decline Push-Up: 3 sets at RPE 8, two minutes rest
- Inverted Row or Chin-Up: 3 sets at RPE 8, 90 seconds rest
- Wall Elbow Extension or Weighted Chair Dip: 2 sets to failure, 60 seconds rest
- Weighted Inverted Row or Weighted Chin-Up: 2 sets to failure, 60 seconds rest
Anatomy of the Arm
While an impressive set of arms is obviously a desirable trait, there’s more going on behind the scenes that can impact both your training and the results that follow. Having a cursory understanding of arm anatomy will help you take a more active role in your training.
Perhaps the most iconic part of the upper body, we’ve all been flexing our biceps ever since our parents challenged us to “make a muscle” as kids. The biceps brachii originate on the shoulder blade and help to flex the elbow and rotate the forearm.
It is common in curl movements, to begin with a “neutral” wrist position and rotate the palm upwards as the weight is lifted. The biceps are responsible for supinating the forearm, adding some extra tension.
Beneath the biceps lies the brachialis, which strictly controls movement at the elbow and actually produces a majority of the torque during elbow flexion. Exercises like the hammer curl favor the brachialis by removing any rotary component of the forearm or wrist.
The anatomical structure of the brachialis means that, when developed, it will contribute to the appearance of thicker arms when viewed from the front.
The forearms contain many muscles from the elbow down to the fingers, some of which facilitate highly acute biomechanical functions. For training purposes, the brachioradialis is the primary muscle involved in forearm rotation and wrist control while bending or extending the elbow joint.
The brachioradialis is highly synergistic with the brachialis, making it a secondary mover in exercises like the hammer curl or reverse curl.
The triceps brachii is the primary antagonist of the biceps — it performs elbow extension. However, the three individual heads (tri-ceps) afford the triceps a broader spectrum of functions. The triceps begin on the humerus and scapula, and all converge to insert on the ulna, one of the bones of the forearm.
A majority of the work of the triceps is devoted to straightening the arm at the elbow joint, such as during presses or dips. While the long head, which attaches to the scapula, actually helps perform extension of the shoulder.
A well-developed long head of the triceps will show on the upper half of the arm and can be trained directly via overhead extensions. You’ll also feel this part of the triceps working during pullovers and straight-armed pulldowns.
Benefits of Arm Workouts
Beyond the undeniable — but certainly welcome — perk of looking better with your shirt off, training the arms directly does have a tangible impact on your performance. Whether you’re a powerlifter, CrossFitter, gymnast, or just enjoy hitting the iron, regularly omitting arm work is a rookie mistake.
A More Complete Physique
A well-rounded physique is essential for placing well at bodybuilding shows and looking your best day to day. While broad shoulders and a narrow waist create the iconic “tapered” look, big arms catch eyes and turn heads.
Supplemental Strength & Power
Strength athletes and competitive fitness enthusiasts can’t run because most of their activities are performed with their arms. The bench press and split jerk both require strong triceps to lock out the weight, and you can’t set a new AMRAP chin-up personal best if your biceps are flimsy. They may not be the engine that drives performance, but strong arms help put the rubber to the road.
If your preferred form of physical activity is cardio, there’s no shame in your game. However, there’s a good chance you’ve woken up after a long day of housework or gardening with painfully sore arms.
Neglecting regular training of the biceps, triceps, and forearms can make everyday chores more difficult than they need to be. We’ve all had to work outside, shovel snow, or haul boxes in our lives — skimping out on arm work can make these just a bit more tiring.
How to Program Arm Workouts
We’ve touched on programming considerations already when explaining the workouts themselves. Still, there’s no harm in restating some of the most important points when it comes to implementing arm work into your routine.
For Physique Development
If your primary concern is actually growing your arms, it makes little sense to tack your biceps or triceps exercises onto the end of an already challenging routine. Make arm growth a priority by performing these movements when you first step into the gym, or allocate an entire training day to dedicated arm work itself.
For Strength Athletes
If you practice powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or any other sport or discipline, arm training is merely an accessory. And accessory training should be just that — something that complements your main goals, not overshadows them.
Arm exercises should be similar in function to your target movement — a cable kickback doesn’t make much sense for a weightlifter who never extends their arm behind their body, for instance. The training volumes and intensities should also not be high enough to interfere with your squats, pulls, or WOD’s to a significant degree.
For General Fitness
If you exercise to feel better, stay in shape, or even slow the aging process, arm work still deserves a place in your routine. However, it should be proportional. Just as your arms are not a majority of your overall body mass, biceps and triceps work shouldn’t be the meat and potatoes of a full-body training regimen.
If you want your physique to be the total package, you need more than a barrel chest and sweeping quads. Proportional, well-developed arms tie your whole look together and signal that you’ve paid your dues in the gym.
If you favor strength sports, strong triceps and built biceps will boost your bench and push your performance higher than if you’d left your accessory work by the wayside. Vanity is the tip of the iceberg for arm training, so there’s no reason not to get curling.
Featured Image: Rido/Shutterstock