The arms are made up of several muscles. The biceps muscle (biceps brachii) is perhaps the most well-known. However, there are also a few others to consider working if your goal is maximal arm strength. They are the brachialis, brachioradialis, and—of course—the triceps (triceps brachii). Which exercises work these muscles the hardest, giving you stronger arms?
Fortunately, many different arm exercises can help you build strength. The ones you choose will depend, in part, on the type of resistance you prefer to use. However, before getting into the arm exercises that offer the best results, let’s talk briefly about the benefits of bolstering this muscle group.
For some, bigger biceps is about looking good. They want to have clearly defined muscles whenever they flex their arms. Or they want to get rid of that underarm jiggle, so they target the muscle in this area.
But there are also additional benefits of building muscle mass in the upper and lower arm. One is that stronger arms make everyday activities easier. You can carry the groceries, push the vacuum, or pick up your children or grandchildren without feeling fatigued.
Strong arm muscles also mean better grip strength. Every time you go to grab something, you use the muscles in your forearm. Including exercises that target these muscles enables you to grip items more securely.
When crafting an upper body workout that targets the arms, it’s helpful to know which exercises deliver. These can be categorized based on resistance type: your own body weight, free weights, or machines.
You can still get a good arm workout even if you don’t use weights. In fact, one study found that bodyweight exercises were superior to free weights and machines for developing upper body strength. Plus, because you don’t need any equipment when using your body’s weight for resistance. This enables you to do your workout anywhere. Which bodyweight exercises target the arm muscles best?
Arm circles. This exercise works both the biceps and triceps. It can be used as a stand-alone exercise or as a warm-up for other arm exercises. Sit or stand with your arms extended to your sides at shoulder height. Make small circles clockwise, then counterclockwise. Do this for a few minutes at a time to boost arm strength.
Air punch. You can also spend a couple of minutes punching at an imaginary bag. Imagine that you’re a boxer training in the gym and do speed bag punches. Or picture yourself in the ring, giving your opponent well-timed uppercuts and jabs.
Plank. The plank works many different muscles in the body, the arms included. Keep your arms extended to make this exercise more effective for this muscle group. In this position, your hands are under your shoulders (feet shoulder width apart).
Push-up. No bodyweight arm workout would be complete without a push-up or two. While it may seem like this exercise would target the biceps, it actually targets the triceps. Don’t be afraid to include variations of this exercise in your arm workout, such as the diamond push-up. This variation is more challenging, building the triceps even more.
Triceps dip. The dip uses a step or chair to build the triceps. Keep your elbows tucked close to the body to better target this muscle. Also, only lower yourself until each elbow is at a 90-degree angle. Going lower can stress your shoulder joints.
Chin-up. If you have access to a bar, you can do chin-ups to build your biceps. To do chin-ups, use an underhand grip and grasp the bar at shoulder width. Pull your body up until your head is above the bar without swaying or swinging.
Pull-up. If you have fairly good arm strength already, a great bodyweight exercise is a pull-up. This is different from a chin-up in that you use an overhand grip. While this move works the latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles, you will feel it in your arms as well.
If you prefer to exercise with free weights, you have lots of options that will help build your arm muscles. You can do these with a dumbbell, barbell (straight or EZ bar), or resistance band.
Biceps curl. This is probably the most basic, yet most effective free weight exercise for the front of the upper arms. Grab a weight, bend your elbows 90 degrees, and curl the weight up until your biceps reach maximum contraction. Make the curl more challenging by doing the bicep curl on an incline bench.
Concentration curl. If you like isolation exercises, you’ll love the concentration curl. To do it, grab a dumbbell and sit on a weight bench with your triceps resting against the inner thigh. Keep your upper arm stationary, only moving the lower arm.
Barbell curl. If you want to work both biceps at the same time, use a barbell instead of a dumbbell. Hold the barbell a little wider than hip width using an underhand grip.
Hammer curl. Turn your dumbbell on its side, so one head is facing the ceiling and the other is facing the floor, and do your curls this way. This variation not only targets the biceps but also the brachialis and brachioradialis.
Reverse curl. Yet another curl option is to turn your palm down and, instead of lifting the weight toward your shoulder, lower it toward the floor. Once the weight is around mid-thigh height, lift it until your elbow returns to 90 degrees.
Overhead press. Although this exercise targets the chest, shoulders, and upper back, your triceps get a good workout too. You can do the overhead press with dumbbells or a barbell.
Lateral raise. Lift and lower your arms at your sides to work the triceps (and the shoulder muscles). Keep a slight blend in your elbows and lift the weights to shoulder height.
Bench press. While you’ll feel this exercise in your pecs and deltoids, it also relies on the triceps for elbow extension. You can do a bench press with a dumbbell in each hand or by using a barbell. One benefit of choosing a barbell is that it allows you to lift heavier weights.
Triceps extension. You can do triceps extensions while sitting, standing, or lying down. (A tricep extension performed while lying down is often referred to as a skull crusher.) Whichever position you choose, perform the movement in a slow and controlled motion. Relying on momentum can reduce its effectiveness.
Wrist flexion and extension. If your goal is to increase your grip strength, do wrist flexion and extension exercises. This involves holding a dumbbell and lifting it up and down while moving only the wrist. The elbow is bent at 90 degrees.
If you work out at the gym, you can get big arms by using the facility’s many upper body machines. Here are a few that deliver the best results for the upper and lower arms.
Preacher curl. Using a preacher bench forces you to hold the upper arms stationary while doing your biceps curls. Pause when the forearms are vertical for greater effect.
Cable biceps curl. Some gyms have a cable machine. In this case, you can use it to do your biceps curls.
Cable triceps extension. Once you’re done working your biceps on the cable machine, switch positions to work your triceps. You can do cable triceps extensions overhead by facing away from the machine and pulling upward. If you want to do them with your arm in a downward position, face the machine and extend your lower arm away from it.
TRX triceps extension. If your gym offers access to a TRX suspension system, you can use it to do your extensions as well. This is sometimes referred to as a TRX triceps press. Keep your elbows at your sides to better target the triceps muscles.
Chest press. The chest press not only builds the pecs and deltoids, but also the triceps. Position the seat so the handles are mid-chest and press your desired weight.
If you’re just starting out, aim to complete one set of 12 reps. Once you’re stronger, start adding sets (two sets of 12 reps, then three sets of 12 reps). When three sets of 12 reps feels easy, it’s time to start increasing the weight you lift—assuming that you aren’t doing bodyweight exercises, of course.
Try to include one or two exercises for each arm muscle. This gives you better overall arm strength. Also, it is often suggested that you work the triceps before working the biceps.
One reason for this is that the triceps are typically weaker. So, working them first ensures that you have enough strength to get through the rest of your arm workout. Another explanation is that the triceps muscle is bigger than the biceps and you should always work larger muscles first.
Additionally, change up your arm strength training routine every few weeks to keep your workout from getting stale and to work the muscles in a different way. Give your arms at least 24 to 48 hours between exercise sessions to fully recover. This will help increase their size while also decreasing injury risk.
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