Strong arms are vital to your daily life — just think about how often you carry, lift, push or pull something. If you're hitting the gym in hopes of strengthening your arm muscles, there are certain exercises you need to know to work them evenly for a balanced arm routine.
But first, the main thing not to do: Spend an entire session on your arms. "I think the biggest myth about arm training in general is that they need their own separate training day," says Matt Towers, founder of The Foundation - Personal Training Solutions. "For me, this is a waste of precious gym time. Unfortunately, the media often reinforce this 'gun show' mentality, and it's often the first thing newbies do when they hit the gym."
If you're not supposed to be dedicating an entire workout solely to your arms, what should you be doing? Whether you want to use weights or simply rely on body weight to build arm strength, there are a few key moves you can do to make sure you are getting a good upper-body workout that gets straight to the point.
The Benefits of Strong Arms
When it comes to arm workouts, people usually focus on the upper arm — home to four muscles, including the biceps and triceps. These muscles help you push and pull, as well as move your arms and shoulders. Your arms even play a role in activities you might not consider arm-centric, such as running.
However, despite their functional importance, Towers says they're often the weak link in the upper-body chain. That's why he recommends using compound movements that work the arms while focusing on other areas of the body, as well, and keeping isolated movements limited, using them intentionally if you're looking to build size.
"When we think about traditional strength movements like heavy presses or pulls, the larger muscles like the pecs and lats can obviously take a lot of load," Towers says. "But when it comes to completing repetitions, it's usually the smaller muscles of the arms — the biceps and triceps — that make or break the movement."
Programming Arm Exercises Into Your Upper-Body Workouts
It can be a bit of a dance making sure you are building strength without giving your arms too much attention.
"You need to find a balance between working the arms enough but not too much," Towers explains. "I generally don't advise a separate arm day or arm workout unless you are a bodybuilder. The arms will get a great workout when paired with big compound movements."
Prioritize three to four exercises for both your biceps and triceps, doing 8 to 12 reps per set, he says. As a refresher: A rep is the number of times you do a specific exercise and a set is the total number of rounds that you repeat those reps. It should feel challenging to complete your reps, but you should still be able to do so with good form.
Towers recommends splitting your focus into "push" and "pull" days. You'll work the muscles used for pulling movements — when it comes to your arms specifically, this includes the biceps — and the muscles used for pushing movements — like your shoulders and triceps — based on your focus.
No matter the day, you can do compound movements because they work multiple muscle groups. After, isolate the triceps or biceps (depending on whether it's a push or pull day) by adding one or two triceps- or biceps-specific moves at the end.
A Pull Day May Include:
- Chin-Up (compound movement)
- High Plank to Low Plank (compound movement)
- EZ-Bar Curl (biceps isolation)
A Push Day May Include:
- Muscle-Up (compound movement)
- Dip (compound movement)
- Close-Grip Push-Up (triceps isolation)
If you're looking for even more exercises to swap in and out of your routine (and a how-to on the moves listed above), we've got you covered.
No-Equipment Body-Weight Arm Exercises
You don't need to rush to the weight rack in order to get an effective workout. Liz Germain, NSCA-CPT, founder of SuperSisterFitness.com, says that as long as you have the right routine (and nutrition), you can still get strong arms without using any equipment.
While you can absolutely use weights, for beginners, body-weight exercises may actually be the best place to start in order to perfect form and avoid injury.
Move 1: High Plank to Low Plank
"For body-weight arm exercises, I highly recommend doing push-up and plank variations because these movements work the body as a whole, while loading the arms and training for functional movement," Germain says.
- Start in the plank position, with core engaged and back straight. Get up on your toes and bring your arms straight under you with your hands shoulder-width apart and shoulders stacked over your hands.
- Lower your right arm down to your elbow. Follow by lowering your left elbow to the ground.
- Straighten your right arm back up with your weight on your palm in starting position, and follow with your left.
- Rotate going up and down between high plank and low plank, keeping your mid-section from twisting too much during the switch.
Move 2: Close-Grip Push-Ups
"[This is a] great triceps developer," Towers says, "especially when done with push-up handles for extra range."
- Start in high plank position with your arms under your shoulders or grip push-up handles (optional) closer than shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your arms close to your sides, slowly lower your body down by bending your elbows.
- Push yourself back up to starting position and repeat.
Body-Weight Arm Exercises That Require Some Equipment
If you're in a gym setting you don't need to be using weights to get in a great workout. If you have access to a weight bench or pull-up bar, these body-weight exercises can easily be added in to your current routine, no weights required.
Move 1: Dip
"[This move is] a great overall pushing compound movement," Towers says. "It stretches the shoulders and targets the pecs and triceps."
- Standing at the dip bar, pull your body up with your elbows and arms straight.
- Slowly lower your body by bending at the elbow into a dip position. Your elbows will go out and will not be "glued" at your sides.
- Slowly push yourself back up so your arms and elbows are once again straight and repeat.
Move 2: Chin-Up
"[This is] the king of the upper-body pulling movements," Towers says. "The supinated grip (palms facing you) really works the biceps and is the complete pulling movement."
- Approach the pull-up bar standing straight. Put your arms up and grab hold of the bar with your palms facing toward you. Hands should be shoulder-width apart.
- Bending your elbows, pull your feet off the floor and hang.
- Pull yourself up so that your chin comes just past the bar.
- Lower yourself down and repeat.
Move 3: Muscle-Up
"It's an advanced exercise," Towers admits, "but there aren't many exercises out there that work the pecs, triceps, biceps and lats."
- Approach the pull-up bar standing straight. Put your arms up and grab hold of the bar with your palms facing away from you. Hands should be shoulder-width apart.
- Using your upper and lower body for momentum — kick your legs — swing and generate momentum to pull your entire body up and around the bar (not straight up), and then press your arms straight. You should have a slight lean over the bar.
- Slowly bend the elbows to lower your body toward the bar, then press yourself back up.
- Lower yourself completely down to hanging position and repeat.
Arm Exercises Using Weights
You can add weights to both compound and isolation exercises. If you do, you should still prioritize compound movements, Towers says. Saving isolation exercises for the end of your arm workout ensures you're building balance first.
Move 1: Close-Grip Barbell Press
"Another great pushing movement; I usually use this ... between heavy presses for the chest and triceps isolation work," Towers says.
- Lie flat on a weight bench with your back and neck flat and head looking straight up.
- Grip the barbell on the rack with your hands closer than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the barbell up off the rack and press it straight up with your arms locked.
- Slowly bring the bar down above your chest (but not resting on it) with your elbows close to your body.
- Press the barbell up by straightening your arms and repeat.
Move 2: EZ-Bar Curl
"A simple isolation exercise for the biceps," Towers says, "but the angle on the bar spares the forearms from unnecessary loading."
- Grab an EZ-Bar with your palms facing outward and arms at your side.
- Moving only your forearms, slowly curl the bar up toward your shoulders and body, keeping the top of the arms still.
- Again, using only your forearms, curl the bar back down to starting position. Repeat.
Move 3: Lying Triceps Extension
If you are looking to add size to your arms, Towers recommends working the "mirror muscles" — those you see when flexing — with isolation moves, such as this one for the triceps.
- Lie on an exercise bench with your feet flat on the floor and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Extend your arms straight out in front of you.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells toward your head until your elbows are bent at 90 degrees.
- Straighten your arms and raise the weights to complete one rep. Repeat.
Staying Safe During Arm Workouts
Common sprains and strains of your arm muscles are entirely preventable, as long as you strength train with correct form and maintain muscle balance, according to a March 2018 report in the Journal of Orthopaedics.
Performing arm exercises with poor technique can result in biceps tears or triceps-related tendonitis, Towers says, although they're more common in advanced weight lifters. Still, learning the right form and technique from the beginning, instead of potentially creating bad habits, can help you avoid injuries from the get-go.
Don't increase weight too quickly, Towers says, and check your form in a mirror (or ask a trainer at your gym for guidance). "You should also stretch your biceps and triceps later in the day of the workout when the pump has subsided," he adds.
Read more: The 5 Best Upper-Body Stretches