To build strong arms, you're going to want to hit the weight room (masked, of course) or take that barbell out of the closet. Because the only thing you need for more defined, sculpted arms is these three barbell exercises.
That's because each is a compound exercise, hitting multiple muscle groups at once. And when you put these three foundational upper-body barbell exercises together, they work every single muscle in your arms and upper body, including your biceps, triceps, forearms, shoulders, chest and back.
Plus, when you use a barbell, you're not limited by your weaker side — which yes, almost everyone has — the way you are with equipment like dumbbells, says Mia Nikolajev, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS).
And because two-handed barbell exercises for arms are more stable than unilateral (single-side) ones like those same dumbbells, bars let you move more weight with each rep. "The more weight you use, the more your muscles have to work," she says. "And the harder they work, the more gains you'll see."
Ready to start building strong, sculpted arms? Here are the only three barbell exercises you need.
1. Barbell Bench Press
"The barbell bench press excels at building upper-body strength, especially in the pecs, anterior delts (front shoulders) and triceps," says Kristian Flores, CSCS, a New York-based trainer.
If you want to vary the challenge of your barbell bench presses, try performing them on an incline or decline bench. Doing so will increase the workload on the upper or lower fibers of your chest and shoulders, respectively, Nikolajev says. The decline press also activates the lats to a greater degree compared to the flat and incline presses.
How to Do a Barbell Bench Press
- Lie face-up on a flat bench, gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press your feet into the ground and your hips into the bench as you lift the barbell off the rack.
- Slowly lower the barbell to your chest, bending at the elbows.
- Once the barbell reaches chest height and your elbows dip slightly below the bench, press your heels into the ground and use your chest and arms to lift the barbell back up.
- Return the barbell to the starting position with your elbows extended but not locked out.
While you’re learning how much you can lift — or going heavy — grab a spotter. “With a trained spotter, you can really push yourself in terms of reps and weight to maximize strength gains,” Flores says.
Without a spotter, the risk of accidentally going too heavy and getting trapped beneath the barbell (or worse) increases.
2. Barbell Shoulder Press
The barbell shoulder press, also called the military press, not only does wonders for the deltoids and triceps, but it also strengthens the upper back, says Nikolajev.
For the best results, she recommends keeping the bar light enough that you're able to do 12 to 16 reps per set with solid form. (Don't arch and throw the weight into your lower back.)
How to Do a Barbell Shoulder Press
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and hold the barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip in front of your shoulders.
- Squeeze your glutes and brace your core.
- Drive your heels into the ground, keeping your legs straight as you press the bar straight up to the overhead position, moving your head out of the way as you do.
- Pause at the top with the barbell in line with your ears.
- Return the barbell back to the starting position.
If you experience shoulder pain when pressing overhead, rather than gritting your teeth and bearing it in the name of tank top season, Nikolajev recommends dropping the weight.
Lowering the weight and focusing on keeping your elbows pointed straight out in front of your body during the entire concentric (up) and eccentric (down) portion of the press can help reduce the stress the movement places on the rotator cuff, she says.
3. Barbell Row
Fitness professionals have a saying that goes, "For every push you do, pull twice." It means that for every rep of a pushing exercise (i.e. bench press, shoulder press), you do 2 reps of a pulling exercise. According to Flores and Nikolajev, it's solid advice when you're building stronger arms with a barbell, too.
"The majority of the movements we do in day-to-day life work the muscles in the front half of our body," Nikolajev says. As a result, these muscles often become stronger than the muscles in the back-half, which can lead to a shoulder injury, poor posture and back pain.
"Pulling exercises strengthen the muscles along the back-side of the body like the upper back, external rotators of the shoulder and upper arm, which provide balance to the strong muscles in the front of the body," Flores says. And that's where a lot of the barbell row comes into play.
A classic back exercise, the barbell bent-over row strengthens all of the muscles in the back, as well as the triceps, biceps and forearms, he says.
How to Do a Barbell Row
- Hold the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), hands shoulder-width apart, and stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Brace your core to get in a neutral spine position.
- Slightly bend your knees, hinge your hips behind you and lower your torso toward the ground until the bar hangs next to your thighs.
- Keeping your entire body tight, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Then, pull your elbows behind you to draw the barbell up toward the bottom of your chest.
- Pause at the top, then return the barbell to the starting position.