Put down the remote control, and step away from the infomercials — they're not going to tell you how to get bigger arms at home, especially not in a hurry. But a few basic principles of exercise science will.
Your Bigger Arms Workout
Here's your "big arms fast" starter kit: Choose any two of these exercises for biceps and two of the exercises for triceps and do one set of eight to 12 repetitions for each. Aim to do these workouts at least twice a week. As you build more strength and endurance, you can increase the amount of weight you're using, add another exercise to your workout, or even add a third workout session during the week.
How soon will you see results? Soreness may set in within 12 to 24 hours of a new routine, but bigger muscles take longer to arrive. Most clinical studies designed to evaluate muscle growth, or hypertrophy, are conducted over at least an eight-week period, so that's the minimum realistic time frame for seeing measurable results.
It may be hard to spot those results in the mirror because you see yourself every day, but a measuring tape never lies — so consider tracking your progress by taking arm circumference measurements every month.
Everybody has favorite exercises — but make sure you mix up your workout routine by choosing new arm exercises every eight weeks or so. This has three benefits: It reduces your risk of overuse injuries; it encourages balanced muscle development; and it can also help you muscle through any workout plateaus in your way, pun definitely intended.
1. Biceps Exercises
A 2014 EMG study, sponsored and published by the American Council on Exercise, showed that the following exercises generated the most muscle activity in the biceps brachii.
Move 1: Concentration Curls
For this exercise, you'll need a chair or bench and a single dumbbell.
- Sit on the chair or bench with the weight in your right hand.
- Plant your feet on the floor, at least shoulder-width apart, and hinge forward from the hips. Tuck your right elbow against the inside of your right thigh, and place your left hand on your left thigh for extra stability, if you like. This is your starting position.
- Keep your torso stable and still as you bend your right arm, curling the weight up toward your shoulder. Don't use pressure from your thigh to help nudge the weight along; that's the job of your biceps.
- Extend your right arm, lowering the weight back to the starting position to complete the repetition.
This is a one-sided exercise, so make sure you take time to work the other arm too.
Move 2: Cable Curls
For this, you'll need access to a cable machine or at least a low cable pulley, and a straight bar handle.
- Position yourself facing the pulley and very close to it. Take the handle in an underhand grip.
- Bend your arms, curling the handle up to chest level. Squeeze your abs to stabilize your torso — it shouldn't rock back as you do this.
- Lower the handle back to the starting position with a smooth, controlled motion.
Move 3: Chin-Ups
That's right: A back exercise has managed to sneak into a list of arm exercises. That's because your biceps also kick in to help your back during powerful pulling motions. This is also a good home workout, because all you need is a pull-up bar.
- Grasp the pull-up bar with an underhand grip, hands roughly shoulder-width apart.
- Pull yourself up to the bar.
- Lower yourself back to the starting position in a controlled motion.
If this is too difficult, you can use a pull-up band — like a giant rubber band that attaches to the bar — for an assist, or place an aerobic step underneath the pull-up bar and press off it with your legs (don't jump) to help boost yourself up to the bar.
2. Triceps Exercises
It's back to the American Council on Exercise for another study — this one identified the best exercises to work your triceps, with first two exercises that follow leading the pack.
Move 1: Triangle Push-Up
- Assume a push-up position, either on your knees (modified push-up) or on your toes (full push-up).
- Bring your hands close together, so that your index fingers and thumbs touch. Check your body position: Your body should be straight from head to knees if you're doing modified push-ups, or head to heels if you're doing full push-ups.
- Maintain that straight body as you bend your arms, lowering your chest toward the floor.
- Straighten your arms, pressing yourself back up to complete the repetition.
Move 2: Triceps Kickbacks
- Prop your left knee up on a weight bench. Hinge forward from the hips, using your left hand on the bench for additional support.
- Pick up a single dumbbell in your right hand and tuck your right elbow against your side. This is your starting position.
- Keep your right elbow tucked against your side as you straighten your right arm against the weight of the dumbbell.
- Bend your arm again, lowering the weight back to the starting position.
Move 3: Overhead Triceps Extension
The next-best triceps exercise in the study was dips, but most home gyms won't have dip bars — so try doing an overhead dumbbell triceps extension instead.
- Hold a dumbbell vertically in front of you with both hands, palms against the inner weight plate on one side, thumbs and fingers overlapping to surround the handle.
- Press the dumbbell up over your head and keep your elbows close to your head. This is the starting position of the exercise.
- Bend your arms and lower the weight behind your head.
- Straighten your arms to press the weight back overhead, completing the repetition.
A Note About Recovery Time
Give your muscles at least one full rest day between workouts. That means that you can, at most, do three workouts for a given muscle group in a typical week.
If you really want to progress fast, there is some rationale for working out as much as you can; a systematic review published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences showed a clear dose-response relationship between strength-training sets and muscle size.
But if you start too intensely and make yourself horribly sore or injure yourself, you can actually delay your progress. And although a meta-analysis published in the November 2016 issue of the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine showed that strength-training twice a week provides superior hypertrophy results to training once a week, clinicians have not yet established any firm proof regarding whether training three times a week is really better. So, twice a week is a good place to start.
No Gym Equipment?
If you have a splendid home gym setup at your disposal, the sky's the limit. But if you don't have any equipment, you need to either invest in a full set of dumbbells, at least, or resign yourself to limited options for isolating your arm muscles.
But — there's still hope. First off, even compound exercises such as push-ups and inverted rows, which you don't need special equipment for, work your arms. They're not working in isolation, but that's fine; your arms will still get bigger and stronger.
And second, although the typical approach for building muscle is to use relatively heavy weight and low repetitions, a small but interesting study published in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research divided 18 volunteers into two types of workout groups: either high-weight, low-repetitions or low-weight, high-repetitions. Although the high-weight group built more strength, both groups showed significant improvements in muscle size.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises"