Sure, sculpted biceps and triceps are nice to look at, but like branches on a tree, bigger arms also offer stability, support and power.
"Besides being able to do things like pull-ups and push-ups, we use our arms in everyday life," certified personal trainer Angela Gargano, founder of Pull-Up Revolution, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Things as simple as carrying your grocery bags, pulling a door open, lifting up a box or pushing yourself up from the ground if you are lying down all involve arm strength," she says.
The muscles in the arms are multi-faceted, so when you talk about arm workouts for mass, it's important to look at the entire picture. Here, experts break down the best ways to train for bigger arms.
What Are the Arm Muscles?
Strong hunch: Nine times out of 10, when someone mentions big, strong arms, you think biceps. But your arms are actually comprised of a slew of muscles, and if you train only your biceps for bigger gains, you're solving just part of the equation.
Here are the muscle groups in the arms, per the American Council on Exercise (ACE):
- Biceps: The muscles on the front of your upper arms, including the biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis, are responsible for bending the elbow and are involved in pulling and lifting motions.
- Triceps: The muscles on the back of the upper arms help you straighten your elbow and assist in pushing and lifting.
- Forearms: Responsible for grip, wrist motions and turning the hands as if you were screwing in a lightbulb are anterior forearm muscles — pronator teres, flexor carpi radialis, palmaris longus, flexor carpi ulnaris, pronator quadratus, supinator — and posterior muscles — extensor carpi radialis longus, extensor carpi ulnaris and extensor carpi radialis brevis.
- Shoulders: Muscles including the deltoids and your rotator cuff are responsible for lifting the arm from the shoulder joint.
The Benefits of Stronger, Bigger Arms
In addition to carrying out pulling and pushing movements (with the help of your chest and back), your arms provide grip strength, the foundation for many lifting movements that involve your arms.
Hoisting a barbell overhead, performing a pull-up and even doing proper push-ups rely on superior grip strength. (In fact, the ACE recommends finger-tip push-ups as one of the best exercises for improving grip strength.)
Your grip strength may also be an indicator of how long you'll live. Weak grip strength was associated with heart disease and death from any cause in a July 2015 study in the Lancet of people in 17 countries and of varying incomes.
The researchers found that each 5-kilogram decrease (roughly 11 pounds) in grip strength over the course of the study was linked to a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease, a 16 percent higher risk of death, a 7 percent higher risk of heart attack and a 9 percent higher risk of stroke.
How to Design a Workout for Bigger Arms
There are a few different strategies that you can use to build bigger arms. Compound exercises, or movements that access multiple muscle groups and joints, can help you get a lot of bang for your buck. Think of a biceps curl to overhead press, for example, which works the biceps, triceps and shoulders.
While these can certainly be a part of your quest to get bigger arms, Gargano also recommends isolated movements, such as biceps curls and overhead triceps extensions, with a focus on increased weight for the greatest hypertrophy results.
According to the ACE, the best results for hypertrophy — or building muscle size — is completing 6 to 12 reps per exercise at 67 to 85 percent of your one-rep max, which is the heaviest weight you can lift at once for any given exercise. (The closer you get to 85 percent of your one-rep max, the fewer reps you'll do if your goal is muscle growth.)
As you get stronger, you'll want to increase your training volume, a product of your reps, sets and/or weight, over time to support continued muscle growth as your body adapts to your routine. Not sure when to up the ante? The last couple of reps in each set should feel difficult to complete; if they don't, it's time to grab heavier weights.
Gargano suggests doing 3 sets of arm exercises, with 30 seconds of rest between each set. Focus on the quality of your reps — don't rush through them — and make sure you're engaging the right muscles with proper form.
However, there's no one formula for training frequency; you can train your arms four to five days a week if you want to, Gargano says. "It's just important to work on different muscle groups in the arm each day so that you give your body time to rest and heal so that they can get stronger," she says.
So, what could a typical week look like? Gargano provides a sample workout schedule to increase arm muscle size:
You can train your arms four to five days a week if you want to, but it's important to work on different muscle groups in the arm each day so your body can recover and get stronger.
How Fast Can You Get Bigger Arms?
We've all heard the saying "Rome wasn't built in a day" — and neither are big arms. Building muscle takes time and dedication, but Gargano says that in about four weeks, with consistent programming where you're progressively increasing load and intensity, you should start to see a difference in your arm strength and size.
However, Gargano notes that everybody is different, and everyone will build muscle at different rates — largely because of genetics.
"The biggest misconception is that by just doing lots of upper-body exercises, your arms will get bigger," Gargano says. "While working out and dedicating time to all of the upper-body muscle groups is a big component to the equation, getting 'bigger' is a combination of training and eating," she says. (More on diet later.)
That said, most of your muscle and strength gains actually happen outside of the gym, when your body has time to recover, per the ACE.
According to March 2017 research in the Journal of Applied Physiology, your muscles recover from exercise-induced inflammation during rest, which helps them to grow bigger. The ACE recommends recovering for 24 to 72 hours between working the same muscle groups for hypertrophy.
Keep in mind that genetics also play a role in how quickly you'll see results, Gargano adds. "For some people, they can stick to a routine of lifting and eating a bit extra and see progress, but for others it may be way harder," she says. "The big thing to know is that everybody is different."
If you're hoping to make some serious gains, Gargano suggests you consult with a certified personal trainer who can provide you with a specialized exercise program based on your needs and goals. Then, track your progress to find the best ways to get those arms to grow, grow, grow.
Try to avoid comparing yourself to others, and don't give up if you're not seeing results as quickly as you'd hoped you would, Gargano says. "Remember why you started. Yes, it’s a process, but if you stay consistent and constantly evaluate yourself, you can get there. This is your journey to own."
What to Eat for Bigger Arms
Aim to eat around three to six meals a day with 0.4 to 0.5 grams per kilograms of your body weight of protein before and after resistance training for lean muscle mass, according to a May 2014 review of studies in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Each of those meals should also consist of fats and carbohydrates.
"Optimal recovery entails protein to stop muscle breakdown and restart muscle rebuilding, and includes fluids for rehydration and carbohydrate to restock glycogen stores," says Pam Nisevich Bede, RD, a sports dietitian with Abbott. "The most crucial part of this equation is protein."
For optimal recovery, Nisevich Bede suggests aiming for a ratio somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1 of protein to carbs.
4 of the Best Arm Exercises for Building Mass
The best arm routines are ones that not only hit all of the muscles in the arm and supporting areas but also offer variety. Here, Gargano offers up four arm exercises to target your biceps, triceps and shoulders. As a reminder, if your goal is hypertrophy, aim to perform 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps per move.
Move 1: Triceps Dip
- Stand facing away from a chair or box at knee level. Place your hands on top of it to support your body weight with your arms straight and shoulders directly above your wrists.
- Extend your legs straight in front of you with your heels on the ground.
- Bend your elbows to lower your hips toward the floor.
- Engaging your triceps, straighten your arms to press your body back up to the starting position.
Move 2: Dumbbell Biceps Curl
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart with a dumbbell in each hand, arms at your sides. Keep a slight bend in your knees and roll your shoulders back and down and engage your core.
- Position your arms so that your palms are facing forward and your elbows are close to your torso.
- Brace your core and tuck your elbows as you lift both dumbbells up toward your shoulders.
- Pause for a moment before lowering the dumbbells down to your sides with control until your arms are fully extended.
Move 3: Front Raise
- Stand with your back straight and your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs with your palms facing you. Keep your gaze straight ahead. Stabilize your torso by tightening your core and pulling your shoulder blades back and down. Maintain this posture throughout the movement.
- Lift the weights in front of your body without bending your elbows until they're at shoulder level and your arms are parallel to the ground.
- Lower the dumbbells with control to the starting position.
Move 4: Lateral Raise
- Stand with your shoulder blades pulled together, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Rotate your forearms until your palms face forward.
- Lift the weights out to your sides without bending your elbows until they reach shoulder level and your arms are parallel to the ground.
- Hold this position for one to two seconds, then lower the dumbbells with control to the starting position.
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- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises"
- The Lancet: "Prognostic Value of Grip Strength: Findings From the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) Study"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding" contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation"
- American Council on Exercise: "How Many Reps Should You Be Doing?"
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- American Council on Exercise: "How to Select the Right Rest Intervals and Post-Training Recovery for Your Clients"
- American Council on Exercise: "4 Exercises for Stronger Arms"
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- American Council on Exercise: "Top Strategies for Optimal Recovery Between Workouts"
- American Council on Exercise: "Muscles That Move the Arm"
- American Council on Exercise: "How to Improve Grip Strength"