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," Angela Gargano, CPT, 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."
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 early 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.
What Is the Fastest Way to Build Arm Muscle?
You may be wondering about the exact timeframe of building big arms — how to get big biceps in two weeks or how to build bigger arms in 22 days, for instance.
Well, we've all heard the saying "Rome wasn't built in a day" — and neither are big arms. Building muscle takes time and dedication, so you can't necessarily get big arms fast, 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 a March 2017 review 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
People who are active need more protein than average person, according to a 2019 statement from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
If you want to maintain or gain muscle mass, aim to eat 1.6 to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.7 to 1.1 grams per pound). For a 150-pound person, that means eating 105 grams to 165 grams of protein per day.
"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 and founder of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat! "The most crucial part of this equation is protein."
7 of the Best Arm Exercises for Building Muscle
By now, you're probably wondering about the best exercises to build arm muscle and a specific workout for bigger arms. Don't worry, we've got you covered.
Include the following exercises in your biceps, triceps and shoulder workout at home or at the gym for fast arm muscle growth.
1. Biceps Curl
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart with a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees slightly, engage your core and maintain good upright posture.
- Position your arms so that your palms are facing forward. Hold onto the dumbbells, but don't grip them so tightly that you feel strain in your forearms.
- Bending at your elbows, lift both dumbbells up toward your shoulders by flexing your biceps muscles.
- Lower the dumbbells the same way you raised them until your arms are fully extended in the same position you started in.
2. Preacher Curl
- Sit tall at a preacher curl bench with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The angled preacher pad should fit snugly under your armpit.
- Hold dumbbells at arm’s length with an underhand grip, palms facing up. Each upper arm should be in line with your forearm so that when your elbow is extended, your arm forms a straight line from your shoulder to your fingers.
- Keeping your palms facing up, bend your elbows to bring the dumbbells up towards your shoulders. Don’t go all the way up, though! Stop when your biceps is at peak contraction, around when your forearm is just about perpendicular to the floor. This will keep tension on the biceps instead of letting them go slack.
- Squeeze your biceps at the top.
- Control the weight as you lower back to the starting position, finishing with your elbow just slightly bent so you don’t overextend the joint.
- Approach a secure, sturdy bar with your arms about shoulder width apart and hips tucked under.
- Grab the bar with an underhand grip, your palms facing toward your body.
- Squeeze your lats, core and glutes to make your body as rigid as possible
- Start the exercise at the shoulder blades by pulling them down and together. Squeeze your upper back then use the biceps to pull yourself up, keeping your hips tucked under.
- Once your chin is over the bar, or as high as possible, carefully reverse the move until your arms are fully extended at the elbows and shoulders.
4. Front Raise
- Start standing with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand down in front of your thighs with your palms facing toward you.
- Initiate the movement by lifting your arms up in front of you. Keep your torso still and don't use momentum to swing your arms up. Don't shrug your shoulders. It's OK to bend your elbows slightly and/or rotate your palms in as you lift if it feels better on your shoulders.
- Lift the dumbbells up to shoulder height until your arms are parallel with the floor or slightly above.
- Pause for 1 second.
- Lower the dumbbells back down toward your thighs in a controlled manner. Pause with your arms about 1 inch above your thighs before beginning the next rep.
5. Lateral Raise
- Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, arms at your sides, palms facing in. Keep your back flat and knees slightly bent.
- Keeping your core braced, raise the weights out to your sides until they reach shoulder height.
- Lower the weights slowly to the starting position.
6. Triceps Dip
- Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair or workout bench.
- Place your hands palms down on the chair on either side of your hips and extend your legs out in front of you.
- Carefully slide your butt off the edge of the chair while keeping your arms straight and your back close to the edge of the chair.
- Slowly bend your elbows to almost a 90-degree angle while lowering your butt toward the floor,.
- Push back up to the starting position.
7. Skull Crusher
- Lie on a weight bench with your back flat against it. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, shoulder-width apart, palms facing inwards.
- Straighten both arms so the weights are at eye level and brace your core.
- Keeping your elbows tight, lower both dumbbells as far as comfortable.
- Once you feel a squeeze in your triceps, pause, then extend your elbows to raise the weights back to the starting position.
The Importance of Working All Your Muscles — Not Just Your Arms
It might be tempting to focus on building up just your arms, because they're impressive muscles and readily visible in the mirror. But for a balanced look and strength — and to reduce the risk of injury or dysfunction from muscular imbalances — you should be training all of your major muscle groups.
Here are some examples of highly effective exercises you can do for each muscle group:
- Back: Pull-ups, lat pull-downs, cable rows
- Shoulders: Overhead press, rear deltoid flyes, lateral raises
- Chest: Push-ups, bench press, chest press
- Legs: Lunges, squats, leg press, calf raises
- Core: Crunches, bicycle crunches, Russian twists, planks
- ACE: "Muscles That Move the Arm"
- ACE: "How to Improve Grip Strength"
- The Lancet: "Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study"
- ACE: "How to Select the Right Intensity and Repetitions for Your Clients"
- ACE: "Top Strategies for Optimal Recovery Between Workouts"
- Journal of Applied Physiology: "Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise"
- ACE: "How to Select the Right Rest Intervals and Post-Training Recovery for Your Clients"
- IAAF: "International Association of Athletics Federations Consensus Statement 2019: Nutrition for Athletics"