Most people who hit the gym are there, at least in part, to work on their arms.
If you're a guy, you want bigger, stronger, angular arms that pop.
If you're a girl, you want toned, defined arms.
Well, not to worry. You've come to the right place!
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about arm workouts. When we're finished, you'll be well on your way to building a set of killer, 3d arms that pop (if you're a guy) or toned, defined arms (if you're a girl).
First though, let's take a moment to understand the anatomy of the biceps and triceps...
The Anatomy Of Your Arm Muscles
When we talk about working out our arms, we're really talking about two basic muscle groups:
Here's what they look like:
As you can see, your biceps and triceps are actually comprised of smaller muscles, or "heads".
A Closer Look At The Triceps
When most people think arms, they think biceps, but the triceps actually take up more of the total muscle mass of your arm.
The triceps run down the back of the Humerus. They are contracted when you straighten your arm and stretched when you curl your arm.
Your Triceps are composed of three heads:
- Lateral Head
- Long Head
- Medial Head
If you're serious about adding size and angularity to your arms, you need to make sure you're hitting all three heads during your arm workouts.
Once you've been lifting arms for a while--assuming you're diet is relatively healthy--you'll see all three heads start to pop out in a sort of "horse-shoe" shape.
If you get to the point where you develop horse-shoe-shaped Triceps, you know you're on the right track.
A Closer Look At The Biceps
Your Biceps run along the front of your Humerus.
They are contracted when you curl your arm and stretched when you straighten it.
In contrast to the Triceps--which are comprised of three smaller muscles--the Biceps are only comprised of two smaller muscles.
- Long Head
- Short Head
Since you only have two primary muscles to care about, it's easier to give your Bis a solid workout than it is to give your entire Triceps a solid workout.
Your Biceps may be your favorite muscle to show off, but if you want bigger, stronger, more defined arms, you need to place more emphasis on your Triceps.
How To Build Bigger, Stronger Arms
Like so many things in life, building massive guns that pop out at all angles is simple, but not necessarily easy.
What's more, there's a distinct lack of factual, evidence-based information out there about how to even go about it.
Some people say you should do lots and lots of reps with modest weight. Others say you should lift heavy and keep the amount of reps to a minimum.
And of course, there are those people who claim that you shouldn't workout your arms directly at all and should instead rely on heavy compound lifting (like deadlifts, bench press, and military press) to build arm mass.
Well, I've spent years experimenting with different ways of working out my arms and have tried every arm exercise in the book (including some that I just kind of made up!), and I can honestly say this:
There's no doubt that heavy compound lifting is essential for building bigger, stronger arms, but that alone won't give you the guns of steel that you really want.
You need to workout your biceps and triceps directly in order to stimulate the kind of muscle growth that leads to that muscular, angular look that most people are after.
The following fundamental principles do apply though...
Lift Heavy (Progressive Overload)
All that "high rep, low weight" stuff is nonsense. If you want your arms to grow, you need to hit them hard!
That means lifting heavy, just like you would if you were trying to get your chest, back, or legs to grow.
Your arms are used to carrying things around and supporting just about every other type of exercise you do, so it takes a lot to work them.
That's where Progressive Overload comes in.
Progressive Overload simply means adding weight to the bar (or machine) over time.
It is the underlying principle that dictates how much stronger you get and how much muscle you build.
Your body is a little stubborn when it comes to gaining muscle. It doesn't just build it for no reason.
You have to continuously reinforce the notion that it NEEDS to build muscle by adding more and more weight to your lifts over time.
By doing this, you're letting your body know that it will be lifting heavy weight frequently, the only natural response to which is building more muscle.
Without progressive overload, your muscles won't get bigger or stronger (assuming you're not on steroids).
Train Your Arms Proportionately
It's not uncommon for one arm to be stronger than the other.
This is completely normal and has to do with the fact that most of us have one dominant hand (and therefore arm) that we use more often than the other one for our entire lives.
By the time we start lifting (I started when I was 16, but most people start much later), our arms are uneven in terms of strength.
That's why training your arms proportionately--even if one arm is stronger than the other--is so important.
You may think it wise to train your weak arm more than your strong arms, but it's actually better to just train them the same and let one catch up to the other one over time.
Vary Your Exercises, But Not Too Much
Perhaps the most common mistake people make when it comes to arm workouts is doing a whole bunch of unnecessary exercises with a ton of strange variations.
A lot of bodybuilders will tell you:
"You have to hit your arms from as many different angles as possible to force the muscle to grow."
But that's actually not true.
While it's definitely true that SOME variation is necessary, you can easily build strong, muscular, angular arms without hitting a ton of different angles.
It makes more sense to stick with a well-rounded selection of exercises and focus on progressing on each one than it does to constantly switch up your routine, week after week, month after month.
Variation doesn't trump the principle of progressive overload. That's still the fundamental principle you need to focus on.
So keep the weird variations to a minimum and track your progress over time.
The Absolute Best Arm Exercises
Okay, so we've established that you need to workout both your Triceps and Biceps (emphasis on the Triceps) to get them to grow, but you don't necessarily need to do a ton of different variations of exercises.
It's entirely possible to build massive 3D arms that pop from all angles by just sticking with a range of about 5 exercises for each muscle group (5 for biceps, 5 for triceps) and doing no more than 2-3 sets per exercise during your arm workouts.
As long as you stick with a well-rounded range of arm exercises that cumulatively hit all the heads of the triceps and biceps, you can build some incredible guns.
Best Bicep Exercises
You may have heard something like:
"Heavy weight, less reps for size and strength. Light weight, lots of reps for definition and angularity."
That's nonsense. You should ALWAYS "lift heavy". That's how you get stronger and build muscle.
Remember, if you don't consistently add more weight to your lifts over time, you won't pack on any muscle. You can't escape progressive overload...
Unless you take steroids. But, when you come off those steroids, it'll come back for you. Progressive Overload is like gravity.
There's nothing you can do about it here on Earth accept deal with it!
If you work the following exercises into your arms workouts, you'll hit all the major muscles that make up the biceps and triceps. You're arms will
Keep your rep range between 4-6 reps at roughly 80-85% of your 1 Rep Max (1RM) for most of these exercises.
6-8 reps at roughly 75-80% of your 1RM is adequate for some of the more isolated exercises.
The point is, if you want to build jacked, angular arms, ditch the high rep, low weight nonsense. Again, you should ALWAYS be lifting a weight that is challenging to lift.
That's the point!
The Barbell Curl is the undisputed king of heavy bicep exercises, making it a critical component of any well-crafted arms workout designed to pack on mass.
It looks like this:
Broken down into simply steps, the barbell curl goes as follows:
- Start with barbell in hanging position, palms facing out.
- Keeping your elbows locked in place, curl the weight until you can't go any further.
- Slowly return the weight to the starting position (don't let it free-fall).
It's really as simple as that.
Chin-Ups (Weighted If Possible)
When you think of lifting arms, you may not immediately think "chin-ups", but make no mistake...
Chin-ups (weighted if you can) is easily one of the most effective exercises you can do for your biceps.
It looks like this:
Broken down into steps, it goes like this:
- Grasp the overhead (pull-up) bar with your palms facing in.
- Using your bicep as much as possible, pull yourself up until you can't go any further.
- Gradually return back to the starting position.
Think of the chin-up as a kind of bicep curl where you are the weight.
The bar doesn't move--you do--but the movement is essentially the same.
Preacher Curls are an excellent isolation movement which, if performed correctly, places all of the emphasis squarely on the bicep.
It looks like this:
Yes, it's pretty straight-forward. A few things to keep in mind though when doing preacher curls are:
- Keep your back straight.
- Keep as much of your Tricep on the pad as possible
- Complete the full range of motion (no half reps!)
Done correctly, no arm workout is complete without some form of preacher curls.
Incline Dumbbell Curls
You don't necessarily NEED to do your dumbbell curls at an incline, but I like them better this way.
Sitting a slight incline ensures that your biceps are fully stretched at the bottom and fully contracted at the top.
Try some incline dumbbell curls next time it's arm day. If you've never done them, you'll notice an immediate difference.
If you want angularity, hammer curls are a must. This is one of those variations to an already popular exercise (dumbbell curls) that's actually worth it.
Hammer curls are simply dumbbell curls performed holding the dumbbell at a slight angle.
You'll almost certainly be able to lift a little more weight with hammer curls though and they give your forearm quite a workout as well if you go heavy.
Best Tricep Exercises
Since your Triceps make up about 2/3 of the total muscle mass of your arms, they're critical for building bigger, more angular arms.
Remember, there are 3 primary "heads" that makeup your Triceps. If you really want arms that pop from all angles, you need to hit each of these heads.
So, it makes more sense to workout your triceps a little more than your biceps, in terms of volume (total reps).
Tricep Press (Close-Grip Bench Press)
The close-grip bench press, also known as the tricep press, is hands down the most important exercise for building bigger, stronger triceps.
Since your triceps make up so much of your total arm mass, you could argue that close grip bench press is the most important exercise for building bigger, stronger arms in general!
Here's what it looks like:
The most critical error I see when people are close-grip benching, specifically to build their triceps, is that they grip the bar too closely.
You should be gripping the bar right around shoulder width, or just a little inside of that.
Of course, because you're benching, you'll be using your chest a little, but the goal is to lift as much of the weight with your triceps as possible.
Just as the chin-up is one of the best bicep building exercises, dips are one of the best tricep building exercises.
The basic movement looks like this:
You can perform them from a variety of different angles though, depending on what your holding on to (dip station, bench, etc.), but the basic movement is the same.
Skull Crushers are technically an isolation exercise--as opposed to a compound exercise--but they're one of the few that adequately targets all three heads of the Triceps
Here's what they look like:
The key with this one is to find the perfect angle for you to achieve a full stretch of the triceps and a full contraction, without placing unnecessary stress on your shoulders or elbows.
It's easier said than done...Trust me!
If you've never done these before, start with a relatively light weight until your form is perfect, then move up.
Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
Overhead extensions are similar to skull-crushers in terms of the overall movement and the fact that it hits all three heads of the Triceps as well.
I personally don't do overhead extensions on the same day I do skull-crushers because my elbow joint is prone to flair-ups.
The two exercises are similar enough that it doesn't make much sense to do them in the same arm workout, but overhead extensions make for an excellent alternative to skull-crushers for days when you can't (or don't want to) do skull-crushers.
Tricep pushdown are one of the few isolation exercises for triceps that are actually quite effective for building muscle mass and angularity.
Here's how they look:
The key with tricep pushdowns is to keep your elbows locked by your sides and, placing all the emphasis in the triceps.
Putting It All Together: The Ultimate Arms Workout
Now that we've identified 5 key exercises for building your bis and tris, it may seem like a good idea to just do all of them every time you workout your arms.
That's probably not a great idea though, at least for the average (non-steroid using) person.
Truth be told, you don't need to cram 10 exercises into your arm workouts to make your arms get stronger and grow.
Think about it...
If you were to do 3 sets of each workout, you'd be doing 30 sets altogether!
Considering that you need to give yourself at least a minute or two (or three) in between each set to rest, such a lengthy workout would take up a massive chunk of your day.
I don't know about you, but I'm busy!
Spending three hours in the gym just isn't possible for me at this stage in my life, not to mention doing so many sets increases your odds of getting injured.
My advice? Keep it simple.
Do 2-3 exercises per workout, 3 sets per exercise.
Try these arm workouts:
Consider switching back and forth each week between these two workouts.
Remember, variation is important when you're trying to develop bigger, stronger, more angular arms, but too much variation for no reason will work against you in the long-run.
Progressive overload is the most important thing you can do.
As long as you're adding weight to the bar (or machine) week over week, month over month, you'll continue to get stronger and build muscle.
Should You Train Bis and Tris the Same Day?
I like to, but that's up to you.
Some people like to train triceps on the same day as chest and biceps on the same day as back.
This makes sense because just about every exercise that trains chest also hits the triceps and just about every exercise that hits back also trains biceps.
That said, if building bigger, stronger, more angular arms if your goal, I think giving them their own day is a good idea.
You don't have to switch back and forth like I laid it out in the workouts above, but it'll give your muscles more time to recuperate between sets.
That's why I personally always alternate between bicep and tricep exercises on arm day.
The Bottom Line On Arm Workouts
Your arms get somewhat of a workout pretty much every time you workout any muscle group for which they play a supporting role, but if you really want to develop bigger, stronger, more angular arms, you need to devote some special attention to them.
Your Triceps make up about 2/3rds of the total muscle mass of your arms while your Biceps make up about 1/3rd.
With that in mind, focus on heavy, compound movements for building mass with a few isolation exercises sprinkled throughout to work all three heads of the triceps and both heads of the biceps.
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Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.