What are the best exercises for the arms? Arms are certainly one of the most discussed topics in gyms and fitness centers, one of those anatomical districts that most attracts men, who aspire to the so-called “big arms”, and women, who want to reduce or prevent the accumulation of fat in these areas.
When we talk about arms in the gym we tend to refer to two main muscles: the brachial biceps and the brachial triceps. Before going into training, let’s get to know the anatomy of the muscle groups that affect the arms and find out what functions they perform.
Elbow Flexor Muscles
The elbow flexor muscles do not end with the brachial biceps but also include the brachioradialis and the brachialis.
The biceps involving two joints (shoulder and elbow) is defined as a biarticular muscle and participates in both elbow and shoulder flexion.
We also find this function in exercises that apparently have nothing to do with training the bicep, such as the parallel dips or the flat bench press.
How To Train The Biceps?
Let’s now see the best exercises for the arms in elbow flexion and their correct execution.
We will first analyze the exercises with the humerus in a neutral position, then those with the flexed humerus (muscle disadvantage of the brachial biceps in favor of the brachialis), and finally those with the extended humerus (biceps in lengthening).
It is performed standing with the possibility of performing it with a straight or shaped barbell; the difference between the two types of barbell does not lie in muscle activation, which is almost identical, but in joint safety, which is more respected by means of the shaped barbell. We, therefore, recommend that you opt for this choice.
In the barbell curl, hold it about shoulder-width, the grip must be comfortable and not be forced and the repetition begins with the elbows extended (or semi-extended if we want to maintain muscle tension) and ends with the elbows in maximum flexion.
Do not restrain your elbows completely at your sides, allow them to make small movements that will ensure the safety of the elbow.
Remember that the exercise involves only the elbow joint, so avoid carrying out shoulder or back movements to overcome the resistance of excessive weights or to overcome fatigue in the last repetitions.
The dumbbell curl can be performed standing or sitting, without any difference in muscle activation and without any risk to the safety of your back.
The starting position includes the elbow extended and the forearm in an intermediate position, start flexing the elbow, and as you rise (about 90 degrees of flexion) supinate the forearm (thumb outside).
The repetition ends with the elbow fully flexed and the dumbbell in front of the shoulder.
You can do it simultaneously with both arms or alternating them. The “ hammer curl ” variant differs in the position of the forearm which in this case will remain in a neutral position throughout the movement; the brachioradialis muscle will be more involved.
Both the barbell curl and the dumbbell curl can be performed at the low cables in the same manner.
The spider curl can be performed with dumbbells or barbells, place yourself prone (belly down) on a bench inclined at about 45 °, shoulders coming out of the bench, elbows extended and arms perpendicular to the ground from this initial position flex your elbows bringing your hands in front of your shoulders.
In the execution with dumbbells, the starting position foresees the pronated forearms and gradual supination during the elbow flexion movement. The shoulders must remain still throughout the exercise.
High Cable Curls
It involves an initial position with shoulder flexed at about 90 °, elbows extended, and forearm in an intermediate position, the exercise involves flexion of the elbow keeping the humerus still and gradually supinating the forearm.
Curl on the Scott Bench
It consists of performing a curl with an elbow and humerus resting on an incline bench (Scott bench). It can be performed with dumbbells or with a straight or shaped barbell.
It is not recommended in the version with a barbell due to its “risky” nature at the level of the elbow joint which is subject to shear forces deriving from the constraint imposed by the bench press, which in the long run could lead to problems and injuries.
The peculiarity of the exercise is given by performing a curl with a bent shoulder, therefore, since there are valid alternatives that provide the same dynamics but do not involve any risk, it is better to opt for them (dumbbell, spider curl and curl with high cables).
It is a refinement exercise, suitable for finishing off the workout. While seated, we place the elbow on the knee and perform flexion of the elbow.
It can also be performed standing with the torso flexed, but it is much more difficult to perform, and usually, cheating is sought to go beyond muscle failure.
Curl With Dumbbells On An Incline Bench
Position yourself belly up on a bench inclined at approximately 45 °, elbows extended and forearms pronated or in an intermediate position. Flex the elbows and gradually supinate the forearm.
During dumbbell curls on an incline bench, the humerus remains perpendicular to the ground throughout the movement.
Low Cable Curl With Extended Shoulder
The execution involves an initial position with extended shoulder, elbows extended and forearm in an intermediate position flexes the elbow and gradually supine the forearm bringing the palm of the hand in front of the shoulder, keeping the humerus still throughout the movement.
Elbow Extensor Muscles
The elbow extensors are mainly composed of the brachial triceps muscle. There is also another muscle, the anconeus, which slightly participates in the extension of the elbow but which can be considered at a functional level, a continuation of the triceps.
As with the biceps, the triceps is also a bi-joint muscle that extends the elbow but also the shoulder. For this reason, he participates in exercises that apparently involve his antagonists such as pull-ups or dumbbell rowing.
The biarticular muscles of the arm are often synergistic in the multiarticular movements (shoulder + elbow) and antagonists in the monoarticular (elbow only).
How To Train The Triceps?
Let’s now see the best exercises for the triceps and their correct execution.
Even the extensors of the elbow, depending on whether the humerus is in anatomical position (along the trunk) or in flexion, change the muscular intervention, not in relation to other muscles but between the long head of the triceps and the other two heads.
The exercise must be performed with high cables, with the possibility to choose between 4 different variants: straight bar, inclined bar, rope, or single cables.
The initial position of the push down involves the elbow flexing at about 90 °, the movement to be performed is a complete elbow extension.
The elbows must be kept fixed along the hips, slight “widening” movements are allowed only in the variant with the straight bar to compensate for the impossibility of slight supination of the forearm which would make the movement more natural and safe at the joint level. With the straight bar, there is the possibility to work even in the supine grip to change the stimuli.
In the variant with the rope and single cables, the movement will begin with the elbow flexed and the forearm in a neutral position and will end with the elbow extended and the forearm pronated.
Excluding the variant with single cables, it is advisable to bend the torso slightly forward and keep it fixed throughout the movement to allow a complete extension of the elbow without this being blocked by the bar/rope colliding with our body.
90 ° Bust Extensions
It is performed in support on a bench or standing, with the torso parallel to the ground and the humerus along the side, elbow flexed at about 90 °, and forearm in a neutral position perpendicular to the ground.
The movement consists of a complete extension of the elbow and pronation of the forearm which will be gradually rotated during the execution.
It is generally proposed to be performed supine (belly up) on a flat bench with a shaped barbell, shoulders flexed at 90 °, therefore humerus perpendicular to the ground and elbow flexed by about 90 ° with the hands that will therefore end up at the height of the temples. From this position, bring your elbow to full extension.
There are several variants of French press: with dumbbells, which involves a start with the forearm in a neutral position and forearm pronated at the end of the movement to the cables on a flat bench and to the high cables standing with the rope, which must be performed standing with shoulder flexed and humerus parallel to the ground with the torso slightly bent forward to allow the cable to pass over the head.
Also in this case we start from a neutral position of the forearms and elbow flexed by about 90 ° and will end with the forearms pronated and elbows extended.
In all variants, the elbows must be kept still to avoid compensations that would transform the exercise into a multi-joint involving other muscles.
Extensions Behind The Head
Start from standing or sitting, with the shoulder fully flexed and the elbow flexed at approximately 90 ° with the hands behind the head, begin the repetition and finish the exercise with the elbow fully extended.
During the exercise the humerus remains stationary at approximately 180 °, the elbows should not be enlarged excessively but just enough to make the movement as natural as possible and safe for the health of the elbow.
It can be performed with a dumbbell, shaped barbell, or with cables.
Dip Between The Benches
Mainly proposed for the triceps, the dip between benches differs from the others in being a multi-joint exercise given the involvement of the anterior deltoid and part of the pectoralis major.
Position yourself between two benches with your feet on one and your hands pronated on the other at a distance equal to that of your torso, shoulder blades adducted (close together), shoulders extended, elbow extended, and forearm pronated.
Now go down between the two benches flexing your elbows as far as your shoulder allows without forcing the movement from this position pull yourself up by extending your elbows. Compensation with elbows and shoulder blade movements must absolutely be avoided
Are Multi-joint Exercises Important For The Arms?
We have so far analyzed exercises that involve only the elbow joint and are therefore called monoarticular exercises. But how relevant is the work done by biceps and triceps in multi-joint exercises?
One of the cornerstones of physiology regarding the potential expression of the force of a muscle is the tension length, according to which, an excessively stretched or excessively shortened muscle will not be able to fully express its potential.
If on the other hand, it is at an optimal length that is not too elongated and not too shortened, it will be able to express its maximum strength.
This is the case of multi-joint exercises such as pull-ups, rows, pulleys, bench presses, pushes, and dips at the parallels in which the elbow flexion or extension is always accompanied by a shoulder extension or flexion.
These particular couplings of movement (elbow flexion and shoulder extension, elbow extension and shoulder flexion) tend to neither stretch nor shorten the biceps and triceps excessively, bringing them to an optimal length to be able to express strength.
Good work on multi-joint exercises will be of fundamental importance in order to improve the size of the muscles of your arms and increase their strength that will allow you to carry out progressions on volumes later on.
In addition, some even speculate that adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise program alone is not critical to achieving good results.
Since this is a topic much discussed by experts in the sector, a review of 23 different studies was conducted in which groups of subjects trained with only multi-joint exercises only, only single-joint exercises, or with multi-joint exercises combined with single-joint exercises were examined.
In the long run, it was found that for the upper limbs, there were no substantial differences in terms of strength gain and muscle size.
This does not mean that you should not perform single-joint exercises but if you want to train the muscles of the arms you do not have enough time to complete the entire training session, give up single-joint exercises in favor of multi-joint exercises and not vice versa, in this way not only will you train your arms, but also other muscle groups, and your body will benefit from it entirely.
What Are The Main Multi-joint Exercises Involving The Arms?
We have just seen that multi-joint exercises play a fundamental role in improving the muscles of the arms, so let’s analyze the 2 main exercises involving the triceps and biceps among those generally included in the training cards.
Dip and pull-ups prevail over the bench press and the rowing machine. In dips, the elbow extension has a greater ROM and is less synergistic with all the bundles of the pectoralis major, which is limited in the tight grip bench press, which can be considered an exercise for the triceps and upper chest.
The tractions prevail in involving the biceps with respect to the rower, because in this last exercise if the forearm remains at 90 ° with respect to the ground, the elbow flexion occurs naturally, even without the contraction of the biceps.
So we can say that the great multi articular that involve the arms in an important way are: dips, tight bench press, pull-ups + (slow standing and pulley where the involvement of the biceps is greater than the rowing).
What exercises should a woman do?
In reality, there is no difference between which exercises to perform based on gender. Whether you are a man or a woman, the proposed exercises, if correctly performed, are suitable for both sexes.
The only difference is in the training set which for women will have to be oriented more towards volumes and density (high repetitions and shorter pauses); while for men, it will have to be oriented towards intensity (fewer repetitions and higher loads).
Exercises To Firm And Slim The Arms
Lots of women perform exercises with weights and resistance bands to firm their arms. At the basis of this is the idea of localized weight loss, which is to lose weight where you work. This theory has never been proven, quite the contrary.
However, it is good that women also train the upper arms, not so much because there are exercises to lose weight, but rather because the whole body must be trained to obtain the best results, even in the field of weight loss.
Do you want to decrease the percentage of fat in the arms? Or are you already thin and would simply like to increase the volume of your muscles? In both of these cases you will have to focus on 3 fundamental points:
- Train with multi-joint exercises! As you have seen, they are of no negligible importance, keep in mind that in addition to the effects on the arms, you will train other muscles and this will lead to improvements in your metabolic state.
- Emphasize with one-joint exercises! Now you know how to focus on triceps and biceps, create progressions on loads and volumes, vary the exercises to change stimuli and work angles.
- Follow a proper diet! Find the one that’s right for you, if you are overweight or have areas with excess fat it creates a calorie deficit, if you are underweight or want to gain muscle mass it creates a calorie surplus.
Armed with strong will and doing things right the results will come.