The Best Arm Exercises
We will provide several exercises for each muscle group to ensure you get the best possible results in the shortest period of time, how to perform the exercises, why they should be included in the workout and how to structure your workouts.
When selecting exercises for any muscle group there are a number of points that need to be kept in mind. For example, it is essential to know all of the different functions or actions of the targeted muscle. Then it is important to know what arm exercises incorporate those functions or actions into its movement.
Also, if you would like more detailed information about how to train your arms effectively, please read: Strength Training Anatomy, 3rd Edition
The first group of arm exercises we will examine are those that target the biceps muscle. The biceps is a two-headed muscle (long head and short head) located on the front of the upper arm.
It has 3 functions or actions:
Everybody knows about the flexion at the elbow action/ function but few people are aware of the other two actions for biceps. By ensuring that the other two actions are incorporated into your biceps workouts you can maximise the number of muscle fibres being worked and will therefore be able to maximise the muscle stimulus and results.
Furthermore, by simply changing the position of the limb in space you can change the stress being placed on the muscles as well even though only one action of the muscle (flexion at the elbow joint) is being performed.
For example, performing standing barbell curls works the biceps muscles slightly differently compared to preacher curls.
Keep in mind though, you can't stimulate different parts of a muscle fibre along its length. Muscles follow an 'all-or-nothing' principle; they either contract or they don't. Therefore, it is impossible to hit 'lower biceps' in preacher curls and 'upper biceps' in concentration curls as many people believe. Yes, both exercises will hit the biceps slightly different because of the stresses being placed on the muscle during the range of motion, but they don't specifically work upper and lower biceps.
Here are some of the main arm exercises for biceps:
Each of these exercises will incorporate a different combination of actions. For example, alternate dumbbell curls will use flexion at the elbow as well as supination at the wrist when performing the movement. It doesn't incorporate flexion at the shoulder though. This is one of the reasons why it is important to use a number of exercises when training a specific muscle.
Adding cable curls (which uses flexion at the shoulder) to the workout will ensure that all actions/ functions of biceps are incorporated into the workout.
Another way to target the biceps muscle is by including an exercise whereby the biceps is a synergist (helping) muscle as opposed to being the prime mover/ agonist (main) muscle involved in an exercise.
A good example of this is close-grip pulldown (using an underhand grip). This is actually a back exercise, which incorporates the biceps into the movement. The beauty of adding this exercise to your biceps workout, especially at the end of your workout, is the fact that a much larger (and fresher) muscle group will be performing the movement and will force your biceps muscle to work even harder, which will provide further muscle stimulus.
The triceps is a three-headed muscle (lateral, long and medial heads) located on the back of the upper arm.
It has 2 functions or actions:
As with other muscles, certain exercises that target the triceps muscle must incorporate the action(s) of the muscle and can change the stress on the muscle by changing the position of the limb in space or by changing certain pieces of apparatus used.
For example, performing triceps pushdowns with a bar is slightly different to performing triceps pushdowns with a rope. By the same token, performing triceps extensions with a bar is slightly different to performing triceps kickbacks even though the movement, extension at the elbow, is the same for both exercises.
Another major opportunity when training triceps is the fact that it is quite easy to get your body into positions that can help you stretch the muscle against resistance. By doing so, you can achieve greater muscle stimulation and therefore, get better results.
The easiest way to do this is by performing triceps extensions whilst lying flat on a bench or perpendicular on a bench. Instead of performing the standard 'skull crusher' technique, lower the bar or dumbbell towards the ground. This will provide a greater stretch for the triceps muscles.
Best of all, when you perform this movement you also involve both actions of triceps rather than just one.
Another important point to consider when performing arm exercises like, triceps pushdowns or barbell curls is to actually allow the elbows to naturally move forwards and backwards during the performance of the exercise. This allows a greater number of muscle fibres to be used (more actions) and improves the performance of these exercises from a biomechanical perspective as well.
Here are some of the main arm exercises for triceps:
The dips exercise may be varied based on a person's ability and can be progressively made harder as they become stronger. For example, they can start off doing bench dips with their feet on the floor and close to their body. As they get stronger they can progressively move their feet further away from their body and eventually on to a bench. The next step is to place a weight plate on their legs for additional resistance. From bench dips they can progress to parallel bar dips and can perform the negative aspect of the exercise only. This can be followed by full-rep dips and then weighted dips.
The dips are great to perform as part of a pre-exhaust superset with an isolation exercise like, triceps pushdowns, i.e. you perform a set of triceps pushdowns and immediately follow it with a set of dips to momentary muscular failure.
[NOTE: Triceps pushdowns are traditionally known to be an isolation exercise, which is an exercise that only involves movement around one joint, however, if it is performed as suggested then it becomes a compound movement. However, for the sake of the explanation of a pre-exhaust, we will consider it to be an isolation exercise.]
These two muscles assist the biceps muscle to perform the movement of flexion at the elbow joint. When the wrist is pronated however, they are the primary muscles involved in performing this action. Therefore, it makes sense that if you want to exercise these two muscles effectively then it is better to perform curls with a pronated or semi-pronated wrist.
The brachialis sits underneath the biceps muscle and is located closer to the elbow. The brachioradialis is actually a forearm muscle and is the only forearm muscle that performs the action of flexion at the elbow. If you place your palm up, brachioradialis is located on the thumb side of your forearm.
The best two exercises for working these muscles are:
Many people neglect training their forearm in their gym workouts because they believe that the forearm get enough work when you train you biceps and back. Whilst this may be so to some extent, the forearms only work isometrically (contract without changing the muscle length), rather than isotonically, when performing the back and biceps exercises.
Therefore, they should definitely have a few sets dedicated to them if you want complete arm development or toning effects.
The forearm flexors are several layers of muscle located on the palm side of your forearm. Their primary actions are to flex the wrist. They do have some other actions as well but they are of no real consequence when you're training in a gym.
The best exercise to perform for this muscle group is:
The forearm extensors also contain several layers of muscle but are located on the back of your forearm. Their primary action is to extend the wrist.
The best exercise to perform for this muscle group is:
Obviously there are quite a few exercises if you want to target all of these muscles and this means that to train them effectively you need to either dedicate one training day to training arms or split the arms up into two groups and train them with another muscle group.
For example, you may want to train back, biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis and forearm flexors on a specific training day. Then on another training day you may want to train chest, triceps and forearm extensors.
If you would like more information about how to structure your workouts you can read more about the principles of fitness training here.
If you would like to find out more about exactly how to perform the movements correctly, read Strength Training Anatomy, 3rd Edition
Thank you for taking the time to comment on this article.
Subscribers to the
Quick Weight Loss E-Zine
get a FREE copy of my 'Secrets of Weight Loss' Special Report (Valued at $27).
Complete the box below to get your copy instantly!