Getting Great Arms for Summer
Summer's almost here, and it's time to go back out and show off the bodies we've been working on during the pandemic. And if some of us spent the last few years perfecting our baking skills instead, that's okay! Great arms just take a little thought and effort.
Three General Tips
- Consistency is key for physical gains. A daily workout (and a rest and recovery day) is much better than overdoing it all at once and risking injury.
- Many of the best arm exercises are also great for the whole body. Increasing muscle in general will burn fat faster, help the body’s functionality and performance, and — yes — result in better-looking arms.
- Variety is a great way to keep workouts fun, and there are many exercises that can be done at home, which will also give the arms a great all-round workout.
Tip: Think About Movement
The arm is made up of the upper arm, with biceps — or biceps brachii for those of us who want to get technical — at the front and triceps at the back, along with the forearm, wrist and hand. When exercising, we like to consider the whole posterior chain — the upper back, shoulders, and lats — as well as the arms. With that in mind, think in terms of movement for arm workouts.
Concentric movements (squeezing the arm in) will work our biceps. Movements like pull-ups and chin-ups are arguably the best entire upper body resistance exercises, working both the biceps and the back at once. Eccentric movements (like the classic tricep curl on a home gym) will work the back of the arm. So will a tricep dip against a bench, using bodyweight for resistance.
Pulling-back movements, like rowing, will mostly work the biceps and the back (see below in the free weights section for one possible exercise). Exercises like push-ups, which can be enhanced to target the upper arms using push-up bars, will work the whole arm, but target the triceps as well as the pec and chest area.
Tip: Don't Neglect Triceps
Strengthening triceps adds flexibility, increases range of motion, and makes us generally less likely to get injured. And bigger triceps, of course, also make arms look bigger. We like making pushups more challenging by balancing our feet on a stability ball while doing them.
Tip: Work Up To Pull-Ups with TRX
One great way to move toward doing full chin-ups and pull-ups is with resistance workouts like TRX bands. TRX stands for "Total Body Resistance Exercise." TRX allows us to adjust the degree of difficulty of each exercise by leaning back or changing the position of the feet. Additionally, TRX exercises make it easier to be aware of stance and posture, since these affect the difficulty of each exercise. Arm exercises we like to do with the TRX include:
Tricep curls: Fix the TRX to a higher spot on the door frame (for example). Put feet at shoulder width, keep the back straight, and upper arms aligned against the trunk. Pull down slowly and carefully, and then use equal care to release back to the starting position.
- Bicep curls: Fix the TRX to a lower spot and do the classic pulling-upward, bicep squeezing motion. Make sure to let the TRX band down with control, too.
- Standing rows: Stand perpendicular to the TRX and carefully pull the cables back, feeling the burn in the back, biceps, and deltoids (shoulder muscles).
- Woodchopper: This mostly targets the core and shoulders, but includes the arms too. Hook the TRX up at about core height, and stand a couple of feet away. Pull the cables out and up as if swinging an ax, keeping the core tight, bending the knees as necessary. Bring it back with control.
For all of the above, we like starting with sets of 8, then 10, then 12 reps with a short pause between them, before working up to more.
Tip: Use Free Weights To Get Great Arms
With a good set of weights the possibilities are virtually endless. Depending on the desired results, the two ways to go are:
- More reps with lighter weights
- Fewer reps with heavier weights
The first option will work the slow-twitch muscle fibers of the arms, giving a more toned, rangy look. The second will result in much larger muscles.
Wide-armed rows are a great way to simultaneously work the arms (mostly biceps), upper back, and shoulders. Stand up, bend the knees slightly, and lean forward. With a weight in each hand, row back and up, pausing and clenching between the shoulder blades at the top of the row. Slowly return to the starting position (count to two each way, up and down).
Free weights are also especially good for variations on bicep curls, including:
- Hammer curls: These do a better job of working the entire bicep than regular curls. They also work the forearm. Instead of holding the weight vertically, hold it horizontally. Staying seated will allow for greater control.
- Incline hammer curls: Sit back on a bench at an incline of 45 degrees, rather than upright. This really isolates the bicep and makes it pop!
- Combo move: Lift the weights horizontally (as ever, be seated, keeping the core tight). At the top of the lift, twist the weights 90 degrees, pause, and then twist back to a horizontal position while lowering.
For a handy way to work triceps with free weights, hold a lighter weight (at least to start) behind the head, bending the elbow. Gently raise and lower it. Try three sets of 10, alternating arms, and wait for the compliments to roll in.
Tip: Get Creative With Free Weights
A set of adjustable weights is great for mixing up light and heavy weights. For variety's sake, try these exercises:
- The Farmer's Walk: With a heavy weight in each hand — pick them up by squatting down and use the legs and glutes to power up in order to protect the back — walk the length of a hallway, turn around, and walk back. We suggest starting with four to six of these, then taking it from there.
- The Goblet Squat: Holding a heavy dumbbell with both hands held in a cup shape right at mid-chest level while squatting is a great way to sculpt the arms while also working the core and legs.
Tip: Don't Forget Mobility
It’s a good idea to have a yoga mat handy, because, in addition to keeping joints flexible, yoga is a great way to strengthen the arms as well as the whole body. Poses like plank, chaturanga pushups, and crow are particularly beneficial, and yoga also helps us stretch and strengthen our often-overlooked wrists, preventing injury.
We like to add light weights to poses like Warrior Two — with optional added small pulses up and down — to help a further strengthen the whole arm and joints. Even the lightest weights will soon start to feel very heavy doing this!
Tip: Try Alternatives to Free Weights
For those who aren't comfortable with dumbbells yet, barbells, swiss bars, or a compound functional trainer can help both isolate muscles and give more stability.
Tip: Go Old School
Using kettlebells is a great way to add variety and difficulty to the curls and other exercises listed above. The extra difficulty comes from the way kettlebells (a 19th century Russian workout tool enjoying a resurgence) have their mass distributed. They require the body to constantly recalibrate, working it more completely while we find balance. We suggest starting with individual movements before working up to compound exercises like the Turkish get-up.
Medicine balls are another classic tool enjoying a comeback. We love the simple exercise of standing facing a wall, raising our hands above our head, and bouncing a medicine ball against the wall, catching and throwing. It won't take long to feel the burn!
The resistance band is another simple tool we love. We use them for exercises like the pull-apart: hold out the arms in front, grasping the band. Pull them apart, clenching the back before releasing back to center. Try doing ten before resting.
Tip: Take Care of Cardio and Arms at Once
We like to make our cardio do double duty by using rowing and ellipticalmachines. These smoothly work the arms and shoulders, while also giving us the doctor-approved benefits of cardio like better heart health, better joints, less stress, and better sleep.
Armed and Ready
Stronger, more flexible arms mean we'll be able to enjoy summer more, enhancing our fun times in the water, boxing, rock climbing, and even, believe it or not, walking (in a healthy walking gait, we use our arms to propel us along).
But strong arms don't just allow us to be more powerful all-round athletes. They also help us carry out everyday tasks like shopping, keeping up with our kids, and embracing our loved ones. Don't forget proper rest and nutrition, but rest assured there's plenty of time to get in shape for the summer — all it takes is a home gym and some healthy sweat!