Pythons. Guns. Pipes.
Whatever you call them, a muscular pair of arms are essential to a head-turning physique.
This is partially because our arms are so visible — while it can be difficult to show off a pair of well-developed quads or lats, a simple t-shirt is all it takes to showcase a beastly set of biceps.
What’s the best way to develop bigger arms?
Simple — you must train them. To help you in your quest for tighter sleeves, we’ve cultivated a list of the best exercises for more impressive arms.
First, some quick guidelines to help you get the best arm gains:
- Include 2-3 of these movements in your workout 2-3 times per week. Allow yourself adequate recovery time between workouts that stress the same muscle groups.
- We recommend 2-4 sets of 8-20 reps per movement. Aim for 1-2 reps in reserve on sets of 8-15 reps and try going to failure on sets of 15+ reps.
- Exercises where you’re pulling a weight (like a curl) typically develop your biceps, while exercises where you’re pushing a weight (like a pushdown) typically develop your triceps. Knowing this can help you increase your mind-muscle connection.
- Isolation exercises are best done after compound movements.
- A good training tempo for building muscle is a 1-second lift (or “concentric”) followed by a 2- to 3-second lower (or “eccentric”). The concentric is the period where our muscles shorten to move the load. The eccentric is the period where gravity can do most of the work. We get better results if we control the eccentric rather than simply rely on gravity, so aim to make your eccentric at least twice as long as your concentric.
- Sleep and nutrition are secret weapons for muscle growth. Ensure you’re achieving adequate sleep and consuming enough calories (and protein, in particular) to support your goals.
With that in mind, here are the nine best exercises to build bigger arms.
1. Dumbbell Hammer Curl
Dumbbell Hammer Curls derive their name from the fact that they see you hold each dumbbell with a “neutral” grip — the same form you use when wielding a hammer.
They’re an awesome arm-builder because they effectively challenge your biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscles.
The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle that sits atop your upper arm. It consists of a short and a long head. Better-developed biceps brachii will help make the peak of your upper arms larger and more impressive.
The brachialis is a muscle that sits right below your bicep brachii. While training the biceps brachii helps make your upper arms taller, training the brachialis helps make them wider.
The brachioradialis is a long muscle that runs from deep within your upper arm to the center of your forearm. A well-developed brachioradialis will help make the thickest part of your forearm really pop, adding to your aesthetic.
There are several variations on the traditional Dumbbell Hammer Curl. The basic version sees the hands in a neutral position (palms facing one another) the entire time. A Cross-Body Dumbbell Hammer Curl sees you slightly pronate (or turn the palm down) at the top of the movement as the dumbbell comes across your body. As Jeff Cavaliere of Athlean-X explains, this variation can help you better activate the brachialis.
No matter what variation you choose, focus on the following:
- Grip the dumbbells tight
- Keep your elbows stapled to your sides
- Lean just a tad forward at the waist at the top of each rep
- Take the dumbbells through a full range of motion
If you want bigger arms, it’s hammer time!
2. Tricep Cable Pushdowns
The triceps simply can’t be ignored if you truly want more muscular arms.
In fact, one could argue you should spend slightly more time training your triceps than your biceps. While most people’s minds go straight to biceps when they think of muscular arms, the triceps actually make up roughly two-thirds of the upper arm.
Tricep Cable Pushdowns are a time-tested way to build that vaunted tricep horseshoe.
The exercise leverages a cable machine to help us practice extending our arms against an external load. Many people prefer using the tricep rope attachment for Tricep Cable Pushdowns, but you can also perform them with a straight bar or v-shaped handle attachment.
No matter what grip you choose, focus on the following:
- Grip the handle tight
- Stand with a slight forward lean at the waist
- Keep your elbows stapled to your sides
- Take the handle through a full range of motion
If you’re an absolute beginner and want to keep things simple, your arm isolation work could consist of nothing but Dumbbell Hammer Curls and Tricep Pushdowns 2-3 times a week.
3. Preacher Curls
A big benefit of Preacher Curls is that they make it virtually impossible to cheat. You’re in a seated (or semi-seated) position. Your elbows have no space to pull back. It's difficult to rock the torso to create momentum.
The result is an exercise that does an incredible job of isolating your biceps and promoting muscle growth. While you may not be able to lift as much on a Preacher Curl as you can a standing curl variation, this doesn't mean the move is less effective. It simply does a better job of isolating the biceps and not allowing other, larger muscle groups to steal some activation.
Keys to success include:
- Start slightly lighter than you might think
- Set up the seat at the right height
- Lean forward throughout the exercise and keep your elbows firmly on the pad
- Ensure your lower or “eccentric” phase lasts at least 2-3 seconds per rep
- Mentally focus on maximally contracting your biceps at the top of the movement
This move can also be performed one arm at a time using individual dumbbells. This can be a helpful technique if you believe one arm is significantly stronger than the other.
4. Dumbbell Curls
Dumbbell Curls are very similar to Dumbbell Hammer Curls.
The major difference is that your hands are in a fully supinated (or palms up) position at the top of each rep. This helps squeeze some extra activation out of your biceps brachii. You can start the rep in either a neutral or supinated grip position.
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One tip that can turn up the burn? At the top of each rep, rotate your forearms so your pinkies are slightly higher than your thumbs.
Dumbbell Curls also work well with for amazing arm-building technique called Dumbbell 21s.
For this technique, start by performing only the bottom half of the movement for 7 reps. Next, the top half for 7 reps. Finally, the full range of motion for 7 reps. You’ll wind up doing 21 reps in total (hence the name) and feel one heck of an arm pump!
5. Overhead Cable Tricep Extensions
Overhead Tricep Extensions challenge us to extend our arms out and overhead against an external load.
This provides a slightly different training effect than the Tricep Cable Pushdowns and also allows us to more easily modify which portion of the triceps’ long head we’d like to target. Keep your elbows higher to target the higher part of your triceps (the part up closer to your shoulder,) and keep them lower to target the lower part (the part down closer to your elbow).
No matter what you choose, it’s important your elbows remain in the same place throughout the duration of each rep. People commonly cheat the movement by letting their elbows move down during the concentric phase, which reduces the effectiveness of the exercise.
Want a doozy of a tricep workout? Find a cable machine and start with ~10-15 reps of an Overhead Tricep Extension, then turn around and immediately perform another ~10-15 reps of a Tricep Cable Pushdown.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, Dumbbell Skullcrushers are a close approximation of an Overhead Cable Tricep Extension.
6. Wrist Curls
Wrist Curls are the simplest way to build bigger, more impressive forearms.
Directly training your forearms will make them larger and more vascular. It’ll also help you increase your grip strength, which plays a key role in both quality of life and athletic performance.
There are a few different ways to perform Wrist Curls. The most effective method is to use a barbell or weight bar and place your forearms onto a bench.
Start with your palms up and extend your wrists over the edge by a few inches. Use a tight, closed grip on the bar.
Next, slowly loosen your grip so the dumbbell or bar creeps down out of your palms and towards the tips of your fingers. Just before it feels like the weight is going to fall out of your hands, curl your fingers and wrists to bring the weight back to the starting position.
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Performing Wrist Curls directly prior to Bicep Curls can be an intelligent tactic.
Since it’s difficult to use a lot of weight on Wrist Curls, you’ll often need to perform higher reps (think in the 12-20 per set range) to achieve the desired training effect.
7. Farmer’s Walks
Up until now, the exercises on this list have all been isolation exercises.
The last three moves on our list are compound exercises. Unlike isolation exercises, compound exercises target many different muscle groups simultaneously. When it comes to building an amazing overall physique (meaning not just bigger arms), compound exercises are where it’s at.
Farmer’s Walks activate nearly every muscle group in the body. They’re also one of the simplest exercises in existence. All you’ve got to do is pick up some heavy weight (most often in the form of dumbbells), stand up tall, and walk. The goal is to keep a strong posture despite the fact you’re walking with some serious weight.
Done right, Farmer’s Walks activate key muscles in your legs, core and upper back. They’ll also get your heart racing and give you an insane arm pump! Remember to go heavy, as you don’t necessarily need to walk very far to get the benefits of this movement.
Charles Poliquin, the famed late strength coach, once dubbed Chin-Ups the “Squat of the Upper Body”.
It’s true — Chin-Ups may be the best exercise for overall upper-body muscle development. While Pull-Ups (which see your palms face away from your body) place a greater demand on your lats, Chin-Ups (which see your palms face towards your body) do more to recruit your biceps.
Key form cues include keeping your shoulders down away from your ears and moving through a full range of motion.
Can’t do unassisted Chin-Ups? Many gyms have an assisted chin-up machine. You can also use a band for assistance, or simply perform negatives (meaning you step up to the top position via the help of a box or bench and focus on executing slow, controlled lowers).
If you can bang out 10+ unassisted Chin-Ups with great form, definitely consider trying Weighted Chin-Ups, as well.
While Chin-Ups more heavily target the biceps, Push-Ups more heavily target the triceps.
The two offer an extraordinary one-two punch for upper-body strength and muscle development. As discussed here, while nearly every Push-Up variation will challenge your triceps in some fashion, performing the move with your hands closer together and/or higher relative to the frame of your body can help you gain extra activation.
Push-Ups and Chin-Ups aren’t just great for building a better beach body — they train fundamental movement patterns that can make us more athletic and help us lead longer, more active lives. Push-Ups are also fantastic because they require zero equipment and can be functionally performed anywhere.
Can’t do a full Push-Up? No worries — Knee Push-Ups are a great alternative. You can also practice performing the eccentric from a full Push-Up position, then dropping to your knees to perform the concentric. Elevating the hands on a low surface (like a bench) is another good way to slowly progress to full Push-Ups.
There you have it!
Nine simple moves anyone can use to build impressive, muscular arms. Having easy access to quality fitness equipment like rubber hex dumbbells or a reliable chin-up bar can help accelerate your results.
Train hard. Recover smart. Get big!