The first time you picked up a dumbbell, your instinctual reaction was to curl it, right?
There’s a certain fascination people have with building bulging biceps, however, many don’t know how to go about achieving these results and are often faced with a muscle-growth plateau as a result.
You could mindlessly curl away for hours on end, day after day, but without variation or some incorporation of tricep exercises, you won’t see much progression in terms of muscle gains or size.
In this article, we’ll break down which muscles of the upper arm you should be targeting, and provide you with the 6 best exercises to really pack on the mass.
You’ll find in this article:
Anatomy Of The Upper Arms
In order to build a set of show-stopping arms, you first need to know the muscles you’re going to be training and the functions they perform. The upper arm is made up of two major muscle groups:
Your biceps are made up of the long head (outer) and the short head (inner) and make up 1/3 of the upper arms.
Your triceps, as the name implies, are made up of three heads – the long head, short head and medial head. They make up 2/3 of the upper arm, which may come as a surprise to those who completely overlook tricep exercises and think that the key to bigger arms is down to working on your biceps.
In order to train the arms for maximal growth, you need to make sure that you’re targeting each head of each muscle with a specific set of exercises, which is why repetitive curls are not actually that effective.
The following exercises are great for making sure you work each part of your upper arm.
1. Tricep Dips
Of all the tricep exercises, this one is the king of arm-building.
Performing this movement using your bodyweight has the benefit of naturally forcing the muscle to lift a heavy load, and the harder the muscle has to work, the more muscle fibres are recruited – leading to more growth.
Not only do tricep dips target all three heads at once but they’re performed with a minimum of bodyweight, which is significantly greater than what could be handled through an isolation exercise alone.
The movement can be performed on an exercise step or bench to start off with if your arm strength needs building. If you have a fair bit of strength in your arms, you can go straight into using a set of parallel bars, which you can usually locate in the gym on an assisted pull-up/dip machine.
For your first time performing a set of dips on an assisted pull-up/dip machine, it would be wise to set the weight roughly to two-thirds of your original body weight. This can be adjusted once you get into the habit of performing the movement.
How to perform a tricep dip:
a) Approaching the machine, allow your arms to hang down at your sides before wrapping your fingers around the outside of the parallel bars with your thumbs on the inside.
b) Shuffle your wrists into an angle behind you to allow elbows to bend backwards, making sure they keep in line with forearms.
c) If you’re using an assisted machine, place knee caps firmly apart on the platform. Slowly lower yourself down until your bicep comes into contact with your forearm to ensure a full stretch in your triceps.
d) Press yourself up fully contracting and squeezing the triceps as you do so.
Sets and reps: 3 x 8-10 reps for beginners, progressing to 5 x 10 reps as strength increases.
TIP: To progress with this exercise, start to add additional weight as you get stronger. If you’re performing this exercise unassisted, you can add weight by using weightlifting belt that lets you add plates, or by placing a dumbbell between your legs.
2. Rope Tricep Pushdown
Tricep pushdowns performed using a cable machine are a great way to target the lateral and medial heads of the triceps. They’re considered a key exercise in giving the muscle that desired ‘horse shoe’ look.
While using a straight or v-bar attachment will allow you to use slightly more weight, the rope attachment helps to isolate the muscle more and receive a much better contraction.
This is not an exercise to go heavy on, so pick a moderate weight.
How to perform a rope tricep pushdown:
If not already prepared, clip a rope attachment to the high pulley on a cable machine.
a) Standing upright, bend the top of your torso slightly forward and hold. Grab either side of the rope handles with a normal grip, so that your palms are facing each other. Be prepared to exhale during the following movement.
b) Holding concentration in the triceps throughout the entire move, pull the rope down so that it splits, bringing the handle of each side down to your thighs.
c) Tuck your arms right into your side and remain like this at the end of every rep to eliminate any momentum or help from your back and ensure the triceps are doing all the work. The forearm should be completing the movement.
d) After holding the position for 2 seconds, slowly raise the rope back to the beginning, inhaling as you move your arms back up.
Sets and reps: 5 x 12-15 reps
TIP: At full extension of the arms, you can get a great contraction in the triceps by turning the wrist away from the body and pulling the ropes apart. Think of the rope as a Christmas cracker and try to pull the ends as far away from each other as possible whilst keeping the elbows tight to the body.
3. Dumbbell Overhead Extensions
One reason why many people fail to fully develop their triceps is that they don’t know how to properly target the long head of the triceps.
The long head is actually understimulated when it acts as an elbow extensor when the shoulder is adducted or extended, which is why overhead work is needed.
Dumbbell overhead extensions can be done single-handed, one arm at a time, or two-handed on a single dumbbell.
When looking to add mass to the arms, using the double-handed variation is probably better as you’ll be able to use more weight while still safely getting a good stretch on the eccentric portion of the movement.
This triceps exercise can be performed stood up, or sat down if you want more balance.
How to perform dumbbell overhead extensions:
a) Standing/sitting shoulder-width apart, hold a dumbbell with both hands before slowly lifting it over your head, extending both arms out straight.
b) Slightly move the weight between both hands to comfortably allow it to rest in the palm of your hands with thumbs reaching around the bar – your palms should be facing the ceiling. Prepare yourself to breathe in during the upcoming movement.
c) Concentrating on holding your triceps next to your head with elbows tucked in, begin to lower the dumbbell straight down to the floor, feeling the tension in your upper arms when your forearms squeeze against your biceps.
d) As you exhale, squeeze the triceps and slowly lift the dumbbell back to the original starting position. Repeat.
Set and Reps: 3 x 12-15 reps
TIP: This exercise can be done with the elbows pointing outwards, however keeping the elbows pointing straight in front of you will put a much greater emphasis on the triceps and allow for a better stretch.
4. Preacher Curl
Made famous by the late Larry Scott, who sported 20” arms at only 5’8, this exercise is probably the greatest biceps isolation exercise there is, as it’s almost impossible to cheat the weight up.
This exercise works the long head of the biceps and is responsible for building the peak of the biceps which will create the illusion of the arms appearing much bigger.
Performing with correct form is incredibly important. At first, you’ll need to use fairly light to moderate weight as the Preacher curl is not an exercise you can expect to be lifting the heaviest weight with, and you should really focus on pulling the weight up with your biceps whilst squeezing at the top.
This can be performed with dumbbells, a cable pulley, or a barbell or EZ curl bar, using a wide grip to emphasise the short head or a narrow grip for more emphasis on the long head. It’s best to use a Preacher curl bench, however, if you don’t have access to one then you could put a normal bend on a steep incline, and use to the same effect.
How to perform a Preacher curl:
a) Rest your upper arms on the Preacher pad with your chest firmly against it. The palm of your hands should be facing forward, whether you’re using a dumbbell, cable, barbell or EZ curl bar, your hands should be slightly tilted inwards due to the shape of the bar. If you’re using a single arm, rest the other one for support.
b) Chest and arms firmly in place, hold the chosen weight at shoulder length to complete your starting position.
c) Inhale whilst slowly lowering the weight until your arms are fully extended – enough to feel a deep stretch in your bicep.
d) As you begin to exhale, hold all concentration in squeezing the biceps to curl the weight back up to starting position, in line with your shoulders. At this point, it is important to squeeze the biceps and hold for a couple of seconds.
Sets and reps: 3 x 8-12 reps
5. Reverse Cable Curls
These are just like a normal cable curl but with an overhand grip.
Once again, you won’t be able to go super-heavy on this exercise because the slow eccentrics can really fatigue your muscles – and it’s critical that you follow the slow eccentrics if you want to see significant muscle gains, as this is how you stimulate the brachialis. The brachialis is a muscle in between your bicep and triceps on the outside of your arm, if you flex your arm you might see a little bump appear.
The brachialis actually runs underneath the bicep and by training it and forcing it to grow you’ll actually push your bicep upwards. This is a sneaky way to add some extra size to your arm and therefore it’s crucial that you perform this movement with slow eccentrics as this is what the brachialis responds best to.
How to perform reverse cable curls:
Using a straight bar/EZ bar attachment, set the cable pulleys on the bottom pin. The reason for using the cable pulley system for this exercise is that the constant resistance of the cable will keep the tension on your bicep, whereas with a barbell you can rest at the bottom of the movement and lose the muscle tension.
a) Standing upright with a straight torso, hold the straight bar pulley in front of you with a shoulder-width, overhand grip with palms facing down.
b) Keeping elbows close to the torso and upper arms straight, breathe out as you curl the bar towards your head, contracting your biceps to land at shoulder level (only moving your forearms).
c) Hold the contraction for 1-2 seconds, whilst squeezing the muscles.
d) Gradually release the bar, lowering the weight in a slow tempo over a duration of 3-4 seconds. Repeat.
Sets and Reps: 5 x 12-15 reps
6. Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Traditional curls are done with the palms facing forwards, whereas hammer curls consist of the palms facing inwards, towards the torso, and remaining this way for the entirety of the movement.
This exercise is effective simply because you can use a lot more weight than a standard dumbbell curl which will help to overload the biceps. The brachioradialis, a muscle in the forearm, becomes activated during this exercise in addition to the biceps, so you essentially having two muscles perform the movement.
Lighter weights can be used to start as you adjust to the movement, but with hammer curls, you can really push yourself to go heavy.
How to perform dumbbell hammer curls:
a) Standing upright, tighten your core to help keep your back straight and hold a dumbbell in each hand, aligning your arms with your torso with palms facing inwards.
b) Keeping your upper arm next to your torso, breathe out whilst contracting the biceps to curl the dumbbell(s) forward until fully contracted and reaching shoulder level. Squeeze for a moment whilst contracted. Again, for this move, only move your forearm to keep full concentration on the biceps.
c) Squeeze for a moment whilst contracted. Again, for this move, only move your forearm to keep full concentration on the biceps.
d) Begin to slowly release from the contraction, lowering the weights back to your starting position. Repeat.
Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12 reps
TIP: Mix this move up a bit with differentiating between variations: using a bench for back support, and alternating to single arm dumbbell hammer curls for increased biceps concentration.
Take Home Message
When it comes to increasing size and strength, it’s key to have a variety of exercises in your routine to make sure that you’re targeting as many muscles, or parts of muscles, in your arms as possible. Stay consistent, gradually increase your weights, and you’ll be upping your shirt size in no time.