Although there are different approaches to programming strength training workouts, many advanced weightlifters structure their training week with workouts that target just one or two muscle groups or areas of the body per session.
For example, you might do a leg workout, a chest workout, a back and abs workout, and an arm day workout.
So, what is the best arm workout for increasing strength, definition, and size? Which are the best arm exercises to include in a well-rounded, full-arm workout routine?
In this workout guide, we will briefly cover how to program good arm workouts for building muscle and provide step-by-step instructions for the following exercises for a full arm workout routine:
- Barbell Overhead Presses
- Dumbbell Spider Curls
- Kettlebell Overhead Extensions
- Unilateral Negative Cable Machine Bicep Curls
- Skull Crushers
- Barbell Reverse Biceps Curls
- Dumbbell Alternating Forward and Lateral Raises
- Triceps Pushdowns
- Narrow-Grip Barbell Bench Press
Let’s dive in!
How to Structure Arm Workouts to Build Muscle
There isn’t a single best arm workout for athletes of all levels.
The best arm workouts should include arm exercises for the triceps and biceps, which are the large muscles on the back and front of the upper arm, respectively.
Arm workouts also need to target the muscles of the shoulder (deltoids and rotator cuff muscles), the lateral and deeper front of the upper arm (brachialis), and the muscles of the forearm, including the brachioradialis and wrist flexors and extensor.
Finally, well-rounded arm workouts should also include arm exercises that strengthen the muscles of the hands and fingers to improve grip strength.
This might include either direct grip strength exercises or indirect strengthening via forearm exercises and other arm exercises that require maintaining a tight grip on weights over the duration of the set.The exercises for arms to include in your arm workout routine will primarily depend on your fitness level, training goals, and the exercise equipment that you have available to you.
When the goal is performing arm workouts for building muscle (hypertrophy), it is generally advised to focus on compound exercises, but isolation exercises for arm muscles can also be helpful.
The general guidelines for hypertrophy workouts are to perform three sets of each arm exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.
The Ultimate Arm Workout to Build Muscle
Here are some of the best arm exercises to include in your arm workouts for hypertrophy, strength, and definition:
#1: Barbell Overhead Presses
Overhead presses are a staple in arm day workouts, as the movement allows you to target all three heads of your deltoid muscles, and the barbell enables you to load up your shoulders with more weight to maximize your strength and hypertrophy gains.
Make sure you do not hyperextend your back. Keep your core and glutes tight to maintain proper posture with your chest up.
Here are the steps for how to perform this exercise for your arm workouts:
- Set the barbell in the squat rack or power rack just below shoulder level.
- Step in front of the bar.
- Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward.
- Engage your core and glutes as you unrack the barbell and slowly lower it down to your upper traps.
- Powerfully press the bar back up overhead, keeping the back of your head out of the way and using a path of motion that is slightly tilted backward by retracting your shoulder blades.
- Return to your starting position.
#2: Dumbbell Spider Curls
The spider curl is a great isolation exercise for your biceps. Because you are lying down, you cannot inadvertently cheat and use momentum or other muscles to help lift the dumbbells.
Here are the steps to perform this arm exercise for your arm workouts:
- Set an incline bench to 45°. The entire bench should be inclined, not just the backrest.
- Lie face down on the bench, gripping a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward.
- Contract your biceps as you bend your elbows, bringing the dumbbells up to shoulder height. Make sure your upper arms and shoulders remain fixed throughout the duration of the exercise.
- Pause and hold the top position for 2 seconds.
- Slowly lower the weights all the way back down until your arms are hanging straight.
#3: Kettlebell Overhead Extensions
The overhead triceps extension is one of the best arm exercises for your triceps.
Here are the steps:
- Stand or kneel with good posture, with your chest up and core engaged.
- Grip the sides of the kettlebell handle with both hands and carefully bring it back behind your neck.
- Powerfully press through your hands to extend the kettlebell straight up overhead.
- Bend your elbows while keeping your upper arms glued to the side of your head by your ears to lower the weight as far as you can by bending just your elbows, allowing them to point out slightly.
- Press the weight back up.
#4: Unilateral Negative Cable Machine Bicep Curls
The best arm workouts for hypertrophy include exercises that maximize time under tension, particularly the eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise.
This is because studies have found that the eccentric phase of an exercise is the most impactful for hypertrophy (muscle growth).
In this arm exercise for mass, you will perform a bilateral curl for the concentric portion so that both arms help lift the weight, but then you will do a unilateral eccentric contraction.
Because our muscles are typically stronger in the eccentric portion of the exercise, you can split up the movement with the bilateral assist and then the unilateral lowering portion to safely maximize the muscle-building training stimulus.
Here are the steps for how to perform this arm strength training exercise:
- Set the cable pulley at the lowest setting and clip in a single-handle attachment.
- Stand about one or two feet back from the cable machine, facing the handle.
- Grip the single handle in both hands with an underhand grip.
- Curl the weight up with both hands by bending your elbows.
- Then, remove one hand so that you are only lowering the weight with just one arm.
- Lower the weight as slowly as possible.
- Curl back up with both hands before beginning the next unilateral lowering.
- Complete all reps on one arm and then switch sides.
#5: Skull Crushers
This is a great triceps exercise for arm workouts, especially if you have access to a spotter.
These are the steps:
- Lie down on a flat bench holding a barbell (or dumbbells) with your arms straight up over your chest with your palms facing away. Your upper arms should remain completely fixed and perpendicular to the weight bench the entire exercise.
- Point your elbows so that you can lower the barbell backward towards your forehead, only moving your lower arms.
- The barbell should almost graze your forehead before you contract your triceps to press the weight back up and forward to the starting position.
Dips on the parallel bars are one of the best arm exercises to strengthen the triceps, shoulders, and chest.
If you want to augment the workload on your triceps, you can lean forward.
Here’s how to do this arm workout exercise:
- Get up on the parallel dip bars with your arms straight, your torso leaned slightly forward, and your back straight.
- Keep your chest up as you bend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together to lower your body down.
- Once your elbows are bent 90°, press through your palms to lift all the way back up until your elbows are fully extended.
#7: Barbell Reverse Biceps Curls
Most arm workouts don’t focus enough on the forearms.
This curl variation targets the forearm extensors, such as the brachioradialis and pronator teres, as well as the brachialis, which is actually a muscle that is in the upper arm on the lateral side of your biceps brachii.
You will also work your biceps, making the reverse curl a well-rounded arm exercise.
Here are the steps for this forearm exercise in your arm workouts:
- Set up a barbell with a weight that is about 10 pounds lighter than you would normally curl for a barbell biceps curl.
- Stand upright with good posture, feet hip-width apart, holding the barbell down in front of your body with your arms extended and palms facing into your body rather than away as you normally would (overhand grip instead of underhand).
- Bend your elbows to curl the barbell up until your elbows are bent slightly more acutely than 90 degrees (so the barbell should be coming up closer towards your shoulders than it would be if you kept your elbows just at 90 degrees). Make sure your elbows stay tucked by your sides.
- As slowly as possible, curl the barbell back down to the starting position. Try to lengthen the time it takes to lower the weight as much as possible.
#8: Dumbbell Alternating Forward and Lateral Raises
This is a great dumbbell arm exercise for your deltoids, and because the exercise involves forward and lateral abduction, it will help strengthen the anterior and middle portions of the muscle.
Here are the steps:
- Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand and your arms down by your sides.
- Keeping your core tight, chest up, and shoulders down, lift your arms straight out to the sides so that your body forms a letter T.
- At the top position, your palms should be facing the floor.
- Slowly lower your arms back down to your sides.
- Then, bring your arms straight up in front of your body until they are parallel to the floor.
- Slowly lower the weights back down.
- Continue alternating between forward and lateral raises.
#9: Triceps Pushdowns
This is a key exercise in many of the best arm workouts as it is one of the most effective ways to isolate the triceps.
Here is how to perform this exercise in your arm day workouts:
- Face the cable pulley machine or use a resistance band anchored at a high position well above your head.
- Keep your feet together and tuck your elbows in at your side so that they are hugging your ribs. Your back should be straight, your chest should be up, and you should have a slight forward lean to your torso by hinging at the hips.
- Using the rope attachment or cable handles, pull down on the band or cable to fully extend your elbows, keeping your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders but glued to the sides of your ribs.
- Gently allow the cable or band to lift back up to the starting position as your elbows bend upward towards your face before beginning the next rep.
#10: Narrow-Grip Barbell Bench Press
Using a narrow grip is especially effective at shifting the workload of the bench press more to your triceps instead of your chest muscles.
The triceps are primarily involved in pressing exercises as opposed to pulling exercises, which recruit the biceps.
Another benefit of the narrow grip bench press is that it removes some of the strain on your shoulders due to the hand spacing.
You should select a weight that is slightly lighter than a normal bench press weight since the pecs will not be as involved in lifting the weight. Try to lower the weight as slowly as possible towards your chest.
Here is how to do this exercise in your arm workouts for strength and size:
- Lie back on a flat bench with your hands above your nipples rather than shoulder-width apart.
- As you bring the bar down to chest level, pull your elbows inward towards your sides.
- Just before the barbell contacts your chest, press through your palms and contract your triceps to push the weight back up until your elbows are fully extended.
If you are looking for other arm workout ideas, try our guide on a push/pull workout routine.