Building muscle in your arms requires focusing on the biceps in the front and the triceps in the back. They’re opposite functioning muscle groups, so they require different strength training exercises.
Having bigger, stronger arms can give you a feeling of confidence. Muscular arms can also convey a sense of athleticism and strength. But there are some important practical benefits to having stronger arms, too.
Anything that requires upper body effort — from picking up your kids to lifting heavy boxes — can be done more easily with stronger arms. In addition to boosting your daily functional fitness, having more muscle mass has the ability to:
- increase your metabolism — this means your body will burn more calories, even when you’re not exercising
- increase muscle endurance, strength, and tone
- lower your chance of injury
In this article, we’ll walk you through eight of the best exercises for your biceps and triceps, based on research findings.
Your biceps brachii, more commonly known as your biceps, is a double-headed muscle that runs from your shoulder to your elbow. It’s the key muscle involved in lifting and pulling with your arms.
Not surprisingly, according to a 2014 study conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), some of the best exercises for your biceps involve lifting or curling weights up toward your shoulder.
To do these exercises, choose a weight that allows you to do 12 to 15 repetitions of each exercise with the right form.
To start, perform one set of each exercise two to three times a week, allowing for at least 1 day of rest in between your biceps workouts. You can build up to doing two to three sets of each exercise as you build your strength.
In the ACE study, researchers compared the effectiveness of eight different types of biceps exercises. The one that achieved the greatest muscle activation was the concentration curl.
The authors of the study suggest that it’s the most effective bicep exercise because it isolates the biceps more than any of the other exercises.
To do a concentration curl:
- Sit at the end of a flat bench with your legs open in a V shape.
- Grip a dumbbell with one hand and lean forward slightly.
- With your palm facing your center, rest your elbow against the inside of your thigh.
- Rest your other hand or elbow on the other thigh for stability.
- While keeping your upper body still, curl the weight slowly toward your shoulder.
- As you lift, turn your wrist slightly so that you end the curl with your palm facing your shoulder.
- Pause for a moment, allowing yourself to feel the effort in your bicep, and then slowly lower the weight. Don’t rest it on the floor, though, until your final repetition.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times, then switch arms.
Cable curls can be done a few different ways. You can use a low pulley machine attached to a cable with a handle. Or, you can use a resistance band if you can safely tie one end of the band to something sturdy.
For a standing one-arm cable curl:
- Stand a couple of feet from the pulley machine, and grasp the cable handle with your palm facing forward and your elbow close to your side.
- Place the foot opposite your curling hand a little in front of your other foot for better balance.
- Slowly curl your arm, bringing your palm toward your shoulder.
- Hold the curl up for a moment and feel the exertion in your bicep.
- Slowly lower the handle to the starting position.
- Do 12 to 15 repetitions, then switch arms.
With this classic bicep exercise, it’s important to keep your back straight and avoid moving your body, except for your arms. You want to make the biceps do all the work, so you may need to start with a lighter weight at first.
To do a barbell curl:
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Hold the barbell with your arms at your side, palms facing out.
- While exhaling, slowly curl the barbell up toward your chest. Keep your chest still, using only your arms to lift the barbell.
- Hold the position for a second, then slowly lower the barbell to its starting position.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times.
The chinup requires a sturdy chinup bar that’s high enough off the ground that your feet won’t touch the floor when your arms are extended.
To do a chinup:
- Stand under the chinup bar, and reach both arms up so that your palms are facing you.
- Grab the bar with both hands. You may need to jump or step up to reach the bar.
- With a firm grip and your thumbs wrapped around the bar, steady your body. It may help to cross your legs for more stability.
- While exhaling slowly, pull your body upward by bending your elbows.
- Keep your elbows in front of you as you focus on letting your biceps pull you up to where your chin meets the bar.
- Pause for a moment, then slowly lower yourself to the starting position before repeating the move again.
Your triceps brachii, more commonly known as your triceps, is a group of three muscles that are located at the back of your upper arm. These muscles run between your shoulder and elbow. They help to strengthen your arm and stabilize your shoulder.
According to a 2012 study done by ACE, the following exercises are the most effective for stronger, firmer triceps.
Out of all the triceps exercises included in the ACE study, the triangle pushup was determined to be the most effective at working your triceps. Best of all, you just need your body weight to do this exercise.
Do a triangle pushup:
- Get into traditional pushup position with only your toes and hands touching the floor.
- Place your hands below your face with your forefingers and thumbs touching, forming a triangle between your hands.
- While keeping your torso and legs straight, slowly lower your body so that your nose comes close to your hands.
- Push your body back up to its starting position, being careful not to arch your back or let it sag.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times.
If this is too difficult at first, try doing triangle pushups with your knees on the floor but your torso rigid.
The ACE study found that tricep kickbacks are close behind triangle pushups in giving your triceps a complete workout.
This exercise can also be done by using just one arm at a time and then switching arms once you’ve completed a set with the first arm.
To do a tricep kickback:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing inward. Bend your knees slightly.
- Hinge forward at your waist, keeping your back straight and your core engaged, until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor.
- With your arms close to your side, bend your elbows so that the dumbbells come up alongside the side of your chest.
- Slowly straighten your forearms, keeping your upper arms still.
- Hold for a second, then bend your elbows until the dumbbells are in the starting position, close to your chest.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times.
- If only using one arm at a time, rest for a minute, then switch arms and repeat.
This exercise can also be done at home without a dip stand. You can place your hands, palm down, behind you on a flat bench or chair. You can then perform dips in front of the bench or chair with your hands behind you.
To do dips:
- Stand in between the rails of a dip bar.
- Grip each bar with your arms straight down by your side.
- You may need to bend your knees to keep from touching the floor.
- Slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself until your upper arms are almost parallel to the floor.
- Straighten your arms until you’re back at your starting position.
- Repeat 12 to 15 times.
An overhead extension is typically done with a single dumbbell. Use a lighter weight to start, and switch to a heavier weight once you get used to this exercise.
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other for balance. You can also do this exercise while sitting on a bench.
- Place both hands around the dumbbell handle.
- Lift the dumbbell up over your head so that your arms are straight.
- Slowly bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle so that the dumbbell finishes behind your head.
- Slowly straighten your arms so that the weight is above your head again.
While having bigger, stronger arms may be your No. 1 strength building goal, don’t ignore the other muscles in your body. Exercises that strengthen your back and shoulders are especially important to support your arms and prevent injury.
Consider including the following exercises to your strength training routine:
Although the right exercises are important for building bigger, stronger arms, you can’t ignore your nutrition needs. To promote muscle growth, you also need to focus on eating the right foods.
If you’re not giving your body the fuel it needs, you may limit the results of your arm-building workouts.
Keep the following in mind when working toward bigger arms:
- Boost your protein intake. Protein promotes muscle growth and speeds up recovery between workouts. Some high-protein foods you may want to include in your diet include eggs, salmon, chicken breast, tuna, lean beef, turkey breast, Greek yogurt, beans, and chickpeas. The recommended daily protein intake for building muscle is between 1.4 and 1.8 grams per pound of body weight.
- Eat more complex carbohydrates. Like protein, complex carbs are essential for building muscle. These carbs provide your body with energy and sustenance. Focus on whole-grain breads and pasta, oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, potatoes, corn, and green peas.
- Avoid simple carbohydrates. While most simple carbs have plenty of calories, they don’t offer any nutritional benefits. They’re often considered “empty” carbs. Limit your intake of sugary drinks, baked goods, candy, cookies, and other sugary sweets.
- Focus on healthy fats. If you don’t consume enough fat in your diet, your body could start burning protein instead of fat for its energy needs. Good sources of healthy fats include olive oil, salmon, peanut butter, and avocado.
- Don’t skip on calories. Be sure to get enough calories from the foods you eat. If your calorie intake is too low, you likely won’t see results with your arm-building workouts. Try to get your calorie needs met with healthy sources of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, as well as from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Exercises that target your biceps and triceps are essential for building bigger arms. Try to work these muscles at least two to three times a week, and work toward doing more repetitions and sets with each exercise as you build your strength.
For a well-rounded workout, make sure you also include exercises that strengthen your shoulders, back, chest, core, and legs, too.
Together with performing targeted exercises, it’s important to follow an eating plan that’s rich in complex carbs, protein, and healthy oils, and includes sufficient calories to fuel your workouts.