You don’t need fancy equipment to tone and strengthen the muscles in your arms. Body weight exercises like planks, pushups, and arm circles can help you get the job done anytime, anywhere.
Arm strengthening is a cornerstone of any comprehensive fitness program. Strong arms are not just about appearances. Functionally, arm strength is necessary for many of life’s daily activities, such as carrying, lifting, pushing, and pulling.
While many traditional arm strengthening exercises involve weights and a gym, quite a few exercises can help you strengthen and tone your arms without weights.
This article breaks down what muscles you should target for strong arms and teaches you the top 8 weight-free arm exercises to tone every muscle in your arms.
Multiple muscles are found in your arms, from your hand and wrists all the way to your shoulders.
Additionally, the muscles in your chest and shoulders play key roles in many important movements you routinely perform with your arms.
The arms themselves primarily include the following major muscles (
- Biceps brachii. This classic muscle is responsible for flexing the elbow and externally rotating your hand and forearm.
- Coracobrachialis. This muscle spans from your shoulder to the middle of your upper arm until just below your elbow. It assists in raising, or flexing, your upper arm.
- Brachialis. The brachialis is a strong elbow flexor that spans from the middle of your upper arm to just below the elbow and plays a major role in flexing your elbow.
- Triceps brachii. This muscle has three distinct heads, each of which begins at the shoulder and spans the backside of your upper arm until just below the elbow. It’s responsible for extending your elbow when you straighten your arm, as well as extending your shoulder, or moving your arm behind you.
In addition to the muscles in the arm themselves, the muscles of the shoulder, upper back, and chest play a key role in the strength output of your arms.
Although these muscles are not traditionally thought of as arm muscles, they’re key to virtually every movement or stabilizing force needed when using your arms for tasks.
These muscles include:
- Pectoralis major. The pec major is responsible for most of the movements of the arm, including pushing, lifting the arm, and bringing the arm down from a flexed position. It also adducts the arm from a horizontal position and assists with the rotation of the upper arm.
- Pectoralis minor. This muscle is an important scapular stabilizer.
- Posterior shoulder muscles. These rear shoulder muscles move your upper arm backward, such as during pull-apart motions.
- Deltoids. These muscles around the front, side, and back of the shoulder move your arm upward in all directions. They’re also responsible for the rotation of the upper arm.
- Rotator cuff muscles. These muscles are important shoulder stabilizers, but they also assist with initiating arm movements.
- Latissimus dorsi. This muscle in your upper back moves your upper arm downward, in, or backward, such as during a lat pulldown or rowing motion.
Overall arm strengthening should focus on as many of these muscles as possible to ensure you have adequate, proportional strength in every direction your arm can move.
The muscles required for arm movements include the muscles in the front and back of your arm, as well as the chest, shoulders, and upper back muscles.
The following exercises target the various arm muscles as best as possible without the need for added weight. The exercises range from easy to difficult, listed in that order, and may involve multiple muscle groups (including your core muscles), as well as your arm muscles.
It’s worth noting that without a pullup bar or suspension trainer, such as gymnastic rings or a TRX system, strengthening the back and biceps is very difficult without using an external weight.
When performing these exercises, think about actively contracting the muscles in your arms during each repetition. This will increase muscle activation and help improve the quality of your training.
This beginner exercise focuses on the shoulder muscles and isometrically strengthens the biceps and triceps. You can make smaller or larger circles, but ensure that you maintain tension down your arm throughout the full set.
To perform arm circles:
- Stand tall with your arms straight out to your sides and your muscles contracted down the length of your arm.
- Slowly make circles with your arms by rotating them around your shoulders while keeping them straight and your elbows locked with tension.
- Perform 3 sets of 10–20 repetitions in both directions. You can perform sets of large or small diameter circles to slightly change the effort required.
Arm front raises
This exercise targets the front of your shoulder and isometrically strengthens your biceps and triceps. To make this more challenging, grab two cans of soup or two water bottles to add weight.
To perform arm front raises:
- Stand tall with your arms out to the front, locked out straight with your thumbs toward the ceiling.
- Raise your arms overhead while keeping them straight and locked out until they point straight up overhead, with your upper arms blocking your ears when viewed from the side.
- Slowly lower your arms to the starting position.
- Perform 3 sets of 10–20 repetitions.
Arm lateral raises
This exercise targets the top of your shoulder and isometrically strengthens your biceps and triceps. To make this more challenging, grab two cans of soup or two water bottles to add weight.
To perform arm lateral raises:
- Stand with your arms at your sides and your palms facing inward toward your hips.
- Keep your arms straight and raise them to the side until your body makes a “T” when viewed from the front.
- Slowly lower to the starting position.
- Repeat for 10–20 repetitions.
This exercise strengthens the shoulder and triceps and improves shoulder mobility.
To perform wall angels:
- Stand with your back against a wall with your knees bent and your feet roughly 1–2 feet (about 0.5 meters) away from the wall. Your head, upper back, and tailbone should be in contact with the wall.
- Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and raise your arms until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, as if you’re putting your hands up.
- Extend your arms overhead until they’re straight. Aim to keep your arms, head, upper back, and tailbone in contact with the wall.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat for 3 sets 10–12 repetitions.
Downward Dog to plank
This exercise strengthens the chest, shoulders, and triceps. It’s an excellent way to begin building strength in the top of a pushup position.
To perform Downward Dog to plank:
- Begin in a pushup plank position with your hands under your shoulders and your arms straight. You can start with your knees on the ground if the pushup plank position is too challenging.
- Raise your hips and press backward with your arms to arrive into the Downward Dog Pose. If you started from your knees, you will raise your knees off of the ground once you have pushed back enough to do so.
- Stabilize briefly in the Downward Dog Pose before returning to the starting position.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.
This exercise is a plank variation that strengthens your shoulders, triceps, and biceps.
To perform the plank tap:
- Begin in a pushup plank position with your hands under your shoulders and your arms straight. Keep your spine neutral. To make the exercise more challenging, keep your feet together. To make it easier, widen your feet.
- Bring your left hand up to your right shoulder and tap it before returning your hand to the floor.
- Repeat with your right hand and left shoulder.
- Perform 3 sets of 10–12 repetitions on each side.
The classic pushup strengthens the chest, shoulders, and triceps with no equipment. You will also need to engage your core to maintain the position, which adds a bonus core component to this arm exercise.
Perform the pushups on your knees if the standard variation is too challenging.
To perform a pushup:
- Begin in a pushup position with your hands under your shoulders, spine neutral, and legs straight. If needed, keep your knees on the ground to reduce the difficulty level.
- Lower your entire body in unison toward the floor by bending at the elbow. Keep your elbows close to your sides or at about a 45–degree angle. Lower your chest until your upper arm is parallel to the floor.
- Push through the floor to drive back to the top position, maintaining control the entire time.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 10–12 repetitions. If the sets become too difficult, you can revert to the knees-down variation.
For this dip variation, all you need is a chair. This exercise primarily targets the triceps and chest.
To perform bodyweight triceps dips:
- Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the chair you’re propping yourself upon.
- Shift your pelvis and bottom forward so there’s a gap of 3–6 inches (8–15 cm) between your back and the chair, giving you clearance as you dip down.
- Bend your legs to a 90–degree angle with your feet planted firmly on the ground, or extend them out in front of you (but don’t lock your knees).
- Slowly lower your body straight down and then push back up, focusing on engaging your triceps.
- Complete 3 sets of 10–12 reps.
Building big arm muscles is a common goal in conjunction with strengthening them. While strength and muscle mass are related, they’re not the same.
Unfortunately, while it’s possible to strengthen your arms with the bodyweight exercises in this article, there’s only so much muscle you can build with these exercises.
In the early stages of your fitness journey, you will build some arm muscles with these exercises. You can progress them by adding more volume — in other words, more repetitions, up to about 20 per set.
However, as you progress, these exercises will become too easy, and you will need external resistance to continue challenging them enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the back and biceps muscles are difficult to train without additional equipment.
That’s because these muscles primarily perform pulling movements, and there are no real practical ways to use your body weight to load these movements without a suspension method like a pullup bar or TRX system.
As such, if your goal is muscular arms, you will need to branch out beyond bodyweight arm exercises. Still, these exercises will help you maintain form and function when you can’t get to the gym.
Bodyweight arm exercises are good for beginners and those who can’t access equipment. But ultimately, they’re insufficient for gaining large amounts of muscle on the arms.
To include the exercises above in an arm strengthening program, consider the following guidelines:
- Perform the workout 2 times per week on nonconsecutive days.
- Start with 3 sets of 10 reps of the easiest exercise, such as arm circles.
- Perform 3 sets of 1 or 2 exercises that are intermediately difficult, performing the exercises either to failure each set or stopping at 20 repetitions.
- Perform 3 sets of the hardest exercise in the list that you can still perform for at least 5 repetitions. Perform these sets to failure. If you can perform more than 20 repetitions, the exercise is not sufficiently challenging.
Strengthening your arms should be a key component in your fitness routine. While there are many arm exercises out there, finding good arm exercises that do not require equipment can be challenging.
The exercises in this article are an excellent starting point and progression for your equipment-free arm workout program.
In the long run, you will need to branch out into equipment-based exercises for continued muscle growth.
Nevertheless, if you want to strengthen your arms and do not have the equipment, you have some excellent exercise options to get you started.