When it comes to a man’s reasons for hitting the gym, aside from getting the abs of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, it’s likely that he wants to boost his biceps and fill out those T-shirt sleeves a la Mark Wahlberg in Pain & Gain. Or Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. Or Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter. Or, Mark Wahlberg in pretty much anything he’s ever been in.
But while the former CK model/rapper was unavailable to help with this piece, we were able to rope in some of the best personal trainers around to break down the best arm workouts for men to see (and flex) good results.
WHY, EXACTLY, DO I WANT BIG ARMS?
A good question. “What’s the first thing that’s noticeable about people who train?” asks James Castle-Mason, expert PT at London’s Roar Fitness. “If they’ve got big arms, they fill out a shirt well. A big set of arms tells people immediately that you can handle yourself and that you look the part. Having big arms can work wonders for a guy’s confidence and shows people you’re serious about training, plus earning a few looks over people’s shoulders.”
Keith McNiven, founder of London based personal training company Right Path Fitness agrees. “Every guy wants to work on their arms; it’s up there with the chest and back as the ‘power 3’ that give that defined upper body appearance. Arms in particular though are usually on show, so men tend to be more motivated to make sure their guns are looking their best.”
Aesthetics aside, there is a functional reason for strong-arming your physique. “By training your arms, you also develop the muscles that play key roles in the development of back, chest and shoulder muscularity too,” explains Castle-Mason. That makes you stronger all-round, something you’ll appreciate whether you’re a rugby player, a busy father or a bit of both. Got it? Then let’s get on with the best arm workouts for men.
1. BICEP BUILDERS
For many men, beasting bicep curls is the go-to when it comes to building arms. But as Luke Worthington, movement and performance specialist at London’s Third Space explains, there’s more to building t-shirt-filling arms than endless curls.
“The trick to developing growth in the biceps (front of the arm) and the triceps (back of the arm) is to firstly understand the structure of the muscles,” he says. “The biceps flex the elbow joint, and the triceps extend it, so choosing exercises to work them is relatively straightforward,” he continues. “For biceps exercises, a wide hand spacing will target the outer head, and a narrow the inner – so if growth is the goal do one of each.”
To make the most of your biceps, PT Castle-Mason suggests following this arm workout once per week alongside your usual regime. For best results, opt for a medium weight, and a rep range of 10-12.
INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL
(3 sets of 10-12 reps) Set a bench at a 45-60 degree angle (depending on your preference). Lay back on the bench, letting your arms hang by your sides. Keep your elbows fixed in this position and curl up, make sure you don’t swing the weight. Control back down until arm is straight, keeping the biceps under tension throughout. In this position your shoulder is extending and your arm behind you.
This specifically stretches the long head of your bicep which critically makes up a lot of the muscle mass of the peak of your bicep, which makes it great for filling your T-shirt sleeves.
STANDING DUMBBELL PREACHER CURL
(3 sets of 10-12 reps) Set up a bench at a 60-75 degree angle. Stand behind the bench and place your arm on it holding the dumbbell. Keeping your wrist extended, curl up without swinging until you reach peak bicep contraction. Be sure not to rest at the bottom and maintain muscular tension throughout the set.
The preacher curl is a bit of an all rounder but it specifically targets the lower bicep and brachialis muscle. It is not so good for the bicep peak muscles like the incline curl so it’s best to combine exercises for both benefits.
DUMBBELL HAMMER CURLS
(3 sets of 10-12 reps) A hammer curl can be done seated or standing. Simply keep your elbows locked by your sides, grab your dumbbells in a neutral grip and, holding them firmly, curl up and maintain muscular tension throughout.
A hammer curl also targets your brachialis muscle, so do it as well as a preacher curl.
2. TRICEP TRAINING
Tired of the rope pull-downs and dip arms workout? Castle-Mason’s tricep trifecta is an arms workout that puts the fun back into building the back of your arms. Again, 10-12 reps is the perfect amount for building size, while a medium weight will challenge the muscle without overloading it, or compromising form.
“Most guys are focused on biceps. But the secret to big arms is that your triceps make up 2/3 of your arm mass,” explains Castle-Mason. “Building a thick horseshoe tricep is going make your arm look a lot bigger than just bicep curls. Luckily, we’ve got just the tools you need to do this right here.”
CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS
(3 sets of 10-12 reps) Lie down on a bench press and grip the bar with your hands just slightly inside shoulder width. Keep your shoulders pinned back and treat the movement like you would a normal bench press but tuck your elbows in right up against the torso. Feel the stretch at the bottom and squeeze your triceps hard as you push to the top.
This great all-round tricep builder is unique. It’s one of the few movements where an arm muscle group can be loaded up with a significantly heavy weight. You get a relatively long range of motion and great carryover benefit to your regular bench pressing and other pressing exercises.
LYING EZ BAR SKULL CRUSHERS
(3 sets of 10-12 reps) This is one of the best arm workouts for men to target the long head of the tricep. This is the head that really contributes the most to arm thickness when it is well developed, so pay attention.
Lie down on a flat bench. You can put your feet up on the bench if you’re going heavy as this exercise has a tendency to extend the spine. Start with your elbows in line with your shoulders while lying down with your EZ bar in your hands. Slowly bench the elbows and let them travel back slightly as you bring the bar just behind your head at the bottom for a really strong tricep stretch. Extend your elbows towards the ceiling directly in front of your eyes to fully contract your tricep at the top.
(3 sets of 10-12 reps) Overhead movements can sometimes cause discomfort, as heavy load bearing exercises may require more skill. The tricep straight bar pushdown requires little skill and effectively stimulates the triceps.
Set up a rope or bar on a cable machine and select your desired weight. Lean forward 30 degrees or so (believe it or not this isn’t cheating). Your start position should actually be where your upper arm is about 90 degrees to the torso.
Conventional advice suggests standing upright for this arm workout but the angle will allow for a greater tricep contraction. Now simply push the bar down until your elbow is fully extended and return.
3. THE FOREARM FINISHER
So that’s the big-hitters taken care of. But, before you reach for the protein powder there’s more to the best arms workout than just your biceps and triceps. In fact, there’s this whole other thing called a ‘forearm’, and building them is just as important as bulking out the shirt-sleeve muscles.
Training the entire arm helps prevent imbalances, and it’ll stop half your arm looking like a Twiglet, which is always nice. All you need is one effective move, says McNiven. “Forearms are the most forgotten muscle in every arm routine,” he says. “Which is weird because they are actually the part of the body that is most on show.”
THE WRIST CURL
This is a tiny motion, McNiven says. “From seated with a dumbbell in each hand, and palms upwards, you literally curl the wrist up towards you and back again. Superset this with the reverse wrist curl where you do the same exercise but with your palms downwards.” That’s it.
As a bonus, it’ll build your strength and stamina for every other arms workout you do. Opt for 3 sets of 10-12 reps at the end of every arms session to balance out your bulking.
4. MIX IT UP
The training program above will build arms in no time, and hopefully you’ll learn a little something about how the muscles work in the process, too. But there’s more than one way to boil an egg.
Here, Luke Barnsley, master trainer at London’s elite gym Third Space, outlines a different approach to arm day. Not only will mixing your routine up after a month or so help shock complacent muscles into working that bit harder, it’ll also help make things interesting for you by setting out a whole new set of challenges.
Follow this program for six weeks, adding one more set to each exercise after every fortnight. The key is to use a controlled tempo throughout. For each exercise, count three seconds on the decline, and one second on the lift. This increases ‘time under tension’ meaning your muscles have to really engage, gaining maximum benefits from the movements.
“To help mix things up, I’ve created an agonist/antagonist superset,” says Barnsley. “Basically, you do two exercises back to back. The reps are lower on the compound exercises to target different muscle fibres and to allow you to target strength as well as hypertrophy. The movements are all fairly simple, and there are countless YouTube tutorials to show you how to perfect your form.“
Compound movements are exercises where more than one joint is moving, meaning more weight can be lifted, generally through a greater range of motion. This means more muscle fibre will be recruited, which will lead to more results. [i.e. bigger arms].
“After superset A and B, we move onto C. Start conservative on the loading. For the first week aim to finish all reps of all sets. Then slowly aim to add weight to A1. And B1. Do things properly and precisely. Oh – and be patient.”
A1. CHIN UPS
(5-7 reps, 3 sets) You probably know how this goes, but it’s worth repeating the basics. Grab a chin-up bar with an underhand grip, your palms facing toward you. Then brace your core and tighten your arms, pulling your whole body up until your chin just clears the bar. Lower with control and go again.
A2. CABLE TRICEP PUSHDOWN
(12-15 reps, 3 sets) As above, lean forward around 30 degrees with your hands on a bar attached to a cable machine (set the cable so the bar is around chest height). Push the bar down until your arms are straight then return to the start. Be careful not to round your back as you work through the reps. Rest 60-90 seconds between exercises.
B1. CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS
(5-7 reps, 3 sets) Again, repeat the move from the earlier workout. Lying down on a bench with a pair of dumbbells, keep your elbows tucked to your sides and your hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width. Push up until your arms are just about fully extended, then return slowly and go again.
B2. CABLE BICEP CURLS
(12-15 reps, 3 sets) At a cable machine, set both cables toward the bottom around shin-height with D-handles attached. Stand in the centre, taking one in each hand with your arms extended by your sides. From there, keeping your back straight and your core strong, bring both handles up so that your elbows are fully flexed.
The range of movement is much longer than most bicep moves giving you maximum return for the burn. Rest 60-90 seconds between exercises.
C1. SEATED DUMBBELL CURL
(12-15 reps, 3 sets) Take a seat but don’t get too comfortable. Sat upright on a bench with your back straight and a medium-weight dumbbell in each hand, begin with your arms hanging by your side. From there, simply curl them all the way up and return to the start.
C2. DUMBBELL SKULL CRUSHERS
(12-15 reps, 3 sets) Last one: lying down on a bench with a mid-weight dumbbell in each hand, give your triceps a final pump. Start with the weights above you and your elbows bent so that the dumbbells are just above and beyond your head. To complete the move, extend your elbows until your arms are straight, then return to the start. Rest 45-60 seconds between exercises. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ir5PsbniVSc Whether you choose to start with Barnsley’s circuit, or Castle-Mason’s workman-like sets, the key to building big arms is to focus on the movement, and don’t ego-lift. And, it goes without saying that training arms alone is the fastest way to mark yourself out as a gym-noob. So please, work in a leg day too, yes?