Arm exercises are one of those areas that generally split the population; you’ll often see men working exclusively on their bicep curls, while women are often reluctant to lift anything heavy, for fear of getting bulky (and yes, I was once one of them).
If you want toned arms, if you want well-defined arms, it’s time to pick up the weights and challenge yourself. And that doesn’t mean endless bicep curls with weights you can barely lift coupled with shoddy technique.
It means working both your biceps – the muscle on the front of your upper arm – and your triceps – the opposing muscle on the back of your arms. In fact, to have truly well-defined and proportioned arms, you should be focusing equally on biceps, triceps and shoulders (but that’s a separate area).
There are many different exercises out there that promise to isolate different areas of the arms, but the simplest exercises are often the most effective. Here are five of my favourites.
1. Underhand tricep pulldowns
If it isn’t already a very good mate, the cable machine will become your best friend for tricep training. It’s one of the greatest tools in your arsenal for targeting these muscles. There are different grips you can use – overhand and underhand (sometimes called ‘reverse’) – as well as different attachments – the bar, v-bar and rope are popular choices – and, because it’s a machine, it’s easy to set up.
Some people may argue the benefits of using different grips and different attachments, but essentially they will be working the same muscle group, so varying things up may just help keep your mind active rather than hitting the triceps in ‘different areas’. HOWEVER, it is also about personal preference, and I prefer the underhand (or ‘reverse’) grip using a straight bar attachment. Basically, that simply means holding the bar from the underside and pulling down, rather than putting your hands over the top of the bar and pushing down. Other than that, though, the technique remains the same.
Technique points: Take a step back from the machine (so you’re not right up against the cable), keep your elbows tucked in and in front of your hips, maintain a neutral spine and keep a slight bend in your knees. After the extension, raise the bar again so your elbows are at 90 degree angle, but not much more.
Watch: How to do a tricep pushdown
2. Overhead cable extensions
Similar to tricep pushdowns, the overhead cable extension can be performed using a variety of attachments, but in this case, I prefer the rope. Stay on the cable machine for this exercise, and keep the cable in the high position. You’ll often see people bent right over doing this exercise, or again, standing straight upright, but I prefer to lean slightly forward, keeping the cable in the high position. Again, make sure you keep a straight back throughout the movement and really focusing on using your triceps to make that extension.
So… grab one end of each rope with each hand, then turn to face away from the machine so that your hands are behind your head. Lunge forward on one leg and bend slightly forward. Keeping your elbows tucked in, extend your arms over your head until they are straight, before slowly letting them bend back again so you feel a good stretch along your tricep. I love using this exercise in a superset with some bodyweight tricep dips. I do 10-12 overhead extensions, immediately followed by 15 dips on the nearest bench available.
The kind of exercise that requires three exclamation marks, skullcrushers are not actually as scary as they sound. They do, however, require good technique and controlled movement. If you have access to an E-Z bar at your gym, use that, otherwise, a barbell will work as well.
Position yourself on a bench, lying flat down with your head slightly off the end. Bring the bar down behind your forehead, keeping your elbows tucked in, before extending your arms again by pushing the bar away from you (again, this is much easier with an E-Z bar than with an ordinary barbell). This is a tough one. If you’re just starting out, don’t launch in with heavy weights, gradually build up to a challenging level. Chances are, it will be a lot less than you orginally thought.
Technique points: Wrists strong, elbows in, feet flat on the floor, engage your core muscles and try not to arch your spine when you lower the bar.
Watch: How to do skullcrushers
4. Incline dumbbell curls
It would have been far too obvious to include regular dumbbell curls on this list, so, while they have a place in any arm workout, I chose to concentrate instead on the incline dumbbell curl, mainly because it isolates the bicep to a greater extent and makes it a lot harder to swing the dumbbells. As such, you might find that you won’t be able to lift the same weight using the incline dumbbell curl.
To set up, get yourself a bench and set it to an incline position (you shouldn’t be sitting upright and you shouldn’t be lying down – somewhere in the middle). Sitting on the bench, grasp a dumbbell in each hand and slowly bring them up to your shoulders. Once you have reached your shoulders, squeeze your bicep before lowering each again slowly. As with any curls, it should be your forearms moving – you should try and keep your upper arms as steady as possible and really concentrate on contracting the bicep
5. Barbell bicep curls
The final exercise I like to include in my arm work repertoire is the barbell bicep curl. This is an awesome exercise because it’s easy to vary your grip to hit different parts of the bicep. Adopting a wide grip will work the inner side of your bicep – also known as the short head – while adopting a narrow grip will work the outer side (the main hump) of your bicep – known as the long head. Saying that, you can also adopt a neutral stance, keeping your elbows, shoulders and grip in alignment, which will work both the long and short heads of the bicep.
Whichever you choose to do, make sure you are lowering the bar all the way down to your thighs and curling it, in a controlled manner, all the way up to your chest, hitting your full range of motion. Try to keep a straight back throughout the movement, keep your feet a shoulder width apart, your head up and your shoulders back. The tendency if you’re lifting too heavy is to lean backwards and swing the barbell up, however, maintaining your technique will ensure that you are getting the most out of the exercise.
Do you have a favourite bicep or tricep exercise? Leave your ideas or questions in the comments below.