The best arm exercises for strong and toned arms 

Our personal trainer walks you through the best exercises for toning your arms, how to do them and a sample workout.

Exercise helps us to look good and feel good. As a personal trainer, a common goal I hear is “I want to tone my arms”, or “I want bigger biceps”. It’s not uncommon for people to feel self-conscious about their arms and cover them up with longer sleeves, even during hot weather.  

But improvements to your arms’ appearance can be achieved by adding the right exercises to your regime.  

I love working my upper body. There are so many benefits to strength training and for me, the ability to lift heavy things with relative ease is right up there, along with the confidence it brings.  

Lady flexing her bicepsCredit: Shutterstock / Krakenimages.com

Exercise: varied arm exercises 

Equipment needed: dumbbells, optional kettlebells and resistance bands. You can use water bottles in place of dumbbells, but just make sure you can grip them properly.  

Level: suitable for all levels 

Areas worked: biceps, triceps (under arms), forearms, deltoids (front top of shoulders), grip 

Top tips before you begin the best arm exercises

  • Make sure you’re properly warmed up before exercising.  
  • If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or injuries, please get clearance from your doctor before starting a new exercise regime. 
  • When performing the exercises below, you’ll know the weight is too heavy if you find yourself having to swing the weights, dip your knees to help you, or shrug your shoulders. If any of these happens, set the weight down and pick up something lighter.  
  • Shoulders and ears aren’t friends (I’ll repeat this forever!): keep your shoulders relaxed.

8 best arm exercises – and how to do them

1. Overhead triceps extension

Woman holding weight behind head and lifting it up and downCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: triceps (small muscles on underside of arms) 

  1. Pick one medium dumbbell and hold it with both hands.  
  2. Extend your arms overhead. 
  3. Keeping the elbows as close to your head as possible, extend the weight down your back, behind your head.  
  4. Bring the weight back to the starting position, then repeat. 

Modifications/variations: Use a lighter weight if needed, a pair of dumbbells to challenge yourself, or the cable machine for a heavier weight. 

2. Tricep pushdown

Works: triceps, core 

  1. Set the cable machine at the top of the rack and attach a straight bar. 
  2. Pick a medium to heavy weight. 
  3. Using an overhand grip, pull the bar down to waist height. 
  4. With your elbows pinned tight to your sides, push the bar down towards your knees using only your forearms. 
  5. Bring it back up to waist level and repeat. 

Modifications/variations: Use the rope attachment on the cable machine instead. As you pull down, think about splitting the rope – but keep those elbows tight to your side.  

3. Close grip press

Woman lying on bench pressing a pair of dumbbells overheadCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: triceps, deltoids (front of shoulders), biceps 

  1. Pick a medium set of dumbbells and lie on a bench or floor with your knees bent and feet flat. 
  2. Bring your elbows tight to your sides, arms bent at 90 degrees, fists facing the ceiling. 
  3. Press the dumbbells up, keeping a straight line, until arms are fully extended. 
  4. Bring them back to starting position, then repeat. 

Modifications/variations: You can alternate arms for stabilisation work. You could also use a resistance band for this exercise – lie with the band across your back, just above waist height, hold the handles and press from there. 

4. Bicep curl

Woman doing a dumbbell bicep curlCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: biceps

  1. Stand tall, with your feet firmly planted about hip-width apart.   
  2. Hold a pair of medium dumbbells at your side, palms facing out.  
  3. Keep your shoulders relaxed, elbows tight to your sides. 
  4. Curl the weights up by bending your elbows, until they come nearly to your shoulders.  
  5. Keeping the same level of tension, lower the weights back to the starting position, then repeat.  

Modifications /variations: You can use a barbell for the same exercise. You can also vary your hand position, turning your palms in to face each other to perform hammer curls instead. You can also perform this seated.  

5. Zottman curls

Woman doing a zottman curl with dumbbells, curling the weights up, turning and pushing downCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: biceps, forearms 

  1. Standing tall, curl light weights as if performing a bicep curl (see above). 
  2. Turn the weights so your palms face down (overhand grip) and bring them back to the starting position.  
  3. Repeat. 

Modifications/ variations: You can perform this exercise seated, but you’ll miss out on making the core muscles work.  

6. Bicep curl to overhead press

Woman performing a bicep curl to overhead press with dumbbellsCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: biceps, triceps, deltoids 

  1. Standing tall, curl medium weights up as if you were performing a bicep curl (see above).  
  2. At the top of the curl, turn the weights so your palms face away from you. 
  3. Press the weights overhead. 
  4. Bring them back down, reverse the hands, then curl the weights back down to the starting position. 
  5. Repeat. 

Modifications/variations: You can alternate arms on this exercise. 

7. Lateral raise

Woman lifting a pair of dumbbells out to the sideCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: biceps, triceps, deltoids, forearms 

  1. Standing tall with feet firmly planted, hold a light pair of dumbbells by your side. 
  2. Keeping the elbows relaxed, lift the arms to shoulder height. 
  3. Lower back down and repeat. 
  4. Avoid shrugging the shoulders or swinging the weights. 
  5. If it helps, think of yourself doing an impression of a pterodactyl flying – I do, every time! 

Modifications/variations: Use lighter dumbbells if needed. 

8. Farmer’s walks

Woman carrying two kettlebellsCredit: Saga Exceptional

Works: forearms, grip, biceps, triceps, core 

  1. Place two weights on the floor, either side of your feet – ideally kettlebells but dumbbells will do. 
  2. Squat to pick them up (knees bent, back straight). 
  3. Squeezing the handles, walk at least 20 paces forward. 
  4. There is no limit to how far you can walk, but do rest when it’s enough! 
  5. Keep your shoulders down, chest lifted, tummy tight.  

Modifications/variations: You can offset the weights – use one heavier and one lighter – for an extra challenge to your core muscles. Just remember to put the weights down and swap sides! You can also march on the spot if space is an issue.  

An easy five-minute arm workout to follow

Set a timer for five minutes and perform the following circuit as many times as possible in that time. Rest 20 seconds between moves (that will be transition time). 

  • Farmer’s walk – walk or march for 30 seconds  
  • Bicep curls – 8 reps 
  • Close grip press – 8 reps 
  • Lateral raises – 10 reps  

Best arm exercises FAQs

What weight should I use?

For the arm exercises below, you’ll need a variety of weight sizes. How heavy or light the weight you lift is depends on three things: your ability, the size of the muscles being worked, and the distance of the weight from your body.  

Some muscles, such as the triceps, are relatively small. If you’re performing an exercise that isolates these, you’ll need a lighter weight. On the other hand, if you’re performing something like a barbell bicep curl, where the biceps, triceps and deltoids all work together, you can use a heavier weight.  

It’s harder to hold a weight at arm’s length from the body than it is against the chest. You might remember learning about the lever and fulcrum in science at school, and it’s the same principle. For that reason, exercises like the lateral raise (see below) will use significantly lighter weights than a close grip dumbbell press.  

As a guide, pick a weight that challenges you but isn’t impossible. You should be able to complete all repetitions (reps) with good form and proper technique. If the required number of reps is eight, then by number five it should start to feel like an effort. By the eighth repetition, you should need to put the weights down for a rest.  

How many repetitions should I do?

The number of sets and repetitions for any of the exercises depends on your ability, the weight used, and your goals. For beginners, a strength training workout can consist of five or six exercises, with three sets of each. For arm exercises, a good rep range is between eight and 12.  

For seasoned lifters, or those training for pure strength (not cardio), heavier is better. A five-by-five approach works well here: five sets of five reps. On the flip side, for those using arm exercises as part of a cardio workout (such as Body Pump, circuit training or HIIT), lighter weights and more reps is the goal. Think three or four rounds of between 12 and 15 reps (remember, light weights!).  

However you structure your workout, rest is important. Even if you don’t feel you need it, take it. Our central nervous system works hard in strength training and it needs time to recover between lifts. Rest for around 45-60 seconds between sets if you’re using light to medium weights, and two minutes or more if using heavier weights.  

How do I build these exercises into a workout?

For beginners, a full-body workout is a good choice. That way, no body part gets exhausted and you’re less prone to injury. Always work from the largest muscle group down to the smallest, so start with leg exercises (as they’re the biggest muscles) then chest, shoulders, arms and finally core. Try and pair exercises that work separate parts of the arm, so a bicep curl and a triceps pushdown work well together, as you’re using the front and back of the arms.  

If you’re only focusing on your upper body, you could include several of the exercises listed below. Again, start with the largest muscles (chest or back), then shoulders, then arms.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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