You might come up short when you search for the best arm workouts for women. While strength training for women has become more and more popular, most of the focus is on leg exercises and glute exercises, rather than bicep exercises and tricep exercises. But building a stronger upper body is just as important as building muscley legs, FYI.
Studies, including a paper from the Journal of Applied Physiology, show that women typically have less muscle in the upper body than their lower body, although whether this is a result of physiology or training preferences isn’t known. Either way, it’s important to develop muscle strength in your arms.
"Whether you're picking up a baby from a cot or carrying a suitcase up the stairs, upper body strength is fundamental," says Nancy Best, founder of Ladies Who Crunch. "The more our bodies build stability and power in all movements and muscle groups, the more we can minimise our chances of injury."
So, to cut through the noise once and for all, we asked a lineup of top PT's to share their go-to's when it comes to the best arm workouts for women. These include:
- Nancy Best, founder of Ladies Who Crunch
- Monique Eastwood, celebrity trainer and founder of the Eastwood Movement Method and Eastwood Fit app.
- Helen O'Leary, a physiotherapist and clinical Pilates instructor at Complete Pilates.
- Eleanor Heaton-Armstrong, a personal trainer and instructor at F45 Stratford
Plus, I'm Chloe Gray, an expert fitness writer and qualified fitness trainer, so I know my stuff when it comes to the best arm exercises for women.
Best arm workouts for women: your guide
The arms are made up of two main muscles:
- The biceps, which run at the front of your upper arm
- The triceps, running at the back of your upper arm
Strengthening both of these muscles will ensure your strength is well-balanced and prevent injury. The best way to strengthen your upper body is with medium-to-high rep ranges, such as 13 to 20 reps, according to a PLOS One study published earlier this month.
So, what does that mean exactly? Let’s say you perform an exercise 15 times, you can then set the weight down and rest for around a minute before performing another 15 reps. Repeat around two to four sets of each exercise for the best muscle building results.
"I often get asked by clients how they can achieve lean, muscular arms," shares Eastwood. "The answer to this is the same as building any muscle in your body: you need to challenge it and use it in different multi-directional movements for changes to occur. If you really want to see results, try and get into the routine of doing a workout at least three times a week."
8 workouts to try tonight
Ready to give an arm session a go? The below exercises all make up the best workout you can do, according to our team of trainers. More on how to build them into an actual session below.
Bicep curls are one of the best arm workouts because they isolate the muscles, meaning the only thing working will be your biceps. Keep challenging yourself with your weights to reap the benefits.
How to: Begin standing tall with a dumbbell in each hand and a slight bend in your knees. Turn your wrists so your palms are facing away from you.
Bend your elbows to raise the dumbbells, letting your knuckles touch your shoulders. Slowly lower back down.
"I love this exercise as it works your biceps as well as your back, legs and abs which is why it is called a compound movement. This means you get a lot of bang for your buck and will notice the difference everywhere," says O'Leary. "Often people struggle with these but you can loop a heavy resistance bands around the bar and place your feet in it to help pull you up."
How to: Grip a pull up bar with your palms facing towards you. From the hanging position, roll your shoulders down and back and then begin to pull your body up. When your chin is over the bar, slowly lower back down. Ensure your whole body is squeezed and in a straight line as you lift up and down.
"These have multiple benefits from one exercise," says Best. "They strengthen your back and core, as well as your biceps for stronger arms."
How to: Begin in an all fours position with your hands holding on to dumbbells rather than the floor. Brace your core and row your right arm back so your elbow shaves the side of your body, pulling from behind your shoulder blade. Don't rotate through the chest or shoulders.
Lower the weight back down and repeat on the other side. Want it more challenging? Take your feet back into a high plank rather than all-fours.
This is another compound exercise, meaning it doesn't only work your arms but also your shoulders, back and core. However, you'll definitely feel it work your triceps. "Lifting things over our head is really functional. It helps us get things off top shelves and throw and catch," says O'Leary.
How to: Standing in a tall position with your core engaged and feet rooted. Hold a barbell or dumbbells in your hand at shoulder height. Press the weights over head, ensuring you don't flare through the ribs or arch your back. When the arms are straight, slowly lower back down.
"The bench is a fantastic exercise for your chest, shoulders and triceps," says Best. Don't be nervous if you've never used the bench press before. "Start with dumbbell chest press and progress to barbell bench press when you're ready," Best adds.
How to: Lie on a bench with dumbbells or a barbell in your hands. Place your hands either side of your chest with your shoulders back. Brace your core and begin to press the weight away from your chest, towards the ceiling. When your arms are straight, lower back down to the starting position.
A tricep extension is an isolation exercise that will build arm strength. You can do a tricep extension in so many ways — standing, seated, with a dumbbell, barbell or cable. The most important thing is that you control the exercise, moving slowly and really squeezing your triceps.
How to: Hold a dumbbell around one of the heads and lift your arms overhead with your elbows at right angles. Squeeze your elbows towards each other — they shouldn't touch but your biceps should be close to your ears. Lower the weight down towards the nape of your neck then squeeze your triceps to lift the weight back up until your arms are straight overhead.
Triangle press up
According to a study from the American Council on Exercise, the triangle press up is the exercise that most activated the triceps. By placing the hands close together rather than far apart, the triceps are used more than the chest, which makes it the perfect way to mix up your upper body workouts for variety and tricep strength.
"If you can't do a full press up, try not to go on your knees. Instead, slowly change the angle by starting against the wall, then down to the kitchen counter, then a chair base, then footstool and then the floor. Keeping the plank position of your body makes it much more specific," says O'Leary.
How to: Place your hands down on the floor (or wall, chair or other raised surface) with your thumbs and index fingers touching in a triangle position. Keep the other fingers close together.
Kick your feet back into a high plank position. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes as you bend the elbows to lower your upper body to the floor. When you are a few centimetres away, squeeze your arms and extend your elbows to come back to the top of the exercise.
For one of the best arm workouts you can do, pair the above exercises together for a 45 minute session. Work through the exercises one and a time and repeat, or superset by doing move A and B, then repeating.
For instance, your arm workout might look like this:
- 15 reps of bench press superset with 15 reps of bicep curls, repeated three times
- 15 reps of chin ups superset with 15 reps of tricep extensions, repeated three times
- 15 reps of overhead press superset with 15 reps of renegade rows, repeated three times
- 15 reps of bicep curls superset with 15 reps of triangle press ups, repeated three times
Rather do a follow along arm workout for women?
Then the handy YouTube videos below are a great start.
1. 10 minute home arm workout
2. 10 minute dumbbell workout
3. 10 minute kettlebell workout
4. 15 minute resistance band workout with Zanna van Dijk
5. 30 minute home workout with Carly Rowena
6. 45 minute upper body workout with Stef Fit
How to do the best arm workout for women
The best way to piece together an "arm day" is to superset the above exercises. That means doing two different exercises back to back without rest, then putting the weights down and taking a break. Try to pair one tricep exercise with one bicep exercise so your muscles aren't too tired.
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Chloe Gray is a freelance journalist who writes and talks about health, fitness, and wellbeing through a feminist lens. She was part of the launch team for Stylist magazine's fitness brand, Strong Women, and has written for i news, Women's Health, Red magazine, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, and more. She's all about building mental and physical strength, eating delicious food that fuels you well, and making the fitness industry more accessible and enjoyable. She's also a qualified fitness trainer and research nerd, so you can be sure everything you read is backed by proper science.
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