If you’re aiming to boost your upper body strength, don’t neglect your arms! Strengthening the arm muscles can go a long way when it comes to making it easier to tote around luggage, throw a football, or swing a tennis racket, as well as promoting long-term bone health.
Read on to learn more about your arms — and the best exercises to get them in shape.
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Which Muscles Make Up the Arms?
There are three main sections of the arms, namely the anterior (front), posterior (back), and shoulders, and you want to make sure you’re training all three sections, says Mecayla Froerer, an executive at the fitness technology company iFIT and a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)–certified personal trainer who is based in North Salt Lake, Utah.
In the front, you’ll find the biceps brachii (also known as the biceps), the brachialis muscle, and the coracobrachialis muscle, per StatPearls. The back of the arm contains the triceps brachii (or triceps).The deltoid muscle sits at the top of the shoulder. And the backside of the shoulder is where you’ll find the rotator cuff, which consists of four small muscles: the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor, and the subscapularis.
Each of these muscles plays its own unique and important role to help our arms move in all the various ways we use them throughout the day.
Any pushing, pulling, reaching, or swinging movement of the arms requires a different set of muscles, and training those muscles can help you do everything from carrying a bag of groceries and picking up your dog to holding a plank pose in yoga and opening a heavy door.
“By training all muscle groups of the upper body, you’ll find increased range of motion, which will aid in injury prevention,” Froerer says.
The muscles in your arm also help support your wrists and elbows. “Stronger arms help avoid increased stress and pressure put on the joints by daily tasks like scrolling on your cellphone or chopping vegetables,” says Samantha Parker, an integrative health specialist for the U.S. Air Force and an AFAA-certified personal trainer based in Pointville, New Jersey.
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How to Make the Most of Your Arm Strength Training
Guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend at least two to three nonconsecutive days a week of strength training for the entire body, which includes the arms.
You’ll also need to determine how many sets and reps to do. For general muscle strength, no matter what part of your body you’re training, the ACSM recommends 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions per training session, but Parker notes that you can hone it further, depending on your goals.
For instance, using lighter weights and doing more reps and sets will help build muscular endurance — essentially how long you can work a muscle without fatiguing. On the flip side, if you want to build muscle strength, you’ll want to increase the weight and decrease the reps, she says.
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Here are some other points to keep in mind any time you do upper body exercises:
Avoid locking your elbows. Locking your elbows creates a chain reaction in your body, forcing other joints (namely the wrists and shoulders) to be locked too. “You could strain the surrounding ligament, tendons, and possibly even the cartilage in the joint,” Parker says. For any arm exercise, you want to use the fullest range of motion to work muscles to their fullest potential, she adds.
Check your posture. When you get tired, your posture can start to suffer. Slumping forward causes the shoulders to internally rotate, which could lead to rotator cuff issues. If you try to lift weights in that position, you could exacerbate those issues, Parker says.
Don’t be afraid to choose a lower weight. Don’t add too much weight too quickly, Parker says. One general rule of thumb when selecting a weight? “Choose a weight you can lift while maintaining proper form but [that’s] slightly heavy enough to challenge you,” Froerer says. (A good gauge: The last two repetitions should be difficult to complete with proper form.) If you’re arching your back to finish a curl, holding your breath, or having to inch up onto your tiptoes to complete the exercise, try switching to a lighter weight.
Don’t forget to breathe. Proper breathing is an important part of any workout, so for arm exercises, be sure to exhale as you lift the weight and inhale as you lower it.
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The Best Exercises for Strengthening the Arms
Ready to get those arms in shape? Here are nine exercises from Froerer, plus a sample workout that incorporates all of them.