Biceps curls ain’t all that. Not only do you look like a wannabe bodybuilder, they aren’t that effective when it comes to building serious muscle on your arms. Performed right, it’s an isolation exercise, hitting just the bicep. But unless you’re already strong, you’ll struggle to curl enough weight to make an improvement without other muscles helping out. Or you’re going to have to hit Ron Burgundy numbers.
So, what arm exercises should you be doing instead? We asked top PT Tom Eastham for the best arm exercises that don’t require doing over a thousand.
“The quickest route to toned arms is to use all available muscles,” says Eastham. “The humble press-up engages your pecs, triceps and deltoids, maximising efficiency in your workout by using all three at once.”
How to do it: Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width and lower yourself until your elbows are at 90 degrees. Push back up, fully extending your arms.
Pro tip: Brace your abs and squeeze your glutes to get your core involved and help build your six-pack too.
“The same principle behind using the press-up for your arms workout: more muscles used equals a more effective move,” says Eastham. “This time the emphasis is on your biceps and back to help build a Superman-style V-shape torso, to complement your guns.”
How to do it: Place a barbell in a squat rack at waist height. Lie underneath it with the barbell above your chest. Grip the bar with both hands and pull yourself up, keeping your heels on the floor and your body straight. Slowly lower yourself down.
Pro tip: Brace and squeeze like with the press-up, but also pause for a couple of seconds at the top of the move and tense your biceps, to get the most benefit from each rep.
“Another compound movement, this also builds your shoulders so your biceps don’t look oversized compared to the rest of your upper-body,” says Eastham.
How to do it: Stand with you feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell at shoulder height, with your palms facing upwards. Extend your arms up above your head to lift the barbell, keeping the rest of your body in the same position (if you find yourself using your legs, use a lighter weight). Slowly lower the barbell back to the start position.
Pro tip: Take five seconds to slowly lower the weight, to increase time under tension and build more muscle.
“Yes, it’s tough. But that’s why it’s so effective,” says Eastham. “Specifically targeting the side and top of your shoulders, this move helps improve arm definition beyond the Popeye muscles.”
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Raise your arms up and out to the sides as if spreading wings, until they’re just below shoulder height. Slowly lower your arms back to just above the start position.
Pro tip: Don’t cheat. Keep a slight bend at the elbow and don’t raise the dumbbell too high, or lower it enough to relieve tension throughout the movement. And no swinging your body to bounce the weight up. If you can’t lift it, then use lighter weights.
“This exercise focuses on the triceps, which are located behind the biceps,” says Eastham. “Build these and your whole arm will be massive, not just the bit poking out your T-shirt sleeve.”
How to do it: Using a front-facing cable machine, hold the bar and stand upright, with your back straight and your elbows tucked into your sides. Place one foot in front of the other for balance. Pull the cable down until your hands touch your thighs, then slowly return to the start position.
Pro tip: Get the most from this by locking your shoulders in position and not using them at all. Do it with a light weight and keep the movement slow and controlled. It’s easier if you do it faster, but that’s cheating.
“The ultimate biceps move,” says Eastham. “Time and time again, studies have found this to be the real way to guarantee entry to the gun show. It generates significantly higher muscle activation (97 per cent) in the biceps than any other move. It’s the best. Full stop.”
How to do it: Sit on a bench with your legs shoulder-width apart and feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in one hand with your arm straight down to the floor, resting on the inside of the same side leg. Keeping your elbow where it is, raise the dumbbell up and across your body towards your chest. Slowly lower it back to the start position.
Pro tip: Keep your back as straight as possible. This isn’t a back move, it’s the ultimate biceps move.