Bodybuilding can be a chore, there’s no doubt about it. Hitting the iron day in, day out, and sticking to a program (not to mention following a meal plan or specific diet) is as much of a test of willpower as it is work ethic.
That drudgery can extend to your exercises of choice as well. If you’re trying to grow your arms or are preparing for your first bodybuilding show, you’ve probably done more dumbbell curls than you can count.
Consistency is all well and good, but if you’re bored to tears by your workouts, you may not apply as much effort as you once did. This means gains lost and time wasted. If that sounds familiar, it’s time to switch things up. Try out these six unique arm exercises for bodybuilding to reinvigorate your love for the iron game.
Unique Arm Exercises for Bodybuilding
The run-of-the-mill barbell curl is a bodybuilding staple, but making a small adjustment to your technique can pay dividends and tax your biceps in a new way. The drag curl requires you to pull your elbows backward to “drag” a barbell up your body.
[Read More: What You Need to Know About How to Build Muscle]
Motion at both the elbow and shoulder joints will stimulate your biceps differently, since the muscle attaches to your scapula. Drag curls are also easy to learn and convenient to perform; all you need is a barbell and some space to stand.
How to Do the Drag Curl
Stand upright with a straight or cambered barbell in your hands as if you were about to perform a standard biceps curl.
Initiate the curl by driving your elbows backward, rather than curling the bar out and up.
Pull your elbows back to “drag” the bar up your torso until your forearms are roughly parallel with the ground.
Coach’s Tip: The key here is to hyperextend, but not elevate, your shoulder. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears during the drag curl.
Sets and Reps: Try higher repetitions here since you can’t use very much weight — go for 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
Hammer curls are renowned for their ability to thicken your arms and forearms. The technique of the hammer curl, during which you bend your arm with your palms facing each other, puts your brachialis center-stage. You can double down on this idea and play to the strengths of the hammer curl even further by holding a kettlebell instead.
When you do kettlebell hammer curls, the majority of the resistance is suspended in front of your hands, rather than above them. This creates a longer moment arm and more torque at the elbow joint.
As a result, your brachialis and forearms have to work much harder, even with a lighter weight. What’s more, the kettlebell hammer curl is a great way to get a free grip workout in, since half the challenge is in holding the weight “incorrectly.”
How to Do the Kettlebell Hammer Curl
Stand upright with your arms down at your sides and a kettlebell in each hand.
With your palms facing your midline and your upper arms tucked tightly to your torso, bend your elbows to curl the weights up.
Maintain a straight wrist and curl until your forearm is perpendicular to the floor. Pause for a moment at the top.
Coach’s Tip: The kettlebell hammer curl gets progressively harder the higher you lift the weights. Start lighter than you think you need here.
Sets and Reps: Try 2 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions on this one.
A good biceps workout can do more than just add inches to your arms. The Zottman curl is a stellar option for all-in-one arm training and puts a new twist — literally, that is — on a movement you may be a bit bored with.
Zottman curls engage your biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis all at once. They also load a range of motion you may not be familiar with, since most standard curls don’t require you to rotate the weights as you move your arms.
How to Do the Zottman Curl
Take a seat with a pair of dumbbells in each hand, palms facing forward, upper arms tucked snugly to your torso.
Perform a standard dumbbell curl by bending your elbows and drawing the weights upward.
Once you reach the top, rotate your palms and turn the weights over. Then, lower the dumbbells back down with the backs of your hands facing the ceiling.
At the bottom, twist again to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Coach’s Tip: You can twist your wrists at the top while the weights are motionless, or dynamically as you’re lowering them down.
Sets and Reps: Grab some light dumbbells and go for higher reps. Try 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
It may not be practical in a busy gym, but if you can get ahold of two cable pulley stations, give this exercise a try. The overhead cross-cable triceps extension provides you with unparalleled muscular tension and doesn’t require excessive shoulder mobility either.
Cables are a bodybuilder’s best friend for their convenience and versatility. Single-arm training lets you address muscular imbalances. Overhead triceps exercises are essential for developing a fully-fledged horseshoe. This exercise hits all three beats at once.
How to Do the Overhead Cross-Cable Triceps Extension
Grab ahold of the ball fixture of a cable station; one in each hand. Take a step back to pull the cable taut.
Your arms should be crossed in front of you, holding the opposing-side cable. Lift your arms over your head and twist your body around, bending your elbows in the process.
Here, you should be facing away from the cable stations with your right arm holding the cable that’s pulling left and vice versa. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor.
Extend your elbows until your arms are straight. When you’re done with your set, untwist yourself carefully and return the cables to the station.
Coach’s Tip: The setup is the most difficult part here. Take some time to finesse it properly.
Sets and Reps: You won’t be able to lift heavily. Do 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions.
The skull crusher is one of the best all-around triceps-builders out there. However, it suffers from the same issue as any free-weight exercise — an inconsistent resistance curve. You can sidestep this issue and blast your triceps by heading to a cable station instead.
[Read More: How to Bulk: The Ultimate Guide to Gaining Size]
Working with a cabled bar instead of a free bar will provide consistent mechanical tension to your triceps from start to finish. You can also use a rope attachment to alleviate some wrist pain if standard skull crushers cause you issues.
How to Do the Cable Skull Crusher
Align a bench with a cable tree such that the head of the bench is about a foot away from the column.
Fix the cable attachment below the head of the bench, but not all the way on the floor, with a straight or cambered bar.
Grab the bar and straddle the bench, twisting your body around in the process and carefully lying down.
Once you’re lying on the bench with your arms straightened vertically, bend your elbows and drop the handle down towards your forehead.
Coach’s Tip: You can also ask a spotter to hand you the handle manually while you lie down on the bench.
Sets and Reps: Go for 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps here.
Named for renowned strength athlete Jm Blakely, this non-standard triceps exercise makes great use of the barbell and exploits the downward force of gravity to your benefit. You’re working with the barbell, but the JM press is more like an upside-down close-grip push-up than anything else.
This exercise makes for a great triceps-builder that you don’t need a lot of weight for. It’s also suitable as a bench press accessory exercise if you train for strength.
How to Do the JM Press
Unrack an empty barbell from a bench press station with a narrow, shoulder-width (or closer) grip.
Lower it downward slowly by dropping your elbows and deliberately pushing them forward.
Once the barbell is within a few inches of your face, reverse the motion and squeeze your triceps to return it to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Your forearms should be nearly parallel to the floor at the bottom of the JM press.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 sets of 8 reps to begin with on this one.
Arm Warm-Up for Bodybuilding
One of the best things about an arm workout is it doesn’t come with a bunch of prerequisites. You generally don’t need to go through a robust warm-up sequence to access specific ranges of motion; curls and pressdowns are single-joint movements, after all.
However, a good warm-up can elevate any training session. So, to maximize your bodybuilding potential and set yourself up for success, blast through this sequence before beginning your next bodybuilding arm workout.
How to Train Your Arms for Bodybuilding
For the recreational (or competitive) bodybuilder, arm training is an art. You can mindlessly cruise through your arm workouts, sure, but applying more effort and care — like a sculptor working a stone — will heighten your results.
Arm Exercise Selection
There’s no “magic” arm-building exercise for bodybuilding. Your biceps and triceps both act on the elbow (and shoulder, to some degree) joint and are usually isolation moves. There’s some nuance at play, but your best bet is to select arm exercises that feel comfortable and sustainable to perform.
For instance, you may experience wrist or elbow discomfort when you perform curls with a straight barbell. In the event that opting for dumbbells or a cambered bar alleviates those issues, there’s no reason at all for you to stick with the straight bar.
However, there are some caveats. Both the biceps and triceps muscles cross your shoulder joint. As such, the position of your upper arm relative to your torso will impact which parts of those muscles receive the most stimulation. You should try to include at least one curl exercise with your arm behind your torso and one triceps extension with your arm above your head for optimal growth.
Arm Training Sets and Reps
You shouldn’t get too addicted to the pump during your arm workouts, despite how good it feels to blow your arms up and stretch your shirt sleeves. High-repetition training has its place, but lifting too light may rob you of the stimulation you need to elicit muscle hypertrophy.
For Free Weight Curls or Extensions: Stick with 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions.
When Using Cables of Machines: Up your reps a bit and go for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions.
The nature of the exercise you’re performing will largely impact your rep range and intensity. Intricate exercises with complex setups, like a single-armed Bayesian cable curl (a great selection for the long head of your biceps), aren’t suited for heavy sets of five or six reps since the technique naturally limits loading potential.
Arm Training Tips for Bodybuilding
Don’t get it twisted: Having the right exercises in-hand in the first place will produce the majority of your arm training results. However, there are a few ways you can amplify your gains. Stick to these principles of proper arm training
Find the Angle
Small adjustments to your posture can dramatically improve how a biceps or triceps exercise feels. Every athlete has a unique anatomical structure; your muscles don’t originate and insert in the exact same places as, say, your spotter’s.
As such, you should take time to fiddle with your technique to optimize your mind-muscle connection. Research shows that consciously focusing on contracting a muscle during training may help it grow. (1)
Provided, of course, that you still adhere to the main principles of whatever movement you’re performing.
Do More With Less
Your arms contribute significantly to the overall appearance of your physique. That said, your biceps and triceps are still relatively small in terms of cross-sectional area. What’s more, you also stimulate them to some degree during most pulling and pushing movements (think the barbell row or overhead press).
Therefore, you can get by with less training volume than you might initially think — as long as you keep your training intensity high. Your biceps, for instance, are actually composed of mostly type-II, fast-twitch fibers, which respond well to heavier lifting on average. (2)
If your arms are a weak point in your physique, by all means, hammer them a bit more than other muscle groups. But generally speaking, somewhere between eight and 15 weekly sets for your biceps and triceps is more than enough to spark growth. (3)
Mix Up Your Equipment
Strength athletes like powerlifters or weightlifters are sworn to the barbell. As a bodybuilder, you have no such commitment. When you select your arm exercises for bodybuilding, ensure that you’re incorporating a wide variety of equipment.
Free-weight arm exercises like the barbell curl or JM press let you lift heavily; do them at the start of your session. As you tire out, opt for cable and machine movements that provide more external stability. These tools also afford you more unique exercise options since they aren’t bound by the downward force of gravity.
Benefits of Training Your Arms
If you train your arms with the intent of muscle growth, you can expect, well…bigger arms. On the one hand; sold. But the benefits of arm training, even solely for bodybuilding, don’t end there.
Your arms are as trainable as any other muscle group and adhere to the principles of muscular hypertrophy. As the saying goes: “If you build it, they will come.”
There’s a vein of thought in weight room culture that suggests that you don’t need to perform isolation exercises to grow your arms. You may have heard that heavy bench presses, pull-ups, and other compound exercises do the trick.
[Read More: Get Freakishly Strong With the 5×5 Workout Program]
There’s some truth to this. Your biceps and triceps play important — but secondary — roles during upper-body compound exercises, but they’re never the star of the show. Most of the mechanical tension will be applied to the prime movers of those exercises. If focused stimulation is the best way to guarantee growth (spoiler, it is), you need to do your arm-specific exercises.
A Balanced, Proportioned Physique
Muscular, defined arms are ubiquitously essential to bodybuilding, no matter what division you’re pursuing or how broad your gym-related goals are. From the Men’s Open, which houses the biggest bodybuilders in the world, to women’s Bikini, which covets a more slender look, you’d be hard-pressed to find an athlete who doesn’t train their arms directly in some capacity.
Underdeveloped or unremarkable arms stick out like a sore thumb. Neglecting your biceps and triceps may impact the visual “flow” of your physique or cause your torso to appear larger than you’d like. If you prioritize aesthetics above all, you’d better be training your arms.
Stronger Pulls and Presses
Bodybuilders don’t care too much for strength development, but that’s no reason to slack off on heavy training. After all, the entire ethos of powerbuilding revolves around pushing your strength potential and going for a sick pump afterward.
Direct arm training will strengthen your biceps and triceps. These muscles play important roles in just about every single upper-body exercise you do. If your triceps are lacking, you’ll find it difficult to hit a new 1-rep max on the bench press, and the same holds true for rowing a heavy barbell or dumbbell.
Anatomy of the Arms
You use your biceps to curl and your triceps to press. Is that the end of the story? Well, sort of. Your arm musculature may not be as complex as the tissues around your hip or shoulder, but there’s still nuance under the hood that you need to pay attention to if you want to maximize your muscle gain.
Your biceps brachii are the quintessential mirror muscle. Located on the anterior surface (that’s the front) of your upper arm, your biceps connect across the elbow and shoulder joints. You’ve probably been flexing your biceps since you were little and are no stranger to making them pop.
Note, though, that the biceps brachii crosses two joints. This means that the angle and position of those joints will impact the leverage and activation of your biceps. As you rotate your wrist, your biceps are pulled taut; that’s why supinated, palms-up curls or curls with your arm behind your body create so much tension.
Brachialis and Forearms
The brachialis lies underneath your biceps and is actually the principal elbow flexor. As your brachialis only crosses your elbow, you can’t bias it any more (or less) by changing your shoulder position.
[Read More: How to Do the Dumbbell Shoulder Press]
However, you can engage your brachialis (and the musculature in your forearms) by performing curls with a neutral, palms-inward grip. Doing so puts a bit of slack in your biceps and allows your brachialis to shine.
Your three-headed (hence, tri-ceps) triceps brachii muscle lies on the back of your upper arm and performs elbow extension. When your biceps work to curl your elbow up, your triceps lengthen and relax, and vice-versa.
Any exercise that involves straightening your arm will engage your triceps, including all manner of pressing exercises in addition to triceps-specific moves like the skull crusher.
Notably, one head of your triceps, the long head, crosses the shoulder joint and attaches to your scapula. As such, lifting your arm above your head will bias this section of the muscle. If you want complete, three-dimensional triceps development, you need to do at least one exercise with your shoulder in a flexed position. Some data even shows that overhead triceps training is more effective at building muscle than exercises like the triceps pressdown. (4)
More Training Content
A skin-tearing arm pump puts a special spring in your step. The first time you experienced it, you probably did cartwheels leaving the gym. However, there are only so many ways to skin a cat and so many curls you can do before things become a bit dull.
However, that doesn’t mean your arm training needs to be a chore. Get a bit creative with your exercise selection with these unique bodybuilding arm exercises to breathe new life into your training sessions — and reap some new gains in the process.
Want more training content like this? Try some of these related articles from BarBend:
Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., Winkelman, N., & Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European journal of sport science, 18(5), 705–712.
Klein, C. S., Marsh, G. D., Petrella, R. J., & Rice, C. L. (2003). Muscle fiber number in the biceps brachii muscle of young and old men. Muscle & nerve, 28(1), 62–68.
Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 35(11), 1073–1082.
Maeo, S., Wu, Y., Huang, M., Sakurai, H., Kusagawa, Y., Sugiyama, T., Kanehisa, H., & Isaka, T. (2022). Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position. European journal of sport science, 1–11. Advance online publication.
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