This article is part of the “Body Toning Series,” which comprises of 5 articles. Read part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5 for more information.
When we examine what the best arm workouts are for women, it is important to first understand that men and women react to exercise almost identically in terms of increased muscular strength, overall lean body mass, force output, and energy expenditure. Except for a few extreme cases, our musculoskeletal anatomy and physiology does not vary. The obvious differences lie in that men have more natural testosterone, an extremely anabolic hormone that aids in faster muscle growth. The idea that women will get “big and bulky” from resistance training is false. On the contrary, the absence of as much testosterone in your bodies combined with resistance training will yield muscles both firmer and more toned (1). The more muscle you build, the higher your metabolism will be and the more calories you burn at rest, which in turn helps maintain the muscle that you put on.
Another misconception is that we must get sore in order to make progress or even that you must spend copious amounts of time in the gym per day in order to see any results. When it comes to building lean mass and muscle stimulation, there is no observable difference when it comes to low frequency training vs. high frequency training done in the same volume (2). For example, you can perform 9 sets of shoulder exercises in one day, or you can perform 3 sets of shoulder exercises 3 times per week and get similar results. This is a fantastic discovery that can help you maintain a flexible gym schedule in order to maintain your fitness goals and build toned shoulders when life flips your schedule upside down.
Typically, when we think of the muscles of the arm, we think biceps, triceps, and deltoids. Although these are the main muscle groups, it is important to note that the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi also play a huge role when you’re trying to improve. Why? They both cross the shoulder joint in areas where adipose tissue commonly builds up, especially as we age (under the arms and front/back arm pit areas).
With all things considered, you want to see results. You’re in luck! Not all exercises are the same; by simply changing the position of your arms during a workout, you can maximize the amount of muscle stimulation that occurs. The more muscle we stimulate, the greater we tone and shape the target muscle groups. Therefore, perform exercises that not only stimulate the targeted muscle at the highest rate but also target as many muscle groups as possible at the same time; delivering greater results. For example, one study shows that the Narrow Grip Barbell Bench Press exercise elicits the highest triceps activation of any due to the narrow grip, barbell modality, and elbow extension coupled with 90-degree shoulder flexion positioning (3).
Another study performed by the American Council on Exercise found that out of 7 exercises targeting the bicep, the highest activation came from the Concentration Curl (4). According to the study, this exercise is performed with the back of your upper arm stabilized by your inner thigh – this disallows compensation, and the visual cue of watching your biceps contract gives this exercise an additional advantage over others.
Below are the Top 7 Arm Workouts for you to perform to look great for the coming summer months! If you do not have equipment, no worries! There are several that you can perform without equipment inside of your home:
1. Close Grip Barbell Bench Press: Pectoralis Major, Triceps, Deltoids
- Lie face up on a bench. Hold the bar with your hands roughly 2 thumbs apart and your palms facing away from your head.
- Start with your arms straight above your chest.
- Lower with control until the bar touches your chest. Keep your elbows close to your body.
- Keeping your butt, back, and head in contact with the bench; push the bar back up to the start position.
2. Standing Barbell Shoulder Press: Deltoids, Triceps
- Stand with your feet hip width apart, stomach gently drawn in, and your shoulders down and back.
- Take the barbell at shoulder height with your palms facing away from you. Your hands should be about 1 ½ times shoulder width apart.
- Keeping your core engaged and body upright, push up above your shoulders to a straight arm position.
- Lower with control to the start position.
3. Dumbbell Curl Press: Biceps, Deltoids, Triceps
- Begin in a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Your arms should be hanging at your sides with your palms facing each other.
- Look directly ahead, keeping your chest up and your feet shoulder-width apart. This will be your starting position.
- Initiate the movement by curling at the elbows to bring the dumbbells toward your shoulders.
4. Chin Ups: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps, Deltoids
- Hold the bar with both hands facing you and shoulder width apart.
- Bring your shoulder blades back towards each other and down towards your butt.
- Pull yourself up to the top position. Your chin should be above your hands with your chest pushed out.
- From the top position, lower yourself all the way down with control.
5. Dumbbell Kick Backs: Triceps, Latissimus Dorsi
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand.
- Lean your upper body forward, nearly making your torso parallel with floor, and stand with your knees soft.
- Keeping your arms close to your sides, pull the dumbbells back so that your arms straighten behind you.
- Relax your arms back so that your fists move back towards your chest. This is one rep.
6. Concentration Curls: Biceps
Sit down on a flat bench with one dumbbell in front of you between your legs. Your legs should be spread with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
- Use your right arm to pick up the dumbbell. Place the back of your right upper arm on the top of your inner right thigh. Rotate the palm of your hand until it is facing forward away from your thigh.
- While holding your upper arm stationary, curl the weights forward while contracting your biceps as you breathe out. Only the forearms should move. Continue the movement until your biceps are fully contracted and the dumbbells are at shoulder level.
- Repeat for the recommended number of repetitions. Then repeat the movement with the left arm.
7. Farmer Carries: Deltoids
- There are various implements that can be used for the farmers walk. Begin by standing between the implements.
- After gripping the handles, lift them up by driving through your heels while keeping your back straight and your head up.
- Walk with short, quick steps and don’t forget to breathe.
At Home Alternatives
1. Close Grip Push Ups: Pectoralis Major, Triceps, Deltoids
Come down so that your hands and feet are on the floor.
- Place your hands shoulder width apart.
- Position your hips to form a straight line from your heels to your head.
- Gently draw in your stomach.
- Bend your elbows and lower your body toward the ground. Keep your elbows within 10 degrees from the sides of your body.
- You should come down so that your chest is between your hands.
- Lower until your chest is a small fist away from the ground and then push back up to the start position.
2. Bench Dips: Triceps, Deltoids, Pectoralis Major
- Sit with your palms on the edge of the bench.
- Lower your backside by bending at the elbows, keeping them tucked in.
- Extend your arms again.
3. Hand Walk Outs: Deltoids, Triceps, Pectoralis Major
- From a standing position, put your hands on the ground in front of your toes.
- Gradually walk your hands forward past the press-up position out as far as you can stretch.
- Slowly walk them back in to the starting position.
- Draw your abs in and keep your core engaged throughout the movement.
- Walking out and back counts as one rep.
4. Leg Crawls: Biceps, Latissimus Dorsi, Deltoids
- Lie on your back with one leg completely extended straight up toward the ceiling and the other flat on the ground but also extended.
- With both hands, one-by-one walk your hands up your leg by pulling it and lifting your torso from the floor until you can touch your toes.
- After touching your toes, walk your hands back down your leg in the same fashion and repeat.
5. Prone W – Y’s: Latissimus Dorsi, Deltoids
- Lie face down on a mat and lift your chest slightly off the ground.
- Bend your elbows at 90 degrees and rotate from your shoulders so your hands are as high as possible.
- Bend your elbows as much as you can and bring your shoulders back and down. Your arms and head should now form a W shape.
- Keeping your shoulders back and down, straighten your arms out over your head with your hands kept high. Your arms and body should now form a Y-like shape.
- Come back down into the W position, positioning your chest out and shoulder blades back and down.
Read more from our “Body Toning Series”:
- 8 Simple Fat-Burning and Toning Exercises for Women
- 10 Minute Full Body Workout for Women
- How to Lose Weight While Still Drinking Alcohol
- 8 Highly Effective Ab Workouts Using Just Your Body Weight
- Br J Sports Med. 2006 Sep; 40(9): 742–748. Published online 2006 Jul 19. doi: 1136/bjsm.2004.016709
- Int J Exerc Sci. 2016; 9(2): 159–167. Published online 2016 Apr 1.
- Lehman, G. J., MacMillan, B., MacIntyre, I., Chivers, M., & Fluter, M. (2006). Shoulder muscle EMG activity during push up variations on and off a Swiss ball. Dynamic Medicine, 5(1), 7.
- Scott Young, M.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Clayton Camic, Ph.D., Attila Kovacs, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D. (2014). ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises. Pro Source Magazine.