Many of us turn to cardio as our go-to for body conditioning, often putting strength training, like arm exercises, on the back burner. But when performed properly and regularly, an upper body workout can help build the lean, strong limbs that not only help you achieve the look you want, but improve your range of motion—an essential part of your ability to do everyday tasks with ease. “Strength training helps you get through the day—you’re able to lift a bag of mulch or reach for a cup on the highest shelf. But it also helps you do things you love to do, like hold your grandchild or play tug-of-war with the dog,” says Dawn McCrystal, M.S., an exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.
Effectively strengthening your arms does take more than squeezing in a few push-ups at the end of your workout or using the handlebars on the elliptical machine, though. To ensure that you’re challenging and targeting multiple upper-body muscles, consider incorporating these three effective arm exercises into your workout two or three times a week on nonconsecutive days.
Choosing the right amount of weight to lift when doing these moves ensures that you'll build muscle mass. Whatever you select should leave you feeling a good level of fatigue by the tenth or, at most, twelfth repetition. (If an exertion level of 1 is lifting something very light and 10 is pulling a muscle, you should be working at 7.5 to 8.5.) If you can do more than 15 repetitions with what you have chosen, the weight is too light.
What It Does: Strengthens your biceps
How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees soft and a dumbbell in each hand. Starting with your hands at your sides and your palms facing forward, bend your elbows and curl the weights up to your shoulders. Slowly lower the weights back to starting position, keeping constant tension on the muscle. Your abdominals should be engaged and your spine should remain stable throughout the exercise. Perform 12 to 15 repetitions for each arm; complete three sets.
Keep in Mind: Imagine your elbows are glued to your ribs. Allowing your elbows to jut out takes the emphasis away from the bicep. If you are having trouble staying in proper position, trying using a lighter set of weights.
Be careful not to…sway your whole body. To target the biceps and keep your back safe, only your forearms should be moving during this exercise.
Overhead Tricep Extension
What It Does: Targets your triceps
How to Do It: Start in a split-stance position, knees soft, with one foot in front and the other behind you for balance. Grasp one dumbbell with both hands, your palms wrapped around the handle, and hold it overhead; allow the weight to hang vertically. Your elbows should be straight and pointing forward, but not locked. Without allowing your upper arms to move, slowly bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle so the weight drops behind your head. Then slowly straighten your elbows to return to starting position. Perform 12 to 15 repetitions; complete three sets.
Keep in Mind: Throughout this exercise, be sure to keep your shoulders down and elbows as close to your ears as possible. Letting the elbows drift away from your head takes the focus off the triceps.
Be careful not to…arch your back. Tuck your tailbone under and engage your core to help press straight overhead.
What It Does: Defines your deltoids
How to Do It: With a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees soft. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise your arms slightly in front of you and to your sides until they are parallel to the floor and your body is in a Y-formation. Pause for a second, then slowly lower your arms to starting position. Perform 12 to 15 repetitions; complete three sets.
Keep in Mind: Think about tilting the dumbbells a touch and leading the movement with your pinkies, as if you were about to pour a pitcher of water. This trick will help keep your elbows above your wrists and, as a result, the attention on the lateral head of the deltoids (the top of your shoulder that originates from your collarbone).
Be careful not to…lift too much weight. If your elbows are dropping in order to gain momentum and push the dumbbells upward, they’re too heavy. In order to build muscle, however, it is critical to lift a weight that is heavy enough to challenge you. If you can do more than 12 repetitions with the weight you selected, it’s too light.