The CrossFit methodology is built around the idea that your workout movements should be highly functional. You’ll use compound, full-body exercises to generate the most power and functional strength from your fingers to your toes. This method delivers the most bang-for-buck results when you’re trying to develop general fitness, endurance, and the overall grit you see on display at the CrossFit Games.
While focusing on big compound movements is an effective way to train, you might be missing out on your full potential if you neglect arm training. Having jacked arms can feel awesome, but CrossFit is focused on what you can do — not what you look like.
This often results in the avoidance of direct arm training, as some see it as a non-functional vanity method. But training your arms directly can help improve CrossFit performance and reduce any imbalances that might come from all that barbell work.
Arm exercises may not provide the heart-pumping drama of a difficult WOD (workout of the day). But these 12 best arm exercises for CrossFitters will help you directly improve your strength and endurance — making you that much better at your functional compound movements.
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Best Arm Exercises for CrossFitters
Below are 12 arm movements you can use to compliment your CrossFit training.
Biceps Exercises for CrossFitters
Triceps Exercises for CrossFitters
- Bar Dip
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Ring Skull Crusher
- Dumbbell Skull Crusher
- Dumbbell Tate Press
- Barbell JM Press
- Banded Triceps Pushdown
Why Should CrossFitters Train Their Arms?
Arm training isn’t just about popping your shirt sleeves. Your triceps are a major part of upper body pressing and overhead stability — both huge parts of CrossFit. Stronger and bigger triceps can assist with dips, handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, presses, push presses, jerks, and more.
Your biceps are essential for upper body pulling. Building strength and muscle in your biceps can assist with pull-ups, rope climbs, muscle-ups, cleans, and snatches (especially from the hang position).
Because they’re relatively small compared to other muscles in your back and legs, your triceps and biceps might not be getting enough love during your regular WODs. You don’t want your arms to become the limiting factor in your performance. Training them directly allows you to raise the floor of your skill, strength, and endurance level so that your overall CrossFit performance can get even better.
Biceps Exercises for CrossFitters
One doesn’t normally associate CrossFit with biceps curls. But that doesn’t mean that CrossFitters can’t benefit from some good old-fashioned biceps bodybuilding work. Here are the best biceps exercises to get CrossFitters the extra arm strength they need for all that pulling.
CrossFit involves a lot of dynamic kipping. This lets you bang out more reps faster, but kipping can also take a big toll on your shoulders. Strict pulling work is a great way to help maintain shoulder and arm health, strength, and mobility.
Chin-ups work on shoulder mobility, strict pulling strength, and biceps building all at once. This is still a functional movement, which will result in more full-body development than a targeted isolation movement.
Benefits of the Chin-up
- Mobility: Hanging with your hands in a supinated grip (palms up), forces your shoulders into external rotation. This will develop mobility in your lats, shoulders, forearms, and wrists.
- Full-Body Strength: Since the chin-up is still a functional movement, it will target your biceps while also building incredible strength in your upper back, shoulders, and core.
- Coordination: The chin-up starting position can help teach the correct pulling sequence for athletes to initiate the movement from your lats to your hands.
How to Do the Chin-up
Hang from a pull-up bar with your hands in a supinated grip (palms up). Position your hands just outside shoulder width, with your arms fully extended overhead. Keep your midline in a rigid hollow position throughout the duration of the movement. You can do this by tucking your pelvis under and squeezing your glutes.
Pull your chin higher than the bar and lower yourself down to a fully hanging, extended position to complete each rep. Initiate each pull from your core to your extremities, starting with your lats, then your shoulders, finally finishing with your arms.
Assistance work doesn’t have to be repetitive and boring. Utilizing ring curls will add variation into your arm training and introduce a new stimulus to your body.
The motion of this exercise closely mimics the coordination of ring muscle-ups, where your midline is kept stable while your upper body finishes the movement with a pull. This is a great biceps-specific exercise that still can transfer skills to higher level movements.
Benefits of the Ring Curl
- Body Control: Bodyweight training helps to improve body awareness and core stability. This movement forces you into a reverse plank position. The isometric stability element is unique in its ability to challenge your posterior chain.
- Easy to Modify: It’s easy to control the difficulty based on your foot position, making it more convenient than needing to load a barbell or swap out dumbbells between sets.
- Convenience: Most CrossFit gyms have rings hanging from a rig at all times. This means you can quickly hit some assistance work at the end of a session with no set-up or clean-up time.
How to Do the Ring Curl
Grab a pair of rings in a supinated grip (palms facing up). Make sure the rings are roughly a forearm’s distance from each other. Walk yourself away from the rig and lean your weight back with the feet flat on the ground. You can make the loading more difficult by moving your feet in towards the rig or make things easier by walking further away.
When you find a distance that feels comfortable, brace your midline by squeezing your glutes and crunching your abs down. Keeping your elbows in a fixed position, curl your hands towards your shoulders until your elbows have passed a 90-degree angle. Squeeze your biceps at this peak position. Lower yourself back down to the starting position with control.
Training your arms doesn’t need to be complicated. There’s a reason the old-school movements are still around, as they produce incredible results. The dumbbell hammer curl is one of these OG movements that’s a wise add to your regular arm training.
Having a strong grip is essential in CrossFit, as it helps with all gymnastics hanging and pulling exercises. You also need a great grip for movements that utilize barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. The hammer curl will strengthen both your biceps and forearms, making it a powerful grip enhancer.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Hammer Curl
- Forearm and Grip Strength: The neutral grip (palms facing each other) targets the forearm muscles that assist with functional pulling exercises and Olympic lifting. This is unique to other curling movements where your hands are typically set with your palms up.
- Elbow Health: Maintaining a neutral grip helps with wrist stability and can put less pressure on your wrists and elbows due to the natural alignment with your elbows in this position.
- Variety: This movement can be done in several different ways. You can curl both dumbbells at the same time or you alternate arms to focus on each side independently. You can also curl across your chest to target different parts of your arms.
How to Do the Dumbbell Hammer Curl
Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your sides and your arms fully extended. Squeeze the dumbbells tight and curl the front head of the dumbbell up towards your biceps.
Keep your wrist alignment straight and keep your elbows from moving forwards or backwards. Once the dumbbells have passed a 90-degree angle at your elbows, squeeze at the peak of the movement and lower back down to the starting position with control.
Training with bands is less sexy than moving free weights, but the value of resistance bands cannot be overlooked. Rotating in band work is a great way to give your joints a break from free weights and help accelerate recovery — which is especially essential for CrossFitters.
If you’ve done a lot of pressing in your training week, using banded hammer curls is a great way to counteract some of the damage done to the pressing muscle groups. By flushing the antagonist muscle groups with fresh blood flow, you’ll help to relieve some of the stress to your joints and get your body ready for another week of training.
Benefits of the Banded Hammer Curl
- Low Impact: Bands provide an extremely low impact alternative to free weight training. This is a great way to help come back to the gym after a break or to use high rep burnout sets without high impact.
- Consistent Tension: The resistance of the band is not dictated by gravity the same way free weights are. As the band is stretched in a movement, the resistance actually increases, which is the opposite to how free weight exercises are.
- Travel Friendly: This is perhaps the most convenient equipment to perform additional arm work. You can easily travel with a band or use this at the end of a training session if you’re pressed for time.
How to Do the Banded Hammer Curl
Grab a looped resistance band and stand on one end of the band with your feet approximately hip-width apart. Grab the other end of the band with each hand, roughly a foot apart from each other. Face your palms together and start with your arms fully extended. Execute the movement exactly the same as the dumbbell hammer curl.
The king of curl exercises is the barbell curl. This is the most classic way to train the bicep curl and it should not be forgotten.
Maintaining a stable grip on the barbell will help prepare your elbows for higher impact movements like snatches and jerks, where you’ll be receiving a heavy load overhead with extended arms.
Benefits of the Barbell Curl
- Heavier Weights: Barbells allow more loading, so you’ll be able to do this movement with heavier weight than you would a pair of dumbbells. This will allow you to develop a foundation of strength to build muscle on.
- Balanced Biceps Development: The barbell curl targets both the short and long head of the biceps, leading to well balanced overall development.
- Elbow Health: The barbell curl is a great way to create more stability in the elbow joint.
How to Do the Barbell Curl
Hold a barbell in front of your body with your hands in a supinated grip (palms up), and your arms fully extended. Curl the barbell up towards your upper chest until you begin to feel a loss in tension (over 90 degrees).
At the top of the movement, squeeze your biceps and lower back down to the starting position with control. Keep your wrist alignment straight and keep your elbows from moving forwards or backwards. Squeeze your glutes to prevent your lower back from overarching.
Triceps Exercises for CrossFitters
The bar dip is a foundational upper body movement that is often underutilized in the CrossFit space. Add it into your training to build and maintain a solid base for less stable, dynamic pressing movements.
Many people tend to struggle in the dip and press-out components of the ring muscle-up. The foundation of strength you build on the dip bar will make this safer and easier to perform (especially under fatigue).
Benefits of the Bar Dip
- Flexibility: The bottom position of the dip puts your shoulder joint in a unique position, where it is internally rotated supporting the full weight of the body. This will develop functional flexibility in your pecs, shoulders, and biceps, while creating stability in your shoulder joint.
- Full-Body Strength: Similar to the chin-up, the dip is also a functional movement. This means it will develop multiple muscle groups, such as your triceps, shoulders, pecs, and core.
- Muscle Gains: Bench pressing is often the superstar for upper body pressing workouts, but bar dips are probably the most underrated movement to build muscle in the upper body pressing muscles (triceps, shoulders, and pecs).
How to Do the Bar Dip
Set your hands on parallel dip bars and jump to the support position (top position with your arms extended). In this top position, make sure your body is in a straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your toes.
Initiate the movement by lowering your chest forward and then down, until your shoulders have gone below your elbow (slightly more than a 90-degree angle). Press back to the starting position, completing each rep in a fully extended arm position. Be sure to keep full body tension and your midline rigid throughout the duration of the movement.
Bench pressing is one of the most popular movements in the fitness industry. The close-grip variation is unparalleled in its ability to build incredible triceps size and strength. Using this movement in your arm assistance work will have several benefits for CrossFitters.
Benefits of the Close-Grip Bench Press
- Functionality: Compound exercises use several muscles within one movement. This is a great option for people who don’t have a long training history, as you can get in a lot of work with only one exercise.
- Triceps Strength: The close-grip bench press puts a lot of emphasis on your triceps, which can put you in a great position to build extra triceps strength.
- Safer Shoulders: The hand and elbow position of the close-grip bench may reduce stress on your shoulders compared to the regular bench press.
How to Do the Close-Grip Bench Press
Lie back on a bench and set your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart on a barbell. Roll the bar to the end of the J-hooks and align your eyes with the barbell to make sure you’re the appropriate distance away from the rack.
Squeeze your shoulders together, creating a wide base with your upper back. Extend your elbows and pull the barbell out so that your wrists are stacked over your elbows and shoulders. Lower the barbell down with control so that it touches your sternum. Keep your elbows close to your body.
Press the barbell back to the starting position once you have made gentle contact with your sternum. Complete the movement and full arm extension. Be sure to keep your butt and shoulder blades on the bench for the duration of the movement and maintain tension in your midline.
There is a skill transfer from this movement to classic CrossFit moves like toes-to-bar and ring muscle-ups. The coordination of these movements requires a rigid hollow position at the midline, while the upper body presses the pull-up bar down with straight arms. This movement closely mimics this skill, while specifically targeting your triceps.
Benefits of the Ring Skull Crusher
- Flexibility: The overhead, active stretch of this movement opens your shoulders and upper back muscles up throughout the movement.
- Core Strength: Your midline is constantly under tension throughout this movement, as gravity will be tempting you to allow your lower back to overarch and relax. The fight to maintain a rigid core will build stability and strength.
- Low Impact: Since you’re only using bodyweight for this movement, your joints are not under the same pressure that they may be from heavy free weights.
How to Do the Ring Skull Crusher
Stand under a pull-up bar facing away from the inside of the rig. Grab a pair of rings in a pronated (palms down) grip, roughly a forearm’s distance away from each other. Walk away from the rig until extending your arms out in front, so that you are in an incline plank position. Your head should be higher than the rings and your shoulders, with your elbows and hands stacked in a straight line.
Stand on the balls of your feet and lower yourself forward slowly, bringing your hands to your ears. Keep your elbows tight and press back to the starting position once your knuckles have touched your ears. Similar to the ring curl, you can modify the difficulty by walking away from the rig to make it easier so that your torso is in a more upright position.
Small changes like hand position will drastically change the stimulus of the dumbbell skull crusher. This is a great variation to develop your triceps and maintain healthy elbows.
The hand positioning also translates directly to movements where you’ll be pressing in a neutral grip (bar or ring dips, ring muscle-ups, and dumbbell pressing movements, all common in CrossFit WODs).
Benefits of the Dumbbell Skull Crusher
- Symmetry: Training with dumbbells forces each side to work independently of one another. This develops coordination and can reduce muscle and strength asymmetries.
- Comfort: Another benefit of training with dumbbells is the freedom they allow you to move with. You can adjust the movement based on your limb length to feel and target the muscle directly.
- Elbow Health: Training this movement with lighter weights for high reps will promote blood flow to your elbow joint, potentially aiding with connective tissue health and recovery.
How to Do the Dumbbell Skull Crusher
Lie on a bench or the floor with a dumbbell in each hand. Set your hands in a neutral grip so your palms are facing each other. Make sure your wrists and elbows are stacked over your shoulders in a straight line. Lower the dumbbells towards your forehead, bringing each dumbbell just outside your ears.
Extend your elbows and bring the dumbbells back to the starting position, with your arms fully extended. Don’t allow your elbows to move forwards or backwards during the movement and keep them tight toward your body.
While the Tate press may not have a direct skill transfer element to your CrossFit training, the value of building underdeveloped muscle groups cannot be understated. Your body will always look for sources of strength and stability to make movements more manageable.
Strengthening the medial head of your triceps and small muscles around your elbows will be a huge advantage when fatigue sets in and other larger muscle groups have been exhausted.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Tate Press
- Shoulder Stability: Since this movement uniquely flares your elbows out, it forces your shoulders to stabilize in a more internally rotated position. This is an advantage, as it is not trained as commonly in CrossFit.
- Targets the Medial Head: The different elbow position allows this movement to specifically target the medial head of the triceps, which is responsible for extending your elbow once your shoulder joint reaches a 90-degree angle.
- Bigger Bench Press: When your shoulder is at different levels of elevation from your body, different parts of the triceps are the primary movers. The dumbbell Tate press targets and builds the primary triceps head used in the bench press.
How to Do the Dumbbell Tate Press
Grab a dumbbell in each hand and lie on the floor or on a bench. Set your hands in a pronated (palms down) grip. Extend your arms fully. The dumbbells should be one to two inches away from each other. Lower the dumbbells down to your chest with your thumbs facing down.
Squeeze the dumbbells together until you’ve made contact with your chest. Your elbows should flare out to the side, keeping them at shoulder height, perpendicular to your body. Squeeze your triceps and extend your arms back to the starting position.
Similar to the barbell curl, the JM press is a meat and potatoes assistance exercise. This movement is unique in its ability to allow heavy loading and target your triceps directly.
The angles of this movement also closely mimic the rotation and press-out of the bar muscle-up, while strengthening small muscles around your elbow that can help with potential injury prevention.
Benefits of the Barbell JM Press
- Anconeus Development: The anconeus is a small muscle located at the elbow attaching the humerus to the ulna — it’s one of the most important lockout muscles for pressing. The JM press target is one of the few exercises that can help directly develop this muscle.
- Isolates the Triceps: Due to your elbows staying up, your shoulders and chest are limited in their ability to contribute to the movement. This allows a more direct targeting of your triceps if you tend to compensate with your shoulders and pecs during pressing movements.
- Elbow Health: Since most pressing exercises use your pecs, shoulders, and triceps together, they often allow for the handling of massive weights. If your triceps are a lagging muscle group, this can put a lot of extra pressure on your elbow joint. By isolating and promoting blood flow and muscle development to this specific area, it can be a great way to deload from heavy weights and target a weaker muscle group.
How to Do the Barbell JM Press
The set-up for the barbell JM press is the same as the close-grip bench press. The only difference is that your hands should be slightly closer, at a shoulder-width distance. You also might want to keep your thumb with your other fingers instead of wrapping it around the bar, in a thumbless grip.
Lower the barbell with control toward your chin. Keep your elbows tight throughout the movement. Squeeze your triceps and press back to the starting position to finish each rep with your arms fully extended.
Most CrossFit gyms don’t have a cable system, but nearly all of them will have an array of resistance bands available. The banded triceps pushdown is a great substitute for the classic cable triceps extension, bringing several other benefits for joint health and recovery along with it.
The stamina you can build with banded triceps pushdown will help keep your triceps fresh during higher rep sets. This becomes especially important when cardio moves like burpees are paired with other pressing movements.
Benefits of the Banded Triceps Pushdown
- Muscle Endurance: Bands can be trained at extremely high reps to failure. Since the band is extremely low impact, it’s a low-impact way to target the muscle endurance of the triceps and incorporate sets to failure.
- Mind-Muscle Connection: Since the band has consistent tension throughout the movement, you’re able to feel your triceps working in both the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement. If you control the range of motion, this can lead to better mind-muscle connection with your triceps, allowing you to activate them when needed.
- Lateral Head Development: The triceps pushdown helps to develop the outer head, which is the horseshoe-shaped muscle you’ve probably seen on someone who has a well-developed set of triceps. Developing the lateral head will make your arms not only look strong, but also assist in pressing exercises.
How to Do the Banded Triceps Pushdown
Hook a resistance band to a pull-up bar by looping it over and pulling one end through the middle of the band. Once the band is securely on the pull-up bar, stand a few inches back from being directly under the bar and have the band in front of your body. Grab the band in each hand at roughly sternum height so that there is slack in the bottom between hands. This will ensure there is tension throughout the full movement.
Set your hands in a neutral grip (palms facing each other). Bring your hands up to shoulder height and then fully extend your arms to a locked out position by your pockets. Be sure to keep your elbows tight throughout the duration of the movement.
Programming CrossFit Arm Exercises
Planning your arm training doesn’t need to be an elaborate process. Variation is a principle of CrossFit and it should be applied to your arm training as well.
CrossFit Arm Exercise Selection
Select your exercises based on what weaknesses you know you might need to improve on. Maybe your lockout keeps stalling, or maybe your biceps give out way too early in pulling workouts.
If you have glaring muscle imbalances where one side feels stronger than the other, select dumbbell exercises for a period of time to improve limb coordination and muscle asymmetries. Choose a biceps and triceps exercise and pair them in supersets to make your assistance work efficient.
CrossFit Arm Exercise Sets and Reps
A good rule of thumb is training in the eight to 15 rep range for three to five sets, depending on your time, fitness level and ability to recover. Bands are the exception for this, as they should be trained with higher rep sets (15 to 25 per set).
CrossFit Arm Exercise Programming
In CrossFit, rotation of exercises is key for continued progress. For your assistance work, try spending a few weeks with a barbell, then dumbbells, then bands. This automatically decreases the weights each week, as a barbell will always be loaded the heaviest.
Do the lightest arm exercises during periods that you’re doing the heaviest main exercises to maximize recovery. Rotate exercises every three to four weeks and make sure this is complimenting your CrossFit training, not replacing it.
CrossFit Arm Training Tips
Implementing arm assistance work into your CrossFit training can be a fun and helpful way to balance muscle asymmetries and bring lagging body parts up. Use the four tips below to help get started.
You can accomplish a lot in just five to 10 minutes at the end of a training session. Pairing a triceps and biceps movement back-to-back will allow you to recover one muscle group while training the other.
This style of superset training builds muscle endurance and saves time with your assistance work. If you’re going to superset movements, perform the first movement, then directly into the next with no rest. After completing the full set of both movements, take a quick rest and repeat.
Build Volume Through Progression
A great method to use for assistance work is a three-week progression of a given superset. For example, if you’re pairing dumbbell skull crushers and dumbbell hammer curls, you could use the following progression:
- Week 1 — 3 x 8
- Week 2 — 3 x 10
- Week 3 — 3 x 12
This progression would be done using the same weight for all three weeks, while increasing the total volume of work from 24 reps to 36 reps. After three weeks you would start the progression over with a new pair of movements.
Another example, would be:
- Week 1 — 3 x 10-12
- Week 2 — 4 x 10-12
- Week 3 — 5 x 10-12
For this type of progression, you’d also stick with the same weight for all three weeks. This time, though, you’ll be increasing the total volume from 30 to 36 reps to 50 to 60 reps. This example will take more time for training and recovery, so experiment with both and see what works best for you.
Keep It Simple
There’s no perfect formula or one-size-fits-all approach to programming. Apply the basic principles when putting together your assistance work and remember this is meant to compliment your training, not replace it. Proper assistance work will build strength and muscle in lagging body parts that may be holding your performance back in functional movement.
Build Your Arms
Direct arm training is an often neglected aspect of CrossFit. But by setting aside some time to focus on your arms, CrossFitters can build strength and muscle in potentially lagging areas. You’ll improve your pressing lockout by developing those triceps and increase your pulling and grip endurance with stronger biceps and forearms.
If you’re looking to give yourself a competitive edge, don’t neglect your arms. Throw some arm training at the end of your WOD one to two times per week — and don’t forget to have fun with it.
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