Wanting big, strong arms is somewhere on the list of goals for just about everyone who hits the iron regularly. From filling out a t-shirt to supporting your entire body during a push-up or plank to helping you get that last rep up on the bench press, your arms do a lot of the legwork in your training.
If you’re after a big total on the powerlifting platform or at a weightlifting meet, the barbell is king. That said, you don’t need to bind yourself to a bar to bring up your arms. Dumbbells offer many of the same benefits, and even come with their own unique perks.
We’ve compiled some of the best arm workouts for any goal that you can do at the gym or at home. All you need is a pair of dumbbells and the work ethic to get after it.
Best Dumbbell Arm Workouts
- Dumbbell Arm Workout for Size
- Dumbbell Arm Workout for Strength
- Dumbbell Arm Workout for Beginners
- Dumbbell Arm Workout for Convenience
- Single-Dumbbell Arm Workout
No matter what your tools of the trade are, the rules for muscular hypertrophy are the same — work hard enough, rest adequately, and push yourself over time. Whether you’re riding the gain train with the barbell or a pair of dumbbells is entirely up to you.
If you’re interested in the latter, this dumbbell-only arm workout will have you feeling the burn, and the subsequent soreness the next morning, or your money back.
Dumbbells are great for hypertrophy because they allow you to work each arm independently. With a barbell, your dominant arm may take some of the tension away from your weaker side that needs it more. You can circumvent this and ensure maximum stimulation, and thus maximal growth, by working with independent loads.
- Dumbbell Cheat Curl: 3 x 6
- Incline Hammer Curl: 3 x 8 – 10
- Dumbbell Spider Curl*
- Dumbbell Floor Press: 3 x 8
- Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 4 x 10 – 12
- Dumbbell Kickback: 2 x 12 – 15
Note: Perform spider curls as a cluster set taken to failure.
For most people, the barbell is the best tool for getting as strong as possible. While you can work with the most weight if you use a barbell, dumbbells are no slouches for strength development either.
An arm workout with dumbbells that is good for strength gains will lean into compound movements that allow you to overload your biceps and triceps over time. Further, certain arm isolation movements are naturally more suited to lifting heavier than others.
- Dumbbell Underhand Row: 4 x 6
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 3 x 8
- Dumbbell Close-Grip Bench Press: 4 x 8
- Dumbbell Single-Arm Overhead Press: 2 x 6
- Farmer’s Carry: 3 sets walking for max distance.
Beginners are blessed by the gift of simplicity. Advanced trainees who have been in the gym awhile may need fancy training techniques or complex programs to make gains. If you’re just starting out, you can do a lot with a little.
If you’re a gym newbie who wants to build up your arms, there’s no reason to overcomplicate things. In fact, just about any type of resistance training will work for you if you stick to it. That said, if dumbbells are what you’ve got, these basic moves can get you going.
- Seated Dumbbell Curl: 2 x 8
- Incline Hammer Curl: 2 x 10
- Dumbbell Hex Press: 2 x 8
- Dumbbell Kickback: 2 x 10
Sometimes you need to get in the gym and get your work done as quickly as possible. Or, you may not have access to a gym at all. In either scenario, a dumbbell arm workout can be tailored to be quick, dirty, and quite effective under a time or resource constraint.
The most important ingredient when designing an effective workout that also saves time is exercise sequencing. By minimizing your transitions between movements and picking exercises that naturally feed into each other, you can get more work done in less time.
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 4 x 8
- Seated Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 4 x 8
- Spider Curl superset with Dumbbell Kickback: 3 rounds of 10 reps each.
- Wrist Curl: 2 x 15
Dumbbells do allow you to work each of your arms separately, but that doesn’t necessarily make all dumbbell exercises unilateral. Two weights with one in each hand still counts as loading both sides of your body simultaneously.
However, you can work with a single weight at a time to get some of the core-related benefits of unilateral training while also laser-focusing on a weak point in one of your arms.
If you’re stuck with only one dumbbell or want to give your core a bit of extra love, you can still get a decent arm workout in. Some exercises are actually designed around using only one weight at a time. The only caveat is that since you’re working each arm in sequence, the workout may take a bit longer than usual.
- Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Curl: 3 x 8
- Standing Single-Arm Arnold Press: 3 x 8
- Concentration Curl: 2 x 10 – 12
- Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 2 x 10 – 12
- Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry: 3 sets walking for max distance.
Anatomy of the Arms
In the context of arm workouts, your elbow joint is where the magic happens. Both of your major arm muscles affect the opening and closing of the elbow, although the biceps and triceps also act on the forearm and shoulder, respectively.
Your biceps begin on the upper end of the humerus — your upper arm bone — and cross over the elbow to insert on the forearm. As such, their main function involves closing your elbow joint. Every single curl variation under the sun works your biceps.
There’s also the brachialis muscle, which sits underneath the biceps brachii and performs the same function of elbow flexion. Your brachialis is stimulated by performing curls with a neutral wrist position and, when developed, gives the appearance of thicker arms when viewed from the front.
The triceps brachii is a three-headed muscle that sits on the back of your upper arm. While its main job is to extend or open the elbow joint, the triceps also crosses the shoulder joint via its third “long” head.
This means that, in order to fully stimulate your triceps, a portion of your exercises should involve extending your elbow while your arm is raised over your head. This puts a greater stretch on the long head specifically, allowing it to bear more load.
Your forearms contain several small, intricate muscles that perform supportive tasks during arm training. While you can target your forearms for growth specifically, most arm workouts will adequately stimulate them by virtue of holding onto a pair of dumbbells as tightly as you can.
Exercises like the reverse curl, where your palm faces the floor, place more tension across the forearm and wrist extensors overall.
Benefits of Training With Dumbbells
Dumbbells are a training tool. Like any tool, they’re only as useful as the context in which they’re used. That said, they’re quite versatile when it comes to working on different elements of your fitness.
There are benefits to be earned when working with dumbbells no matter how you train, but there are a few specifics worth expanding on.
Your body isn’t perfectly symmetrical, even if you train for it. Everyone has slight — often unnoticeable to the naked eye — differences in their anatomical structure. As such, your left and right arm may not have the exact same ranges of motion or ideal movement pathways.
When working with a single implement like a barbell, there’s no way to accommodate this. Although it isn’t usually a big detriment, dumbbells circumvent this problem entirely and allow your limbs to move through their natural ranges.
Unless you’re a training minimalist, working with a barbell demands a rack to store it in and unrack it from. If you’re designing a home gym, a good squat rack or a platform to lift on can take up quite a bit of space. In a commercial gym, you might find yourself with a barbell in your hands and nowhere to lift it if the gym floor is busy enough.
Dumbbells are far more compact and take up less physical space overall. If you have a large collection at various weights, you may need some serious garage space, but a solid pair of adjustable dumbbells tucks away neatly in any corner of a room.
Easy to Adjust
Depending on your training style, dumbbells might be better suited for how you like to work out. Moving between exercises in your workout, or even adjusting weight between sets, has a time cost associated with it.
Stripping off or adding plates to your barbell can take valuable time if you’re trying to grind through a drop set. With dumbbells, you’re good to go as long as another pair is within reach. Conveniently changing the weights you’re working with can help you save time in the gym overall and make quicker adjustments if you find you’re lifting too heavy (or too light).
There’s no reason to be ashamed of wanting big arms — catching a pump after a solid session in the gym is one of the most rewarding feelings out there. If you put performance first, similar logic applies. Your arms physically hold up every barbell you bench or thrust overhead, so why neglect them?
A good arm routine is essential for the physique competitor and integral for the strength athlete. Even if you don’t have a barbell at your disposal, you can still bring up your guns. All you need is a pair of dumbbells and the willingness to get after it.
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