The thing about arm exercises is you have too many options—barbells, cambered bars, dumbbells, cables, machines, benches, and all the exercises and variations of exercises. You couldn’t do them all in a year of biceps, triceps, and forearm workouts. So, let’s cut to the chase. Which are the best? No, which, according to science and expert consensus, are the very best? We set out to answer that question for arms, limiting ourselves to three exercises for biceps, three for triceps, and two for forearms. What are the very best arm exercises?
RATING THE ARM EXERCISES
We looked at four variables to determine the very best arm exercises:
• Electromyography (EMG) studies. These measure via electrical impulses the peak and mean activation of muscles during exercise. In short, they’re a good way of seeing how much an exercise is working the targeted muscle or area of a muscle.
• Progressive overload. In addition to EMG studies, we also emphasized exercises that allowed greater stress loads and the ability to progressively increase those loads. This is easiest to achieve with bilateral (two-handed) exercises in which you can use the greatest weight. So, for example, if a one-hand cable kickback scored only slightly better than an EZ-bar triceps extension in EMG studies, we’d rate the latter higher.
• Expert opinions. During my over 25 years as a fitness journalist, I’ve consulted with 100s of exercise physiologists, elite athletes (including the world’s very best male and female bodybuilders), and top trainers. I’ve also participated in and observed 1000s of arm workouts. Those expert insights informed our choices.
• Variety. We emphasized diverse exercises, both free-weight and mechanical, to work all areas of the muscles from different angles and with unique stresses.
Triceps have a basic function: to move your arms from contraction (bent) to extension (straight) via a hinge joint. However, their anatomy is intricate. The have three heads, only two of which are similar. So, no single exercise does a great job of working all three. If we start at the bottom, all three heads attach to a wide tendon connected to the ulna. The lateral head lies on the outside, and, at the top, it attaches to the humerus. The medial head lies mostly below the other two (visible on either side nearest the elbow) and also attaches at the top to the humerus. The long head lies on the inside and attaches at the top to the scapula. Because they share similar top and bottom attachments, the lateral and medial heads are worked well with the same exercises. The long head, though, has a somewhat different agenda. While all three heads straighten each arm and keep each arm straight, the long head, because it attaches the forearm to the shoulder, also assists in pulling each arm backwards.
Any triceps routine needs to include at least one exercise that best targets the lateral and medial heads and one that best targets the long head.
👉 For more on triceps EMG studies check out: Science Says: The Best (and Worst) Triceps Exercises
The cable pushdown is best for working the showy outer triceps (lateral and medial heads). There is evidence that pushdowns done with a rope are slightly more effective than those done with a straight or angled bar. This is due to your ability to better focus on contractions and also lengthen the movement by pulling the rope ends apart at lockouts.
✔️ TIP As with barbell curls (below), keep your elbows locked in place and your upper arms perfectly vertical. That said, your elbows should travel outward at contractions if you use a rope.
OVERHEAD TRICEPS EXTENSION
Scoring high for focusing on the long head is any overhead triceps extension, whether with an EZ-curl bar, dumbbell(s), cable, or machine. You can also do this leaning forward with an overhead cable, extending your hands from behind your head to out in front while keeping your upper arms parallel to the floor. However you do it, by starting each rep from a fully stretched position, the long head contracts with more force and it takes on more work than the other two heads.
✔️ TIP The stretch at the start of each rep is crucial to activating the triceps long head, so you may find it awkward to get a full stretch with a dumbbell held in both hands. Choose the tool that will allow you to comfortably get the longest reps from stretch to contraction.
The bench dip scores well for all three heads, and the machine dip, which approximates the bench dip, is especially popular with experts. Because it’s a completely different movement that also involves the front delts and pectorals, this is also a good compliment to pushdowns and free-weight overhead triceps extensions. If your gym doesn’t have a dip machine, you can do bench dips or regular dips.
✔️ TIP Keep your torso upright and perpendicular to the floor to focus more on your triceps than your delts or chest. For that reason, it’s also advisable to do these last when your triceps are already pre-exhausted via the preceding isolation exercises.
Your biceps consists of two heads. Think of it as an elongated V, because the two heads share the same attachment to your radius at the bottom but they go their separate ways at the top, with the long head (on the outside) attaching a little higher up on the shoulder socket than the short head (on the inside). Because the attachments are the same on the bottom and similar on the top, all curls work them both to virtually the same degree. Don’t bother focusing on individual heads. Instead, consider gravity. When doing any full-length, free-weight curl, gravity fights to pull the weight straight down to the floor, but your hands (and the weight) travel in an arc. Its only when your forearms are parallel to the floor on each rep that gravity exerts its maximum pull and thus your biceps toil their hardest. Keep this in mind when choosing and executing curls.
The BRACHIALIS, seen on the outside of the upper arm and felt when you flex your arm, works with the biceps but is best targeted with the brachioradialis (see below).
👉 For more on biceps EMG studies check out: Science Says: The Best (and Worst) Biceps Exercises
EZ-CURL BAR OR BARBELL CURL
Let’s start with the basics. A two-handed, free-weight curl will allow you to overload your biceps with the most weight. It also rated high in EMG studies. The two crucial things are: (1.) a full range-of-motion from full stretch to full contraction on each rep and (2.) strict form. Shortening reps or cheating and using momentum will let you lift more weight but lessen the stress on your biceps.
✔️ TIP To prevent cheating, keep your elbows pressed against your sides, or do these on the nearly vertical side of a preacher bench.
MACHINE OR CABLE CURL
Because gravity is always pulling the weight straight down, include at least one exercise with a weight stack that travels straight up. In this way, you can move your forearm in an arc but fight equal resistance from start to finish on each rep. Which machine or cable curl to use is a matter of personal preference and dependent on the options in your gym. Find the machine or cable station that works best for you, and squeeze each contraction hard.
✔️ TIP With both arms working together and with the weight traveling a fixed path, your strong arm will be inclined to do more work than your weak arm. So, you might find that a one-arm cable or machine curl works best.
Perhaps surprisingly, the number one biceps exercise in EMG studies is the concentration curl—a one arm dumbbell curl with the arm locked in place. Many people think of this as a light, pumping move, easy to leave out as you pummel your bi’s with heavy barbell and dumbbell curls, but this is one you shouldn’t skip. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name one of the biggest arm men of all time, included it in his routines. As its name suggests, the concentration curl allows you to focus on one biceps. Bracing the back of your elbow against your inner thigh prevents cheating, but this exercise’s greatest advantage is that you can easily squeeze contractions.
✔️ TIP This is another curl that you can do with the nearly vertical side of a preacher bench, or you can use an incline bench set vertical or nearly vertical. That said, for variety, don’t do both a two-hand and a one-hand curl in the same manner in the same routine. So only use a bench for one biceps exercise.
Anatomically, your forearms are surprisingly complex. Each has 20 muscles. They divide into flexors, which pull your palms-up hand towards your inner forearm, and extensors, which pull your palms-down hand towards your outer forearm. The brachioradialis, rests on the upper, outer side and works with the brachialis and biceps to flex the forearm at the elbow.
These target the flexors. Your forearms have a very limited range of motion. During a wrist curl, your knuckles move only a few inches in an arc. So, don’t shorten the movement even further by skipping full stretches and contractions. You can use a barbell, dumbbell, or bar attached to a low cable.
✔️ TIP Switch it up for variety, but note that a straight handle attached to a low cable (while you’re seated, as with a free-weight wrist curl) allows you to get stronger contractions. This is because the vertical weight stack maintains the tension that you largely lose with a free weight. Gravity, again, exerts its pull, even in this very short movement.
These target the brachioradialis but also work the extensors and biceps. Take a shoulder-width or slightly-narrower-than-shoulder-width grip. Reverse curls can be done with a barbell, curl machine, or cable. And they can be supersetted with wrist curls.
✔️ TIP To lock in strict form, keep your elbows pressed against your sides or do these with a curl machine.
THE VERY BEST ARM ROUTINE
Rope Pushdown 4 x 10-12 reps
Overhead Triceps Extension 4 x 10-12 reps
Machine Dip 4 x 10-12 reps
EZ-Curl Bar Curl 4 x 10-12 reps
Machine Curl 4 x 10-12 reps
Concentration Curl 4 x 10-12 reps
Wrist Curl 4 x 10-12 reps
Reverse Curl 4 x 10-12 reps
Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength, Jim Stoppani, PhD, 2014.
Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, 2020.
SuppVersity EMG Series: M. Triceps Brachii, 2011; original source: Fitness-Krafttraining. Die besten Übungen und Methoden für Sport und Gesundheit, Wend-Uwe Boeckh-Behrens and Wolfgang Buskies, 2000.
ACE Study Reveals Best Triceps Exercises, American Council of Exercise, 2012.
ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises, American Council of Exercise, 2014.
Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises, Bret Contreras, PhD, 2010.
Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Biceps Exercises, Bret Contreras, PhD, 2010.