There’s so much you can do with a single pair of dumbbells, as you probably learned in lockdown. Now you’re back to the gym, don’t forget the benefits of this small but mighty piece of kit, particularly when it comes to building upper body strength. Unlike weighted glute, hamstring and quad exercises, which might require a barbell or machines, improving your arm strength can be done easily with weighted dumbbells.
Not only will that help with everyday pushing and pulling, but it’ll also assist with your bigger lifts if you’re aiming to get a new personal best on deadlifts and press ups. “The best way to build strength is to focus on compound exercises,” explains trainer and Strong Women ambassador Alice Miller. “Those are the big moves that target lots of muscles in one go and mean you can lift heavy. If a chin up is a big goal for you, adding in bicep curls will strengthen the supporting muscles to get your chin to the bar.”
As your arms are a small muscle group, the isolation work will also help to even out any weaknesses or imbalances, particularly as we tend to use one arm more than the other depending on our dominant sides.
THE BEST ARM EXERCISES WITH WEIGHTS
This workout mixes up compound and isolation exercises to strengthen and burn out your arm muscles. “With these moves, going to failure, or until you can’t push any more reps, is really important in order to stress the muscle and make it bigger,” reminds Alice. “If you’re just doing three sets of 10 reps and you’ve got more in the tank, you won’t be getting the same results as if you go to failure on your sets.” Pick up some heavy weights and push yourself.
While a floor press mainly works your chest muscles, your triceps always come into play on pushing movements.
How to do a chest press:
- Sit on a bench or on the floor with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Slowly lie back so your head, shoulders and bum are placed on the bench. Keep your feet either side of the bench or, if you’re on the floor, place your feet flat with your knees pointing to the ceiling.
- Place the dumbbells either side of your chest with your elbows out wide and palms facing your feet.
- Squeeze your chest to press the dumbbells up towards the ceiling so the heads touch directly over your chest.
- Slowly lower down to the starting point.
Bicep curls are one of the main bicep isolation moves. Take it slow and controlled to really feel the muscle work.
How to do bicep curls:
- Hold the dumbbells in your hand with the palms facing forwards, knuckles resting on your thighs.
- Roll your shoulders back and down and stabilise through the feet and your core.
- Curl your arm up so to bring your fist to meet your shoulder. Ensure the movement comes from the arm, rather than swinging through the body.
- Slowly lower back down to the starting point.
- There are so many different variations of curl to try, so play around with shape and time to target all sections of the muscle. Turn your forearms out wider, slow down the tempo or curl across the body towards the opposite shoulder to target different sections of the muscle.
Using your shoulders will also target your triceps and create total upper body strength.
How to do an Arnold press:
- Sit or stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Bring your weights up to collar bone height, with the weights pointing horizontally (bulky ends pointing out at the sides, not in front). Your palms should be facing your body.
- Rotate the weights so that your palms now face out from you while you begin to push the weights overhead and straighten the arms.
- Bring the dumbbells to meet over your head with your palms now facing out towards you.
- Slowly lower back down, rotating the opposite way so you end with your palms facing you.
Use arm extensions to target your triceps. There are a few different variations, including upright and bent over, but it’s good to start with the basic forms.
How to do an overhead tricep extension:
- Hold a dumbbell by one end with your palms flat on its underside and thumbs wrapped around the bar.
- Place it over and behind your head with your elbows bent so the dumbbell sits near your neck.
- Squeeze your triceps and extend the arms over the head, keeping your biceps close to your ears so your elbows stay tucked in tight.
- Slowly lower back to the starting point.
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Again, there are so many variations of rows, from bent over to single arm and renegade to upright. These not only build bicep strength by pulling, but also target your back.
How to do a bent over row:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Keeping a slight bend in the knees, hinge forward from the hips with your arms hanging straight down at your sides.
- Bend your arms to bring the weights up to your waist, making sure to keep your back straight, neck long and elbows tucked in to your sides.
- With every rep, squeeze the shoulder blades together as you bring the weight up, then lower them back down.
Another great tricep move that isn’t as scary as it sounds.
How to do a skullcrusher:
- Lie on a bench or on the floor holding a dumbbell in your hands by either end.
- Lift it above your chest so it’s at 90° to your body.
- Slowly bend the elbow to bring the weight towards your head (you can see where the name comes from). Don’t move through the shoulders or elbows as you do so.
- Slowly extend your arms back to the starting position.
For more tips and ideas on how to build upper body strength, head over to the Strong Women Training Club, where you’ll find loads of videos, training plans and technical articles designed to get you stronger today than you were yesterday.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).