12 UNIQUE EXERCISES TO CRUSH YOUR ARMS
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
This article is exclusive to AHP. It represents the uncut, fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured in Muscle & Fitness.
When it comes to targeting the arms, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of incorporating the same movements week in and week out. Besides avoiding psychological boredom, using a variety of arm movements can provide unique stimuli to the biceps and triceps thereby optimizing growth and strength gains. Here are 12 unique movements that crush the arms with a variety of novel protocols, training tools, and scientifically designed strategies for inducing unprecedented levels of muscle growth.
1. Standing Kettlebell Bicep Curl
Any standing bicep curl performed with free weights is going to be a potent mass builder. However, standing kettlebell curls may represent an even more effective variation than traditional barbells and dumbbells.
Due to the nature of the kettlebells, there is significantly more constant tension throughout the movement including the top contracted position. As a result of you’ll have greater muscle fiber innervation and motor unit recruitment. Besides the bell hanging below the writs which creates a constant pulling sensation on the biceps, it’s almost impossible to alleviate tension at the top of the movement by cheating and curling the weights too high.
In fact over-curling at the top of a bicep curl is a surefire way to take stress off the biceps and overtax the anterior deltoids. With this variation, the kettlebells pressing against the forearms will inhibit this common cheating technique as it feels very unnatural and uncomfortable to bring your hands beyond chest height. In addition, any swinging or excessive use of momentum will also result in the kettlebells banging against the forearms creating a very unpleasant experience. In essence the kettlebells force you to use proper curling technique as typical cheating methods become limited if not completely nullified.
Although execution is similar to other bicep curl variations, one notable difference is hand positioning. For all kettlebell curls, it’s best to have the handles resting in the mid-upper palms of your hand rather than the lower palms and finger as this locks the kettlebells in and keeps them from rotating and slipping. Finally, you’ll want to resist having your arms fully straighten at the bottom of the movement as this will release tension from the biceps as well as cause the handles to slip out of your palms.
Due to the high levels of continuous tension and bicep innervation, I recommend using slightly lower reps which not only allows greater taxing of fast twitch muscle fibers but also ensures form and technique don’t degrade. Several sets of 5-8 reps will more than suffice for this growth-inducing bicep movement.
2. Dumbbell Curl with Eccentric Isometric Lunge
Although this is a combination lower body and arm exercise, the stimulus to the biceps is incredibly intense. While holding a dumbbell in each hand lower your body into the bottom of a lunge without touching your back knee to the ground. While holding the eccentric isometric (stretched position) of a lunge perform smooth and controlled reps of bicep curls while pausing in the top and bottom position of the curling motion. There are several benefits of this unique protocol.
First holding a lunge position forces the lifter to use smooth and controlled lifting mechanics as excessive momentum, cheating, or swinging, will cause the lifter to loose his or her balance. Second, a lunge when performed properly involves a slight hip hinge position thereby tilting the torso over 20-30 degrees. This creates constant tension throughout the motion particularly in the contracted position. This is typically the point on most dumbbell curl variations where there’s momentary rest and relaxation of the bicep muscle thereby reducing muscular activation particular to the short head of the biceps. The lunge position eliminates this issue altogether by maintaining continuous and high levels of intramuscular tension and cellular swelling. This semi-occluded state results in incredible muscular pumps which has been shown through scientific research to be critical for maximizing growth.
In addition the torso angle produced from the lunge allows the dumbbells to move through a larger range of motion than a typical dumbbell curl. Besides activating more motor units this large range of motion creates greater mechanical tension and muscle damage of the biceps both of which are critical for maximizing the hypertrophy stimulus.
Finally, the lunge position allows the dumbbells to hang more freely to the sides of the body without the hips and legs hindering the stretched position. As a result a full range of motion will feel less encumbered and more natural thereby promoting increases innervation to both heads of the bicep muscle without the deltoids taking over. For optimal results, perform several sets of 4-6 repetitions on each leg/lunge with little rest between sides.
3. Kettlebell Hammer Curls
The hammer curl with kettlebells is a great bicep and biceps brachialis exercise that also heavily taxes the forearms as well as smaller muscles around the hands and wrists. Due to the nature of the unique loading mechanism, the movement finishes with the kettlebells in an extended lever arm position, making it highly difficult yet extremely effective for placing constant tension on the arms throughout the movement.
You’ll also need to reduce the weight by approximately half of what you would typically use for hammer curls as these are incredibly challenging. However, the lighter loads combined with constant tension will leave your biceps screaming at the end of each set producing muscular pumps and cellular swelling difficult to replicate with other movements.
Because of the lighter loads you’ll be forced to employ, kettlebell hammer curls are conducive for moderate and higher rep ranges of 8-15 repetitions of approximately 2-3 sets. Just remember to keep your wrists locked in neutral position throughout as this will maximize the both effectiveness and safety of the movement.
4. Incline Kettlebell Curls
Incline curls have become a staple arm exercise for many bodybuilders primarily because of the combination of stretch and overload simultaneously placed on the biceps. Unfortunately when performing this movement with dumbbells there’s very little tension above the bottom half of the movement. As a result this allows tension reduction and bicep relaxation at the top portion of the curl. Due to their unique loading mechanism created from the hanging weight, kettlebells alleviate this issue thereby providing adequate tension and stimulation not only in the bottom and mid-range positions but also in the top contracted position. As a result incline kettlebells curls become a highly potent mass builder for the biceps.
In fact this incline kettlebell curl variation exploits all three major mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy. First, the emphasis on the elongated eccentric and stretched position produces muscle damage and micro trauma that’s shown to be critical for muscle growth. Second, due to their semi-awkward nature and unique hanging position kettlebells require high levels of muscle activation, which produce significant amounts of mechanical tension and muscle fiber recruitment - another factor that’s pivotal for maximizing size. Third, because of the constant tension provided throughout the movement with little relaxation of the biceps, this creates an occlusion-effect to the surrounding musculature. As a result, there’s an incredible amount of blood flow, muscular pump, intramuscular volumization, cellular swelling, and metabolic stress all of which have been linked to triggering muscle hypertrophy.
To maximize all three of these components I recommend performing incline kettlebell curls at a 45-degree bench angle using a variety of loads and corresponding rep ranges including heavy weights (4-6 reps), moderate loads (8-10 reps), and lighter loads (12-15 repetitions). 1-2 sets in each rep range will more than suffice for triggering incredible gains in biceps size.
5. Hanging Band Barbell Curls
It’s difficult to deny the effectiveness of traditional barbell curls. Unfortunately many lifters have a tendency to use sloppy technique and incorporate excessive momentum in an attempt to handle more weight than their bodies are capable of. Not only does this minimize the stimulus to the biceps but it promotes dysfunctional mechanics that have to the potential to produce injury and inflammation around the shoulders, elbows, and low back.
One method that significantly reduces these issues while simultaneously maximizing the effectiveness of barbells curls is the hanging band technique (HBT). Simply loop any type of exercise band through plates or kettlebells then hang the bands from the bar by attaching the bands to the outside collars of the barbell.
The HBT method produces continuous oscillations to the barbell thereby increasing the difficulty of the movement as it requires greater stabilization, proprioceptive feedback, muscle activation and honed in mechanics. Any attempt to swing the weight, use excessive momentum, wiggle, or cheat your way through the movement will cause the hanging weight to swing and oscillate uncontrollably. This literally forces the lifter to use incredibly strict and controlled form, which produces greater intramuscular tension and metabolic stress. This combination is a potent stimulus for eliciting strength and hypertrophy gains in the arms.
6. Kneeling Alternate Kettlebell Curls from Contracted Position
If you’re looking for one of the most challenging yet growth-inducing bicep movements you’ll ever perform, the kneeling kettlebell curls performed in an alternate fashion from the contracted position is just what the doctor ordered. Although it sounds a bit complicated its actually quite simple. While kneeling on a bench, curl both of the kettlebells to the top contracted position (approximately mid chest height), lower one arm, perform a bicep curl, then repeat with the opposite arm.
The key is holding the non-moving arm in the top contracted position throughout while alternating from side to side each repetition. Performing this same protocol with dumbbells is not nearly as effective as the top of the dumbbell curl typically involves little tension thereby providing a semi-rest period during the isometric phase. However, because of the kettlebells’ unique loading features, the top position is actually quite taxing on the biceps provide constant tension with little if any relief throughout the movement. In addition, the kneeling position ensures the lifter does not twist or contort their body as a means of intentionally providing tension relief to the arms, as any squirming, shifting, or cheating, will result in loosing your balance and dumping the load.
Because of the significant time-under-tension (TUT) effect and extended time between repetitions, 2-3 sets of 5-6 reps per arm will more than suffice for this grueling bicep movement. As you approach the end of each set, the pain will be almost unbearable however the results in terms of growth and strength accruements will be worth the momentary discomfort.
1. Decline Kettlebell Skull Crushers
Many bodybuilders believe that the decline-angled skull crusher is superior to the flat position when it comes to targeting the triceps. In addition the decline position produces the greatest range of motion thereby providing high levels of stretch that are critical for optimizing the muscle hypertrophy mechanism of micro-trauma and muscle damage. Add in kettlebells in conjunction with the decline angle and there’s also more constant tension placed on the triceps due to the kettlebells providing a constant angle of pull. In fact most tricep exercises performed with free weights involves little tension in the contracted (top) position however the decline kettlebell skull crusher is one of those rare exceptions. As a result this produces greater occlusion during the exercise resulting in significant levels of metabolic stress, cellular volumization and overall muscle pump, all of which are key mechanisms for inducing muscular hypertrophy
The decline kettlebell skull crusher particularly when performed with kettlebells also provides significant tension to all three heads of the triceps making it highly effective for eliciting growth throughout the entire musculature of triceps. In addition the decline position reduces involvement of the shoulders forcing the brunt of the work on the triceps. Finally, many lifters find the decline position to be easier on the elbow joint in comparison to other angles particularly when combined with isolateral free weights such as kettlebells or dumbbells.
To perform these simple lay on a decline bench angled at 15-20 degrees, then perform a standard skull crusher movement by pivoting at the elbow joint and lowering the weight to the sides of the forehead. Pause at the bottom, then forcefully but smoothly drive the kettlebells back to the top just before lockout, and repeat for several sets of 6-8 repetitions.
2. Reverse Grip Barbell Floor Press
The floor press is an incredibly effective movement for crushing the pressing muscles of the body. However the reverse grip variation further taxes the tricep musculature for several reasons.
First, during any floor press, the arms touch the floor several inches before the bar reaches the chest. By eliminating the bottom portion of the movement this reduces shoulder and chest involvement, which places greater stress on the triceps. Second the reverse grip promotes greater elbow tuck and scapular depression which also places greater emphasis on the triceps muscles and reduces the emphasis to the shoulders and outer chest. Third, the reverse grip places more equal tension across all three heads of the triceps (lateral, medial, and long heads) rather than solely targeting the lateral head – a common case with most pressing movements.
Finally, the reverse grip helps to promote greater scapular retraction and packing of the glenohumeral joint. This ensures that the shoulders stay pinned back throughout the exercise forcing the triceps to perform a majority of the work.
As an added bonus you’ll notice this exercise does wonders for your bench press not only because of the increased tricep strength but also because the movement reinforces proper shoulder and elbow positioning on horizontal presses.
3. Continuous Tension Alternating Kettlebell Skull Crushers
The constant-tension alternating skull crusher is one of the most difficult yet also one of the most effective tricep mass builders there is. Simply lay on either a bench or the floor and perform skull crushers in an alternate fashion with kettlebells. However there’s a catch; in between reps, the arm that is not moving is held at the bottom of the skull crusher (just above head height) in an eccentric isometric fashion. This eccentric isometric held at the bottom position in conjunction with the constant pulling tension created from the kettlebells creates enormous levels of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage making them one of the single greatest mass-builders you’ll ever employ for your triceps.
If you’re looking to notch things up another level try performing them with the lower body elevated in an isometric leg raise position throughout. This increased tension throughout the lower body and core produces a neurophysiological phenomenon known as concurrent activation potentiation (CAP). This results in greater neural drive to the rest of the extremities including increased motor unit recruitment and innervation throughout the triceps. Because of both the continuous and extended time-under-tension between reps, several sets of 5-6 repetitions per arm will more than suffice for eliciting strength and size gains throughout the entire musculature of the triceps.
4. Eccentric-Accentuated Compound-Isolation Incline Kettlebell Skull Crusher
This skull crusher variation is very unique but once you analyze each component you’ll understand why it’s so effective for targeting the triceps. The movement is actually a “compound-isolation” exercise in that the eccentric involves an isolation movement of the triceps in the form of a skull crusher while the concentric involves a compound movement in the form of an incline press. This allows the lifter to incorporate supramaximal loads (greater than your 1RM) on the eccentric or isolation portion of the movement without the fear of being able to complete the concentric movement. Incorporating this technique on the kettlebell incline skull crusher produces incredible stress and micro-trauma (a critical mechanism of muscle growth) as you’ll be handling approximately 120% of your max load during the eccentric accentuated skull crusher but roughly half that for the concentric incline press.
Although this same compound-isolation protocol can be performed on flat or decline positions, the incline allows the greatest relative workload (% of your 1RM) during the concentric pressing phase due to the fact the most lifters handle significantly lighter loads on incline presses in comparison to flat or decline positions. Furthermore the incline angle is typically the strongest position for performing skull crushers. Instead of the concentric pressing phase becoming a semi-rest period that only serves as a means of re-setting for the next heavy eccentric, the incline press, particularly when performed with kettlebells actually involves a relatively substantial workload that significantly taxes the surrounding musculature. In addition the pressing phase involves more activation of the lateral head and medial head while the supramaximal eccentric skull crusher predominantly targets the long head of the triceps. As a result you’ll affectively trigger hypertrophy and strength gains throughout the entire tricep region.
Finally the incline which emphasis tension in the stretched position combined with supramaximal eccentric loading creates substantial levels of muscle damage and micro trauma which are critical for maximizing the hypertrophy stimulus. Just be prepared to have incredibly sore triceps for several days although the size gains will be well worth the momentary discomfort.
To perform the movement lay on an incline bench set to 25-40 degrees. Using heavy kettlebells perform a negative accentuated skull crusher by pivoting at the elbow joint and lowering the weight slowly to the sides of your head. Once you reach the bottom, pull the kettlebells towards your chest and perform a standard incline chest press. Repeat this sequence for three sets of 6-8 repetitions. To increase the intensity, once your triceps fail and you can no longer control the skull crusher phase of the movement, try performing an additional 5-6 strict incline presses. Because your triceps will be pre-exhausted from the prior isolation sequence they’ll give out well before any other muscles making this protocol highly effective for stimulating size gains in the upper arms.
5. Negative Accentuated Rope Pressdown
The two most common variations of the tricep pressdown is to perform it with either a rope or with a rigid metal attachment (i.e. v-bar or straight bar). Each provides its own unique benefits. The rope variation places more constant tension on the triceps by isolating them while the standard bars allow greater overload. Each of these provides it’s own unique hypertrophy stimulus. Fortunately it’s possible to take advantage of each of the stimuli by combining both methods.
Using a heavy load and rope attachment, press both ends of the rope together and push the weight down. Because both arms will be assisting each other and pressed together rather than separate, this allows maximal overload in a similar fashion as using a metal attachment. Once you reach the bottom of the movement, deliberately spread the handles as much as possible and hold this position several seconds before performing a slow and deliberate 5-second negative. Repeat this process for 6-10 repetitions.
Because you’ll be using both arms to assist each other on the concentric phase, the slow negative will be performed with significantly greater weight than what would typically be handled for traditional rope pressdowns. This maximizes all three major mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy including micro trauma (muscle damage), intramuscular tension, and cellular volumization (muscle pump). Unfortunately the burn can be quite intense but if you’re able to tolerate the pain you’ll be rewarded with significant accruements in arm girth.
6. Kettlebell Overhead Tricep Extensions
Overhead tricep extensions are an old-school tricep exercise that bodybuilders have been employing for years to add mass to their upper arms. Although the movement typically isolates the long head of the tricep, the kettlebell variation allows more complete targeting of all three heads including the lateral head and medial head. When compared to dumbbells or barbell variations of the overhead tricep extension, there’s also more constant tension when using kettlebells as the load is hanging beneath the hands creating a constant pulling force throughout. In addition holding kettlebells overhead involves a significant degree of instability forcing the lifter to use a more controlled lifting tempo and stricter mechanics both of which create incredible strain on the triceps. To make the movement even more effective and biomechanically sound, performing these while kneeling on a bench requires even greater muscle activation and stability. Any cheating, shifting, or compensation patterns will cause the lifter to loose balance thereby providing immediate feedback and form enhancement.
To perform these grab light to moderate-load kettlebells, kneel on a bench, then raise the dumbbells overhead. While keeping the shoulders locked into position, simply lower the weight behind your head as you pivot at the elbow joint. The elbows can flare out slightly as keeping them too straight can place undue stress on the shoulder and elbow joint. Perform 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions while pausing at both the top and bottom positions.
Although each arm exercise listed above can be individually implemented into any arm workout or training protocol, here are two sample plans that are sure to spark unprecedented muscle growth as each movement is strategically incorporated into a power-packed program.
Arm Workout 1
1A. Standing Kettlebell Bicep Curl: 4 sets 5-8 repetitions
1B. Decline Kettlebell Skull Crushers: 4 sets of 6-8 repetitions
2A. Dumbbell Curl with Eccentric Isometric Lunge: 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions (4-6 reps per side)
2B. Reverse Grip Barbell Floor Press: 3 total sets - 2 sets of 6-8 repetitions, 1 set of 8-10 repetitions
3A. Kettlebell Hammer Curls: 2 sets of 8-10 repetitions
3B. Continuous Tension Alternating Kettlebell Skull Crushers: 2 sets of 5-6 repetitions per arm (10-12 total reps per set)
Optional High Intensity Finisher (for advanced lifters)
4A. Hanging Band Barbell Curls: 1 max effort set to failure of approximately 10-12 repetitions. Once failure is reached, hold 90-degree position for as long as possible.
4B. Negative Accentuated Rope Pressdown: 1 max effort set to failure of approximately 10-12 repetitions. Once failure is reached, hold 90-degree position for as long as possible.
Arm Workout 2
1A. Eccentric-Accentuated Compound-Isolation Incline Kettlebell Skull Crusher: 4 sets of 6-8 repetitions
1B. Incline Kettlebell Curls: 4 total sets - 2 sets of 4-6 repetitions, 1 set of 8-10 repetitions, and 1 set of 12-15 repetitions
2A. Negative Accentuated Rope Pressdown: 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions
2B. Hanging Band Barbell Curls: 3 total sets - 2 sets of 6-8 repetitions and 1 set of 10-12 repetitions
3A. Kettlebell Overhead Tricep Extensions: 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions
3B. Kneeling Alternate Kettlebell Curls from Contracted Position: 3 sets of 5-6 repetitions per arm (10-12 total reps per set)
Optional High Intensity Finisher (for advanced lifters)
4A. Reverse Grip Barbell Floor Press: 1 max effort set to failure of approximately 12-15 repetitions. Once you reach failure, immediately perform as many close grip/diamond pushups as possible.
4B. Kettlebell Hammer Curls while Kneeling on Bench: 1 max effort set to failure of approximately 12-15 repetitions. Once you each failure, immediately perform as many underhand chin-ups as possible.
Pair up each corresponding number as a superset for biceps and triceps.
Perform all listed sets for those movements before moving to the next superset circuit.
Use 30-45 seconds of rest between each movement and 90-120 seconds before moving on to each subsequent superset.
Unless other wise indicated, select a load that allows the specified repetition range to be completed with perfect form yet also reaches close to failure (i.e. 1-2 reps short of failure)
For sets the indicate reaching failure, if additional repetitions are possible beyond what is listed, continue the set until the movement can no longer successfully be completed with proper form.
All movement should be performed with a controlled and deliberate tempo using a slow 3-4 second eccentric/negative, 1-2 sec pause at both the top and bottom positions, and a smooth yet powerful concentric lifting phase. This will maximize muscle growth, strength, and movement mechanics.
Perform an individual arm routine once every 4-7 days alternating between Workouts 1 and 2. These can be performed in a standalone fashion or in conjunction with additional workout routines of your choice.