You work your arms on a daily basis without even thinking about it—to pick up our children, carry groceries, or place a heavy suitcase on the top shelf of the closet because air travel feels like a far-off fantasy right now.
And yet, when it comes to working out, the upper body is a sensitive space for many women. One reason? Upper body exercises, like push-ups and pull-ups, can be challenging and therefore discouraging without the right modifications and mindset. What's more, weightlifting myths perpetuate the idea that upper body work will cause women to look "too bulky" (whatever that means).
Here's the thing: Gaining a large amount of muscle mass requires very specific training and nutrition. It's not like you're going to start lifting weights and suddenly wake up looking like Dwayne Johnson. (PS: to any woman who wants to bulk up, you are beautiful and you should go for it!) So while upper body workouts can be difficult, it's vital for women to incorporate arm exercises into their routine, says Maillard Howell, owner and operator of Dean Crossfit in Brooklyn.
"You can't work half the machine or half the body," says Howell. "Everything acts as a unit. Everything works in cohesion. For example, if you want to carry something from your car, you're going to need shoulders, arm, and core strength."
That being said, you're not going to get anywhere just by doing a ton of bicep curls. "That curling motion is very, very non-practical," says Howell, meaning we rarely use that motion in our everyday lives. Instead, Howell says that focusing more on the triceps, shoulders, core, and upper back will give you better, faster results. More good news: You can target all of these areas in one short at-home arm workout.
So to get you going, we've created an arm day circuit that will tone up and strengthen your entire upper body. If you got 20 minutes, grab your dumbbells, and get to work!
Equipment: 2 light- to medium-weight dumbbells; 1 long resistance band
Time: 20-30 minutes
Reps and sets: One set is completing each exercise until you've reached the end of the circuit. Perform 2-3 sets with 1-2 minute rest in between sets.
Works: pectoral muscles, triceps, anterior shoulder muscles
How to do it: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab your dumbbells and position your elbows so that they are tucked in slightly below your chest. Then press the dumbbells up over your chest and bring them right down. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: If lying on your back is an issue, skip these and scroll down to try pushup negatives.
Works: triceps, glutes, hamstrings
How to do it: Begin on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Take one dumbbell in each hand, bend your elbows, and bring the weights overhead. Rest them on the floor for now. As you push your heels into the ground, squeeze your butt and lift your hips into the air. Hold this position throughout the lifts. Now lock out your elbows to lift the dumbbells off the floor. Once your elbows are straight, you can return the weights back to the ground. Continue doing this for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: If holding the bridge is too challenging, break the movement down. Try doing skull crushers on their own, without lifting the hips. Then do a set of hip lifts from the floor, without doing the skull crushers.
Works: pecs, triceps, shoulder muscles
How to do it: From a plank position, lower yourself to the ground as slowly as you can. As you lower, make sure your elbows bend backward and remain close to your torso. When your chest is on the ground, pick up your hands, then press them back into the ground to return to plank.
Modifications: When you first do this movement, you may find that there's a point on the descent where you don't feel strong; you might lose the control you had at the top. No worries! Right before it gets super shaky, hold for two seconds. Then bring your chest to the floor (no need to go slow at that point). If starting in a plank position is not available to you, try these push-ups with your knees on the ground instead.
Works: abs, hips, upper back, shoulders
How to do it: Grab your resistance band (light to medium resistance) and lie on your back with your legs straight in front of you. Hold each end of the band with both hands and your arms straight in front of you. As you sit up, keep your elbows locked out and pull the band apart until it comes to meet your chest. Bring your arms back to neutral as you lower back down. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: Regular band pull-aparts can be done in standing position if sit ups aren't in your wheelhouse. Of course, you can do other ab work that's more suited for you when you're done!
Works: biceps, lats (located on side of your back), upper and lower back muscles
How to do it: From a standing position, pick up two dumbbells and bend your knees slightly. With a flat back, lean over until your torso is at about a 45-degree angle from the floor. Pull your shoulders back and pinch your shoulder blades together. Keep the dumbbells parallel to each other and pull them toward your chest, then lower down. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: To put less stress on your lower back, you can place a chair or a table in front, put one dumbbell down, and place your free hand on the support before you. This means that you'll only be able to do this movement with one arm at a time (which also has its benefits). Just make sure to perform the same amount of reps on each side.
Works: deltoids (shoulder muscles)
How to do it: Stand with your dumbbells at your sides. Keep your arms straight and then lift the dumbbells up and away from your body until you make a "t" shape. Pause for a moment at the top, then, with a slower pace, lower the dumbbells back to your sides. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: Bend your elbows 90 degrees from start to finish. This takes some load off of the shoulders.
Works: biceps, forearms
How to do it: Stand up tall with your dumbbells by your side. Make sure the palms of your hands are parallel to each other. Curl the dumbbells toward your chest and then, with control, lower the dumbbells back down. Continue for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: If you find yourself struggling to maintain form throughout the movement, alternating hammer curls are great. This means just curling one arm at a time. See if that creates more stability for you!
Works: triceps, biceps, forearms, lower back muscles
How to do it: Pick up your dumbbells and have them at your sides. Slightly bend your knees and lean forward to 45 degrees. Maintain a flat back. Curl the dumbbells toward your chest, then lock out the elbows as you kick the weights behind you. Return and repeat for 10-15 reps.
Modifications: To take more pressure off your back you can do single arm tricep kickbacks with support: Grab a chair or table and place your empty hand on your prop as you perform the exercise with the opposite arm. Do the same amount of reps on each side.
Works: triceps, lats, shoulders
How to do it: Grab light dumbbells. Stand with one foot in front of the other and your knees bent slightly. Bring the weights right above your chest. Punch one arm out. Bring it back. Punch the other. Bring it back. Keep your core tight and exhale on each punch. Choose a time interval for this one. Our suggestion: Aim to punch for 30-60 seconds.
Modifications: Try lighter weights or shortening your intervals. In some cases, you may have to keep your elbows bent to take more weight off the shoulders, but that should be your last resort.
Works: triceps, abs, shoulder and upper back muscles
How to do it: Start in a tabletop position with your knees directly beneath your hips and hands directly beneath the shoulders. Hike your hips up into the air as you straighten your legs as best you can. Bring your head through your elbows and look at your knees. Push your shoulders and hands away from the floor. If you have the strength and mobility, go onto your tippy-toes and lean your weight more into your hands (this creates more tension in the abs). Hold anywhere from 20-60 seconds.
Modifications: This movement can be a lot on the wrists, so only shift your weight forward if your mobility allows it. You can also try the bent-knee bear hold: Begin in the tabletop and then just lift your knees a few inches off the floor. Keep your back flat and hold.
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