Barbell curls are fun — pitting you against the weight, every rep pumping more blood into your biceps peaks until the muscle is forcefully pressed against the skin, threatening to split it from delt to elbow.
But barbell curls can also be boring, workout after workout, with no variety to keep you sane. It’s the bane of all good exercises: Done with regularity, they become monotonous, and perhaps even worse, ineffective as your body adapts to the stressor and stops responding.
To counter that muscular complacency, you’re smart to shake up your arm routines with an array of exercises. The biceps and triceps may seem like relatively simple muscles with a straightforward function — the biceps bends your elbow, the triceps extends it — but each of them consist of multiple heads.
The biceps complex includes the long and short heads of the biceps brachii, as well as the underlying brachialis. The triceps, meanwhile, consists of a long, lateral and medial head, all of which come into play at different intensities depending on the exercise. (Overhead moves tend to activate the long head, while the lateral head engages when your arms are at your sides and your palms face down. The medial head lends an assist with your arms at your sides and a palms-up grip.)
Choosing from a variety of exercises helps ensure all of the above are stimulated to some degree. Following are a few options that go beyond the standards, to keep your workouts challenging and interesting — along with a killer forearms exercise to help those key muscles keep pace with your upper arm expansion.
1. TRX Triceps Extension
TRX Suspension Trainers have expanded in popularity these past few years, and with good reason — unlike many dubious gym fads that come and go (sauna suits and vibrating belts, anyone?), the TRX is an innovative apparatus that lends itself to a ton of effective exercises that employ bodyweight and gravity as resistance. In this particular favorite, you’ll stress the long and lateral triceps heads.
To Do: Grasp the TRX handles and lean away from the anchor point, so your body is at a 45-degree angle to the floor and in a plank position from head to ankles — your elbows should be bent and hands alongside your head. From here, extend your elbows to “lift” your body against gravity; at the top, you’ll still be angled forward to keep the tension on the muscle throughout the exercise. Repeat for reps.
2. Medicine-Ball Push-Up
Everyone knows of the push-up and its cousin, the close (or diamond-grip) push-up. They’re extremely effective for development of the chest and triceps. Introduce a ball, and you bring a whole new level of difficulty to the equation that requires maintaining balance as you rep, triggering muscle fibers throughout the triceps complex.
To Do: Get into the starting push-up position with your feet on the floor and your hands in diamond formation (index finger and thumbs forming the shape of a diamond) atop a medicine ball. Bend your elbows to lower your torso as far as you can, then forcefully extend to return to an arms-straight position.
3. One-Arm Reverse-Grip Pushdown
Finding exercises that target the long and lateral heads of the triceps isn’t difficult: Everything from lying triceps extensions to dumbbell kickbacks to cable pushdowns do the trick. On the other hand, relatively few movements maximize the involvement of the medial head. That makes the reverse-grip cable pushdown — either using both hands simultaneously on a short straight bar or one arm at a time with a D-handle attachment — a great triceps workout finisher every time out.
To Do: Grasp a D-handle attached to an upper cable pulley, palm facing up, and bring your elbow down to your side. Place your free hand on your hip or use it to brace yourself against the machine. Moving only at the elbow, straighten your arm fully, bringing the handle down toward your hip. Hold the peak contraction for one count, then return to a point your elbow is at 90 degrees — don’t let the weight stack touch down between reps, so as to keep tension on the muscle.
4. Hammer-Grip Pull-Up
Pull-ups are a staple of back routines — but not everyone realizes that they can make for a hell of a biceps burner, too. By changing your grip from the standard wide style to one inside shoulder width, with the type of handles that allow for the palms to face one another (a hammer grip), you slightly reduce the involvement of the lats while increasing the bi’s participation in the lift.
To Do: Grasp a fixed parallel-style overhead bar with a close palms-facing grip. Hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended and ankles crossed behind you. Contract your biceps to raise your body upward, concentrating on keeping your elbows pointed forward and pulling them down to your flank to raise yourself. Hold momentarily as your chin crosses the level of the bar, and then extend your elbows to return to the “dead-hang” position.
5. Spider Curl
The preacher curl is a common enough biceps exercise, But flipping around so you place your upper arms against the side of the bench that’s perpendicular to the floor rather than the angled side? Not so much, although this alternative has been around for decades. The extreme angle of this exercise provides a deep biceps stretch at the bottom, which triggers a strong concentric contraction on return trip.
To Do: Grab a straight bar or EZ-curl bar with a palms-up grip and lean so your chest is against the angled side of a preacher bench, keeping your core tight and legs slightly bent. Your armpits should fit snugly against the top of the pad, with your triceps pressed into the flat side of the bench. Start with your elbows straight, arms perpendicular to the floor, and from here, curl the bar upward in an arc until your arms are fully flexed. Hold the peak contraction for a one-count before slowly lowering the weight back to the starting position.
6. Plate-Pinch Farmer’s Carry
A tape-measure-stretching upper arm is unimpressive, and in the worst cases somewhat comical, when attached to a spindly lower arm. Help rectify the situation by finishing arm workouts with one or two forearm-specific moves. This one is popular among hardcore strongmen — as simple as it is brutal, it pushes the various muscles of the forearm to exhaustion.
To Do: Grab and hold two 45-pound plates between your fingers and thumb — smooth sides out if it’s the type of plate with one flat side — with one set in each hand. Start walking across the gym, holding onto the plates for as long as possible. This exercise can also be done with heavy dumbbells (read: farmer’s walk) which can be slightly easier on the fingers but allows for more resistance in each hand.