If you want to seriously start stretching your shirtsleeves, then it might be time to start introducing some advanced moves to your arm-focused workouts. Continuously performing the same routine over and over again will stimulate muscle adaptation, but after a while, it'll hinder your progress, hurting your chance of gaining lean muscle mass. Switching things up, though, by introducing a few of these ridiculously difficult arm exercises, will pave the way for an impressive, dominate-looking upper half.
The dozen of moves compiled here, courtesy of Mike Deibler, M.S., C.S.C.S., director of education at Exercise Etc., are classic twists on traditional biceps and triceps exercises that demand high concentration, full-body stability, and tremendous arm strength. But possibly the best part is the “tremendous abdominal recruitment” your body needs for each move, says Deibler. So if a six-pack is another one of your goals, then these moves will do just fine for that too.
While it may be tempting to conquer all 12 moves right this minute, remember that these maneuvers are highly complex. To avoid injury and ensure effective, muscular hypertrophy, Deibler advises focusing on correct technique, proper recovery time between workouts, and adapting these moves to your fitness capabilities. To help you do the latter, we've added a "Scale It Back" tip for each move.
Put your fitness to the test and add these 12 grueling arm-focused exercises to your arsenal. For maximum benefits, do one or two at a time at the beginning of your workout before your arms are fatigued, one to two days per week.
1. Ring dips
Directions: Plant your feet in the ground and grab ahold of two gymnastic rings at chest level. Then, hoist yourself up so that your elbows are locked out with rings at your sides. At that top position, slowly dip down by bending your elbows, and raise yourself back up into a locked out position. (Try not to bend forward throughout the movement.) That’s one rep. Do 8 to 12 reps.
Why it's so tough: Here’s why to never underestimate bodyweight training. According to Deibler, ring dips require immense stability from your upper body, along with your core, to keep control of the movement. “Once that is mastered, then the necessary strength is needed to complete the movement,” he adds.
Scale it back: If you aren’t able to achieve it, you can practice working up to the move with regular parallel bar dips. Then, once you advance to ring dips, “start with band assistance to practice the exercise first,” he adds.
2. High plank rope drag kickback
Directions: From a high plank or push up position, grab the end of a rope. (The other end can be weighed down with a sandbag or other heavy tool.) Reach forward and grab the rope, pull the rope towards your shoulder and then perform a kickback as if throwing the rope behind you. Do 10 pulls per side.
Why it's so tough: During that kickback movement, “the isolation of the triceps” coupled with “the simultaneous need for whole body stability” is what makes this a tremendously difficult exercise to execute, per Deibler. “With only one arm supporting the body there are tremendous rotational forces that the body must fight against.”
Scale it back: Performing traditional triceps kickbacks with a dumbbell will help build the solid foundation to progress to this move, but, “most will struggle with the core stability,” informs Deibler. Implementing plank variations—specifically those that involve one hand coming off the ground like an alternating shoulder tap—will help strengthen the stability in the midsection, he adds.
3. Supine Rope Climbs
Directions: In a pushup position, grab either a climbing rope or a stationary bar with one hand. Begin climbing the rope until you are almost in an upright position, and then climb back down. Do 4 to 6 reps.
Why it's so tough: Aside from requiring great grip and arm strength, this exercise proves to be one of the hardest “due to the need for core stability to fight against gravity pulling the back into extension,” says Deibler.
Scale it back: Before attempting this move, Deibler advises performing exercises that improve both grip strength, like single arm rope pulldowns, as well as core strength, like walkout planks.
4. DB Rolling Triceps Extension
Directions: Lie on a bench with two dumbbells in each hand. Then, bend your elbows, and bring the dumbbells back past your shoulders until your elbows reach each side of your head. Bring the dumbbells back over your head with your elbows locked out. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 12 reps.
Why it's so tough: Once that weight has traveled past the head, it causes both shoulder and elbow flexion “to maximize the length of the tissue,” thus increasing the level of difficulty and effectiveness of the exercise, says Deibler. In simpler terms, this basically means the muscle goes through more range of motion, which allows for more time under tensions, and ultimately increases the chances of hypertrophy (a.k.a. massive muscle growth).
Scale it back: Use lighter dumbbells until you can perform all the reps easily with perfect form.
5. Triceps Kickback Rope Waves
Directions: Set up a battle rope station with heavy chains, but instead of facing the battle ropes, turn around so that your back is facing the ropes, and perform “the triceps version” of alternating waves. Do 20 to 25 seconds.
Why it's so tough: We know you’re aware of traditional battle rope exercises, but have you heard of this one yet? This is considered an arm chiseler, as it requires not only the necessary strength to control the maneuver, but also the necessary endurance to keep the arms in full swing at such a difficult angle, per Deibler.
Scale it back: Use regular ropes instead of heavy chains until you nail the form.
6. Alternating Wide-Grip/Close-Grip Biceps Curls
Directions: Start out holding the barbell with a wide grip. Explosively curl the bar. As you reach the peak of the lift, slide your hands to a close grip and decelerate the bar back down. Repeat with the close grip and slide out at the top to a wide grip. Do 10 to 12 reps
Why it's so tough: Hoisting the barbell up and sliding your hands into place during each stage of the lift requires a great deal of coordination and power to complete the movement, per Deibler, which is why it’s a part of our list.
Scale it back: Get comfortable with basic wide-grip and close-grip curls before advancing to this variation, he adds.
7. Chain Waves
Directions: Set up a battle rope station with heavy chains, and start performing alternating swings. Do 20 to 25 seconds.
Why it's so tough: Like the reverse kickback version of alternating waves, the traditional variation demands power generation and stresses the strength endurance needed to swing the dense weight of the chains. That instantly increases the exercise’s level of difficulty.
Scale it back: Deibler suggests working with a rope prior to taking on the chains.
8. Close-chained triceps extension
Directions: Set a barbell up in a rack. (The lower the bar is, the harder it will be.) Start with your hands on the bar in a pushup position with hands out in front of you. Bend your elbows and lower your body until your head comes to the bar or even goes below the bar. Do 6 to 8 reps.
Why it's so tough: Though it’s a triceps exercise, the fixed grip will make it feel more like a full-body workout, because it requires active stability throughout the body, per Deibler.
Scale it back: To perfect the motion, Deibler advises practicing triceps exercises that involve both elbow and shoulder flexion and extension, as well as exercises that promote core stability like planks with arms extended.
9. Feet-suspended, double-arm plank-up
Directions: Using a TRX or other suspension device, place both feet in the straps and elbows down to get into a suspended plank on your forearms. Push your hands into the ground and simultaneously lift both elbows off the ground. Return to start and repeat. It is very important that both come up at the same time while staying suspended, stresses Deibler. Do 6 to 8 reps.
Why it's so tough: “This is an extremely challenging exercise due to the demand for core stability and the mechanical disadvantage the arms are under,” says Deibler. Since your body is fixated in an angular position with feet elevated and arms closer to the floor, it places more weight on your entire upper body, making this incredibly taxing on the arms.
Scale it back: If you struggle with the motion, Deibler advises starting the workout on the ground first and then progressing to the TRX.
10. Single-arm suspension curl
Directions: Grab one handle on a suspension trainer. Lean back to face the ceiling and begin to walk under towards the anchor point. (The lower you get, the harder the challenge.) Place the hand that’s not holding the strap on your stomach to feel the core engage. Then, with the other arm fully extended, perform a biceps curl by lifting the body towards the hand. Do 6 to 8 reps per side.
Why it's so tough: Suspension training is a great bodyweight workout to add muscle. Here, more muscles are recruited during the exercise motion, which instantly heightens the level of difficulty of the move. Specifically, “the rotational forces placed on the body, which challenge the core to try and remain neutral throughout the lift,” says Deibler.
Scale it back: Make sure to master core stability with anti-rotational exercises like the Pallof press to help prepare for this one, per Deibler.
11. Barbell preacher curl with added band resistance
Directions: Perform a biceps curl on a preacher bench, but add a resistance band to the barbell (coming from ground) to increase difficulty. Do 6 to 8 reps.
Why it's so tough: The preacher curl is known to be one of the oldest, yet most isolating, exercises to produce bigger biceps. Once you add bands, the elasticity of the band makes this exercise highly difficult to execute. “Typically the easiest part of the curl is at the top of the lift once you have past the sticking point,” says Deibler, but these bands intensify the exercise during every stage of the lift. “This helps stimulate more muscle fibers and strengthens the muscles through different ranges of motion of the lift,” per Deibler.
Scale it back: Master the preacher curl before adding the bands.
12. Total-body suspended biceps curls
Directions: Here you will need two suspension trainers, one for your feet and one for your hands. In a supine position place your heels in one set of straps. Then grab the other handles with your hands so you are completely suspended off the ground. Perform a biceps curl by pulling yourself up towards your hands. (Your whole body should swing.) Then, lower yourself down but stay suspended. When performing the curls your body will swing back and forth, but stay in control of the swing while curling and don’t let your body use momentum to help you complete the curl. Do 6 to 8 reps.
Why it's so tough: Since a suspension trainer is holding up your entire body weight, it demands intense strength and stability in order to complete the movement.
Scale it back: To master the movement, practice suspension curls on the ground prior to picking up this variation.