If you’ve spent the better part of the last decade dreaming of getting Michelle Obama’s arms, but dread any and everything having to do with the weight rack, this one’s for you. In what may be the best fitness news ever—at least, for those of us who hate lifting weights—arm exercises without weights can be just as effective (and in some cases, even more effective) than burning them out with barbells.
Whether you’re doing them for the sake some of IRL heavy lifting, or you simply want to show off some expertly toned triceps, any trainer will tell you that arm exercises are a gym-time necessity. “It’s very important to do arm exercises for several reasons,” says Stephen Pasterino, founder of P. Volve, a boutique fitness studio in New York City, including building strength, preventing back and shoulder injury, and being able to do functional, everyday movements.
“Having a strong and capable upper body means being stronger in life,” agrees celebrity trainer Ashley Borden, who has worked with stars like Mandy Moore and Ryan Gosling. “Carrying your kids, hoisting luggage in and out of the overhead, moving heavy things, and arm strength plays into everyday life.”
Most people think you need a set of free weights to build those muscles, but that’s decidedly not the case. “In fact, when toning and building up strength in your arms, it’s important to lengthen the muscle by using body weight exercises rather than compacting the muscle by lifting weights, which is shorten and tighten them,” explains Pasterino. “Use your body weight or resistance bands. There are so many different motions you can do with or without bands that target hard-to-reach muscles, particularly in the shoulders. By keeping the arms straight and changing the direction of your shoulders, you can tone every angle of your arm.”
Apparently, all you need to do this? Five to 10 minutes about four times a week. Here’s the game plan otherwise.
These 10 best arm exercises without weights to try now
1. Hand plank with alternating shoulder tap
This move will light up your entire core by challenging its stability. You should feel this baby everywhere, especially in your deltoids and triceps.
- Start at the top of a push-up—the wider your legs are, the easier the move will be.
- Focus on pushing yourself away from the floor, while squeezing your legs and glutes.
- Alternate touching your opposite hand to your opposite shoulder while imagining a cup of coffee on your back so you don’t rock. If you need to modify the move, drop down to your knees, but keep your core tight.
- Do 20 reps total.
2. Lateral bear crawl
Another one that’s more full-body than arms-focused, you’ll feel this in your triceps, deltoids, and pecs.
- Start with hands and feet on the ground with your knees lifted a few inches off of the ground, and move laterally in one direction while holding your knees up. “
- Keep a strong upper back position and don’t your let core sag,” says Borden. “Move slowly and with deliberation, maintaining positioning.”
- She suggests moving 10 paces to the left, followed by 10 paces to the right. If you’re just getting started, try five paces to the left and five paces to the right.
3. Push-up hand step
“This move activates your chest while simultaneously working your biceps and triceps,” says Pasterino.
- Start in a push-up position.
- Alternate moving one hand in front of the other for six to eight repetitions. Come down to your knees for a modified version of the exercise.
4. Push-up rotational reach
Not only does this move activate your chest and front delts, but it also stretches your biceps to make them lean.
- Start in a push-up position and slightly rotate your body and hips using your core.
- Then, raise one hand in the air—similar to a side plank, but your feet aren’t stacked and your body is rotated versus in one line.
- Alternate rotating your body and hips in both directions while simultaneously raising your arms in same direction.
- Do six to eight reps. Again, to modify, come down to the knees for all—or a fraction—of your reps.
5. Push-up forward reach
To target your chest, shoulders, and biceps, add this move to the mix.
- Start in a push-up position and reach one arm forward. “Remember to really stretch it out,” says Pasterino.
- Alternate arms, and repeat six to eight times. This is another one that’s great to do on your knees until your arm and core strength increases.
6. Bodyweight tricep extensions
You’ll have this move to thank for the dreamy definition line on the back of your arms that screams “strong.”
- Start in a slight squat position—as if you were going to drop into a chair—ensuring your knees don’t go over your toes.
- Bend your arms toward 12 o’clock and reach them backwards so that your palms are facing behind you.
- While they’re pulled back, squeeze your triceps together, and repeat these managed swings for six to eight reps.
7. Tricep dips
An oldie but a goodie, this classic move deserves a place in any weight-free arm workout for working… the triceps (duh).
- Find an elevated surface, like a chair, bench, or coffee table, and sit on the edge with your hands next to your body and your knees bent to 90 degrees.
- Move your hips forward so that you’re holding up your body weight, and lower down until your arms are bent 90 degrees. “The straighter you keep your legs, the harder the movement is,” says iFit trainer Becca Capell. “As you fatigue, you can move your feet in closer and add a bend to your knees. This allows you to scale the movement to fit perfectly in your routine whether you are feeling like a superhero, or just super tired.”
- Repeat 10 to 12 reps.
8. Star side bridge
This one is all about your lats, says Borden.
- Start in side plank, and push away from the floor. “Visualize screwing your hand into the floor clockwise—you will feel your lats engage,” says Borden. “Keep the straight arm strong and continue visualizing pushing the floor away from you.” Keep your bottom foot flexed with your leg straight and quad tight, and lift the top arm and leg while keeping the top foot slightly pigeon-toed. Hold for 20 seconds on each side.
9. Prone snow angels
This move engages the muscles all up and down your back body (including the back of your arms) for a workout-slash-stretch.
- Lying face down with your core pulled in and glutes tight, reach your arms out to the sides with your thumbs facing the ceiling.
- Lift your chest off of the floor and keep your eyes facing the ground while simultaneously reaching your arms around your ears.
- Then, bring your arms back down to your sides while squeezing your shoulder blades together, and be sure to keep triceps squeezing and arms straight.
- Repeat 10 times, only coming up high enough that you can sustain the move over time.
10. Hand plank burpee
When it comes to burpees, you know you’ve got a major muscle builder on your hands. These work all the muscles in your arms, as well as the ones, well, everywhere else.
- Start with your feet in a wide stance, and squat to place your hands directly below you.
- Keeping your arms straight, jump back or alternate stepping both legs back into a hand plank.
- Then, jump your legs into the original squat position and reach your hands above your head.
- Set a timer for one minute and do as many reps as you can. To modify, take the jumping out of the move and step to squat instead.
This arm-focused yoga sequence requires zero equipment:
This post was originally published December 5, 2018; updated on April 16, 2020.
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