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4 killer arm workouts

4 Killer Arm Workouts You Can Do At Home

Written by
May 7, 2020
Updated May 15, 2020

If you ever find yourself without a gym, whether due to travel, a tight budget, or (and we know this is a long shot) a global pandemic, it’s comforting to know that you can always train your arms, no matter where you are, or what equipment is available. Arm workouts are brief, never complex, don’t require any special machines, and the pump you get from them can go a long way toward making you look and feel strong and athletic—especially when you can’t get your hands on a squat rack or barbell. In other words, there’s always room for curls and triceps extensions.

A couple of exercise bands, light dumbbells, and your own bodyweight are all that’s needed to keep your guns loaded when more sophisticated training seems out of reach.

Benefits of Stronger Arms

Some trainers think of big arms as being merely ornamental. They look good, but don’t offer any functional benefit that helps one be more athletic or strong. However, John Rusin, PT, DPT, CSCS, a strength coach and creator of the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (DrJohnRusin.com), says that outlook couldn’t be more wrong. “Straight up, whoever says arm training isn’t functional can’t be trusted,” says Rusin. “Since the arms indeed have muscles, and act as an integral connection point between the hands and shoulders, they should be trained in order to gain, maintain, and maximize force and muscle recruitment in all types of activities.”

It should be obvious that bigger, stronger arms can help you push and pull harder. Any strong bench presser can tell you that the triceps contribute greatly to the lift. In fact, you couldn’t lock out a heavy weight without them. Throwing, punching, and even dribbling a basketball all require triceps strength and coordination. Biceps strength, meanwhile, goes in tandem with grip strength, so any athlete who relies on holding on to something or someone (rock climbers, grapplers, American Ninja Warriors) can benefit from doing a few curls. Of course, big arms are also impressive to behold, and can give an athlete a mental edge when he/she shows up to competition. Even if it’s just a friendly game of pick-up basketball or flag football, whom would you be more nervous to guard—the guy with guns like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or the one with arms like drink stirrers? Which one looks tougher and harder?

How Can I Build Arm Muscles Without Weights?

Effective arm training can be done with your bodyweight alone. Chinups and pushups may be known primarily as back and chest exercises, but they also work the biceps and triceps, respectively. However, if you really want to expand your arm-training options at home, without investing in an elaborate gym setup, get yourself a few types of exercise bands. Bands will allow you to better isolate your arms for traditional curl and pushdown/extension movements that provide more overload directly to the biceps and triceps.

The best exercise bands are circular (loop) bands—not the paper-thin elastic ones your physical therapist gave you to rehab your shoulder, or the purple ones that come with handles you see in drug stores. The bands on elitefts.com are much more durable and versatile than what you’ll find in your local sporting goods store, so we recommend you shop there. Pairs of micro, mini, and light bands should have you covered.

Bands like this can provide as much resistance as free weights, and can be adjusted to suit a variety of exercises. Anchor them to a pipe, desk, or the floor under your feet, and hold a loop in each hand (or one), or grasp anywhere else on the band to add or reduce resistance. Bands make exercises harder at the point in the range of motion where you’re strongest, and ease up where you’re weak. This makes for joint-friendly training that’s less likely to aggravate any injuries you have.

Think about doing a pushup with a band around your back and your hands securing the loop ends to the floor. As you press yourself up, you put more stretch on the band, which adds resistance to your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Just when the exercise would normally be getting easier (as you lock out your elbows), the band makes it more challenging. So, if you have shoulder problems, the pushup will feel harder once the bulk of the stress is off your shoulders.

How To Stretch Your Arms Before Exercising

Use the following mobility drills to warm up and mobilize your shoulders and elbows before any arm routine. Perform 2–3 sets of 5–10 reps for each move.

Arm screw

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Raffiki elbow circles

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Inverted pushup rotation

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Arm Workouts You Can Do At Home With and Without Weights

There are four workouts that follow, courtesy of Rusin. Two are focused on the biceps, and two on the triceps. They require at least two different types of bands and some light dumbbells, and maybe a broomstick or other bar-like apparatus you should be able to rig up without much trouble. We’ll attack each muscle group with two different styles of training—metabolic stress, which is a fancy science term for getting a pump, and mechanical tension, which means forcing the muscles to overcome greater amounts of resistance and activate the greatest number of muscle fibers.

The pump workouts fill the muscles with blood, which drives nutrients into them and, scientists think, may send the body the message that the muscle cells need to expand (grow) to avoid injury. The mechanical tension-focused sessions emphasize strength. Some exercises in both types of workouts will challenge other muscles while hitting the arms, giving you even greater results for your efforts. These include the bent-over banded row with underhand grip, which doubles as a back move, and the bridge-hold banded underhand curl, a glute exercise.

Other lifts will hit your arms in ways you never thought possible, and are ideal for people who have only light dumbbells at home, or exercise bands. The thumbs-up Y raise may look like a delt exercise, but it will hit the long head of your biceps—the one responsible for the biceps “peak” when you flex your arm. Though it looks like a trap move, the bent-arm shrug forces you to contract your biceps isometrically throughout the set. It will burn like fire after a few reps.

“These workouts are quick hitters that target all aspects of the biceps and triceps from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint,” says Rusin. “Get ready for one hell of a pump. One that will get you bigger, stronger, and downright more functional in the process.”

Arm Workout #1 – Pump Emphasis Biceps w/ Bands, Dumbbells, and Bodyweight

Perform the paired exercises (marked A and B) as supersets. So you’ll do one set of A, then immediately do one set of B, rest as prescribed, and repeat until sets are completed for the pair. Exercises that are not marked with a letter are done alone—complete all sets for the move before going on to the next exercise.

For the banded exercises, be sure to choose a band that allows you the number of reps that are prescribed. If your band is too light, choke up on it to provide more tension. If it feels too heavy, try to reduce the tension by sitting or kneeling. The banded exercises may also be performed with dumbbells as a replacement.

1A Banded Rotating Biceps Curl

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Sets:Reps: 20  Rest: 0 sec.

Step 1. Pick up a circle band and grasp an end in each hand. Stand on the center of the band so it’s secured to the floor. Stand tall with your abs braced and pelvis level with the floor. Your palms should face in to your sides.

Step 2. Curl the band, rotating your palms outward as you come up, so that you lift against the resistance of the band.

1B Alternating Thumbs-Up Y Raise

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Sets:Reps: 20 (each side)  Rest: 30 sec.

Step 1. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand and stand tall. Keeping your shoulders drawn back and down (think “proud chest”), raise one weight up to eye level with your palm facing in (thumb pointing up).

Step 2. Lower your arm and repeat on the opposite side. If you don’t have any dumbbells, this exercise can be performed with two bands in the same fashion. Stand on one loop, and grip the opposite one.

2 Bent-Over Banded Row w/ Underhand Grip

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible  Rest: 45 sec.

Step 1. Grasp an end of the band in each hand with your palms facing up and stand on the center of it to secure it to the floor. Draw your shoulders back and down and bend your hips back until your torso is close to parallel to the floor. Your head, spine, and pelvis should be in a straight line.

Step 2. Row the band to your belly.

3A Bridge-Hold Banded Underhand Biceps Curl

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Sets:Reps: 10  Rest: 0 sec.

Step 1. Sit on the floor and loop one end of a band under one foot. Run the band over your waist and secure the other loop under the other foot. Position your feet close to your butt and turn them out about 20 degrees. Tuck your pelvis so that it’s perpendicular to the floor, and brace your core. Grasp the band with both hands, palms facing up.

Step 2. Drive your heels into the floor to bridge your hips up into the air. Be careful not to hyperextend your lower back (keep your core tight).

Step 3. Curl the band while keeping your arms against the floor. Hold the bridge position until you’ve completed all your reps.

3B Wide-Grip, Halfway-Down Pushup Hold

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Sets:Reps: Hold 30 sec.  Rest: 60 sec.

Step 1. Get into pushup position with hands outside shoulder width. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your feet, and your pelvis should be perpendicular to the floor, core braced.

Step 2. Lower your body until your chest is halfway to the floor and hold the position.

4 Single-Arm Biceps Stretch

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Sets:Reps: Hold 45 sec. (each arm)

Step 1. Grasp a doorframe or other sturdy object with your hand at shoulder level. Step away from the anchor point, turning your body and straightening your arm so that you feel a stretch in your biceps. Hold for 45 seconds, and then switch arms and repeat.

Workout #2 – Pump Emphasis Triceps w/ Bands and Bodyweight

Perform the paired exercises (marked A and B) as supersets. So you’ll do one set of A, then immediately do one set of B, rest as prescribed, and repeat until sets are completed for the pair. Exercises that are not marked with a letter are done alone—complete all sets for the move before going on to the next exercise.

For the banded exercises, be sure to choose a band that allows you the number of reps that are prescribed. If your band is too light, choke up on it to provide more tension. If it feels too heavy, try to reduce the tension by sitting or kneeling.

1A Split-Stance Overhead Banded Triceps Extension

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Sets:Reps: 20  Rest: 0 sec.

Step 1. Attach a circle band to a sturdy object overhead and grasp an end in each hand. Step away from the anchor point and raise your arms overhead. Your legs should be staggered. Bend your hips back to put tension on the band.

Step 2. Extend your elbows without moving your upper arms or torso. Switch the front leg on each set.

1B Bent-Over Bodyweight Rear-Delt Raise

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Sets:Reps: 20  Rest: 30 sec.

Step 1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and bend your hips back until your torso is about 45 degrees to the floor. Your head, spine, and pelvis should all form a straight line. Extend your arms toward the floor.

Step 2. Raise your arms out 90 degrees until they’re parallel to the floor.

2 Feet-Elevated Close-Grip Negative Pushup

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible  Rest: 45 sec.

Step 1. Rest your feet on a bench, box, or other elevated surface. Get into pushup position with your hands inside shoulder width, and tuck your pelvis so that it’s perpendicular to your spine.

Step 2. Take three seconds to lower your body until your chest is just above the floor. Push yourself back up, and begin the next rep.

3A 1.5 Rep Between-Bench Bodyweight Dip

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Sets:Reps: 10  Rest: 0 sec.

Step 1. Place two benches or chairs parallel to each other and stand in between them. Place a hand on each bench and bend your hips and knees so that you’re suspended by the benches.

Step 2. Lower your body until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, and then press yourself halfway back up. Lower your body again, and then press all the way up. That’s one rep.

3B Pushup Hold

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Sets:Reps: Hold 30 sec.  Rest: 60 sec.

Step 1. Get into pushup position with hands shoulder-width apart. Hold the position with your body braced for 30 seconds.

4 Single-Arm Triceps Overhead Stretch

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Sets:Reps: Hold 45 sec. (each arm)

Step 1. Reach your arm overhead and bend the elbow. With your free hand, gently pull on the elbow until you feel a stretch in your triceps. Repeat on the opposite side.

Workout #3 – Strength Emphasis Biceps w/ Bands and Bodyweight

Perform the paired exercises (marked A and B) in alternating fashion. So you’ll do one set of A, rest as prescribed, then one set of B, rest, and repeat until sets are completed for the pair. Exercises that are not marked with a letter are done alone—complete all sets for the move before going on to the next exercise.

For the banded exercises, be sure to choose a band that allows you the number of reps that are prescribed. If your band is too light, choke up on it to provide more tension. If it feels too heavy, try to reduce the tension by sitting or kneeling.

1A Banded Inverted Row w/ Underhand Grip

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Sets:Reps: 12  Rest: 15 sec.

Step 1. Set a barbell, broomstick, or other sturdy bar at about waist height. Wrap a band around your hips and secure each end with a heavy object. Grasp the bar with hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing up. Bend your knees 90 degrees and plant your feet on the floor. Hang from the bar with your body in a straight line, core braced, and shoulders drawn down and back.

Step 2. Pull your body up to the bar so that your back is fully contracted.

1B Single-Arm Banded Reverse Curl

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Sets:Reps: 20 (each side)  Rest: 45 sec.

Step 1. Loop a band over your left foot and stand on it with your right foot. Grasp the free end in your right hand, palm facing down, and stand tall.

Step 2. Curl the band, keeping your wrist straight and in line with your arm. Complete your reps, and then repeat on the opposite side.

2 Hollow-Body Bodyweight Chinup

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Sets:Reps: AMRAP  Rest: 60 sec.

Step 1. Hang from a chinup bar with hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing you. Draw your ribs down and tuck your pelvis. Brace your core. Your legs should raise slightly in front of you and your abdomen should look somewhat hollowed out.

Step 2. Keeping the hollow-body position, pull your body up until your chin is over the bar.

3A Banded Bent-Arm Shrug

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible  Rest: 0 sec.

Step 1. Stand on the center of a band and hold an end in each hand. Bend your hips back slightly and allow the band to pull your arms downward.

Step 2. Keeping a small bend in your elbows, shrug your shoulders as high as you can.

3B Kneeling Banded Biceps Curl w/ 5-Second Iso Hold

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible  Rest: 60 sec.

Step 1. Stand or kneel on the center of a band and grasp an end in each hand.

Step 2. Curl the band and hold the top position for 5 seconds. That’s one rep.

4 Single-Arm Biceps Stretch

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Sets:Reps: Hold 45 sec. (each side)

Step 1. Grasp a doorframe or other sturdy object with your hand at shoulder level. Step away from the anchor point, turning your body and straightening your arm so that you feel a stretch in your biceps. Hold for 45 seconds, and then switch arms and repeat.

Workout #4 –Strength Emphasis Triceps w/ Bands and Bodyweight

Perform the paired exercises (marked A and B) in alternating fashion. So you’ll do one set of A, rest as prescribed, then one set of B, rest, and repeat until sets are completed for the pair. Exercises that are not marked with a letter are done alone—complete all sets for the move before going on to the next exercise.

For the banded exercises, be sure to choose a band that allows you the number of reps that are prescribed. If your band is too light, choke up on it to provide more tension. If it feels too heavy, try to reduce the tension by sitting or kneeling.

1A Banded Pushup

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Sets: 5  Reps: 12  Rest: 15 sec.

Step 1. Wrap a band around your upper back and grasp an end in each hand. Get into pushup position with hands at shoulder width.

Step 2. Perform a pushup, lowering your chest to an inch above the floor.

1B Banded Triceps Pushdown

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Sets: 5  Reps: 20  Rest: 45 sec.

Step 1. Attach a band to a sturdy overhead object and grasp the free end in both hands. Angle your body slightly to put tension on your triceps.

Step 2. Keeping your elbows at your sides, extend your elbows to lockout.

2 Constant-Tension Triceps Pushup

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible  Rest: 60 sec.

Step 1. Get into pushup position with your hands inside shoulder width.

Step 2. Perform pushups without locking out your elbows. Stop just short of lockout to keep tension on your triceps.

3A Alternating Shoulder Taps

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible  Rest: 0 sec.

Step 1. Get into pushup position and alternately raise one arm off the floor to tap the opposite shoulder. When supporting your body on one hand, brace your core and avoid any twisting or bending.

3B Banded Triceps Kickback w/ 5 Second Iso-Hold

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Sets:Reps: As many as possible (each arm)  Rest: 60 sec.

Step 1. Anchor the band to the floor with your feet and and grasp the open loop with one hand. Bend your hips back so that your body is nearly parallel to the floor. You should feel a stretch on your triceps when your elbow is bent.

Step 2. Keeping your arm at your side, extend your elbow and squeeze your triceps. Complete your reps, and then repeat on the opposite side.

4 Single-Arm Triceps Overhead Stretch

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Sets:Reps: Hold 45 sec. (each arm)

Step 1. Reach your arm overhead and bend the elbow. With your free hand, gently pull on the elbow until you feel a stretch in your triceps. Repeat on the opposite side.

Sean Hyson
Sean Hyson is the Editor in Chief of Onnit. A Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (C.S.C.S.), he is the author of The Men's Health Encyclopedia of Muscle, and the e-book The Truth About Strength Training (truthaboutstrengthtraining.com).

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