Embiggen My Puny Arms!
May 19, 2008 6:59 PM   Subscribe

What are, say, the 5 key dumbbell exercises for arm strongening?

So I’m a fair-sized lad with pretty broad shoulders, strong legs and a some excess pudding around the abdomen. For overall health I am going to resume my daily walking and yoga routine, which I have been criminally neglecting these past few months, as well as cut back on booze (boo!) and carbohydrates in general. I’m also quitting smoking (just like the seven other times I’ve done it). But one thing I’d really like to focus on is my puny arms.

With this in mind, I am going to purchase a pair (or is “set” the correct nomenclature?) of dumbbells today, likely 10kg jobs. What are, say, the 5 key dumbbell exercises for arm strongening? I don’t want to go around looking like I’ve got a pair of condoms packed with walnuts attached to the sides of my torso, but I’d also like to not go around looking like those same condoms are filled with gravy and whipped cream.

Bonus question: Is there a pull-up “corollary” I can perform with these dumbbells? I read in another AskMe that pull-ups are one of the best exercises to perform for arm enhancements, but I have nothing to pull up on, which leaves me stymied.
posted by turgid dahlia to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I dont know of a good pull-up replacement with dumb bells, why cant you find a bar or doorframe somewhere that you can use? As far as a passable replacement I guess the closest you may come is with bent over rows, where you bend at the waist, with your chest puffed out and pull your arms up. Mess around with different hand orientations to work different muscles.

I am a proponent of strengthening arms by lifting other body parts (chest, back, shoulders) and dont typically focus on them. If I were to focus on them, I would probably do the following (I will direct you to youtube rather than try to clumsily explain): Curls, Hammer Curls, for the biceps, tricep extensions, bench press (keep your hands close together), and push ups for the triceps.

If you exclusively use your dumbbells you will get bored quickly. Another problem is that if you only get one set, you probably arent going to be able to do bench presses and the bent over rows, as those use vastly different weights than what you would curl.

I may be biased, as pullups are one of my top three favorite excercises, but go find a bar!
posted by jmugrapler at 7:13 PM on May 19, 2008

(From mr. tristeza)

When it comes to arms rather than upper body generally, dumbells are great to exercise with. You can use them singly, as a pair and you can add weight to them even if they are not the adjustable kind with one or two ankle weights, which are also handy.

It's a lot easier to do useful exercises if you have a bench, so I'd look into picking one of those up at a garage sale (or often just on the street). A lot of people exercise their arms while working their upper bodies, but working the arms specifically helps you focus on weak spots - and you will find those.

The keys to free weight exercise are

1) Don't be embarrassed about weak spots.

2) Use good form, equal between arms.

If you don't follow 1) you won't follow 2).

Curls are the classic arm exercise for the biceps. The reason there are so many curl exercises is that a free weight gives you maximum resistance when the bone of the limb in question is parallel to the ground. And as you contract a muscle, different portions of it do most of the work.
So weightlifters do all sorts of tricks to spread the work around the muscles they are trying to develop. There's actually a practical reason weightlifters look in the mirror a lot. They are trying to make sure they are maintaining the intended posture as they lift.

For example, if you did your curls with your upper arms extended forward, you will exercise hardest the portion of the biceps nearest the elbow, whereas if you let your upper arms go behind your hips as you raise the weight, you will exercise the portion of the biceps nearest the shoulder. As an added complication, a muscle is weaker when extended than when contracted, so the former exercise will be harder than the latter. And different techniques can exercise different sides of a muscle more or less. That's why weightlifters have so many exercises. It pays to experiment and vary your approach. Look for exercises that you are weakest at and especially those where your arms are unequal. It can be surprising when you find a weak muscle, but if you keep at it, you'll get stronger quickly.

To get to your question directly, I would first buy an "arm blaster". It's just a thin piece of metal with a little strap so it hangs off your neck, but it's an invaluable aid, especially for the biceps. Straight curls with the arm blaster will become your main biceps exercise. Hold the dumbells at an angle, but keep the angle constant. These are really effective.

You can also do a reverse curl with lighter weight which primarily exercises the back of the lower arms, as well as the biceps. For the front of the lower arms, you lay the arm blaster on your knees and do wrist curls.

The triceps are a more complicated muscle. Most people do a dumbbell kickback as their main triceps exercise. Seated triceps extensions are great and can be done with two dumbells or both hands under the plate of one dumbbell. You can add more weight to the single dumbbell with the aforementioned ankle weights.

THE site to look for your exercises is ShapeFit.Com. Start with the five I suggest, keep the physics in mind, keep good form and change your grips periodically to reduce muscle stress.
posted by tristeza at 8:08 PM on May 19, 2008 [10 favorites]

The problem here is that muscle growth is usually achieved through progression - ie by increasing the weight at regular intervals. If you buy one set of dumbbells, then once you have got whatever initial gains there are, you have nowhere to go. Increasing reps will make you somewhat stronger, and train those muscles for endurance, but they won't get a lot bigger.

Also, if you're a big lad, 10kg isn't very heavy. I, with my weedy ~14" upper arms can easily curl 15kg for reps.

The reason pullups and chins are advocated is that your body is quite heavy and provides serious resistance. I can't think of a dumbbell exercise with that similar a motion, but clearly you need pretty heavy ones to provide the same stimulus.

Is there a kid's playground anywhere near where you walk? There'll be somewhere you can chin there.

If you drop body fat, your arms will look bigger, even if they're not, because the muscles will be more defined and won't so overshadowed by your wobbly tummy.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:17 PM on May 19, 2008

Shovelglove, shovelglove, shovelglove.

I'm a 98 pound weakling of sorts who has always been strong for my size, and insanely active, but not as strong as I'd like to be. I was a bike messenger, with the leg muscles that go along with it, but no upper body strength.

I joined a gym, and got pretty arm muscles through weightlifting, but it didn't make much of a difference in real life, where I have to load musical equipment into a van or help friends move their furniture.

Abandon the dumbell fly and the bicep curl and eating clean and looking like an after photo. Try Shovelglove, or kettlebells, or crossfit (with a big grain of salt.) Find something that will make you strong, and that you can do every day, not just something that will get you strong-looking for a few months before you get bored of the endless routine.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:53 PM on May 19, 2008

freshwater_pr0n: I actually bought a sledgehammer some time ago to do just this but, without getting into too much detail, I was running out of breath very quickly when doing the movements. This is one of the reasons I'm quitting smoking, and why I want some low-impact exercise to do while my lungs, uh, sort of clear themselves out.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:58 PM on May 19, 2008

you can buy a pull up bar that cantilevers in a doorframe, or a spring-loaded one that fits in the doorframe like a curtain rod.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:02 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Instead of getting a pair of 10kg dumbbells, I think you should get an adjustable set. These are a metal bar that you can load weight plates onto. They look like this, and are not too expensive, especially used. Garage sales, used sporting goods stores, and pawn shops are a good place to look. Get two of the bars, plus four 5kg plates and four 10s (or four more 5s if you are strapped for cash). If they have smaller plates (2.5 or 3 kg? I lift in pounds, so I'm not sure how it goes with kg), get four of those as well. This will give you plenty of different weight options, starting at 10kg all the way up to 30.

The nice thing about these is that they use the same plates that barbells do, so you can easily add to your home gym if you end up liking weightlifting. And you can adjust the weight as you get stronger, without ending up with a million different pairs of dumbbells.

Here's my dumbbell arm program:
Hammer curls
Forearm curls (both fore and back)
Triceps extension

If you are aiming to gain arm size & strength, I think you should throw in some shoulder work, too. Otherwise, the tops of your arms may not look as evenly developed. Plus, the shoulders have a lot to do with everyday arm strength. Try these:
Dumbbell shoulder press
Dumbbell front raises
Dumbbell upright row

I usually aim to do 3 sets of 5 repetitions of each of these exercises, with a short break in between each set. The goal should be to lift as much weight as you can, while still keeping proper form. Do them slowly and smoothly, concentrating on form. Once you can do 5 reps with proper form, increase the weight slightly. Drop down to fewer reps if you need to, until you can do 5 with proper form again. Repeat. It helps to keep a spreadsheet or a paper record or something, so you'll remember how much weight and how many reps/sets you did for each exercise the last time. Optimally, you should try to do this routine often, but not more frequently than every other day -- muscles need rest in order to grow. I usually aim for twice a week. If you ache a lot the next day, try eating something with lots of protein after your workout, like a protein shake or some hard-boiled eggs.
posted by vorfeed at 10:13 PM on May 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

FYI vorfeed, the usual metric scheme I see in gyms around here is 1.25kg, 2.5, 5, 10, 15, 20.

1.25 as the smallest plate is a bit of a bummer because 2.5kg is a big increment to add to a one-arm exercise. I don't usually see smaller plates though.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:17 PM on May 19, 2008

"Mr. Tristeza" here again:

I totally concur with the adjustable dumbell suggestion - they are ideal. But since, in my experience, the three things that kill exercise programs are:

1) embarrassment

2) frustration at not finding doable exercises

3) inconvenience

I didn't want the OP to get discouraged if he'd gone and bought single-weight dumbbells. They are still totally usable, you just make some adjustments. You can pick your exercise by muscle group here as well as other places - just find one that works with the weights you have.

The OP should definitely use his new dumbbells to work the many muscles of the shoulder (deltoids). I found out that dumbbells are the way bodybuilders work that complicated muscle group because they work better - and with quite light weights.

With a bench, you can work the chest muscles and lats with "flyes" and pullovers even if you don't have a lot of weight to lift. You can do a reverse-fly rather than a "row" exercise. Instead of using a lot of weight, you make sure you extend your arms to the max. It's not a substitute for presses or pull-ups, but a way to tone those muscles. I think the reverse flyes are better than rows, actually. And again, it's more important to find your weak spots rather than do the exercises that are easier but allow you to sling more weight.

I only added this because it seems that by "arms" the OP might have been referring to the upper body generally - in which case I would alternate doing 5 exercises for the shoulders, chest and back with five exercises for the arms themselves.
posted by tristeza at 12:47 AM on May 20, 2008

If you're looking for an exercise that will make a very real difference in any physical aspect of your life, there's only one: deadlifts. But I end up saying something similar in almost every exercise thread. They're my favorite exercise by far =)

As for arm growth, I lean towards heavy compound lifts that involve the arm muscles, doing very little isolation work, and have gotten good results. Bench press will involve the triceps, and I throw in a couple of sets of dips at the end of the week. Bent over rows work your biceps in addition to others. Wide grip pull ups will work biceps in addition to your shoulders and lats. Hammer grip pull ups target the biceps more directly.

And while I use free weights almost exclusively, cable exercises can be a nice addition to your isolation work, by increasing the time your muscles are under tension.
posted by kableh at 7:52 AM on May 20, 2008

I didn't want the OP to get discouraged if he'd gone and bought single-weight dumbbells.

Very true... I have 3 different sets of them, myself, and I do tend to use them more often than the adjustable ones, when I need those particular weights. The shape of the hex dumbbells is a lot nicer than the plates, especially for doing things like triceps extensions. The only problem is, the set I started out with hardly ever gets touched anymore! Also, my arms, shoulders, chest, and back are all over the map in terms of what I can lift, which means that I'd need a lot of different single-weight bells.

If you start out with single-weight bells, that's great, but don't get too many of them before considering an adjustable set. They're not all that much more expensive, and they will save you a lot of space and money.

Also, a thought for the future: I think it is really worth getting a barbell eventually (it is not really feasible to do the kind of heavy compound lifts that kableh is recommending without a barbell, for example). When/if you do get a barbell, you will be a lot happier if you can use the plates you already have, as opposed to having to buy two entirely different sets of equipment for dumbbell and barbell. This is why I really hate those newfangled square/octagonal/polyhedral Bowflex/Nautilus/powerblock "speed" plates... you pay a premium to have something that doesn't work with anything else. I think they're probably named after the pace at which they drain your wallet.
posted by vorfeed at 9:54 AM on May 20, 2008

Adjustable set it is! You're right, they aren't much more expensive and they have the added benefit of making it look as though I know what I'm doing.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:55 PM on May 20, 2008

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