Ripped Arms: A How-To Guide



How was everyone’s weekend? Are we pumped to make it a great upcoming week?? What’s that? I can’t hear your enthusiasm through all the groans ;)

I had a most fabulous day biking and eating around Ottawa with my big sis. I will babble about it and explain the above picture tomorrow. But tonight’s post is all about one of my faaavourite things!


I put the call out for fitness-related questions and got a handful of really good ones to answer. Y’all know I’m a certified personal trainer, so you can take or leave what I lay out for you here. Just remember it’s general advice, specialized instruction for the individual is always best!


Excellent question. I have actually been working pretty hard lately at building up my scrawny arms to get that nice “athletic” look. (I always say I would like to look like a volleyball player who doesn’t play volleyball ;) )

First and foremost it’s important to realize that it is really hard to get defined muscle tone when you still have a layer of fat over top of your muscles. I’m not saying you need to starve yourself down to 13% body fat. But muscle definition is a lot about what you eat, not just what you lift.

Speaking of lifting, it really helps. You can definitely get visible arm definition from yoga, but sometimes you require a little more resistance or different movements to build the arm muscles. Yes, I say build. Muscles don’t “tone” they “grow.” If you want to see them, you have to make them bigger.

We’ll start at the top with the shoulder muscles.

A lot of women are scared to work their shoulders too hard because they don’t want to bulk up on the top. While some women are indeed more prone to getting a sturdier look up there, defined deltoids are an essential part of getting those ripped arms you’re after.

As you can see in the above picture, your deltoids are in three parts: anterior deltoid (front of shoulder), middle/lateral deltoid (top and side of shoulder), and posterior deltoid (back of shoulder).

If you only have time to do one shoulder exercise, do the shoulder press as it hits all three of these areas at once.

You can do shoulder presses with dumbbells or a barbell, seated or standing, or on a 45 degree bench. Most gyms also have press machines, but I find they can be awkward for a lot of people.

Things to remember:

  • Keep your shoulders in a “reset” position, ie down and back. Never shrug them up as you raise the weight above your head.
  • If you’re standing, try not to lean back when it starts to get hard, it puts a lot of stress on your spine.
  • Only lower the dumbbells to just above your ears, or so your elbows are at 90 degrees.
  • Don’t let your dumbbells clink together at the top, keep it a nice and controlled movement.
  • Lift heavy! Too many women do this exercise with those dinky 5lb dumbbells. Start with at least 10 lbs in each hand, the last couple reps should be really hard to complete. If you want to see those shoulders, you have to work them!

Honourable mentions:

Dumbbell front raiseworks mostly the front of your shoulders (can be done with a cable or tubing as well)

Dumbbell lateral raise – works mostly the top of your shoulders (can be done with a cable or tubing as well)

Prone cuban snatchthis move goes by many names, but it will mostly hit the back of your shoulders.

Now! Onto our arms! Back when I first started lifting, I did not isolate my arm muscles. They are often secondary muscles in chest and back exercises so it just wasn’t necessary when I was first starting out. But the longer you lift weights, the stronger your big muscle groups will get, which will allow you to move onto the smaller ones. Personally, I did not see a huge difference in my arms until I started isolating the muscles in them. This is why sometimes chaturangas alone won’t work.

We’re going to start with the triceps as there are more muscles in that group. As the name implies, there are three: long head, lateral head, medial head. Different moves will hit different areas of the triceps. For simplicity’s sake, I won’t go into the specifics of each one. Just make sure you vary your triceps moves, and you’ll be good! Luckily, there are many you can do. Here are some of my favourites:

Dumbbell extension: as with all other standing moves, ensure your shoulders are back & down, and don’t lean back. Your elbows should be the only joint moving.

Cable pushdown: I like staggering my stance with this one to create a more stable base. For the love of God, push down using ONLY your elbows. Donotdonot engage your shoulders. Especially not your back. This is probably the #1 move I see done incorrectly.

Kickback: You can also do this one with your knee on a bench and one arm at a time. Check yourself in the mirror and make sure your back is straight and shoulders are on the same plane. And guess what!? Bend only at your elbows!

 Skull crusher: I really love this one, I think because of the badass name. Grab on to a barbell with a narrow grip. Start with your arms straight, then bend only at the elbow to lower it down to your forehead, then push back up.

Cable extension: Just make sure your back is straight and shoulders are down. You can do this with the rope or straight bar attachment. Hey! Bend only at the elbows! No shoulder business!! ;)

Next up we got the biceps! For our purposes, we’ll focus on the biceps brachii (the main biceps muscle) and the brachilis (the outside biceps muscle).

There is essentially only one way to work your biceps: the curl.

The number one thing to remember with the curl is to keep your elbows pinched in at the sides, otherwise you start engaging other muscles. What’s the point of doing isolation moves when improper form means you’re no longer isolating them??


Incline curl: I love this one. The incline allows your arms to fall farther back, which means you have to curl your arms up further. Always leaves me sore.

Hammer curl: This one hits into your forearm a little more. Strong forearms are actually more important than you’d think (cycling anyone??). But I get it’s not really all that feminine. You can also do twisting curls where you start in the hammer position, then curl up so the dumbbells are horizontal at your shoulder. Just engages different parts of your biceps along the way.

Barbell 21s: This is a little complicated. Essentially you are doing 21 reps, divided into 7. For the first 7, you lift only halfway, stopping when your elbows are at 90 degrees. The second 7 are the top half, starting at the 90 degree position and moving to the top. Finally, the last 7 are the whole motion from top to bottom.


And that my friends is just a little snippet of how to get ripped arms!! Including shoulder, triceps and biceps isolation moves into your training at least once a week (lifting heavy) will give you that little bit of definition you’re after. That is of course, if you’ve got a good diet to match your training plan ;)

Thank you for indulging me in this epic arm post! Be back tomorrow with more shenanigans. xoxo

Posted on June 27, 2010, in Workouts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. I love, love, love shoulder presses. Best exercise ever.

  2. Yeah, I do some of these already. Go me

  3. Love this!! I really need to give my arm workout an update.

  4. Great post again! I need to work on my tris a bit more – def need to try the cable pushdowns and dumbell extensions.

  5. “But muscle definition is a lot about what you eat, not just what you lift.”–THANK YOU! I had to do an entire post on Tough Love about Abs are made in the kitchen, not just the gym :)

    Ok so Susan, this is perhaps on of my fave posts EVER that i have seen on all the “fitness” blogs. First, it’s very comprehensive. Shoulders, arms, biceps/triceps. It covers the bases but doesnt make my eyes glaze over. The pics are perfect. The outside links are perfect.

    I know when tackling questions like this, you realy want to be thorough but not overkill. Or lose people. Just let me say, your did an excellent job on this post…I sound like I am your boss or something evaluating you, but seriously, it’s so well done. The info is stellar, too!

    i am a fan of the shoulder press, all the exercises you listed get done at least 2-3x/week for me and some, daily.

    I also lift heavy. I lift as heavy as i possibly can. 10 yrs of yoga gave me a foundation for everything, 4 mos of lifting is giving me some size :)

  6. I absolutely LOVE this post. I immediately “starred’ it in my google reader. I also really like that most of the exercises can be done at home with free weights. I don’t have a gym membership but my stepdad has a small personal gym (bench and weights) in our garage. This way, I can BUILD up the muscles in my arms in the comfort of my home =)

    You’re the best!
    Nicole G

  7. What a great post! I’ve found that really useful and I now have some new exercises I can try out for a change! x

  8. Since my stomach is all about growing a baby lately, I have been focusing more on my “guns”. Thanks for these tips!

  9. LOVE this post girl :) seriously there’s nuttin like a good upperbody workout! and the feeling of being sore the next day is the bestttttt

    21s ALWAYS get me sore :) i lurv it

  10. trainer to trainer…great post! that cuban snatch on the ball is a great one! I call it I, T, Y becuase of the movements you make with your arms…its awesome for that ‘back fat’ areas that so many people want to tone down!
    shoulders are by FAR my favorite upper body muscle to work…I think becuase they respond the quickest for me…love a good burn!

  11. Oh, I NEED this post. My arms are looking a little jiggly.

  12. great post! good overview with some great exercises. I love to recommend supersetting biceps and triceps. I’m so glad you’ve emphasized the importance of lifting heavy!

    glad you had a fun weekend!

  13. Snazzy post, thanks! Are you still taking fitness questions? If so, I’d love to learn how to go from doing knee push-ups to regular push-ups; I’m going to be applying to the Air Force, soon, and the fitness test involves doing a full minute of push-ups. Yikes.

  14. Love this post (as well as the guest post you linked to once where you outlined all the different exercises you should do for different muscles — SO helpful!) Anyway, I have a question. Should you be doing multiple exercises for each muscle or is one exercise okay? For example, for triceps just doing dumbbell extension (but doing 3 sets) rather than doing dumbbell extension plus cable extension and skull crusher.

    • It depends on the kind of workout you’re doing and the time commitment. I almost always do full-body workouts, so I only have time to do one exercise for each muscle group. In this case, I only choose one shoulder exercise, one triceps exercise and one biceps exercise (doing around 3 sets at 8-15 reps) However, if you want to work out your upper-body only, you can easily choose at least two exercises for each group. When I say vary the exercises, I just mean don’t do the same tricep pushdown day after day, try to pick a different one for each workout :)

      Also, biceps and triceps are opposing muscles, so they make for great alternating sets or supersets. Hope that helps!

  15. Love the skull crusher, aka nosebreaker! I always feel bad ass doing that one :D

  16. Great post! It’s certainly that time of year! Time to show off the guns. I’m thinking mine may be ready by next Spring…no seriously

  17. As I was lifting tonight (my favorite exercise activity), I kept thinking of your words saying “You can lift all you want, but you won’t get definition without proper nutrition” (or something like that). I definitely need to work on my food choices. Luckily the grocery is next door to the gym, so stopped for some REAL foods! Thanks for the inspiration.

  18. Loved this post. Love loved it! I’ve been focusing a lot on my arms lately and I do most of these moves. The skull crusher is one of my favs. Also, thanks for the idea to do bicep curls on the incline bench – never thought about that.

  19. Ughh I hate working my shoulders so much! It hurts! But those are what I want to focus on the most. At least I know I’m not doing it in vain; my bones don’t poke out anymore, so I’ve definately built some visible muscle! Skullcrushers are my all-time favorite move. They feel like they really work. I’ve never heard of the Biceps 21 thing. Pretty interesting…

  20. i’m not gonna lie, as i need no help in the arm dept, (psh its the only part of my body, where i’m like, heavens can i not look like a man? lol. actually yoga helps with that.) BUT, anyways i kinda scrolled through this post hoping to see some hot picture of susan flexing her biceps. haha. because we know they’re there! i do love how much you love about fitness and the capabilities we have as humans though. you’re always super informative and knowledgeable!

  21. Great post Susan – I’m always looking for new strength training exercises, and I find the upper body especially difficult to find good ones for. Shoulder presses are my least favorite (lets be honest – they burn hardcore by the end) but I suppose they are worth it. Thanks for the tips.

  22. okay…your timing is impeccable. i was JUST telling someone how i would really like ripped arms. you know how i feel about weightlifting (blech!), but i am willing to give it a shot for you :)

    and i ate the bacon choco bar.

    don’t hate me.

    i still love you.

    and i will send you a new one complete with a fabulous care package.

    once i get paid of course, which lucky for you, is tomorrow!

  23. Great post! Don’t forget tricep dips!!!!

  1. Pingback: Monday on the Move « Healthyteacher's Blog

  2. Pingback: I Want to Marry You All Over Again « Healthyteacher's Blog

  3. Pingback: Fitness Friday – Fit Links | The Great Balancing Act

  4. Pingback: 500 | The Great Balancing Act

  5. Pingback: Move It Monday – Pipes Challenge | The Great Balancing Act

  6. Pingback: My Favourite Fitness Posts | The Great Balancing Act

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: