Jessica Gouthro from Paleohacks is joining us today to offer tips for bodyweight-focused arm workouts. Enjoy, everyone.
Do you ever have those days when you want a good arm workout, but you don’t have any workout equipment?
Curls, presses, tricep kickbacks, and rows are all great for your arms if you’re at the gym with plenty of dumbbells, barbells and cable machines. But what about those days that you just can’t make it to the gym—or simply don’t want to?
Luckily, I’m here to prove to you that a good bodyweight workout is just as good as what you can get at the gym. The best part is, you don’t need anything other than yourself and just 15 minutes at a time to sculpt and tone your arms into incredible shape.
The top three muscle groups we want to focus on when working on our arms are:
- Triceps: Our largest muscle group of the arm, located on the back of the upper arm. Its function is to extend the elbow joint (straighten your arm).
- Biceps: The muscle in the front of our upper arm that flexes the elbow joint to bring the forearm towards the upper arm (bend your arm).
- Shoulders: The muscle primarily targeted in shoulder development is the deltoid. This muscle is responsible for both raising and lowering of the arm as well as overhead pressing movements.
This bodyweight workout focuses on these three muscle groups, helping you form a balanced strengthening approach.
The result of this workout is going to be sleek, defined, strong-looking arms, but even better, you will be gaining real, functional strength at the same time.
Here’s how to do this 15-minute arm workout:
- Spend 1 minute on each of the five exercises, repeating the circuit three times without breaks between rounds.
- Beginner (30:30): Follow 30 seconds of work with 30 seconds of rest. (If you need even more rest, you can take it. Good form is always more important than sticking to time!)
- Advanced (45:15): Follow 45 seconds of work with 15 seconds of rest (Just enough time for a few deep breaths and setting yourself up for the next exercise.)
This triceps move also shapes your chest, shoulders and core for a full-body functional exercise.
In a push-up position, bring your hands to touching, forming a diamond shape with fingers and thumbs.
Tighten your core, and ensure that your body is in a straight line from shoulders to feet.
Bend your elbows to lower your chest towards your hands.
Stop when you are about four inches away from the floor, then press your palms down into the ground to rise back up to the top.
Keep your elbows close to your body as you lower and lift to put the focus on the arms and shoulders.
This exercise is surprisingly challenging when done with focus and intention.
Get into a low squat, with your knees bent and back straight.
Lift your arms up behind you like you’re reaching for the back wall. Spread your fingers and flex your arms all the way straight.
On an inhale, bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle, making sure to keep your arms up high. Focus on flexing your bicep muscles.
Exhale to extend your arms straight again, flexing your triceps.
With each rep, focus on contracting your muscles.
Single Leg Pike Push-Ups
This just might be the hardest shoulder press you’ve ever tried.
Start in downward-facing dog position, on your hands and toes with your hips in the air. Make sure your hands are at least shoulder-width apart.
Lift one leg up high in the air, pointing your toes towards the ceiling.
Inhale to bend your elbows, lowering your forehead towards the ground between your hands.
Exhale to press your palms down into the ground to lift back up to straight arms.
Lower your leg back down and immediately lift your right leg.
Continue to do the same push-up move, alternating lifts of each leg for the allotted work time interval.
NOTE: Single Leg Pike Push-Up is a challenging move that requires upper body strength and balance. If you cannot do it with good form or do not feel comfortable doing it, do push-ups (or modified push-ups on your knees) instead.
Put feet about shoulder width apart with toes touching the ground. Put hands alongside chest and spread your fingers. Begin to push up, keeping elbows close to the body.
Take some of the work off the wrists by making your fingers “grip” the floor as you push up.
A modification of the traditional push-up that lessens the weight on the upper body. Follow the same routine as the traditional push-up, but use your knees as the point of your lower body touching the floor (instead of the toes).
Extend upward just as you do in a traditional push-up.
This move tones your shoulders and arms while also strengthening your lower back.
Lie belly down on the ground with arms and legs extended long.
Take a big breath in, then on the exhale, lift your arms and legs off the ground like Superman.
Inhale to lower back to the starting point.
Repeat this lifting and lowering, following the pace of your breath.
Downdog Ankle Tap Twists
This shoulder and tricep blaster is also a great spine-lengthening stretch.
Start in a downdog position with hands and feet shoulder-width apart.
Exhale, and reach your right hand towards the outside of your left ankle to tap it.
Inhale to come back to downdog, then alternate and do the same on the other side.
Continue alternating left and right, one move per breath.
Congratulations! In just 15 minutes, and with no equipment, you have worked your arms in the best way possible.
You may feel sore tomorrow, so give those arms a rest and allow at least 24-48 hours recovery before tackling this workout again.
For best results, I recommend incorporating this workout into your routine two to three times per week, spaced apart to allow for recovery.
Questions or comments about bodyweight exercises or arm strength? Share them below, and thanks for stopping by.
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The scientific literature is awash in correlations between a person’s health status and various biomarkers, personal characteristics, and measurements. As we hoard more and more data and develop increasingly sophisticated autonomous tools to analyze it, we’ll stumble across new connections between seemingly disparate variables. Some will be spurious, where the correlations are real but the variables don’t affect each other. Others will be useful, where the correlations indicate real causality, or at least a real relationship.
One of my favorite health markers—one that is both modifiable and a good barometer for the conditions it appears to predict—is grip strength.
The Benefits of Grip Strength
In middle-aged and elderly people, grip strength consistently predicts mortality risk from all causes, doing an even better job than blood pressure. In older disabled women, grip strength predicts all-cause mortality, even when controlling for disease status, inflammatory load, depression, nutritional status, and inactivity.
Poor grip strength is also an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes across all ethnicities, and it can predict the presence of osteoarthritis in the knee. Among Korean adults, those with lower grip strength have a greater risk of clinical depression.
Even when hand grip strength fails to predict a disease, it still predicts the quality of life in people with the disease. The relative rate of grip strength reduction in healthy people is a good marker for the progression of general aging. Faster decline, faster aging. Slower (or no) decline, slower aging. Stronger people—as indicated by their grip strength—are simply better at navigating the physical world and maintaining independence on into old age.
Health and longevity aside, there are other real benefits to a stronger grip.
You command more respect. I don’t care how bad it sounds, because I agree. Historically, a person’s personal worth and legitimacy was judged by the quality of their handshake. Right or wrong, that’s how we’re wired. If you think you feel differently, let me know how you feel the next time you shake hands and the other person has a limp, moist hand. Who are you more likely to respect? To hire? To deem more capable? To befriend? To approach romantically? I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying it’s simply how it is. We can’t avoid our guttural reaction to a strong—or weak—handshake. To me, that suggests we have a built-in sensitivity to grip for a very good reason.
So, how does one build grip?
10 Exercises To Build Grip Strength
Most people will get a strong-enough grip as long as they’re lifting heavy things on a consistent-enough basis.
Deadlifts are proven grip builders. Wide grip deadlifts are also good and stress your grip across slightly different angles.
2. Pullups and 3. Chinups
Both require a good grip on the bar.
Any exercise where your grip supports either your weight or an external weight (like a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) is going to improve your grip strength. But there are other, more targeted movements you can try to really turn your hand into a vise. Such as:
4. Bar Hangs
This is pretty simple. Just hang from a bar (or branch, or traffic light fixture) with both hands. It’s probably the purest expression of grip strength. As it happens, it’s also a great stretch for your lats, chest, shoulders, and thoracic spine.
Aim to hit one minute. Progress to one-hand hangs if two-handers get too easy. You can use a lower bar and keep one foot on the ground for support as you transition toward a full one-handed hang.
5. Sledgehammer Work
Grab the heaviest sledgehammer you can handle and use it in a variety of ways.
If you had to pick just one sledgehammer movement to target your grip, do the bottoms up. Hold the hammer hanging down pointing toward the ground in your hand, swing it up and catch it with the head of the hammer pointing upward, and hold it there. Handle parallel to your torso, wrist straight, don’t let it fall. The lower you grip the handle, the harder your forearms (and grip) will have to work.
6. Fingertip Pushups
Most people who try fingertip pushups do them one way. They do them with straight fingers, with the palm dipping toward the ground. Like this. Those are great, but there’s another technique as well: the claw. For the claw, make a claw with your hand, like this, as if you’re trying to grab the ground. In fact, do try to grab the ground. This keeps your fingers more active, builds more strength and resilience, and prevents you from resting on your connective tissue.
These are hard for most people. They’re quite hard on the connective tissue, which often goes underutilized in the hands and forearms. Don’t just leap into full fingertip pushups—unless you know you’re able. Start on your knees, gradually pushing your knees further back to add resistance. Once they’re all the way back and you’re comfortable, then progress to full pushups.
7. Active Hands Pushups
These are similar to claw pushups, only with the palm down on the floor. Flat palm, active “claw” fingers. They are easier than fingertip pushups.
8. Farmer’s Walks
The average person these days is not carrying water pails and hay bales and feed bags back and forth across uneven ground like they did when over 30% of the population lived on farms, but the average person can quickly graduate past average by doing farmer’s walks a couple times each week. What is a farmer’s walk?
Grab two heavy weights, stand up, and walk around. They can be dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or trap bars. You can walk up hill, down hill, or around in circles. You can throw in some shrugs, or bookend your walks with deadlifts or swings. The point is to use your grip to carry something heavy in both hands.
9. Pinch Grips
Grasp and hold weight plates between your thumb and each finger.
10. Hammer Curls
Next time you do some curls, throw in a few sets of hammer curls. These are identical to normal bicep curls, except you hold the weights in a hammer grip, with palms facing toward each other—like how you hold and swing a hammer. Make sure to keep those wrists as straight as possible.
The thing about grip is it’s hard to work your grip without getting stronger, healthier, and faster all over. Deadlifting builds grip strength, and it also builds back, hip, glute, and torso strength. Fingertip pushups make your hands and forearms strong, but they also work your chest, triceps, abs, and shoulders. That’s why I suspect grip strength is such a good barometer for overall health, wellness, and longevity. Almost every meaningful piece of physical activity requires that you use your hands to manipulate significant amounts of weight and undergo significant amounts of stress.
For that reason, the best way to train your grip is with normal movements. Heavy deadlifts and farmer’s walks are probably more effective than spending half an hour pinch gripping with every possible thumb/finger permutation, because they offer more full-body benefits. But if you have a few extra minutes throughout your workout, throw in some of the dedicated grip training.
Your grip can handle it. The grip muscles in the hands and forearm are mostly slow-twitch fiber dominant, meaning they’re designed to go for long periods of exertion. They’re also gross movers, meaning you use them all the time for all sorts of tasks, and have been doing so for decades. To make them adapt, you need to stress the heck out of them with high weight. Train grip with high reps, heavy weights, and long durations. This is why deadlifts and farmer’s walks are so good for your grip—they force you to maintain that grip on a heavy bar or dumbbell for the entire duration of the set with little to no rest.
Oh, and pick up some Fat Gripz. These attach to dumbbells and barbells and increase the diameter of the bar, giving you less leverage when grabbing and forcing you to adapt to the new grip conditions by getting stronger.
Now, will all this grip training actually protect you from aging, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and early all-cause mortality? Maybe, maybe not.
But it—and the muscle and fitness you gain doing all these exercises—certainly doesn’t hurt.
How’s your grip? How’s your handshake? How long can you hang from a bar without letting go?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, be well, and go pick up and hold some heavy stuff.
Sasaki H, Kasagi F, Yamada M, Fujita S. Grip strength predicts cause-specific mortality in middle-aged and elderly persons. Am J Med. 2007;120(4):337-42.
Leong DP, Teo KK, Rangarajan S, et al. Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. Lancet. 2015;386(9990):266-73.
Rantanen T, Volpato S, Ferrucci L, Heikkinen E, Fried LP, Guralnik JM. Handgrip strength and cause-specific and total mortality in older disabled women: exploring the mechanism. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003;51(5):636-41.
Van der kooi AL, Snijder MB, Peters RJ, Van valkengoed IG. The Association of Handgrip Strength and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Six Ethnic Groups: An Analysis of the HELIUS Study. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(9):e0137739.
Wen L, Shin MH, Kang JH, et al. Association between grip strength and hand and knee radiographic osteoarthritis in Korean adults: Data from the Dong-gu study. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(11):e0185343.
Lee MR, Jung SM, Bang H, Kim HS, Kim YB. The association between muscular strength and depression in Korean adults: a cross-sectional analysis of the sixth Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (KNHANES VI) 2014. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):1123.
Lee SH, Kim SJ, Han Y, Ryu YJ, Lee JH, Chang JH. Hand grip strength and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Korea: an analysis in KNHANES VI. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2017;12:2313-2321.
Iconaru EI, Ciucurel MM, Georgescu L, Ciucurel C. Hand grip strength as a physical biomarker of aging from the perspective of a Fibonacci mathematical modeling. BMC Geriatr. 2018;18(1):296.
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