If you find yourself defaulting to lower-body exercises whenever you get to the gym—because who doesn’t love a good legs routine?—having an arms workout with dumbbells on your list can be an awesome way to make sure you’re fitting some upper-body strengthening into your plan, too.
And that’s important, since those muscles really do a lot to get you through life. Your biceps, which are located on the front of your upper arms, help you with any pulling motion you may be doing, certified personal trainer Francine Delgado-Lugo, CPT, movement and strength coach and cofounder of Form Fitness Brooklyn, tells SELF. This means every time you open a door, pick something off the floor, or carry an object, your biceps are working to help you get it done, she explains. When you flex or bend your elbow, your biceps are firing.
Your triceps, which make up the back of your upper arm, are the opposing or antagonist muscle to your biceps—they help you with pushing movements, Delgado-Lugo says. Every time you close a door, lower your body to the floor, or press something overhead, you’re using your triceps. They also help stabilize your arms when you’re carrying a heavy load, she adds. When you extend your elbow and straighten your arm, your triceps are working.
And while you may not think of them as “arms muscles,” your rear deltoids—which run along the backside of your shoulder—play a key role in your upper-body functioning. This small muscle is “very important for posture and for moving the arm backward,” explains Delgado-Lugo, so it’s super important to work on strengthening along with your biceps and triceps.
While your arm muscles are relatively small, they’re actually pretty important for bigger lifts, like rows or bench presses (and for bodyweight exercises, too, including push-ups and pull-ups). “They play a critical role in supporting those movements,” Delgado-Lugo says. Take the row, for instance. Even though your bigger back muscles are the primary drivers, your biceps work to help keep your weight—whether we’re talking about a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell—steady and complete the movement. Similarly, with a chest press, your pectoral muscles may be doing most of the work, but your triceps are helping it along, too.
To give these mighty muscles the attention they deserve, Delgado-Lugo created the following four-move routine for SELF that you can add to your arsenal of arms workouts with dumbbells when you’re craving something new. With exercises including the Arnold press, three-way biceps curl, bent-over row to triceps kickback, and bent-over reverse fly, you’ll target your arms as well as your shoulders and parts of your mid and upper back.
Together, these muscles “are all integral to effective pushing and pulling and carrying in horizontal and vertical directions,” explains Delgado-Lugo.
The exercises you’ll be doing are a mix of isolation moves (those that target one area of the body) and more compound moves (those that hit multiple muscle groups). The three-way biceps curl, for instance, is an isolation move that hones in on your biceps, while the bent-over row to triceps kickback is more of a compound exercise that fires up your bigger back muscles along with your triceps.