The Ultimate Arm Workout For Women

Woman sitting on weights bench holding dumbbells
(Image credit: Svitlana Hulko / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

“One of the most common areas women ask me to work on during sessions is their arms,” says Kate Rowe-Ham, a personal trainer and menopause fitness expert who specialises in working with women. “While it’s tricky to target and dramatically change specific areas, with regular upper-body strength training you can build lean muscle and make strength gains.”

You won’t be too surprised to hear that the best arm exercises for women don’t differ from the moves you’ll see men doing. Target three key muscle groups – your deltoids (shoulders), biceps (front of your upper arms) and triceps (back of your upper arms) – in an arm-sculpting session and you won’t go far wrong.

Here, Kate has compiled her favourite arm exercises for women into a workout to help you build up your muscles and improve how you move in day to day life. Perform the exercises in a circuit format for the stated reps. For some exercises there’s a suggested range of reps, so choose the number most appropriate to your fitness level. Aim to complete three rounds of the circuit, taking minimal rest between exercises and 30-60 seconds’ rest between rounds.

“If you can do 12 reps easily, you’re either not working hard enough or the weights aren’t heavy enough,” says Rowe-Ham. “If you can barely do five reps, you’re working too hard or the weights are too light. Aim to get to eight reps and have to push through those last few reps—that means you’re working at the right intensity, the weight is spot-on and you can progress from there when you’re ready.”

Unless you’ve got a well-appointed home workout space with a dumbbell rack and weight bench, it’s best to try this session at the gym—not least because you’ll probably heavier dumbbells for the moves that target your arm muscles and lighter weights for the shoulder exercises.

1 Press-up

Woman performing push-up on knees

(Image credit: chesterf / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

The cornerstone of upper-body exercises, press-ups work the triceps, pectoral muscles and shoulders. When done with proper form, they can also strengthen the lower back and core by engaging the abdominal muscles. This version is performed on your knees but you can progress to a full press-up supporting yourself on your toes when you’re ready for more of a challenge.

Kneel on an exercise mat, placing your hands on the floor slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and squeeze your glutes. Inhale as you bend your elbows to lower your torso towards the mat, maintaining a neutral spine and neck throughout, until your upper and lower arms are at 90°. Exhale as you use your chest to push your body back into the starting position.

2 Overhead press

Woman performing standing dumbbell shoulder press

(Image credit: Svitlana Hulko / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Reps 10-12 Rest 0sec

This press works the deltoids, triceps, trapezius and pecs, and is great for building strength and improving shoulder mobility. It also mimics moves we do in everyday life, such as lifting bags overhead. Not only that, by performing this move while standing, rather than sitting, you work harder to maintain your balance and that means you’ll also recruit your core muscles.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, and hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Exhale and press the dumbbells overhead until your arms are fully extended. Hold for a second at the top, then lower back to the start position, being careful not to let your elbows drop below shoulder height.

3 Triceps kick-back

Woman performing standing triceps kick-back with dumbbells

(Image credit: Starcevic / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

This exercise is excellent for targeting the triceps without causing discomfort to your wrists or shoulders.

Stand with your knees bent and a dumbbell in each hand. Lean forwards slightly, keeping your neck in a neutral position, and lift the dumbbells so that your upper arms are in line with your sides and your elbows are at 90°. Then extend both arms behind you, squeezing your triceps to move the dumbbells back and up, exhaling as you move. Don’t rush the movement. Bring your arms back to the starting position.

4 Front raise

Women performing the front raise shoulder exercise

(Image credit: Hirurg / Getty Images)

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

As well as being a great way to build strength, this shoulder flexion exercise improves shoulder mobility and also recruits your upper chest muscles along with your biceps.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your quads, palms facing you. Brace your core, then, as you exhale, lift the weights out in front of you to shoulder height, keeping your arms straight. Make sure your torso is still and only your arms move. Squeezing your glutes and keeping your knees soft can help to stabilise your torso. Inhale as you lower the weights back to the starting position.

5 Chest flye

Woman performing chest flye with dumbbells

(Image credit: privetik / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Reps 8-10 Rest 0sec

The dumbbell chest flye strengthens your chest (obviously) and shoulders, but it also opens up your chest muscles as well. Chest openers like this can help reduce upper-back pain, increase range of motion and reduce tightness in the upper body.

Lie with your head and shoulders supported by a bench and your feet flat on the floor. If you don’t have a bench to hand, lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Hold a dumbbell in each hand directly above your chest, palms facing each other. Exhale as you lower the weights out to the sides as far as is comfortable, keeping a slight bend in your elbows and being careful not to arch your back. Use your pectoral muscles to bring the weights back to the starting position.

6 Upright row

Dumbbell upright row

(Image credit: Getty Images / Hirurg)

Reps 10-12 Rest 30-60sec

This is a pulling exercise so it targets your posterior chain, which means the muscles on the back of your body. It’s an especially effective way to build strength in your shoulders and upper back.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your quads, palms facing you. Exhale and lift the dumbbells to chest height, driving your elbows out to the side, but don’t let your elbows go higher than your shoulders. Again, don’t let your torso do the work, which means you should avoid leaning back to help pull the weights up. Inhale as you lower the weights to the starting position under control.

Find out which dumbbells we recommend in our guide to the best dumbbells.


Gemma Yates is a journalist and qualified personal trainer. She was formerly acting fitness and beauty editor at the UK edition of Women’s Health.