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Compound Exercises For Arms | Built With Science

by Jeremy Ethier - July 24, 2023

What Are The Best Compound Exercises For Arms?

Want sleeves-busting arms? Then you’ve come to the right place. 

In this article, I share the top 5 compound exercises for arms you could do — based on science — that’ll help you build the biceps (both the short head and the long head) and triceps (all 3 heads; lateral, middle, and long head) of your dreams at neck-breaking speed.

A quick note on why I’ve specifically picked compound exercises: that’s because they present an extremely time-efficient way for you to hit multiple muscle groups at once. 

Let’s take the chin-ups, for example. I go into more detail in a bit, but for now, all you need to know is that it helps build your back and biceps. Perfect for when you’re in a rush at the gym. 

That said, there are circumstances where it’s necessary for you to sprinkle isolation movements into your arms programming. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First, let’s talk about the 5 best compound exercises for your arms.

#1: Chin Ups


Equipment needed: Pull-up bar

Preferentially targets: Biceps (short and long head)

The overhand grip pull-up is one of the best compound exercises for the upper body.

But we can further increase biceps activation (slightly, according to an EMG study by Bret Contreras) by going with an underhand grip — essentially turning the movement into a chin-up.

Haven’t quite gotten the hang of chin-ups yet?

I’d recommend checking out my 4-step pull-up progression plan, which will see you strengthening key muscles needed for the movement, and have you banging out chin-ups in a row in no time. Bonus: mastering chin-ups will also help you (finally) get that first pull-up under your belt.

#2: Barbell Row

Equipment needed: Squat rack and barbell

Preferentially targets: Biceps (short head)

Use a narrow, underhand grip to preferentially target your biceps and lats over the rest of your back musculature (e.g., traps and rear delts).

Underhand Narrow Grip Barbell Row

Focus on pulling the bar to your belly button and keeping your elbows tucked into your torso.

As with all compound exercises, the barbell row can be tricky to get right. Make sure you’re not making any of these gains-stealing form mistakes on the barbell row (preview: rounding the back or performing it with an anterior pelvic tilt).

#3: Close-Grip Flat Barbell Bench Press

Using a narrower grip on the bench press activates the triceps

Equipment needed: Squat rack, bench, and barbell

Preferentially targets: Triceps (lateral and middle heads)

Not just an excellent chest compound exercise; it turns out the close-grip flat barbell bench press is also great at targeting the triceps.

Specifically, the triceps’ lateral and medial heads.

Stick with a shoulder-width grip. Research suggests this should be enough to maximize triceps activation while minimizing elbow and wrist discomfort.

Find barbell bench pressing unnatural and uncomfortable? You may need to adjust your bench-pressing form to suit your anatomy; here’s how. And if that still doesn’t work, a better option might be to ditch the barbell and go for dumbbells instead.

The bright side is that using dumbbells could put your triceps in a more stretched position at the bottom, potentially giving you more gains over time. Click here to learn more about stretch-mediated hypertrophy.

#4: Long Head Destruction

Equipment needed: Dumbbells and a bench

Preferentially targets: Triceps (long head)

This unique exercise incorporates the 2 main movement functions of the triceps’ long head: shoulder and elbow extension. To perform this exercise:

  • First, start with your hands directly above you. Then, lower them to your sides.
  • From here, straighten your arms back behind your body. Lock your elbows in position.
  • Next, lower the dumbbells to behind your back before extending them back up again.
  • Drive your elbows back to the starting position. Then, straighten your arms up overhead.

That’s 1 rep.

Um, what? If you’re struggling to visualize the exercise, don’t worry — you can check out the linked YouTube video in my previous article covering the best triceps exercises for the long head (you’ll find it under “Option 3”).

#5: Shoulder-Width Push Ups

Equipment needed: N/A

Preferentially targets: Triceps (lateral and middle heads)

As with the close-grip flat bench pressing, bringing your hands closer together (till they’re roughly shoulder-width apart) on the push-up increases elbow extension and extension — shifting the load to your triceps.

Always shaking, sweating, and swearing by your third push-up? Struggle no more.

In this article, I share how you can unlock your push-up strength in just 5 minutes so you reap maximum triceps gains from the exercise.

Sample Workout Routine With The Compound Exercises For Arms

Workout A

#1: Chin Ups (3 sets, 8-12 reps)

#2: Close-Grip Flat Barbell Bench Press (3 sets, 8-12 reps)

#3: Long Head Destruction (3 sets, 6-8 reps)

Workout B

#1: Barbell Row (3 sets, 8-12 reps)

#2: Shoulder-Width Push Ups (3 sets, 12-15 reps)

#3: Long Head Destruction (3 sets, 6-8 reps)

Tips On Getting The Most Gains

Take the above sample workout routine, hit Crtl+C and Crtl+V into your training routine, and … get the arms of your dreams?

It’s not quite as easy as that.

In truth, the sample workout routine is just a good starting point. To ensure optimal growth in your arms, you should also:

Complement Compound Exercises For Arms With Isolation Movements

The long heads of your biceps and triceps aren’t optimally targeted during compound movements. For those, you’ll need isolation exercises, like behind-the-body cable curls and overhead cable extensions. It’s also worth noting that while research (i.e., this 2013 study and 2015 study) suggests that compound movements are enough to stimulate growth in your biceps and triceps when you’re a beginner lifter, you’d likely need more volume for continued hypertrophy as you gain experience. And because compound movements are so energy-demanding, there are only so many sets you could do. Thankfully, isolation exercises could help you plug this gap.

Use A Full Range Of Motion

As mentioned earlier, getting a good stretch at the bottom range can really boost your gains. So, don't play cheat — make sure you perform every exercise in a controlled manner and achieve a full range of motion.

Hit Your Arms At Least 2-3 Times Weekly

Volume is the key driver of hypertrophy. But beyond that, you should also aim to distribute that volume equally between at least 2-3 sessions. 

Progressive Overload 

Your arms won’t continue growing unless you continue challenging them. This means you need to consciously apply progressive overload into your training plan — increasing load, reps, range of motion (where possible), etc., when your sessions begin feeling almost too easy. 

Grow Your Brachialis

Want a bigger bicep peak? Don't just focus all your attention on growing your bicep's short and long head; instead, spend some time growing your brachialis. Since it lies beneath the biceps, it can prop them up when well-developed, creating the sexy illusion of bigger, wider-looking arms. Discover the best exercises you could do to target the brachialis and build a higher bicep peak here.

… and that’s just training-related tips. In actuality, you'll also need to optimize your nutrition, recovery, sleep, and more for optimal arms growth. Plus, unless you want to look like Popeye (you don't … right?), it’s likely that you’d want to train other body parts in addition to your arms.

Trying to come up with a training plan that works for you while juggling all those other pieces — e.g., protein intake — can feel like attempting to build an app when all you know is basic HTML.

Want someone else to take all the planning off your plate, so you can truly hit Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V and simply focus on the doing? Then Built With Science programs are perfect for you. To discover the best science-based, step-by-step program for you and your body:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:

Compound Exercises For Arms | Built With Science