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This 30-Day Upper-Body Challenge Will Transform Your Arms & Shoulders

“I have, like, no arm strength.” If you’ve ever said this (or even thought it), this is the challenge for you.

“Women are often very critical about their arms,” says personal trainer and fitness expert Angelique Millis. “But then they’re surprised at how quickly they respond once they start using weights.” By integrating resistance training into your fitness routine, you improve your posture, coordination, stability, and of course strength — and you can even affect your body composition, reducing non-lean mass (a.k.a. fat) and increasing lean mass (sleek, toned, powerful muscles).

The exercises chosen for our 30-Day Arm Challenge are ones the American Council on Exercise (ACE) has pinpointed as best for activation of the primary muscles used — in other words, these moves give you the the best bang for your buck. The challenge starts slowly, with just one exercise per day, so you learn proper form and don’t get too sore. As the month progresses, you’ll begin doing more sets and reps and combining the exercises into super-sets and circuits for the greatest benefit. “You’ll get stronger and more functional for real-life activities like lifting a suitcase into the overhead locker,” Millis says.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
All you need to complete the challenge is a pair of dumbbells; Millis suggests starting with five-pounders, though you can increase the weight or use different weights for different exercises, so you feel appropriately challenged. It’s important not to race through these moves; instead take your time to feel your muscles work — both on the exertion (the pushing or pulling action) and on the release. On days when you’re doing more than one set (noted by “x2” or “x3”), take a one-minute break before starting the next one. And on days that have more than one exercise, do them back-to-back with minimal rest, only taking that one-minute break between sets if there are more than one. The schedule also includes all-important rest days, which is the downtime your muscles need to repair from the work you’ve done, so they can become stronger than ever. See our fundamentals guide, below, for each exercise’s how-to.

Bent-Over Rows ("Rows")
One of the best moves for your upper back, you’ll also get a little core work from stabilising your body position. Grasp the weights by your sides. Hinge your upper body down by sticking your butt way back and letting your knees bend slightly; you want your back to stay flat and your head to be neutral to your spine. As you hinge, let your arms hang down in front of you, fingers facing your body. Inhale, then exhale as you pull your elbows back and wide out to the sides; you should feel your shoulder blades pinch together as if you’re trying to trap a pen between them. Inhale as you lower your arms back down. Take your time with both movements, feeling your upper back work on the way up and on the way down.
Overhead Presses ("Shoulders")
This exercise works the shoulders. Begin by holding the weights in your hands about level with your head, with elbows bent and wide and fingers facing forward — think of your arms being shaped like rugby goalposts. Soften your knees (no locking them!), and inhale; then, exhale as you press your hands up and above your head so the bells come close to each other but don’t touch. Inhale as you lower them down. Again, don’t rush the movement: Feel the resistance of the weights, both on the way up and on the way down. Be sure you’re not arching back with your body when you press up. If you notice this, sit back ever so slightly, with even softer knees, and stay firm through your belly button to keep your core tight and aligned.
Biceps Curls ("Biceps")
These work — you guessed it — your biceps (a.k.a. guns). Stand up straight with your knees soft, holding the weights by your sides. Turn your hands so your palms are facing away from you. Inhale; then, exhale as you curl the weights up toward your shoulders, keeping your elbows tight by your sides. Inhale as you lower your hands down. Take your time here, too.

Tricep Kick-Backs ("Triceps")
This is an excellent move for the triceps, the muscles on the backs of the arms. Because the exercise is performed in the same body position as the rows, you’ll also get some great core work here, too. Hold the weights by your sides and set yourself up in your forward hinge with knees bent, butt sticking out, and back flat. With your fingers facing in toward your body, pull your elbows up so your upper arms are parallel to your ribcage; your elbows will be bent, with your hands hanging. Inhale; then, exhale as you straighten your arms fully. Inhale as you allow your arms to re-bend. Keep it slow and controlled through both parts of the movement, and don’t let your torso position change during the entire set.

photographed by Danny Kim ; styled by Bethie Girmai ; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey ; set design and props by Chloe Daley