The Best Arm Workouts For People Who Just Can't (Or Won't) Do Pushups

Founder of TMAC Fitness By Todd McCullough
Founder of TMAC Fitness
Todd McCullough is a Los Angeles-based, ACE-certified personal trainer, E-RYT registered yoga teacher, and founder of TMAC FITNESS.

A few years ago, an old shoulder injury from years of playing football flared up. To say it was painful would be an understatement; I found myself unable to do any exercise that required me to bend my elbow with a load on the shoulder. I couldn't do a pushup or chaturanga–two movements that as a personal trainer, yogi, and fitness entrepreneur, I do all the time.

It was a frustrating time (to say the least), but instead of focusing on what I couldn't do, I focused on what I could do to maintain my arm strength. The following exercises are perfect for anyone who can't do a pushup or simply doesn't want to.

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1. Side Plank

Side planks can be super beneficial when it comes to strengthening the shoulder. And oftentimes when you incur a shoulder injury, your stabilizing muscles in the shoulder shut off. Doing a side plank can help prevent this!

  • Place your hand underneath your shoulder and stack your feet on top of one another.
  • Visualize one channel of energy going from your hand on the ground up through your top hand reaching to the sky.
  • If you need to modify, drop your bottom knee down or take the top leg and cross over.
  • Hold for 30 seconds on each arm.

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2. Triceps Extension

Triceps extensions allow you to strengthen the back of your arms without causing pain in your shoulders. As I mentioned earlier, if you have a shoulder injury, you'll want to avoid any exercise that has you bend your elbow while putting weight on your shoulder. For example, a triceps dip will only cause more inflammation to the injury. So instead, try adding triceps extensions with a dumbbell to your routine.

  • Choose a dumbbell, stand upright and spread your feet shoulder-width apart. With both hands, lift the dumbbell over your head until your arms are fully extended.
  • Next, lower the dumbbell, keeping your elbows close to your head, until your forearms and biceps meet.
  • Raise the dumbbell back to your starting position, and repeat.
  • Try three to four sets to failure. 

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3. Biceps Curl

Isometric movements like biceps curls have gotten a bad rap in the world of functional movement. And while I would agree that it's not the most effective way to train, it's a simple movement that you can do when you're suffering from an injury or unable to do something more advanced. (Just make sure to stretch between sets. If your biceps tendon gets too tight, you'll cause more pain to your shoulder.) And when choosing a dumbbell, remember that doing the move correctly with lighter weight is always better than going heavier and compromising your form.

  • Stand tall and go for full range of motion when you curl the dumbbell toward you.
  • Try for three to four sets to failure.

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4. Dumbbell Reverse Fly

I would argue that we should do two pulls for every one push we do (in our workouts and our day-to-day lives), especially given that most of us our have poor posture. Developing a strong back will not only help improve your posture, but it'll also speed up your recovery process.

  • Grab a set of light dumbbells. Bend your knees.
  • Make sure you're in a flat back position.
  • Bring your hands to the sky while engaging your back muscles, and then release back down. Again, form is crucial for this exercise. 
  • Go for three to four sets of 12 reps.

Suffering an injury can be frustrating and painful, but it doesn't mean you have to give up all movement. There are so many ways to strengthen your body, it just takes a little compromise and creativity.

Todd McCullough
Todd McCullough
Todd McCullough is a Los Angeles-based, ACE-certified personal trainer, E-RYT registered yoga...
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