Build strength in your upper arms and discover newfound power and ease in Sun Salutes, arm balances—and everyday life.
My students rarely complain, but when they do it's often about a lack of arm power. Over and over I hear, "What can I do to strengthen my upper arms? They feel so weak in Downward Dog, Chaturanga Dandasana, and Handstand!"
Fortunately, the answer is right on the mat. Many yoga poses help strengthen weak arms—and make strong arms stronger. A quick review of the anatomy of the upper arm and of some basic exercise physiology principles will show you how.
The major muscles of the upper arm are the biceps brachii and the triceps brachii. The biceps fills most of the space between the shoulder and elbow; if it's well developed, it forms a noticeable bulge on the front of your upper arm.
Biceps, which is Latin for "two heads," refers to the muscle's two sections; each has a tendon that attaches to the outer edge of the shoulder blade just above the shoulder joint. The other end of the biceps attaches to the radius, one of the two forearm bones, near the elbow.
You mainly use your biceps to bend your elbow, which you do dozens of times a day, whether you're lifting something heavy, bringing a cup to your mouth, or pulling on a dog's leash. You also use your biceps to help flex your shoulder when you lift your arm forward and then overhead. Finally, you use your biceps to help rotate your palm when you turn a doorknob or screwdriver.
The triceps sits at the back of the upper arm. As the name implies, the triceps has three heads. Two originate on the humerus, or upper arm bone, and one originates on the outer edge of the scapula, just above the shoulder socket. The other end of the triceps attaches to the ulna, the second of the two forearm bones. You mainly use your triceps to straighten your elbow—pushing a lawnmower or a heavy door or lifting yourself out of a chair by pressing into the armrests. The long head of the triceps also helps you perform shoulder extension, the position you use in Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose).
The biceps and triceps perform opposite actions at the elbow, often in conjunction with each other. Think of driving a car with a stick shift: The triceps pushes the shifter away from you, and the biceps helps pull it back.
In yoga poses, the two muscles often contract at the same time, stabilizing the elbow. You may be able to see or feel this in poses that require you to bear (and balance) weight on your arms, including Sirsasana (Headstand) and Pincha Mayurasana (Peacock Pose, also known as Forearm Balance).
Practice Builds Strength
If you struggle in Sun Salutations to move from Plank Pose to Chaturanga to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), you may wonder whether you should lift weights to build strength. And if you choose to go that route, you might try an exercise called the triceps press: holding a dumbbell overhead, bending your elbow to bring the weight to the back of the shoulder blade, and then straightening the arm again. This exercise would certainly strengthen your triceps—but not in the exact way you need for Sun Salutations. Research shows that the best way to strengthen muscles for any activity is to work them in the precise position—and in the same pattern of teamwork with other muscles—the activity requires. To best build Plank-Chaturanga-Up-Dog strength, you have to closely mimic the positions and actions the poses require.