by John Gaglione T-Nation
Any male lifter who picks up a weight wants to build bigger arms. Those that argue this point are either lying or somehow lost their testicles in a tragic accident involving a nudist colony, a distracted landscaper, and a weed whacker.
Like any other body part, building a set of pipes that would be the envy of millions of little Hulkamaniacs saying their prayers and taking their vitamins requires hard work and dedication.
Many strength athletes miss the boat by opting not to do any isolation work in their training. While I can appreciate their minimalist mindset, to be the strongest version of yourself you must make every single muscle in your body stronger – and sometimes that warrants isolation training.
A bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle. Having bigger triceps is going to strengthen all your pressing movements and give you a more powerful lockout. Bigger biceps will assist in all your pulling movements, such as chin-ups and bent-over rows. Back in the day, many powerlifters would even rub shoulders with the bodybuilders by performing heavy barbell curls, claiming that bigger biceps helped improve stability in their raw bench press.
The truth is, for all this talk about banning direct arm work or making curls in the squat rack an indictable offence, you're best served by performing some direct arm work in your training. The catch is not to go overboard.
Most lifters simply don't deserve an arm day, at least not yet. Beginners and even most intermediates should focus on hitting the compound movements and hitting them hard. The compound movements work most of the major muscles on your frame including your beloved bi's and tri's and deliver the best hormonal response when it comes to growth.
To paraphrase some guy who knows a thing or two about lifting, T Nation's own Dan John, "Improve your deadlift so you can lift 800 pounds and I guarantee your arms will grow." The fact that you'll no longer need to hide your chicken legs with those ridiculous MC Hammer workout pants is an added bonus.
So we're in agreement, if you aren't squatting and deadlifting heavy on a regular basis you have no business doing 20 sets of triceps pressdowns or differentiating between curls for the brachialis and biceps brachii.
However, the bare bones approach will only take you so far, and at some point your arms will require a bit of no-nonsense isolation training.
The Right to Bear Arms
Here are the movements for my ultimate arm assault. Some of the forthcoming movements should be hit hard and heavy to build strength, while others lend themselves more to higher reps for building size. For all arm training, the key is to really "feel" the muscle working. Quite honestly, this is the most important variable for all assistance work.
As stated, any heavy compound pulling movement is going to work the biceps to some degree, and the more elbow flexion in a movement, the more biceps involvement. Before considering the following assistance exercises, make sure heavy rows with a barbell and dumbbells are staples in your back training, along with heavy chin-ups and supinated lat pulldowns.
Cheat Curl with Slow Eccentric
Cheat curls are one of the best ways to build biceps size and strength. The key is to not try to drum up business for struggling chiropractors everywhere by grossly hyperextending your low back at the end range of motion.
Start the movement by flexing at the hips and using your glutes and hamstrings to get the movement started. Be sure to hold the contraction for a one count at the top and lower slowly, emphasizing the biceps by controlling the weight on the way down.
This eccentric stress will cause a lot of muscle growth since you'll be able to use considerably more weight than normal, thanks to the explosive hip extension used to get the movement started.
In most gyms you'll have access to a standard straight bar. Given my druthers, I'd use a fat bar or Fat Gripz to get in some extra forearm work while reducing elbow stress.
If you have cranky elbows or just want some variety, try using dumbbells instead. The dumbbells allow for more freedom as you aren't locked into a fixed position. Since the idea is to use heavy loads, a little cheat to get the bells going is permitted or even clean them to start before slowly lowering.
Incline Dumbell Curls
A problem with standing curls is that there's very little tension at the bottom and end ranges of motion. To get around this, there are a number of ways you can rig up bands and do all sorts of crazy stuff, but a good old school way to build strength at the end ranges is by using prone and supine incline dumbbell curls.
Prone dumbbell curls emphasize the top range of motion while supine dumbbell curls target the bottom portion.
With prone incline curls, focus on squeezing the bells together at the top.
For supine incline curls, keeping a soft bend at the elbow at the bottom end helps maintain constant tension on the biceps.
This is a great finisher to your biceps training. This complex lets you use heavier weight for higher than normal reps by starting off hard and becoming easier as the complex progresses.
Begin by performing a set of strict dumbbell curls, then move to hammer curls, and finally cheat curls. I recommend performing 6 reps of each exercise, but feel free to experiment with other rep ranges. Your biceps will be cooked after just a few rounds.
A great tip when doing any sort of dumbbell curl is to slightly flex the shoulders at the beginning of the movement to keep constant tension on the biceps.
The triceps are upwards of two-thirds of total arm size. Even if your primary goal in life is to win the Best Biceps award at your local watering hole, you still need some serious triceps development to have legitimate big arms.
Certainly any pressing movement is going to work the triceps to some degree, and many of the best assistance exercises for triceps are basically variations of the vertical and horizontal press. Lockout movements such as board presses, pin presses, overhead pin presses, and all versions of partial range pressingare great choices for both triceps strength and size.
Pin JM Presses with Holds
The JM press is one of the best movements for developing triceps size and strength. The key is to make sure you're feeling it in the triceps – the more you let your wrist get behind your elbow and come closer to your head, the more triceps involvement. Experiment with how far to bring the bar down until you find what works best for you.
An interesting variation is performing them in a Smith machine at a slight incline. Elite powerlifter Brian Schwab, who benched over 500 pounds at only 148 pounds, popularized this style, and Donnie Thompson, who holds the all-time record for the total in powerlifting, uses several styles of JM presses.
Some lifters use a very short range of motion and others use a longer range – I like to perform mine on the floor, to boards, or onto pins so I have a specific range of motion every rep.
Keep your elbows in and bring the bar back toward your face before pressing it up in a straight line and flexing your triceps hard. Perform these heavy for moderate to low repetitions.
Dead Stop Floor Triceps Extensions
I love dead stop triceps extensions as they make your triceps thick, strong, and powerful. You need a lot of starting strength to get the weight off the floor, and since the weight is behind your head there's an element of performing a pullover that gets the finicky long head of the triceps involved as well. One of the long head's functions is to extend the shoulder so incorporating any type of pullover extension either with free weights or cables is a smart idea.
You can perform these with a straight bar, an EZ bar, or a neutral grip bar. Go heavy and hard or shoot for more moderate reps.
If your elbows or shoulders are feeling especially cranky try performing them with dumbbells.
Here's another great finisher I stole from Jim Wendler. I'm not sure if Jim performed them on the floor or on a flat bench, so feel free to experiment with both, or even on an incline or decline bench.
Like in the biceps blast, the triceps torture complex starts hard and gets progressively easier so you can crank out the reps. Perform triceps extensions, followed by rolling triceps, ending with neutral grip dumbbell bench presses. I recommend going for 6 reps on each exercise, but experiment with other ranges as you see fit.
Note: If you're focusing on working your triceps and not your chest, start performing all dumbbell bench press variations with a neutral grip to hit the triceps more. It will also spare your shoulders.
Another great triceps training tip is to remember to flex the triceps hard at the lockout and hold for a second or two. You can do this during any pressing movement if your lockout or triceps strength is an issue. It's very easy to get lazy and just relax at the lockout, but if you're interested in gaining arm size you need to create more tension in the muscle. Try to feel your arms working at all times during any of these exercises.
Growing Your Guns
First, let's recap the arm training basics:
Hit the heavy compound movements every week such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. Make developing a strong foundation of strength priority number one.
Make sure you feel the muscle you're trying to work, especially if the goal is hypertrophy.
Add isolation arm movements 1-2 times a week.
Train your arms heavy as well as for the pump, using lower and higher reps for strength and size.
When in doubt, train your legs! It will help your arms grow.
Putting it All Together for The Ultimate Arm Assault
Exercises Sets Reps
A1 Cheat Barbell Curl with slow eccentric 5 5
Lower the weight under control, taking 3-5 seconds total. Hold at the lockout for a one-count and squeeze for a full contraction.
A2 Pin JM Press 4 5
B1 Biceps Blast 3 18
Grab a pair of moderate to heavy dumbbells and perform 6 reps of strict curls, hammer curls, and cheat curls.
B2 Dead-stop Floor DB Extensions 3 12
Exercises Sets Reps
A1 DB Cheat Curl with slow eccentric 4 5
A2 Dead-stop EZ Bar Triceps Extensions 3 8,6,6
B1 Prone Incline DB Curls 3 8
B2 Supine Incline DB Curls 3 8
C DB Triceps Torture 3 18
Grab a pair of moderate to heavy dumbbells and perform 6 reps of triceps extensions, rolling triceps extensions, and neutral grip dumbbell bench presses.
The Gun Show Cometh
My passion is helping people get stronger and improve their performance, but I appreciate that some lifters just care about how they look in a form fitting t-shirt. Just remember to make sure you're constantly training for strength. The greater the strength foundation, the more growth potential, leading to more pimple-faced kids asking you to make a muscle at the waterpark this summer.
Absorb these tips and exercises into your current workout or give my routine a solid six-week test drive. Bigger, stronger arms? Who doesn't want that?
Questions or comments? Feel free to drop a comment below in the Live Spill!