Three of our experts explain little-known secrets of arm training, along with presenting some serious total-body programs to build ‘em up. Check it out.
Admit it – you’re not satisfied with the size of your arms.
Despite the rainbow of medium-sized UnderArmour shirts that you wear to the mall in a valiant effort to impress the high school girls, you’re not fooling anyone, least of all yourself.
You’re not alone. Poll a hundred meatheads and it’s unlikely you’ll find a single lifter who’s satisfied with his arm development. The fact is, hundreds of thousands of lifters grew up admiring Arnold’s guns and aspired to one day achieve his level of jaw-dropping arm-growth – to no avail. Sadly, most lifters just don’t ever obtain impressive arm development.
Where do these lifters go wrong? It’s very simple. They focused on single joint arm exercises, and as much as we hate to be the bearer of bad news – those 17 sets of isolation biceps curls that you performed every Monday, Wednesday, and Whateverthefuckday for the past five years didn’t do you any favors. What’s more, as you’ll soon learn, from an arm development standpoint, they’re quite possibly the last things you need right now.
There’s one rule of Big-Arms Training: You must focus on getting stronger at compound exercises. And when we say compound movements, we mean exactly that; exercises that involve multiple joints, allow you to use the most external load, and give you the most bang for-your-gettin-gunny-buck.
On the right you’ll see a highly complex model that depicts the Pyramid of Big-Arms Development. Okay, maybe it’s not very complex but we’ll break it down for you nonetheless.
Why in the world are squats and deadlifts important for arm development? There are two primary reasons.
- The body seems to like to grow in proportion.
- Posterior chain strength and core stability lay a foundation for increased upper body strength.
- Yeah, yeah, we said there were two reasons, but let’s be honest: Squats and deadlifts are badass. And badass is what makes chicks want to hang out with you, not your level of brachioradialis development.
You rarely see an individual with 18-inch arms and skinny twig legs. Sure, like male Justin Bieber fans, it can happen – but for natural lifters, arm growth is usually accompanied by total body muscle growth. The adage that one needs to gain 20 lbs. to gain an inch on the arms seems to have merit.
For lifters who use anabolic assistance, obtaining huge arms without concomitant strong legs is somewhat easier to achieve, but the majority of natural lifters would be well served by concentrating on squats and deads until sufficient levels of strength are reached.
Strong squatters and deadlifters possess excellent erector spinae strength. The erectors keep the back upright during barbell curls, easy bar curls, reverse curls, and dumbbell curls, to name a few. A weak back, however, will limit the poundage one can use when curling.
Side Note: It’s also the reason many ego-driven trainees look like their humping an elephant while doing arm curls – their back is so weak that they have no option other than to sway back and forth, using momentum to get the weight moving.
Strong squatters and deadlifters also possess superior leg and hip strength. Powerlifters will tell you that leg drive is critical for increased bench press and close grip bench press strength. Yes, if you bench correctly, the legs produce much assistance – weak legs will limit the poundage one can use when benching. Notice the trend?
A good long term-goal is a 405 lbs. parallel squat and a 495 lbs. conventional deadlift. If you’re already there, congratulations! We don’t need to tell you to keep working the legs because when you’re strong at these lifts, you “get it.” But for those who aren’t there, you’d be well served to start ratcheting up your squatting and pulling poundages before embarking on yet another “arm specialization” routine.
Finding a lifter with huge arms who can’t bench press 225 or perform at least ten bodyweight chin ups (without cheating) is like finding a Victoria Secret model who wants to have wild passionate sex with you. It won’t happen!
If you want big arms, here are the exercises that will serve you best:
Presses – weighted push ups (band resisted, versus chains, plate loaded, or if you’re a ninja, with a hot chick on your back), bench press, close grip bench press, two-board press, floor press, incline press, decline press, military press, and weighted dips.
Pulls – weighted chin-ups, weighted pull-ups, weighted parallel grip pull-ups, bent over rows, t-bar rows, chest supported rows, one-arm rows, various seated rows, and inverted rows (either with a barbell or with TRX/blast straps).
A good long-term goal here would be a 315 lbs. bench press and a 100 lbs. weighted chin up. Pat yourself on the back if you can already perform these feats – now work on repping out with them!
Be honest, you thought we were going to say no, right?
Some isolation work is just fine; just understand that isolation work is the icing on the cake. When programmed in concert with heavy, compound lower body and upper body work, it will add extra size to the arm musculature.
Now we’ll provide a convincing rationale for the inclusion of isolation work for those seeking maximum arm development.
Basic anatomy and physiology dictates that you can’t optimally develop the upper arm musculature solely through the performance of multi-joint movements. Realize that the length/tension relationship of the biceps and triceps is suboptimal during multi-joint movements.
For example, in the start position of a chin-up (hanging from the bar with arms straight), the biceps are shortened at the shoulder joint while lengthened at the elbow. Then, during dynamic movement, these aspects reverse so that the biceps shorten at the elbow while lengthening at the shoulder. Thus, length/tension is compromised, diminishing the force output of the muscle.
Moreover, as will be discussed, the muscle architecture of the biceps and triceps necessitate a multi-angled approach to fully activate all the motor units. Only by using single-joint exercises can this be accomplished.
Studies show that the long head of the biceps are maximally active in exercises such as incline curls and drag curls, where the humerus is extended behind the body (Sakurai, et al, 1998; Basmajian and Latif, 1957).
This is attributed to the long head being placed in a greater stretch position compared to the short head. It then follows that the long head will become actively insufficient as the shoulder is brought into flexion (i.e. out in front of the body), thus exercises such as the preacher curl will force the short head to assume a greater burden of work.
The long head also becomes actively insufficient when abducted to 90 degrees (Habermeyer, et al, 1987), thus exercises such as cross cable curls on a high pulley will target the short head to a greater extent.
Considering that the biceps are powerful radio-ulnar supinators, performing exercises such as hammer curls will render the biceps actively insufficient, thereby increasing the work of the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles (Enoka, 2002).
What’s more, evidence shows that aspects of the biceps are “partitioned” with both the long and short heads comprised of individual architectural compartments that are innervated by private branches of the primary nerves (Segal, et al, 1991).
EMG studies of the long head of the biceps brachii show that muscle fibers in the lateral portion of the muscle are recruited for elbow flexion, fibers in the medial aspect are recruited for supination, and centrally located fibers are recruited for nonlinear combinations of flexion and supination (ter Haar Romeny, et al, 1982; ter Haar Romeny, et al, 1984).
Furthermore, the short head appears to be more active in the latter part of an arm curl (i.e. greater elbow flexion), while the long head is more active in the early phase (Brown, et al, 1993). These factors lend credence to the need for including a variety of biceps exercises throughout a full range of motion to maximize the hypertrophic response.
The long head of the triceps has an optimal length-tension relationship when the shoulder is flexed to about 180 degrees (Le Bozec, et al, 1980). Since shoulder joint position changes throughout the range of motion in multi-joint movements, these exercises necessarily don’t allow for optimal development of the long head of the triceps.
Only by performing exercises such as overhead triceps extensions will you be able to directly target the long head, maximizing its hypertrophic response.
Given that the lateral and medial heads don’t cross the shoulder joint, they become increasingly active in exercises such as pressdowns and dips where the shoulder joint is extended, which make the long head actively insufficient.
There are dozens of good arm isolation movements. Some of them include barbell curls, easy bar curls, reverse curls, hammer curls, alternating dumbbell curls, concentration curls, preacher curls, incline curls, drag curls, cross cable curls, lying triceps extensions, overhead extensions, cable pressdowns, rope pressdowns, and kickbacks.
- Get strong erectors, hips, and legs by squatting and deadlifting.
- Focus on progressive overload on upper body compound movements such as close grip bench presses and weighted chin ups.
- Add in a variety of arm isolation exercises but don’t necessarily go for progressive overload on these movements. Focus on “feeling” the right muscles do the work and think of “contracting your muscles against resistance.” Go for higher reps on isolation movements and try to squeeze blood into the intended region.
- Don’t spend the entire year specializing on arms. We’re not kidding here. Choose 3-4 three-week periods throughout the year to “blast” them and make them grow.
|A2||Glute Ham Raise||3||8|
|B1||Close Grip Bench Press||3||5|
|B2||Weighted Chin Up||3||3|
|D||Ab Wheel Rollout||2||10|
|A2||Bulgarian Split Squat||3||10|
|B2||Chest Supported Row||3||10|
|C1||Cable Overhead Extension||2||10|
|C2||Easy Bar Curl||2||10|
|D||Side Plank||2||45 sec.|
|A2||Glute Ham Raise||3||8|
|B2||Weighted Parallel Grip Pull Up||3||3|
|C1||Lying Triceps Extension||2||10|
|A1||Sumo Deadlift||3, 2||2, 5|
|The last two sets of 5 will be done with a lighter load.|
|A2||Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization
Supine Glute March
|Alternate between sets of deadlifts.|
|B1||Ultra High Dumbbell Box Step-Up||3||8/leg|
|B2||Half-Kneeling Cable Lift||3||10/side|
|C1||Pull-Through or Kettlebell Swing||3||15|
|D||Stretch something for the love of God.|
|A||Overhead Med Ball Floor Stomp or Clap Push-Up||4||8/6|
|B1||Chin-Up||3, 1||3, AMAP|
|First three sets will be heavy triples. Last set will be bodyweight for as many reps as you can do.|
|B2||Low Incline Alternate Dumbbell Press – Neutral Grip||4||6/arm|
|C1||1-Arm Standing Cable Row||3||10/arm|
|C2||Standing Barbell Half Press (see video below)||3||8|
|D1||Face Pulls with External Rotation||2||12|
|D2||Close Grip Push-Up (band resisted if necessary)||2||10|
|B2||Split Stance Adductor Mobilization||4||8/leg|
|C1||Dumbbell Reverse Lunge – from Deficit||3||10/leg|
|D1||Barbell Supine Bridge||2||8|
|D2||Pick One Biceps or Triceps Exercise||2||10|
|A1||Weeks 1-2: Two-Board Press||2, 2||3, 6|
|A1||Weeks 3-4: Close Grip Floor Press||4||8|
|A2||1-Arm Dumbbell Farmer Carry||4||25-30 yds|
|B1||Seated Cable Row – Neutral Grip||3||6|
|B2||Push-Up with Chains||3||8|
|If no chains, perform Spiderman Push-Up for 3 x 6/leg.|
|C1||Standing Half Press||3||8|
|Use a 15-20 ft rope. Video Below. If you don’t have access to a sled 1) find a new gym, and 2) substitute with Dumbbell Hammer Curl 3 x 10.|
|D1||Side Lying External Rotation||2||10/side|
|Arm abducted 30 degrees - towel propped underneath elbow.|
|D2||Scapular Wall Slide||2||12|
|A||Incline Dumbbell Press||4||6-12|
|B||Decline Barbell Press||3||6-12|
|C||Flat Dumbbell Fly||3||6-12|
|D||Dumbbell Shoulder Press||3||6-12|
|E||Cable Upright Row||3||6-12|
|F||Dumbbell Reverse Fly||3||6-12|
|G||Cable Rope Overhead Triceps Extension||3||6-12|
|I||Weighted Triceps Dip||2||6-12|
|A||Barbell Front Squat||4||6-12|
|E||Seated Hamstring Curl||4||6-12|
|F||Standing Calf Raise||4||6-12|
|G||Seated Calf Raise||3||6-12|
|B||One-Arm Dumbbell Row||3||6-12|
|C||Cable Straight-Arm Pulldown||3||6-12|
|D||Incline Dumbbell Biceps Curl||3||6-12|
|E||Barbell Preacher Curl||2||6-12|
|F||Cable Rope Hammer Curl||2||6-12|
|H||Dumbbell Side Bend||3||6-12|
Despite what some of the forum bullies say, proclaiming that you want to have big, freaky arms isn’t a silly or immature thing to admit to.
Heck, we’d go so far as to say that those who criticize gun-worshippers the loudest are likely the ones most frustrated at their own lack of arm-training success. But just because big guns is the goal doesn’t mean your programming should consist of 26 different variations of elbow flexion and extension.
Remember, arm growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum, which is a polite way of saying:
- Your arms will not grow optimally if the rest of the body is not sufficiently stimulated to grow, and, 2) your arms will not grow optimally if your training program sucks harder than a Hoover.
- Hard work and desire will only get you so far. Apply some of what you learned in this article and start filling out that medium-sized UnderArmour shirt.
- Brown, JMM, Solomon, C, and Paton, M. Further evidence of functional differentiation within biceps brachii. Electromyogr Clin Neurophysiol 33: 301–309, 1993
- Basmajian JV, Latif A (1957) Integrated actions and functions of the chief flexors of the elbow. J Bone Joint Surg [39-A]. 5:1106–1117
- Enoka R. Neuromechanics of human movement, 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2002.
- Habermeyer P, Kaiser E, Knappe M, et al. (1987). Functional anatomy and biomechanics of the long biceps tendon. Unfallchirurg 90:319-329, 1987
- Le Bozec, S., B. Maton, and J.C. Cnockaert. The synergy of elbow extensor muscles during dynamic work in man. I. Elbow extension. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 44:255–269. 1980.
- Sakurai G, Ozaki J, Tomita Y, Nishimoto K, Tamai S. (1998). Electromyographic analysis of shoulder joint function of the biceps brachii muscle during isometric contraction. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 354:123-31.
- Segal, RL, Wolf, SL, DeCamp, MJ, Chopp, MT, and English, AW. Anatomical partitioning of three multiarticular human muscles. Acta Anat 142: 261–266, 1991.
- ter Haar Romeny, BM, Denier van der Gon, JJ, and Gielen, CCAM. Changes in recruitment order of motor units in the human biceps muscle, Exp Neurol 78: 360–368, 1982.
- ter Haar Romeny, BM, Denier van der Gon, JJ, and Gielen, CCAM. Relation between location of a motor unit in the human biceps brachii and its critical firing levels for different, tasks. Exp Neurol 85: 631–650, 1984.