Targeted Compound Arm Training

by Chad Waterbury

Single joint exercises are fine, but compound lifts will do more for your overall size and strength. Here's how to build your arms with compound work.

Isolation vs. Compound Exercises

Single-joint, isolation exercises have their place. But for the fastest gains in mass, compound exercises work best.

Why? Because a compound exercise will allow you to lift more load than a single-joint exercise. For example, you can lift more weight with a close-grip bench press than you can with a triceps pressdown.

The triceps activation is similar in these exercises, but you can use more load with a close-grip bench because your chest and anterior deltoids are assisting the movement. Is that a bad thing?

No! This assistance isn’t a disadvantage if you use targeted compound exercises.

Compound arm exercises train your biceps and triceps to fire along with other assisting muscle groups. Virtually any time you activate your biceps during day-to-day movements, your upper back and traps are also engaged. And when you activate your triceps to push away an opponent or throw a shot put, the chest and anterior deltoids are along for the ride.

Hypertrophy and strength gains come fastest when the targeted muscle is trained to move more than one joint. Period.

The potential need for single-joint arm exercises always creates a fiery discussion. If your arms are already huge and you just need to, say, bring up the long head of your triceps, an isolation exercise might be all you need. But this plan isn’t about fine-tuning a physique; it’s about quickly adding upper arm mass to those who don’t have nearly enough of it.

The beef against compound exercises for arm development is that your stronger assisting muscles will take over and diminish your results. Take the chin-up. Once your biceps peter out, you can still get a lot of assistance from your lats to keep the exercise going.

The solution to this problem is simple: Perform specific compound exercises that can’t continueonce the targeted muscle group is fatigued.

Enter the Biceps Row and Triceps Push-Up

You’re about to learn two killer exercises that’ll add muscle to your biceps and triceps faster than ever before.

These compound exercises target your biceps and triceps while still respecting the motor pattern your nervous system favors when engaging those muscles. That’s why they work so well.

The Dynamic Duo of Arm Development

When it comes to training your biceps with a compound movement, it’s easy to think that a bentover barbell row with a palms-up grip is an ideal choice. You can use plenty of load and the biceps have to work hard. But it’s too easy to screw up the correct form.

Most guys use too much load with the palms-ups bentover row, which causes them to engage their hips and shift their torso back to lift the barbell. This, of course, removes a big emphasis from the biceps.

The solution is to take the ability to cheat out of the movement by using the biceps row.

Biceps Row Technique

To perform the biceps row, lie facedown on a 45-60 degree incline bench. Your chin should be resting on the top of the pad to keep your head in a neutral position.

Grab a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand and row with your palms facing forward. Since this is intended to be primarily a biceps exercise, there’s no extended isometric hold at the top of the movement. (Holds are good for maximally engaging your upper back, but we’re focusing on the biceps here.)

Pull with maximum acceleration, squeeze your biceps at the top of the movement, and lower under control.

Since you’re using dumbbells instead of a barbell, it’s easier on your wrists and elbows. And since you can’t lean back or engage your hips, your form stays intact.

Note: There’s no pause in this exercise when the arms are straight. The video is simply intended to show the correct form.


A push-up with your hands together is a great triceps exercise, but it’s got a few shortcomings.

First, most guys can do 20 or more of them, so the load isn’t heavy enough for maximum hypertrophy. Second, the range of motion is shorter than it could be. Third, the exercise too stable, so the triceps don’t have to work as hard as they would if it were a little unstable.

The solution to these three shortcomings is to elevate your feet on a Swiss ball. This shifts more of your weight forward so the triceps have to lift a greater percentage of your body weight. Also, by elevating your feet, you’ll work through a greater range of motion.

Finally, the instability created by having your feet on the ball is excellent for overloading the triceps and core. The triceps push-up, when performed correctly, is tougher than it looks.

Start in a regular push-up position and rest your shins on a large Swiss ball. Next, move your hands close together so your index fingers and thumbs make a triangle.

Brace your abs tight and lower until your chest touches your thumbs. Press your body up and push your shoulder blades apart at the top of the movement to activate your serratus muscles.

Keep the speed relatively slow at first. If you try to go fast, the ball will probably roll off to the side. Once you get comfortable with the exercise, focus on pushing away from the floor with maximum acceleration.

The Plan

Put these two exercises at the beginning of two of your full-body workouts each week. Here are the details:

  • Frequency: Twice per week, evenly spaced. Monday/Thursday, Tuesday/Friday or Wednesday/Saturday.
  • Load: For the biceps row, start with a load that allows six fast reps in the first set before your speed slows down. This usually equates to a load you can lift approximately eight times with normal speed before failure.

For the triceps push-up, you won’t focus on speed since the exercise is unstable. Instead, start with a load that allows six reps for the first set. If you can do more than six reps you’ll need to wear a weighted vest.

If you can’t do six reps with your shins on a Swiss ball, rest your toes on a Bosu ball, place your feet in TRX straps, or rest them on a stable bench. Use whichever variation suits your six-rep maximum.

How to Do the Workout

Alternate between the biceps row and triceps push-up for each set. Start with six reps of the biceps row, rest 30 seconds, then do six reps of the triceps push-up, rest 30 seconds.

For the second round you’ll do as many reps as you can for each exercise, which will likely be less than six reps. For the biceps row you’ll stop when the speed slows down noticeably; for the triceps push-up you’ll do as many perfect reps as possible.

With every other round you’ll probably lose a rep, but this varies. Continue until you complete 25 reps for each exercise.

  • 1A: Biceps Row for as many fast reps as possible
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • 1B: Triceps Push-Up for as many reps as possible
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • Repeat 1A/1B pairing until you reach 25 reps of each exercise

Again, you should only do 25 reps total of each exercise. Let’s say you’re on the fifth round and you only need to do three reps to reach 25, but you could do four. Don’t. Just do three reps. It’s important to keep the volume consistent to maximize the progression plan.

Progression: Add two reps to the total for each exercise with every new workout. So if you start this plan on Monday with 25 reps of the biceps row and triceps push-up, you’ll do 27 reps of each on Thursday. Continue adding two reps to each workout until you reach 35 total reps at end of week 3. The load remains the same for three weeks.

Progression: Total Reps Per Exercise

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Monday 25 29 33
Thursday 27 31 35

After three weeks, start over with a new six-rep maximum for each exercise, revert back to 25 total reps, and repeat the plan for another three weeks.

Put It To Work

The biceps row and triceps push-up can take the place of all other single-joint biceps and triceps exercises in your current program. Everything else in your program can stay the same.

Six weeks to your best arm gains ever. Go to it.