If you have a big set of muscular arms hanging out of your shirt you will find that people don’t talk to your face; they talk to your arms. Construction workers will shout compliments and people seem to have no shame in telling you that you’re ‘looking good’. Even women find it acceptable to say “nice arms” while sporting a sexually suggestive grin. Truly, when you have big muscular arms people treat you like nothing more than a piece of meat. Yes, its absolutely fantastic!
Basic Training Principles
People familiar with Biologic Labs know that we advocate hard, heavy training. If you want more muscle then you need to focus on lifting progressively heavier weights. The faster you increase your training poundages, the faster you grow muscle. Simple.
Generally speaking, to make the most rapid strength/muscle gains, training should be based on basic, compound exercises using very heavy poundages. And whenever intensity (poundages) are high, training volume needs to be comparatively low(ish). Simple.
But high intensity, low volume training is not always the most efficient way to make rapid strength/size gains. And it would be ludicrous to suggest that no other training protocol has a valid application in the pursuit of size and strength – far too many bodybuilders and strength athletes have succeeded using higher volume and/or lower intensity training. Besides, using any unchanging combination of training intensity, volume and frequency will quickly lead to stagnation.
In the case of the arms, there is good evidence to suggest that higher volume, ‘pump’ training is a more effective means of achieving size and strength.
Most competitive bodybuilders fall into 1 of 3 categories:
Limb Freaks – big arms and (maybe) legs but lacking in torso thickness
Torso Freaks – Massively thick pecs and back but with less well developed arms and (maybe) legs
Symmetrically Small – small but evenly developed all over.
And typically – though there will always be exceptions – bodybuilders in each of these categories tend to use similar training styles:
Limb Freaks are often pumpers: they train with high volume, high frequency routines and often make effective use of cheat, forced and partial rep techniques.
Torso Freaks are often ‘Powerbuilders’: they train with massive poundages on the basic compound lifts.
Symmetrically Small bodybuilders are often technique fanatics: they never increase their training poundages at the expense of perfect form.
But the correlation to note is that trainers who use higher volume, looser style, “pump” training typically often develop better arms than their heavy, power training brethren.
An excellent recent example of this correlation is Lee Priest. Lee has arguably the best arm development ever and he is well known for being a high volume, 20set per bodypart man. Yet, unfortunately, Lee’s chest and back thickness have always been criticised as his weaknesses. The same applied to a lesser degree to past greats Flex Wheeler and Paul Dillet.
On the flip side, Dorian Yates, Art Atwood, Johnie Jackson and Branch Warren come to mind as recent bodybuilders who are well respected for their power training with unbelievably heavy poundages. All exhibit huge torso thickness and yet all complain of their arms being difficult to develop.
Then, of course, you have guys like Ron Coleman and Kevin Levrone who are proportionately massive everywhere and train with medium volume using massive poundages. The relationship here is still clear: get massively strong on everything and you will have massive muscularity everywhere… if you don’t break first.
Lessons from SEO’s
For the uninitiated, sight enhancement oils (SEO’s) are, as the name suggests, oils that hardcore bodybuilders inject to “enhance” their muscles ie make them larger or shapelier. SEO’s contain no active ingredient – such as a hormone – to develop the site into which they are injected. Instead, the muscle is physically stretched outward by the large volume of oil that accumulates inside the muscle.
The procedure is reportedly as painful as it sounds. Aside from the high frequency of injections and the chronic inflammation, the fascial sheath of the muscle is constantly being stretched. Its like having priapism (an erection that won’t go down for days or weeks) in your biceps: it sounds great but the reality is sheer agony!
The fascinating result of SEO use is that as the oil is metabolised, the space it once occupied is replaced with real muscle tissue. So six months to a year after a course of SEOs there is (hopefully) no remaining oil encapsulated within the muscle but just a whole lot of real, permanent, new muscle tissue. And – tellingly – no failed drug tests.
But the even more fascinating side effect of this SEO ‘growth’ is rapid and staggeringly large strength gains within the injected muscle – further proof of the relationship between muscle mass and strength.
While many biochemical processes lead to the accumulation of new muscle tissue in response to SEO’s, the primary catalyst is the fascial stretch. The lesson learnt is: create room for new muscle tissue by aggressively stretching the fascia and new muscle will result.
Training the Arms
If the big arm guys and the lessons learnt from SEO’s are anything to go by, pumping the arms is the best approach. So while the larger muscles of the chest, back and legs respond well to base of high load, low volume work, a similar approach for arms is somewhat less necessary and potentially unsafe.
Consider that the arm muscles are heavily involved in all major upper body compound movements. As such, exercises that better isolate the biceps or triceps are, by their very nature, going to provide less weight stress anyway.
For instance, barbell bench presses for the chest will massively load the triceps. If you were to do no additional triceps exercises while building up your bench press from 100kg to 200kg, you would find that your strength on direct triceps exercises would have doubled (give or take) also. So, while tricep work MIGHT assist your bench development, you COULD also argue that it is somewhat redundant in terms of tricep development.
Given that arm muscles will gain strength capacity in proportion to your strength gains on the major compound lifts, the best growth ‘assistance’ you can give them is to stretch the fascia to make room for new growth. And that means:
Pump ‘em up, then stretch ‘em hard
Arm Workout Structure
There are several unique considerations when structuring an upper arm training routine given that the goal should be a maximum pump and stretch.
Try to train biceps and triceps together in the same workout.
Use ‘compound sets’ where you alternate each set of biceps with a set of triceps (resting between each set still)
Make extensive use of cheat and partial reps or drop sets to continue your sets beyond failure. Don’t cheat just to use weights your arms can’t lift. But it is productive to cheat to keep a set going when good quality reps are no longer possible.
If you are doing multiple exercises, for the last exercise of your arm workouts you should use a stretch movement.
When you finish your arm workout use a partner, weight or fixed device for some intense fascial stretching
In order to train bis and tris on the same day you might need to change your current training split. A suitable 2-way split would be:
Day 1: Chest, Back, Shoulders
Day 2: Arms, Legs
A suitable 3-way split is:
Day 1: Chest, Back
Day 2: Shoulders, Arms
Day 3: Legs
And an advanced, arm focused 4-way split could be:
Day 1: Chest, Triceps (with light bicep pump)
Day 2: Back, Hamstrings
Day 3: Shoulders, Biceps (with light triceps pump)
Day 4: Quads, Calves
If you are doing full body workouts then you won’t be able to do 2 exercises each for the bis and tris. In this case your arms will have already been hammered by your chest and back work anyway. So you can simply use stretch movements – eg Incline Dumbbell Curls alternated with Overhead Dumbbell Extensions. Otherwise, just make sure to stretch your arms aggressively after training them.
The best arm workouts should be made up of bicep and tricep compound sets starting with those movements that deliver the best pump and finishing with an aggressive stretching movement.
A good approach is to start with movements that afford the use of heavier weights to pump the muscles full of blood. Suitable movements include barbell and alternate dumbbell curls for the biceps and skullcrushers and pushdowns for the triceps. Note that compound movements like dips or close grip bench presses are unsuitable for alternating with bicep movements due to the heavy anterior deltoid contribution required by both.
For more advanced bodybuilders who’s elbows are particularly ‘sensitive’ (ie beaten to pieces) you might want to start by pre-exhausting the arms with lighter, peak contraction, isolation movements – such as dumbbell concentration curls alternated with 2 arm dumbbell kickbacks. Once pumped and fatigued you can then move to your heavier compound movements.
Finally, finish with stretch position movements. The biceps are stretched when the elbow is extended (ie the arm is straight), the hands are pronated (rotated inward) and the upper arm is drawn back behind the body. As such, Incline Dumbell Curls are the only exercise that puts any sort of load on the biceps in a stretched position.
The triceps are stretched when the upper arm is raised upward and the elbow is fully flexed (ie bent). As such, any overhead extension using either a barbell, dumbbell(s) or cable will do.
Exploiting Exercises’ Unique Attributes
As explained in Ironmans’ Positions of Flexion system, exercises can be categorised based on where in a muscles strength curve the most tension is applied: the midrange, peak contracted or stretched position. And how you should perform an exercise will depend upon which of these categories it fits.
Midrange movements – like barbell curls for biceps and skullcrushers for triceps – typically allow the use of comparatively heavy weights. They rarely provide a full stretch and there is rarely much tension in the peak contracted position. So do not waste your time trying to squeeze your muscles or exaggerate a stretch. Instead, focus on heaving big weights and let the weight – not your imagination – be the stress on the muscle. And yes, some swinging and cheating is fine. Just make sure you are cheating to work the muscle harder; not to make the exercise easier or an excessive weight doable.
Peak-contraction movements – like concentration curls for biceps and dumbbell kickbacks for triceps – place maximum load on the muscle in the weakest, fully contracted position. This unique stress forces every motor unit to fire every myofibril within every fibre of your muscle. As such you need to make sure that the muscle is actually loaded in the contracted position by pausing and holding at the top of each rep. If you pump and swing your tricep kickbacks then you are completely defeating the purpose of the exercise. If you want to pump and swing, choose a more appropriate exercise.
Stretch movements – like incline curls for biceps and overhead extensions for triceps – load the muscle in the stretch position. Loaded stretching has several positive effects:
To receive all these benefits requires a very specific method of exercise execution with strict emphasis on hitting the deepest stretch position on every rep.
To activate the Golgi Tendon Reflex you need to use a plyometric type ‘bounce’ out of the bottom of each rep. There is a controlled but accelerating negative portion followed by a controlled swing and ‘bounce’ with a powerful drive back to the top.
For the fascial stretch and MGF release, stop in the stretch position at the end of the set and just let the weight rip your muscle open. Done right, the burn and stretch is excruciatingly painful; but your muscles can look visually ‘rounder’ almost immediately after.
- it activates the Golgi Tendon Reflex which forces an involuntary contraction far stronger than you can voluntarily muster.
- it can cause an extreme stretch on the muscles fascial sheath
- it causes the release of prostaglandins such as Mechano Growth Factor (MGF) which is a hugely powerful muscle growth signaller
Arm training will generally be a higher rep affair mainly because the training goal is to generate a massive pump. But also, arm exercises tend to suit higher reps simply because very low rep sets will either be disgustingly cheated or terminated too early. For example, there is no such thing as a 2 rep set of tricep pushdowns. There is such thing as stopping after 2 reps when 8, gradually-deteriorating reps would have been possible. There is also a 2 rep ‘pulldown-and-squat-cable-throw with a jump-on-top-before-the-weight-stack-falls manoeuvre … but that’s not a pushdown either.
Standard pyramid rep schemes are good but try working with a wider rep range than normally suggested. After a warm-up do a 20ish rep set to failure, followed by a 12-15rep set, followed by a 7-12 rep set followed by a 3-7 rep set. If you are alternating quickly enough between bis and tris you might even find you don’t need to increase the weight between sets. By the time you get to the 4th compound set your arms will be so pumped and fried you can barely get 4 or 5 reps with the weight you initially performed 20 reps with.
Charles Poliquins’ 10 sets of 10 reps German Volume system is also brilliant for arms. Alternate a set of a bicep exercise with a set of a tricep exercise, every minute until you’ve done 10 sets of 10 reps of each exercise with the same weight. Then hit some loaded stretching and your arms will be massively pumped.
Otherwise, any sort of creative rep/set scheme will work for arms so long as you focus on generating a massive pump followed by some hard fascial stretching. Techniques like drop-sets, super-sets, forced-reps etc are all great.
A Word on Diet
Diet plays an enormous role in bodybuilding and this is particularly relevant in the case of the arms. Generally, your arms will grow most significantly when you are gaining mass all over. If you aren’t gaining generally everywhere, your arms probably aren’t going to be growing much either.
That said, for the biggest pumps you should follow a moderate to higher carbohydrate diet supplemented with creatine. For fun you can throw a good NO2 booster on top of that.
For big arms do what the big arm guys do and pump them up with high sets and high reps. Then stretch the bejesus out of them and watch them swell.