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Arm-Building Secrets of the Pros

ironmanmagazine.comDisclaimer: I intentionally misled you with the title to get your attention. There really are no “secrets” of the pros when it comes to arm training. After discussing the subject at length with a few hundred professional and top amateur bodybuilders over the past 23 years, I can state that with confidence. Yet they do have valuable tips and techniques that the general bodybuilding population can experiment with and implement in our own quests for big guns.

Brace yourself. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates did not have fantastic biceps when he turned pro, yet by the time he was ruling the sport a few years later, they were anything but weak. That led the Shadow to unlock his biceps growth by focusing on curling movements where the arm was braced, such as Nautilus curls and dumbbell concentration curls. Barbell curls, a staple that has delivered for millions, were dropped once Dorian figured out that his massive shoulders typically took over. When he took his delts out of the equation, he started to see significant improvements in his biceps.

Hit ’em twice a week. Branch Warren was not gifted with great arms, period. That’s likely because he got in line three times when they were handing out genetics for legs and missed out on arms. What proved to be an effective tactic was to work arms twice a week but with different workouts. One arm workout featured heavy weights and straight sets, while the other was all about supersets and drop sets, the main goal being to achieve the tightest and most swollen pump possible.

Little weights for big bi’s. Ed Nunn has some of the best biceps in pro bodybuilding today, easily 22 inches cold. How much does he curl? If you answered 185, 225 or were daring to guess 315 pounds, you’re way off base. Ed swears that the one exercise responsible is 21s done using an EZ-curl bar with 25 pounds on each side. Seven half reps from the bottom to midpoint, seven from midpoint to top and seven full reps delivers a sickening pump and soreness. With very heavy weights, loose form often robs the biceps of stimulation. 21s can be one way to make sure they get what they need, true time under tension.

Isolate. In most articles about triceps training, you will hear that compound movements such as the close-grip bench press or weighted dips are an absolute must. Dorian Yates begged to differ. He felt that if the indirect stimulation from chest and shoulder presses wasn’t doing anything, neither would adding more compound movements for triceps training. Instead, he chose to focus on isolation/single-joint extension movements such as cable pushdowns, skull crushers, and Nautilus triceps extensions. His tri’s were never amazing, but they did match the rest of his massive torso—which is saying a lot.

Cables. Vince Taylor has to be one of the sport’s most underrated legends. The man was simply lethal in the late ’80s and well into the ’90s. His arms in particular had such mass, shape, fullness and detail that it’s crazy how infrequently his name comes up when the best gunslingers are debated. Most of us have been indoctrinated to think that cables are not an option for building mass, only for “shaping” and “detailing.” Vince built most of his freaky arm mass purely with cables. Is he a very rare exception to that rule? Or, equally likely, have we all been duped into ignoring cables because we “know” free weights are better?

Don’t waste energy on gifted arms. The final piece of advice is for the fortunate few who have exceptionally favorable arm genetics, in which case the whole concept of giving you advice is ironic. If your arms blow up easily, and particularly if you have other muscle groups that don’t respond as well, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time and effort on them. Mr. Olympia Phil Heath only trains his arms for a few weeks out of the year before the big show, otherwise they would eventually look ridiculous. Evan Centopani does not have a training day just for arms. Instead, he hits them after chest or shoulders, since his arms grow with ease and his chest has been a work in progress, and for a couple months after each contest Evan does no direct arm or shoulder work. —Ron Harris


Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years In the Trenches, available at


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