Although I’ve been writing training articles for several years, I’ve avoided doing an article on arm training. Because guys in the gym often ask me what I do for my legs (the number-one question by far), calves, chest, shoulders and back, I’ve written about those bodyparts. As I was never happy with my arms, however, I didn’t think I had any advice to give. It’s not that they’re horrible, but they just don’t impress the way I always wanted them to. I felt that way for some time, and then all of a sudden it hit me: 11 years ago, when I started training, they measured 10 inches, and now they’re 18 inches. That’s a tremendous success story.
I’ve always said that the men who have the freakiest arms probably aren’t the ones you should look to for training information, since their arms grow no matter what. (Vince Taylor actually started with 17-inch arms.) Evidently, I wasn’t listening to my own advice. For all those years, I thought I wasn’t qualified to write about arm training, when in fact I was more qualified than just about anybody.
Getting my stubborn arms to grow was a challenge that involved several years of trial and error. I have a feeling a lot of readers have the same problem I did: You want crazy arms but haven’t found it at all easy to build them. Here are some principles I learned that finally enabled me to wear short sleeves in public—at last I can say I have arms with authority.
1) Heavy weights are necessary, but you must use controlled form. I can remember cheating up 85-pound dumbbells for curls and thinking I was on the way to Arnold biceps. I leaned so far into the working arm on alternate curls that I nearly tipped over. It’s incredible that I didn’t tear a biceps or a tendon. My ego grew, but my arms did not. I eventually lightened the weight, and my biceps crept up in size. You do need to lift heavy weights to build size, but you must still keep your form tight enough that you isolate the working muscle. The goal should always be to lift the weight using the power of the intended muscle, not to throw it up with momentum and body motion.
One exercise on which you’ll see trainees make this mistake over and over again is preacher curls. Watch people do them with heavy weights, and 90 percent of the time they’ll rise off the seat as they lower the weight, then sit down and lean back to get the weight up. If I’m spotting people on this exercise and ask them to stay seated, invariably they can no longer lift the weight. To work a muscle, make that muscle and that muscle alone do the work.
2) The contraction is everything. The most valuable part of the rep, especially where arms are concerned, is the contraction, the point at which you should briefly squeeze and flex the muscle under its maximum load. Don’t believe it? Try performing weighted dips with no pause at the top. Then try a set on which you consciously stop at the top and flex every fiber of the triceps. You’ll get fewer reps, but guess what? Those reps will be three times more effective at stimulating growth. The cramping sensation will be painful, but the full-blown pump in your tri’s will be the reward.
I became a big believer in the value of the contraction in July 1994, after my first photo shoot with Mike Neveux—my first photo shoot ever. I was unaccustomed to holding an exercise position for extended periods of time. After holding my left biceps several times in the peak-contraction position of a concentration curl, I woke up the next morning with a searing pain in that biceps. I honestly thought it was torn, although there was no bruising. The stress of the extended contractions induced the worst biceps soreness of my life. If I hadn’t been low on calories, that arm would undoubtedly have grown. I used that technique in the off-season, and sure enough, it resulted in new growth.
3) Change your exercises often. Larger bodyparts like legs and back will respond to squats and deadlifts for months, maybe even years, before you need to start changing your routine. Arms, however, seem to adapt to an exercise in just a few short weeks. That means you need to change your arm routine about once a month to get maximum results. Remember, if the muscle is used to a particular movement, it won’t have to adapt further and it won’t continue to grow. Fortunately, there are many different exercises and endless techniques to assist a trainee who’s willing to experiment.
4) Arms are easy to overtrain. Every time I read a training article in which a champ tells people to work arms two or three times a week, I feel like demanding that the magazine print a disclaimer: Warning—the alleged author is a drug-using genetic monstrosity who could train his arms once a day or once a month and still pack 23-inch guns. The arms are the smallest bodyparts you train. They recover faster than legs or back, but twice a week is going to constitute overtraining for most people, especially natural athletes.
What I have done—and what most successful natural bodybuilders do—is to train arms directly only once a week. They get plenty of indirect work on all torso exercises anyway. There’s absolutely no way you can row 400 pounds or bench-press 130-pound dumbbells without using your biceps and triceps to a significant degree.
Some people like to train their arm muscles with the torso muscles they connect to, such as working back and biceps or chest and triceps together. I believe it makes more sense to train opposing muscles together, as the second bodypart is fresher and capable of heavier work. After four or five heavy back exercises, my biceps are as toasted as my lats. In fact, after I work back, I don’t feel I can do justice to my triceps, since I’ve already worked such a large amount of muscle. Here’s my current routine with respect to arm training:
Chest and biceps
Shoulders and triceps
As you can see, I work biceps and triceps twice a week on this schedule, once directly and once indirectly.
Now let’s look at the best arm-blasting exercises.
1) Standing barbell curls. This exercise has taken a lot of flak from people like Arthur Jones, who point out that there’s resistance in only a portion of the potential range of motion. I have two answers for that: It’s a huge portion of the range, and there’s a way to minimize the limitations of the barbell and gravity’s vertical pull on it.
The first trick is to eliminate the top and bottom 20 degrees of the exercise’s 90 degree range of motion; that is, you start curling with the barbell already a few inches above your waist. It isn’t difficult, since, as Mr. Jones has pointed out, there’s almost no resistance in that lower range. The middle portion is the meat of the exercise, and it packs the meat on your biceps. It’s just as important to avoid the top portion of the curl, where most people slam the bar into their front delts and rest, taking a quick breath. If you keep away from those two spots, the tension is constant, and your arms get the basic blast that’s built huge biceps on everyone from John Grimek to Arnold Schwar-zenegger to Flex Wheeler.
2) Machine curls. If you’re looking for a total range of motion from full stretch to cramping contraction (and you should be), the machine curl is the answer. There are many excellent models on the market, although I’m partial to the Hammer Strength version. Machine curls let you use a great deal of weight safely and with perfect form, two things that are hard to accomplish with a heavy barbell. The best benefit comes at the contraction, where you can squeeze those biceps with all you’ve got. Talk about a pump!
3) Dumbbell curls. The beauty of dumbbell curls lies in their versatility. You can do them standing or seated; you can do them on an incline bench, while supinating your hands or while keeping your thumbs up to stress the brachialis; you can do them with both arms at once or one arm at a time; or you can even do them on a preacher bench. In any case, you’ll always get the best results by performing dumbbell curls strictly. It’s very easy to start using momentum to cheat up heavy dumbbells, but the biceps will get more work and therefore more growth-inducing stress if you use good form. Your elbows should always be close to your body, since the front delts tend to get overly involved if the elbows start drifting away. Another tip is to maintain an upright posture. Leaning to the side of the working arm—or backward—changes the angle of pull on the biceps and diverts much of the stress to other bodyparts.
1) Dips. Close-grip bench presses and dips are the top mass builders for triceps. Dips allow you to use relatively huge weights, which, when you execute them with perfect form, gives your triceps no choice but to grow. Because of old shoulder injuries, close-grip benches cause me pain, so I do dips and I love them.
The weighted dip is a good choice. If you have access to one of the special weight belts with chains at the end, you’re in business. Slip the chain through a plate or a dumbbell, hook everything in place and take your position. Lower yourself to the point at which your upper arms are parallel to the ground, then drive up to a full contraction, squeezing for a solid second. With dips the contraction is paramount. Once you get to the point at which you can hang three, four or more 45-pound plates between your legs, you may want to look for a Hammer Strength dip machine. Depending on the thickness of your gym’s plates, you can put a total of 10 to 12 on that baby and rock those tri’s.
2) Close-grip bench presses. This exercise is an awesome size builder, but technique is critical. Many people end up working their inner pecs a lot harder than their triceps because they don’t do it right. Elbow position dictates whether the triceps get the work they need. Keep your elbow in tight to your body and push out to a contraction of the triceps, not the chest, at the top. It takes practice to learn to take the pecs out of the exercise, but the results are well worth it.
3) Lying extensions. These are also called “skull crushers,” which in the macho world of bodybuilding makes most of us want to blast away that much more. As the book Muscle Meets Magnet has demonstrated, performing skull crushers on a decline bench targets the entire triceps, as opposed to what happens on a flat bench, where only the long head of the triceps is affected. As the name skull crushers might suggest, it’s highly recommended that you use a spotter both to hand the bar to you and to keep your forehead from being mashed by a rapidly falling piece of iron. To save your wrists, I recommend using an EZ-curl bar and taking the inner grip. Folding your thumbs over the bar in a thumbless grip will hit your triceps a bit harder as well.
As with the barbell curl you can get the most out of the exercise by eliminating the portions of the range of motion at which gravity eliminates the resistance. When lying on a decline bench, lower from a roughly 80 degree angle down to your head and push back up to lockout. Lying extensions are also perfect for supersetting. When you reach failure, you can hold the bar over your chest and rep out on close-grip bench presses. Caution: You definitely need a spotter for that because after a few supercramping reps, you won’t be able to budge that bar off your chest.
4) Cable pushdowns. As with dumbbell curls there are many varieties of pushdowns to experiment with. There are dozens of attachments you can use, including bars, ropes and rotating handles. Pushdowns make a perfect finishing movement, since they provide total isolation and enable you do to higher reps. What’s more, if you have a shoulder or elbow injury, they offer a way to overload your triceps. Because of the variable weight stack, it’s easy to perform breakdown sets.
The above are the best exercises I’ve found to get those guns blasting out of your sleeves. Try one of the sample routines below and get on the road to arms you can proudly put on display.
Arms With Authority
Standing barbell curls, 2 x 6-8
Dumbbell curls, 2 x 6-8
Close-grip bench presses, 2 x 6-8
Scull crushers, 2 x 6-8
Standing barbell curls, 2 x 6-8
Incline dumbbell curls, 2 x 6-8
Machine curls, 2 x 8-12
Weighted dips, 2 x 6-8
Skull crushers, 2 x 6-8
Rope pushdowns, 2 x 10-12
Barbell curls, 3 x 8-10
dumbbell curls, 3 x 6-8
Machine curls, 3 x 10-12
Machine dips, 3 x 6-8
Skull crushers, 3 x 6-8
pushdowns, 3 x 12-15
*Reprinted by permission from Iron Man magazine.