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Building the Ultimate Physique: Arm Specialization

It?s certainly no surprise that bulging biceps and massive triceps, replete with veins of garden-hose dimensions, are the sine qua non of both aspiring and competitive bodybuilders.

It’s certainly no surprise that bulging biceps and massive triceps, replete with veins of garden-hose dimensions, are the sine qua non of both aspiring and competitive bodybuilders. The arms are without question the most enjoyable bodypart to train because they have a high pain threshold and are easy to pump up (a very important psychological spur in training). And yet the old bromide about too much of a good thing is particularly true when you get caught up in pump-a-mania. It’s very easy to overtrain your arms’or any other bodypart for that matter’and cause them to actually regress in size and strength.

How Often Should You Train Arms?

I once knew a bodybuilder who had the most amazing arms in the neighborhood. The reputation of his grandiose limbs actually extended to the city of Toronto.

At the time he was performing the expected routines of the day: training six days per week for 20 sets a bodypart, with each workout lasting on the order of one to two hours. Needless to say, he was on steroids and huge. His arms stretched the tape measure a full 19 inches and then some and were the envy of all the members of his gym and of quite a few of the gentry who happened to pass him on the street as he walked to or from one of his pump-a-mania workouts.

We all hastily concluded that the secret to developing big arms must lie in 20-set workouts, performed six days per week for one to two hours at a crack’and, of course, in the steroids needed to sustain our recovery ability and muscular sub-systems through protracted periods of training. Case closed; another victory for multiple sets.

The bodybuilder dropped out of sight for several years, only to resurface six months ago at a local Nautilus club. The rumors began again: ‘He’s bigger than ever.’ ‘His arms look even more freakish than they did before.’ ‘He’s too big.’ ‘He’s training differently.’ The last statement jolted not only me but also all of the aspiring bodybuilders who used to train at his old gym. ‘Differently?’ What did they mean by that? Was he doing even more sets? Cripes, he was in a Nautilus gym now, a place where anything over two sets would be viewed as blasphemy. What the heck could he be doing ‘differently’ that would account for the sudden improvement of his already tremendous development?

As it turned out, he was indeed training differently. In fact, you could say the difference in his training was revolutionary. It was true that he was no longer doing 20 sets per bodypart and one-to-two-hour workouts, but he wasn’t heading in the direction of more work. He was now training a mere three days per week and performing a total of six exercises per workout for only one set per exercise.

It gets better. His repetitions were only’wait for it’two per exercise. And to top it all off, each repetition lasted a mere 30 seconds, or a total of one minute per exercise’that’s six total minutes of exercise per workout, 18 total minutes of training time per week.

Talk about a major reevaluation of what it takes to build massive muscles. He was huge on multiple sets and steroids, but he was now even bigger with only six total minutes of exercise per training session. I strongly suspect that he’s still taking steroids; however, remember that training, not drugs, is what stimulates the adaptive response from the central nervous system in the form of overcompensation, or muscle growth. The drugs only speed the recovery process, retain water and synthesize protein more efficiently. Were that not the case, bodybuilders who take steroids wouldn’t have to train at all’just sit in front of their television sets with a tube of Primobolan stuck in their arm.

Skeletal muscles grow more readily when they’re stressed within their anaerobic pathways, which just so happen to fall in the 15-to-60-second time frame. Any exercise carried on beyond 60 seconds uses more aerobic than anaerobic pathways, which increases endurance at the cost of size and strength.

This is known in physiology circles as the law of specificity. The Canadian Colossus terminated his sets at the 60-second mark (two concentric and two eccentric contractions at 15 seconds apiece = 30 seconds per rep x 2 reps = 60 seconds per set). That would place them well within the confines of anaerobic metabolic processes.

What this tells us is that training arms more than three days per week is, at best, unnecessary. Performing high-volume sets for any bodypart is unproductive because it makes greater inroads into your endurance reserves than your size and strength reserves. So should you follow the Canadian bodybuilder’s routine of six total sets per workout with 60 seconds of continuous concentric and eccentric tension on the targeted muscles? Perhaps, as it seems sound from an exercise-science perspective’not to mention that it certainly yielded impressive results.

As we’ve seen from past installments in this series, the absolute maximum number of sets that you should perform for any bodypart you’re specializing on is five if you’re a beginner, three to four if you’re in the intermediate stage of development and no more than two if you’re an advanced trainee. Remember, those are maximum figures. You may require fewer to actualize your muscular potential, but you can only determine that by gauging your own muscular progress or relative lack thereof. If you’re progressing in size and strength, then the sets are at the right number; if you’re not, then reduce your sets.

Keep in mind that the body requires a minimum of 48 hours of rest between workouts to recover and grow. It must recover from the effects of the workout, and only after that’s occurred will it compensate with additional growth. When you specialize on arms, your workouts must be brief, intense and infrequent. ALL As your body’s recuperative subsystems require upward of 48 hours to recover and grow muscle after an intense workout, a Monday-Wednesday-and-Friday program works nicely. And, of course, it’s important to select the best exercises. But First, a Little Anatomy

The primary function of the biceps muscle is the supination of the wrist’turning the hand until it’s in a palms-up position. Its secondary function is to lift the forearm to the clavicle.

Therefore, you can’t work the biceps efficiently until you fulfill both of those functions. That’s why we’re not using EZ-curl bars to work biceps this month: They pronate the wrist, thereby negating your chance of training that muscle efficiently or successfully. You’re better off with close-grip chinups, concentration curls, cable curls, machine curls or steep-angle preacher curls.

The role of the triceps is also twofold. Its primary function is to extend the forearm, and its secondary function is to draw the arm down and past the midline of the body. Knowing that, you should be able to select the exercises best suited to stimulating growth in the triceps: dips with your elbows close to your body, cable pushdowns, bench dips and/or dumbbell kickbacks.

Training Principles

This month you’ll use only two principles: straight sets carried beyond normal muscular failure via forced and negative repetitions (see ‘How to Calculate Your Individual Specific Repetitions’ on page 220 for the appropriate rep range for each exercise) and descending sets’when you reach muscular failure, immediately reduce the weight by approximately 20 percent and do an additional set.

The Routine

Chinups (B.F.)* 1 x ISR
Concentration curls
(descending set) 1 x ISR
Steep-angle preacher
curls (B.F.) 2 x ISR
Dips (B.F.) 1 x ISR
Dumbbell kickbacks
(descending set) 1 x ISR
Cable pushdowns (B.F.) 2 x ISR
Front squats (on blocks) 1 x ISR
Leg curls 1 x ISR
Calf raises 1 x ISR
Dumbbell flyes 1 x ISR
Dumbbell laterals 1 x ISR
Stiff-legged deadlifts 1 x ISR

* B.F. means beyond failure. When you can’t do another repetition with strict form, do two to three forced reps, with help from your partner, and two to three negatives’your partner lifts the weight and you lower to a count of six to eight.


It’s advisable to get yourself a set of wrist straps for this exercise. You’ll find that your forearms as well as your biceps will get quite a workout. Grasp the chinup bar with your hands spaced about shoulder width apart and your palms facing up. Slowly contract your biceps until your hands touch your shoulders (or as high as you can pull up). Hold the contracted position for a two-count, and then lower yourself in four seconds back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR. When you can perform the upper number of your ISR, increase the resistance by attaching weight to your torso and attempt to complete the lower number of repetitions in your ISR range.

Concentration curls.

Sit on a bench and grab a moderate-weight dumbbell in your right hand. Lean forward slightly so that your right elbow is tucked against your right inner thigh near your knee. Slowly begin to curl the dumbbell with your biceps’no body English or momentum until the dumbbell reaches your shoulder. Slowly (in four seconds) lower the dumbbell back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR. Then reduce the weight by 10 percent and immediately perform a second set for your right arm. After that repeat the process with your left arm.

Steep-angle preacher curls.

After a brief rest of one to two minutes prepare yourself for the final exercise in the biceps routine, barbell preacher curls. The bench should be steeply angled (i.e., vertical) in order to ensure resistance in the fully contracted position. From a position of full extension slowly curl the weight up to your shoulders. Hold the contraction for a distinct pause, and then lower the resistance slowly (in four seconds) back to the full-extension starting position. Repeat for your ISR and then continue beyond failure with two forced reps and two negative reps, making sure to lower the resistance during your negatives to a count of six to eight seconds. Your biceps should be considerably swollen at this stage, but you still have one more set to perform. Remember to carry every set to the point where you can’t contract your biceps even one inch. That increases the severity of the exercise and, consequently, its productivity. Rest for one to two minutes and then get ready to work your triceps. Dips.

Get up in the arms-locked position on a pair of parallel dipping bars. Slowly lower yourself until your knuckles almost touch your armpits. From this ungodly position of full stretch, push yourself slowly back up to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR and then continue beyond failure with two forced and two negative repetitions.

Dumbbell kickbacks.

Despite its odd title, this movement has nothing at all to do with paying off people who are mentally deficient. Grab a light dumbbell with your right hand and bend forward at your waist, supporting yourself with your free hand on a bench. Your right upper arm should be next to your torso and bent at 90 degrees. Slowly contract your triceps muscle so your right forearm extends back and up beyond the plane of your body. Hold that fully contracted position for a two-count, and then lower the dumbbell slowly back to the starting position just in front of your hip. Repeat for your ISR, and then immediately reduce the resistance by 10 percent and perform a second set for the same arm. Upon completion, reverse your position and repeat with your left arm.

Cable pushdowns.

A very efficient triceps exercise, the cable pushdown fulfills both of the basic functions of the triceps brachii’extending the forearms and drawing the arms down and, to a certain extent, past the midline of the body. To begin, grasp the bar with an overgrip. Your elbows should be planted firmly on either side of your rib cage. Smoothly extend your arms until they’re locked out at thigh level. It’s important to hold the feeling of full muscular contraction. It’s the only point in the exercise at which all three heads of the triceps are contracted fully. Hold that position for a two-count before you lower the resistance slowly back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR and continue beyond positive failure with two forced and two negative repetitions. Rest briefly’about one minute’and then perform a second and final set.

Front squats on blocks.

This exercise, when performed with your heels on blocks, is one of the greatest front-thigh developers of all time. It places the stress exclusively on your quadriceps muscles. To begin, stand at the center of a racked bar. Get under it so it rests across your front delts. Place your right hand on top of the bar at your left deltoid and your left hand over the bar at your right deltoid. Keep your elbows high so they’re at eye level. Step back and away from the racks and place your heels on a block of wood with your feet about shoulder width apart. The block should be a two-by-four that’s wider than your shoulders. Squat to the count of four until your butt almost touches your heels, and then smoothly raise yourself back up to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR.

Leg curls.

It’s important to always work the antagonistic muscle groups when you train. If you don’t, your development will be out of balance, which could lead to a serious injury. Leg curls work the biceps femoris, the iliotibial tract and the plantaris tendons and muscles of the posterior thigh. To begin, lie on the leg curl machine, making sure that your feet are under the roller pads and your arms are holding on to either the bench or the legs of the bench for stability. Slowly contract your hamstring muscles until your heels almost touch your buttocks. Hold that fully contracted position for a two-count before lowering the resistance slowly in four seconds back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR.

Calf raises.

If you don’t have access to a standing calf machine, you can do these on a block or stair step with a light barbell over your shoulders or do them one leg at a time holding a dumbbell. If you do have access to a standing calf machine, so much the better. Enter the calf machine so that the pads are on your shoulders, the balls of your feet are on the foot plate, and your heels are off it, almost touching the floor. From full extension slowly contract your calves until your heels are as high as they can possibly be. Hold that contraction for a two-count before lowering your heels in four seconds back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR.

Dumbbell flyes.

The primary function of the pectoralis major is to draw the arm toward the midline of the body, a.k.a. adduction. So the best pectoral exercise is one that most closely simulates that function, like dumbbell flyes. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and lie back on a flat bench. Press the dumbbells to arm’s length over your chest. With a slight bend at your elbows, lower the dumbbells in an arc out to your sides until they’re on the same plane as your torso. From that stretch position pull the dumbbells back to the top with pec power. The motion is a lot like hugging a barrel; your elbows should be bent throughout the movement, and the palms of your hands should be facing each other. Repeat for your ISR.

Dumbbell laterals.

This is a strong isolation movement for the lateral head of the deltoid and, in addition, heavily activates the trapezius muscle of the upper back during the last quarter of the movement. Stand, holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs, with your palms facing each other. Slowly, keeping your arms straight and using only your shoulder muscles, lift the weights out to your sides to just above shoulder level. Hold that position of full contraction for a two-count before lowering the dumbbells slowly’in four seconds’back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR.

Stiff-legged deadlifts.

This is a tremendous overall exercise. It not only works your lower back but also places considerable stress on your forearms, biceps, lats, shoulders and trapezius muscles. Grab a barbell with an under-and-over grip (i.e., with the palm of one hand facing up, in an undergrip, and the other hand facing down, in an overgrip). With only a slight bend at your knees and your arms straight, lift the weight from the floor by contracting your lower-back muscles. Keep your back flat during this exercise or you could incur an injury. When you’ve reached the fully contracted position’that is, you’re standing perfectly upright’hold for a two-count and then lower the resistance back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR.

If you follow this routine, you’ll notice a significant increase in your arm girth. To add size, use the routine and increase your calories. Should you find yourself getting weaker or having trouble recuperating between sessions, cut your workouts to two per week (say, Monday and Thursday), as that will give you the additional recovery time your body requires.

Okay, train hard and build those arms because soon it will be the time of the year when you get to display them. You’re also going to need that additional arm strength for next month’s specialization program.

Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. His latest book, Fast Mass: The Max Contraction System, is now available. See page 211. IM

‘ Northern River Productions.

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