Building big arms. What an incredible subject! I got hooked on the desire to possess big arms back in 1960, when I was in the ninth grade. My older brother, Jack, came home one day with a muscle magazine, and in it was an article titled, ‘The Man With the World’s Largest Muscular Arms.’ The man was Leroy Colbert, a bodybuilder from New Jersey, and the article told how he’d built his 20 1/2-inch arms. It featured pictures of Leroy flexing the most amazing arms I’d ever seen.
I was mesmerized. I couldn’t quit staring at those tremendous arms. They were unbelievable. In fact, Leroy’s whole upper body was unbelievable. In addition to those huge arms, he had full pectorals, big shoulders, massive lats and a very small waist. To me, however, his guns were the main attraction.
That marked a turning point in my life. Up to that time I was a huge sports fan. I was constantly reading sports magazines and watching sports on television. My heroes were Eddie Matthews of the Braves, Roger Maris of the Yankees and Valery Brumel of Russia, the world’s best high jumper. All that changed when I saw that magazine. Leroy Colbert moved into first place, and second didn’t matter anymore. I decided on that very day that I was going to have arms like Leroy’s.
Of course, back in those days nobody knew anything about genetic potential. The muscle magazines certainly didn’t. The big push was that everyone could be a champion like Leroy. All you had to do was follow the advice in the magazines’after you purchased the equipment that was being advertised in its pages. Oh, and don’t forget the protein powder. Then, presto!’anyone could become the proud owner of a great physique. Well, I didn’t have the money to purchase the barbells or the protein powder. I had no weights at all. But I was still determined to have huge arms.
A few days later my brother brought home something else that got my undivided attention. A 40-pound adjustable dumbbell. It was only one dumbbell, but it was a start. That began a pursuit that I’ve never given up. I’m now 57 years young, and I’m still exercising with weights. I’ve been very fortunate to have enjoyed splendid success in the pursuit of becoming big and strong. And I achieved my goal of having big arms. I trained very hard and very heavy, eventually becoming the Arizona Heavyweight Weightlifting champion. I have a standing press of 400 pounds to my credit, and at a bodyweight of around 245 pounds I had 21 3/4-inch arms. That’s a true measurement, and I can honestly say that I never used steroids during my weight-training career.
My two main pursuits in my weight training were excelling at the standing press and building big arms. My interest in the standing press also came about when I was in high school. One day I visited the weight room at the downtown Phoenix YMCA. When I walked in, I noticed that all eyes were trained on the lifting platform. Standing in the middle of the platform was the biggest and most muscular man I’d ever seen. He was performing standing presses with more than 300 pounds. He was Jon Cole, who would become a powerlifting world champion a few years later, and who, in my opinion, is the greatest strength athlete of all time. Jon also had huge arms, and seeing him that day made me all the more determined in my quest for big guns.
Volume or Intensity?
Arthur Jones, bless his heart, made some very strong statements in the articles he wrote years ago about his new Nautilus machines and his system of training with them. Jones was extremely dogmatic in his beliefs about training, one of which was that all weight exercises’be they performed with Nautilus machines or barbells’must be performed over a full range of movement.
Even though Jones presented that belief as an undeniable fact, we (myself and the fellows I trained with) knew better. We had discovered by trial and error that we could make great gains in both size and strength by using partial movements.
I had also discovered in my training that it’s very important to train with as heavy a weight as possible. In my early years of training I worked out along the lines of what was recommended in Joe Weider’s magazines, Muscle Builder and Mr. America. Joe’s ghostwriters favored performing a lot of sets for each bodypart and trying to get a big pump in the target muscles. I tried that but got nowhere.
One day I happened into a magazine store and found a weight-training magazine that I’d never seen before. It was called Iron Man. It was small in size, but as I discovered when I started reading it, it contained a huge amount of information.
I was impressed with the magazine itself and with its publisher, Peary Rader. He recommended a completely different way of training. He suggested using only a few basic exercises, while specializing on the squat, and stressed the importance of regularly increasing the amount of weight you use on each exercise. He also pushed the importance of drinking a lot of milk if you wanted to gain a lot of muscle size.
I put everything Peary said into practice. Nine months later I was 100 pounds heavier. I’d gone from 158 pounds to a bodyweight of 260. Peary and I corresponded through the mail, and he felt that my experiences would help others who wanted to gain weight, so he published a story on me, including pictures, in Iron Man.
In terms of the progress I made on my arms, remember that I’d tried the pumping routines that Weider recommended, but I experienced little in the way of progress. At that stage, after a number of years of my using pumping routines, my arms measured around 16 inches. And while 16-inch arms aren’t skinny arms, they were certainly nowhere near the guns I desired.
So I started training heavy on squats, standing presses, decline dumbbell flyes and hang power cleans to stimulate size and strength increases in my entire body. For arms I used four exercises’EZ-curl-bar curls and concentration curls for biceps and close-grip bench presses and lying extensions for triceps. I usually did two sets of six reps on all arm exercises.
I used a system that I call target training. It’s nothing new or out of the ordinary. You aim for a target number of reps’in my case six. On each of the two sets per exercise I aimed for six reps. I would tell myself that it was imperative that I make the target. If I made the six reps on both sets, then at the next workout I added weight to the bar or dumbbells.
For example, say I was using 150 pounds on EZ-curl-bar curls. If I made the targeted six reps on both sets, then at the next workout I increased the weight by five pounds to 155 and stayed with that weight until I could do six reps for both sets. Then at the next workout I moved up to 160 pounds.
That’s the whole idea behind progressive-resistance weight training. It’s amazing how many people who train with weights forget it: The weights must be progressive. In my opinion it’s the most important principle in all of weight training’the key to getting big and strong. If the poundages you use on barbell curls keep going up, your biceps size will keep going up.
If you can perform six reps of barbell curls with 100 pounds today, and in one year you can perform six reps with 150, your biceps will have to be considerably larger. Imagine how big they’ll be when you get to six reps with 200 pounds. If you’re interested in gaining muscle size, the main goal in your training should be to increase your strength on a few selected exercises.
The above training method took my arms up to 19 1/2 inches. Here’s what I did to get them to 21 3/4 inches.
I’d been thinking about experimenting with partial-range reps on some of my exercises. I knew that I’d be able to use heavier weights on my exercises if I did partial reps. I realized that when you perform full-range reps, you’re limited to using the amount of weight that you can move through the weakest range of that particular exercise. On every exercise you have weak areas and strong areas in the possible range of motion. While you can move more weight through the strongest part of the range, you’re still limited by what you can move through the weaker part. A problem becomes evident when you realize that the amount of weight you use is the factor that determines how many muscle fibers you engage. In other words, the heavier the weight, the more muscle fibers you involve, and, subsequently, the more muscle fibers that will increase in size. Obviously, that builds a bigger and stronger muscle.
So the solution to the limitation on the amount of weight you can use is to eliminate the weakest part of the range. Simple’and that’s where partial reps come in.
Here’s the program that I came up with. This was obviously designed to meet my goals in training. You can use the same idea on different exercises if you desire, but don’t do any more exercises than listed if you want to experience the best gains in size and strength. If you do follow this program as listed, you’ll make tremendous gains. I performed this program twice per week, on Mondays and Thursdays.
Seated barbell presses. I did these in a power rack, which, in my opinion, is the second most important piece of exercise equipment that you can own’after a plate-loading barbell. I always used a bench that had a back support to give me a very strong, stable position. I set the pins in the power rack so that the barbell would be just above my nose when it was resting on the pins. From there I pressed it to arm’s length overhead, performing two sets of eight reps.
Curl-grip lat pulldowns. In this variation, your palms are facing you, not turned away from you, as in typical lat pulldowns. I used only an eight-inch range of motion. I’d start with the lat bar even with my forehead and pull it down to my chest. After completing the last rep on each set, I’d let the bar travel back to just under my chin and hold it there for 12 seconds. I did two sets of eight reps on these, which really blasted my lats and biceps. Try it, and you will love the contraction in your biceps.
Partial-rep pressdowns. I performed only the bottom six to eight inches of the movement, starting with the bar near my bellybutton and pressing it down to the locked-out position. I did holds on the last rep of each set on this movement as well, bringing the lat bar to my bellybutton and holding it there for 12 seconds. Again, I did two sets of eight reps. Seated EZ-curl-bar curls. I sat on a bench with the bar resting on my thighs and curled from that position. Again, the formula was two sets of eight reps with a 12-second hold on the last rep of each set, in this case at the point where my forearms were parallel to the ground.
Partial-rep close-grip bench presses. I did these in the power rack, with the bar at the point where my upper arms were just above parallel to the ground. From there I pressed the bar up to arm’s length over my chest. I did two sets of eight reps, and this time I did the 12-second hold at two inches below lockout on the last rep of each set.
That’s the program that took my arms up to 21 3/4 inches, and I believe part of that progress can be directly attributed to the holds. The difference between performing the holds and not performing the holds is substantial. When you do them, you’ll feel a deep ache in the muscles at the end of each set. When you leave them out, you’ll feel as if you’ve cheated yourself’you won’t feel the deep stimulation.
A second point’and by far the most important one’is that your goal absolutely must be to keep going up in weight. That’s critical. Big weights produce big muscles, so use the target system on all exercises. When you make eight reps with a certain weight, use five more pounds on that exercise at the next workout. When you make eight reps with the new weight, add another five pounds at the next workout.
As for limiting your sets per exercise to two, you may feel that it’s not enough. I assure you that if you are really forcing the reps with heavy weights, two sets will be plenty.
If you follow this program to the letter, you’ll make tremendous gains. At 57, I still follow a very similar program ‘and my arms still measure more than 20 inches. IM