Four to eight weeks of this workout will result in arms growth and tight T-shirts.
By Michael Schletter, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D
Curls, rope pressdowns, reverse curls, dips and done. Sound like a familiar arm workout? It’s probably because that’s the one you see everyone doing all the time, so you do it, too. The problem is that your progress has stalled, and even though you still get a solid pump from the workout, once that pump disappears your arms are still the same size and the sleeves of your shirts fit the same as they did six months ago when you started doing your current arm workout. If you were truly into building strength and muscle, you might want to ask yourself: Why aren’t my arms growing anymore? The answer is easy: You need more variety.
However, there are a few principles that need to be defined and understood first in order to really see a major difference, the first of which is the size principle. Forget the biology for a second. What you need to take from this principle is to work big muscles first because they are stronger than the small ones. Think your chest isn’t involved in triceps-focused movements? Think again. Yes, there are variations of the standard bench press that focus more heavily on the triceps, but because your chest typically is stronger than your triceps, you can load up the weight on a close-grip press far more than you can on a rope pressdown and more weight means more gains.
The second concept that must be understood is that your muscles work and grow in what are called antagonistic pairs. In other words, you have one muscle or muscle group that performs one action (for example, the biceps flex the elbow), and another that performs the exact opposite action (for example, the triceps extend the elbow). When it comes to growth, you can’t increase the size of a muscle without increasing the size of its antagonist.
In the previous example, your biceps can’t grow without triceps growth and vice versa. One important distinction is that you need to work both the agonist (the biceps in the previous example) and the antagonist (the triceps in the previous example) in order to see improvement. You can’t just grow one; it won’t increase in size until the other one does.
The Biology Behind The Gains
Muscle growth and thus, strength, is controlled by the mTOR pathway. Why? mTOR controls muscle protein synthesis. If mTOR is proceeding anabolically (i.e. building muscle in the absence of Rapamycin which shuts down mTOR), the rate of muscle protein synthesis increases, meaning you’re building more muscle. So it’s important to stimulate this pathway to crank out as much muscle protein as possible.
You can stimulate this pathway, and keep it going with nutrition, by consuming food or a supplement that provides the muscles with the amino acid known as leucine. Leucine is the single most important amino acid when it comes to stimulation of the mTOR pathway.
As it relates to exercise, the more muscle groups involved in an exercise, the harder mTOR works at making you more muscle protein. This is what most people fail to recognize in terms of their workouts. When you come in for an arm day, you shouldn’t just start with five minutes on the treadmill and get right into biceps curls. Take your time. Do your warm-up (be sure to make it specific like Australian pull-ups with a hold and assisted push-ups) and then start with something compound (multi-joint like bench presses or rows) before getting into your specific work, like the biceps curls and triceps extensions that you love so much.
Choosing Your Exercise
Not sure which exercise is right for you? What follows is a listing of the most important arms exercises along with a detailed description to ensure you’re performing it in such a way to gain the maximum benefits.
Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is a variation on the standard bench press and a multi-joint move. This makes it an ideal selection to kick-start mTOR to build muscle. In comparison to the traditional bench press, it places a heavy emphasis on your triceps, making it a perfect choice to start your arm workout.
Set up like you would for a traditional bench press, but take a different grip. The ideal grip would be shoulder-width apart, but it depends on the individual, so vary it based on how it feels to you. From there, perform the rep as you would a traditional bench press. Unrack the bar, take three seconds to lower the bar to touch your chest (it may touch closer to your ribcage because of your grip), pause briefly and push it as fast as you can back to the top. Repeat for the prescribed reps and sets resting 90 to 120 seconds between sets.
Sometimes referred to as the original biceps curls, chin-ups are another multi-joint move that involves the back musculature. Like the close grip bench press, this exercise is the epitome of a starting move for an arms workout. If you read EMG (electromyography which involves attaching electrodes to muscles to measure muscle activity) studies, many suggest that the chin-up is actually better at activating your biceps than any variation of the biceps curl (supinated bent-over rows do the trick, too). Again, multiple muscle groups equal higher mTOR activation, which leads to more muscle growth.
Grab a pull-up bar with an underhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder blades apart. Draw your shoulder blades down and back and pull yourself up to the bar, aiming to touch your collarbone to the bar. Pause for a second and take three seconds to lower yourself back down. Repeat for the prescribed reps and sets resting 90 to 120 seconds between sets.
This exercise is another multi-joint move that trains elbow extension and involves multiple muscle groups for higher mTOR activation. Uniquely, this move also trains the anconeus muscle, which is a powerful elbow extensor. When it grows, it makes your forearms look huge.
Set up as you would for a close grip bench press. But, as you lower the bar, instead of letting your elbows move straight down, keep them in line with your stomach by pushing your elbows forward (but not outward) as the bar comes down towards your collarbone. Push the bar up by extending your elbows without letting them drop. Tip: You won’t be able to go as heavy on this exercise, so start with just the bar and work up from there.
Supinated Bent-Over Row
This is a supreme biceps activator. It’s often purported to be better than any variant of the biceps curl for biceps strength and growth.
Grasp a barbell with an underhand (supinated) grip and push your hips back to bring your chest closer to the ground, arms hanging loose. Drive your elbows up towards the ceiling to bring the bar up towards your belly button, pause and return to the start position. Repeat for the prescribed reps and sets, resting for 90 to 120 seconds between sets.
This is the first single-joint exercise in the workout that follows. However, the position that you must hold the bar in places constant tension on all three heads of the triceps muscle to prompt all three to grow.
Set up an adjustable bench in the same way you would if you were going to do a dumbbell incline press (about 30 degrees up from completely horizontal). Grasp an EZ-bar (the one with all the bends in it) with a comfortable overhand grip, and press it over your chest, then bring your arms back so that your elbows are in line with your ears. Keeping your elbows close to your head, bring the bar behind your head by bending your elbows and once your elbows are bent 90 degrees, extend your elbows to bring the bar back up. Repeat for the prescribed sets and reps, resting for 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
These are an old-school bodybuilding move that hit your biceps super hard and also involve a little shoulder musculature. As for mTOR, you know multiple muscles means more activation.
Grab a bar (any kind) with an underhand grip and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Begin to curl the bar, dragging it up your stomach to bring it to your breastbone, pause and slowly lower the weight. Repeat for the prescribed sets and reps, resting for one minute to 90 seconds between sets.
This exercise is an ideal finishing move for your triceps because it hits all three heads of the muscle with an emphasis on the lateral head, which forms the outside of the wishbone. Also, your elbow is in a fixed position, making this a true single-joint move that isolates your triceps as well as any exercise. This allows your triceps to do all the work, versus having a potentially stronger muscle compensate and take over the movement.
Hook up a rope attachment to a cable station. Set it at maximum height. Grasp the handle with one end in each hand, palms facing each other (your pinky should be anchored on the knot or ball at the end). Take a step back, shift your hips back (to move them out of the path of the cable) and pull the cable towards you so your elbows are pointing at the ground. Extend your elbows and separate your hands as you push the cable down towards the ground, turning your fists to face the floor at the end with your elbows fully extended. Pause and return to the start position. Repeat for the prescribed sets and reps, resting for 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
Want another old-school bodybuilding move? Good news! Here it is. This one places huge emphasis on your biceps, and, like the rope pressdown, is a true single-joint move, allowing for proper biceps isolation. In other words, your biceps will do all the work as opposed to having another muscle potentially taking over.
Set up with an EZ-bar on a preacher curl station facing the opposite direction. Grasp the EZ-bar underhand, bring your triceps back to the pad (it should be the completely vertical side) and lock your arm over the pad so it’s right in your armpit. Your chest should be on the angled side of the pad. Curl the weight without your triceps leaving the pad, pause and slowly return to the start position. Repeat for the prescribed sets and reps, resting for one minute to 90 seconds between sets.
Perform moves listed “a” and “b” sequentially with no rest between them. Rest for the specified amount of time between completion of “b” and the beginning of the next “a” exercise. The exercises are numbered in the order they should be performed. Select a weight that allows you to complete the prescribed reps, but no more.
1. Close Grip Bench Press 4 sets 8 reps
2. Chin-Up 4 sets AMRAP*
3. Jam Press 4 sets 8 reps
4. Supinated Bent-Over Row 4 sets 8 reps
5a. Incline Skullcrusher 4 sets 12 reps
5b. Drag Curl 4 sets 10 reps
6a. Rope Pressdown 3 sets AMRAP*
6b. Spider Curl 3 sets AMRAP*
*as many reps as possible