If there’s one thing every gym rat wants, it is bigger arms!
Sure, you see plenty of articles signifying the importance of leg and back training, which isn’t wrong when you take into account the sheer size of those muscle groups. But if you are never going to achieve a complete physique without great arm development. And don’t think you can get away with not training them directly, either!
There are plenty of “functional training” gurus out there who will shout from the hilltops that your arms get all the stimulation they need from bench presses, dips, rows and pull-ups. However, for the majority of the population, that is not the case! At the same time, you are not going to build the biggest arms possible if you focus on nothing but pump work. The only way to build big pipes is to use a combination of strategies and focusing on different ones at different points in your training career.
Here are a few of the best methods for building bigger arms, as well as some advice on how to incorporate them in your program.
Bigger Arms Requires Heavier Weights
Of course, you will have to work your arms directly with movements like curls and push-downs, but if you think you’ll get impressive arms without moving impressive weight, think again! There may be a few guys who can bench big and strap on tons of weight for pull-ups whom don’t have big arms, but they are few and far between. It’s even more rare to see a guy with huge arms who hasn’t spent some serious time getting stronger – even if that’s not how he trains today.
So what are the best heavy movements for big arms? As usual, I’m all about the basics! For triceps, you’ll want to focus on close-grip bench presses, dips, and any other free weight pressing movement that emphasises the triceps. If you have access to bands, boards or other tools powerlifters use to overload their triceps, take advantage! And make sure you are always progressing in weight and reps.
Biceps are a little tougher to stimulate with compound movements, but that doesn’t mean you should do nothing but curls. Underhand chins with added weight when possible, are amazing for biceps, and the strength you gain will allow you to curl more weight in the long run. Underhand rows can be useful too, just don’t go as heavy and sloppy as you might with overhand rows – too much strain and you increase the risk of tearing a bicep.
Going for the Pump
As soon as you’ve mastered form and technique with the basic movements, you’ll want to incorporate some lighter, “pump” exercises. For biceps, you’ll obviously need to do curls, curls and more curls – but what kind? There are nearly endless variations, but truly, you don’t need to get fancy. Focus on the basic barbell or EZ bar curl – whichever feels better on your joints – and do plenty of sets in the 10-12 range.
Aside from the basic barbell curl, any kind of dumbbell curl, machine curl, or cable curl will work, and make sure to throw in some hammer curls once per week for good measure. You can use all sorts of crazy cable and bench set-ups if you really want to, but they aren’t going to make much of a difference. You are better off sticking to whichever simple curl variations give you the best stimulation while not hampering your joints.
For triceps, you’ll need to do just the opposite – extensions! If your elbows are healthy, the best moves you can do are skull crushers with either a incline, decline or flat bench. Be sure to mix it up over time! Like always, use strict form, and while you should aim to get more weight and reps every workout, don’t go so heavy that you start to feel the movement more in your joints than in your muscles. The low rep ranges are for pressing movements, not extensions.
What about other types of extensions? While some guys shy away from cables and machines and insist free weights are the only way, I’m actually a big fan of cable movements for triceps. You can go relatively heavy, there are plenty of attachments to use, and they’re easier on your joints than skull crushers – a perfect way to give your elbows a break after heavier movements. My favorite arm workouts usually involve one pressing movement, one skull crusher variation, and one or two cable push-down exercises for triceps.
High Frequency or High Volume?
When it comes to building muscle, there’s an ongoing debate between frequency and volume. Should you hammer a body part and give it a week’s rest? Should you provide less stimulation more often? Should you use an in-between approach? In my opinion, they all work! For arm training, you’ll want to cycle between splits that have you training arms twice or even three times per week with routines that have one, dedicated “arm day” where you blast them into oblivion.
However, once you reach a certain level of development – or if your arms are lagging behind the rest of your physique – you are going to need to give them some extra attention. My favorite strategy for improving lagging arms is to train biceps with back, triceps with chest, and then both again on their own day.
Putting it All Together
So, how to proceed from here? If you’re like the vast majority of lifters, your arms probably aren’t actually lagging – you just need to build more muscle mass overall to make them bigger! It’s pretty rare for anyone to make serious gains on their biceps and triceps without simultaneously improving their chests, shoulders, backs and even legs. For most of you, the best course of action will be to emphasize close-grip pressing movements on your chest days (in addition to your normal exercises) and underhand movements on your back days. Hit up 6-8 sets of extension variations after chest, and the same for curls after back.
So, how do you proceed from here? If you are like the vast majority of lifters, your arms probably aren’t actually lagging – you just need to build more muscle mass overall to make them bigger! It’s pretty rare for anyone to make serious gains on their biceps and triceps without simultaneously improving their chests, shoulders, backs and even legs. For most of you, the best course of action will be to emphasize close-grip pressing movements on your chest days (in addition to your normal exercises) and underhand movements on your back days. Hit up 6-8 sets of extension variations after chest, and the same for curls after back.
Then, on your weekly arm day, blast them again with 12-15 sets each of curls and extensions, beginning with the compound movements and progressing onto lighter isolation or “pump” exercises. Also, be sure you have a couple of days rest between your arm day and your next chest or back day as you don’t want fatigued arms to limit the rest of your development. Good luck, and let us know how it’s going!