Upper arm development is probably one of the
most sought-after bodybuilding goals.
I have yet to meet an elite pro bodybuilder
pleased with his upper arm development, even though that arm development
exceeds the 20-inch circumference.
If you've been frustrated recently with
your lack of progress in upper arm development, follow any one of the seven
tips given here and you are surely going to experience new growth in record
1. Don't train biceps with back
and triceps with chest.
Training biceps after doing your back routine and training your triceps
after a chest workout are antiquated training concepts. For example, when
one does a full back workout, there's plenty of residual fatigue in the
elbow flexors from all the chins, rows and pulldown exercises that drastically
reduce the training poundages in all curling exercises, thus falling short
of optimal loading for the elbow flexors. At this point, you are using
loads that fall short of the optimal training zone for overloading properly
the contractile proteins. I strongly suggest that in order to improve the
strength and size of your upper arms, they should be trained alone as a
training unit. That leads us to point number two.
2. Train using the double station
For every elbow flexion exercise, you should alternate an elbow extension
exercise. Even though you may be thinking I'm just talking about supersetting
biceps and triceps, I beg to differ on a subtlety. With a superset, little
or no rest is taken between the agonist and the antagonist muscles. In
the approach I strongly endorse, I prefer to use longer breaks between
the two stations for the following reasons.
By having the antagonistic pairs contracting alternately (e.g. flexion
followed by extension) as opposed to agonist contractions alone (precontraction
of antagonists), the ability of achieving full motor unit activation (MUA)
in a muscle contraction may be enhanced when immediately preceded by a
contraction of the antagonists. This has the added benefit of allowing
you to double the workload per training unit. It is important to alternate
exercises working agonists muscles with exercises working antagonistic
muscles together, while respecting long rest intervals. For example, after
doing a 3RM set of close grip triceps presses, rest two to three minutes,
perform a heavy set for the antagonist muscle (i.e., 3-4RM set of dumbbell
curls for the biceps), rest another two to three minutes and repeat the
procedure for the required number of sets.
With double station training, you get the added benefit of making sure
both sides of the joints are equally loaded with optimal training loads,
while in classic supersets, endurance levels may at times make the trainee
compromise on utilizing the right amount of weight to overload the contractile
This is how supersets should never be done? Au contraire, I think they
are very useful for bodybuilding purposes. The subtlety I'm suggesting
here is to use longer rest intervals between the sets, so that greater
loads can be used.
3. To gain arm strength, pause
Too often, trainees fail to make mass gains in their upper arms because
their strength in biceps and triceps exercises has been stagnating for
awhile. But, there is another way out. Research by Canadian exercise physiologists
has shown that for a given submaximal force of contraction, motor unit
activation is greater for repeated (intermittent) than for sustained contractions.
Pausing between reps helps offset the oxygen debt associated with sustained
contractions by various mechanisms, one of which is allowing the removal
of waste products from the muscle cell that block the optimal neural drive.
This type of intra-set rest allows for the recruitment of higher threshold
motor units, which is essential for strength gains. Make sure these pauses
are no more than 15 seconds in length and are taken where muscles can rest,
such as when your arms are outstretched. If you have a high fast-twitch
make-up, I recommend going toward 10-15-second breaks between reps, provided
you do not do more than six reps total per set. If you are leaning more
toward having a slow-twitch fiber make-up, pausing three seconds between
reps should suffice, provided you do not do more than 12 reps total per
4. Don't neglect the forearms.
When a bodybuilder complains of stagnation in mass and strength gains
in the elbow flexors, I often recommend adding some direct grip and forearm
work. When you include direct forearm and grip work, your curling poundages
go up because a few forearm muscles, such as flexor carpi radialis, contribute
to elbow flexion; this leads to furthering biceps and brachialis development.
As you know by now, heavier weights mean greater overload on the muscular
structure, and greater overload on the muscular structure means greater
Elite bodybuilders of the sixties, Chuck Sipes and Larry Scott, were
known for handling Herculean weights in curling exercises. They were very
strong proponents of complementary forearm training for upper arm development.
The other added benefit is that the aesthetics of your upper arms will
also be enhanced.
Frequently, doing three sets each of wrist flexors work, wrist extensor
work and grip work, jolts one's progress to new levels. A sample tri-set
could look like this:
A-1 EZ-bar handle low palms up - Wrist Curls 3 x 15-20 reps on a 2010
tempo; rest 45 seconds.
A-2 EZ-bar handle low palms down - Wrist Curls 3 x 15-20 reps on a 2010
tempo; rest 45 seconds.
A-3 Gripping Machine 3 x 10-12 reps on a 2013 tempo; rest 45 seconds.
As you can see from the tempo, you'd isometrically hold the contraction
for three seconds when the hands are closed. For the two types of low pulley
wrist curls, the Tribar company makes a very interesting handle with rotating
sleeve. The shape of the grip makes for a more ergonomic and comfortable
position. Recently, Dorian Yates visited my training site for soft tissue
work and he was quite intrigued with the Tribar handles.
When doing grip work, stay away from choppy reps. When you are lowering
the grip handles, make sure on every rep that the handles are at the very
tip of your fingers so it will feel like you're just about to lose your
This will insure a greater range of motion, thus greater development.
Once the handles are brought back together, squeeze with all your might.
Keep in mind that one of the fastest ways to improve your forearm size
and gripping strength instantly is to forego the use of lifting straps
when training the upper body.
5. Train your traps.
Why does trap size have anything to do with arm size and strength?
According to Dr. Ernie Hackett, DC, former World Powerlifting Champion,
the stability of the cervicothoracic junction is critical for optimizing
the neural and vascular supply to the upper arms. In his opinion, if the
arm's muscle mass is not balanced with the trapezius and deltoid development,
the sheer weight of the arms will block its neural drive because the proper
alignment of the upper extremities will be faulty. Adding some direct trap
work on upper back training day should do the trick. Best choices for exercises
would include one arm shrug with dumbbell or low pulley, which permits
greater range of motion than raising both scapulae at the same time. Another
great exercise for trap development is the power snatch from mid-thigh.
6. Give the 6-12-25 method a
I was first exposed to the elements of this system by the works of
Dr. Fred Hatfield and Don Ross who, needless to say, have considerable
experience with the many aspects of training methodology. Trainees experience
superb gains when they give this method a try. In this variation of the
drop set method, I have added some slight twist to further enhance hypertrophy.
It consists of doing a heavy set of six reps. Take a 10-second break, switch
the exercise and do 10-12 reps. Take a 10-second break, switch to a new
exercise and perform an agonizing 25 reps with it. After this, a much needed
two-minute break is required before the cycle is repeated once, and at
most, twice. One should expect to have to decrease the load between 10
to 20 percent for the second cycle to meet the desired repetitions brackets.
For the six rep sets, I prefer exercises in which the muscles are in
a pre-stretched position, as in incline curls for the biceps and overhead
low pulley extensions for the triceps. For the 10-12 rep sets, I prefer
to use exercises that overload the mid-range of the strength curve, such
as barbell curls for the biceps and dips for the triceps. For the 25 rep
sets, machines or pulley devices that offer a more uniform tension on the
muscles throughout the range of motion work very well. It will take some
experimenting at first to determine the right load, but once you have dialed
into it, it's extremely effective for building large muscular arms.
7. Specific brachialis training.
The brachialis muscle is a widely neglected muscle in the bodybuilding
world. However, every single bodybuilder who has phenomenal arm development
sports a pair of fully developed brachialis muscles. When you see Ronnie
Coleman do his back double biceps pose, his brachialis muscles are the
tennis ball-shaped muscles you see between his triceps and biceps muscles.
The brachialis muscle is better known among kinesiologists as the workhorse
of elbow flexion. That is, it works in all elbow flexion movements, whether
the forearm is pronated, supinated, or in between. When the forearm is
supinated (palms-up grip), the biceps have an effective line of pull. However,
when the forearm is pronated (palms-down grip), the biceps is rather ineffective
in flexing the elbow. When your forearm is pronated, the brachialis takes
the toll and pulls the resistance almost alone.
In order to objectively measure your brachialis muscle, you need specific
work. Go on the Scott bench and curl five or six reps with maximum weight
on the barbell curls with a supinated grip. After a 10-minute rest, you
should be able to reverse curl with an EZ bar 76 percent of that weight
for five or six reps. If you cannot do so, your brachialis muscle will
need specific muscle work. If you don't already do one of the various forms
of reverse curls as part of your workout, adding it could surely result
in 1/2 to one full inch of arm growth in a month's time!
Make sure to always perform at least one specific brachialis exercise
when training your upper arms. Your arsenal of brachialis exercises in
the arms race include: reverse Scott curls (wide or narrow grip, low pulley
or EZ bar), hammer curls, Gaspari bar curls, Zottmann curls (seated or
one arm at a time on the Scott bench).
If you have neglected your brachialis muscles, here's a very good program
to pack size on them. This program involves what is called a post-exhaustion
system. That is where you do a compound (multiple joint) exercise that
recruits a lot of motor units, and follow it immediately with a superior
isolation exercise that also taps well into the motor unit pool. Just by
the amount of delayed onset muscle soreness you will get from this routine
on your first go at it, you will be convinced of its efficacy at building
large muscular arms. The routine looks like this:
A-1 Narrow Grip Pronated Pull-Ups 4 x 4-6 reps @ 4010 tempo
A-2 Pause Standing Reverse Curls 4 x 6-8 reps @ 3210 tempo
Rest 10 seconds between A-1 and A-2
Rest three minutes between A-2 and A-1
Rest 10 seconds between B-1 and B-2
Rest three minutes between B-2 and B-1
- The narrow grip pronated pull-ups are done palms pronated
(facing away) and the grip width is four to six inches between the two
thumbs. When you are resting the 10 seconds between the narrow grip pronated
pull-up and the reverse curls, that should be the time it takes you to
go from the pull-up bar to the EZ bar. At the end of 10 seconds, you should
be curling the bar. In other words, keep the 10-second interval strict.
If strong enough, use additional weight tied to a chin/dip belt for extra
- For the reverse curls, the pause should be taken at
30 degrees of elbow flexion, which will increase the specific recruitment
of the brachialis muscle. Be sure to fully stretch the elbow flexors at
the bottom on each of the reps of the reverse curls. Curl the bar, keeping
your upper arms perpendicular to the floor for at least the first 90 degrees
of elbow flexion. This is to minimize anterior deltoid recruitment. After
90 degrees of flexion, particularly if the bar is heavy, your elbows will
tend to move forward slightly. As long you keep the first 90 degrees clean,
you will maximize isolation of the elbow flexors. By the same token, being
too fixated about keeping the upper arm perpendicular to the floor through
the full range of motion will only serve to activate the rear delts.
- On the first workout of this routine, it's normal
to lose a lot of strength every succeeding superset. For example, you may
be able to do six pull-ups with a 25-pounder supersetted with eight reps
with 80 pounds on the bar in the first set. By the fourth set, you may
only squeeze four reps at your bodyweight in the pull-ups and curl a 65-pound
bar. As you go through this routine, besides increasing your arm size appreciably,
your work capacity should radically improve.
As you can see there are plenty of tips that can jolt new growth in
your arm development. Go ahead and experiment with them. I am convinced
you will be extremely pleased with the results.