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2015 has been a record year for Dexter Jackson. On March 7, he won his fifth Arnold Classic (record) and made his 14th Arnold posedown (record) in his 15th Arnold (record). And he did it all at 45, making him the second-oldest male winner of an open IFBB pro contest and easily the oldest winner of a “major.” On Sept. 18 2015, when he strolled at his trademark glacial pace to center stage of Orleans Arena, “the Blade” set another record, one that he’d shared for the previous year with fellow Olympia victor Ronnie Coleman. It was his 16th Olympia entry, more than any other competitor in the O’s 51-contest history. Jackson’s Olympia career, highlighted by his 2008 victory, spans from his rookie year in 1999 to the present with no signs of halting. He is bodybuilding’s ultimate ironman, and his record-making 2015 is a testament to his sustained excellence. Throughout his long and distinguished career, the Blade’s colossal and shapely biceps and triceps have perpetually given him an edge. In honor of his 16th Olympia, we assembled Mr. Consistency’s 16 best arm-training tips.
1. BICEPS EXERCISE SELECTION
I pretty much follow the same biceps routine every workout, but there’s a lot of room to switch things up along the way, depending on whatever [trainer] Charles [Glass] wants to do. I start with a machine exercise, then I do a two-arm free-weight exercise, and I finish with a dumbbell exercise, but that still allows a lot of space for variety. I might do barbell curls one workout and EZ-bar curls the next, and the workout after that I might do 21-curls with the EZ-bar or spider curls with a barbell. There’s a framework we stick to, but you can work variety into that framework.
2. MACHINE PREACHERS
Although I recommend free weights for size, I still use machines for variety. Machine preacher curls are good for warming up. I’ll usually do them first. In some ways, they’re better than free-weight preachers, because the machine’s mechanics keep tension on your biceps throughout the exercise. [Tension is lessened past the halfway point of free-weight preacher curls when you’re no longer fighting gravity.]
3. STRONG CONTRACTIONS
Sometimes I’ll do the Hammer Strength iso-lateral machine curl, the one where your elbows are elevated to eye level and you curl down. I can get a really good contraction on those. A strong contraction is the most important thing when it comes to training biceps. You want to choose those exercises where you can really get maximum pressure on the bi’s when your arms are fully bent.
4. MODERATE REPS
I’m not into just pumping up my arms. I’m into making my arms grow. There’s a difference. I don’t do a bunch of high reps on curls and pushdowns or work really fast or anything. I stick to 8–10 reps, and I go as heavy as I can in that range. That’s what makes my arms grow. Of course, my arms do pump up, but that’s never my focus.
5. PUSHDOWN HANDLES
I’ll do pushdowns with either a rope or a cambered bar, and sometimes I’ll start my triceps routine with one and end my triceps routine with the other. They both hit your tri’s slightly differently. With either one, I lean forward a little and then lock my elbows. The only thing that should move are your forearms.
6. TOGETHER OR APART
I’ve worked biceps and triceps together and apart over the years, depending on my split. I found working both muscles together in the same workout was best for me, instead of hitting each separately after a larger body part like chest, back, or shoulders. It allows you to focus all your attention on arms that day and lift the heaviest weights possible. Sometimes, I’ll do biceps first and triceps last. Other times, I’ll switch back and forth between a biceps exercise and a triceps exercise, but not supersetting. I’ll do all the sets for one [biceps] exercise and then all the sets of the next [triceps] exercise, alternating back and forth like that throughout the workout.
7. SKULL CRUSHER AND PRESS
At the end of my skull crushers [lying triceps extensions], I’ll do a few close-grip pressing reps, just hitting the top half of the movement, which is all tri’s. The presses are a way of keeping the set going a little past failure. When your triceps are exhausted from the skull crushers, you’re still going to have some pressing strength left.
8. BEST SIZE BUILDER
I’m a firm believer in the barbell curl or EZ-bar curl as the No. 1 size builder for biceps. It’s the one biceps exercise that allows you to use some big weights. I always want to go as heavy as I can with perfect form for 8–10 reps on either barbell or EZ-bar curls. I’d say more than any other exercise this one is responsible for my arm size.
9. FEEL THE MUSCLE WORKING
The key to arm training is the same key to training anything. You need to feel your muscles working throughout every rep. Forget about the weight. Focus on your muscles and focus on those areas of your muscles–like the peaks of your biceps or the outer heads of your triceps–that you want to hit with a particular exercise. I see people all the time humping up curls or swinging up skull crushers. Those are never the guys with the biggest arms in the gym. The guys with the big arms, we stay strict all the time, and we feel our muscles working.
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If I ever did wrist curls, it was so long ago I can’t remember. I never needed to do them. My forearms got big enough just from gripping weights. Not training forearms allows me more time and energy to focus on all the other things I want to improve. But that’s just me. If your forearms aren’t big enough, maybe you need to train them. Maybe you even need to give them a special focus.
11. SPIDER CURLS
An exercise that Charles [Glass] got me doing is spider curls lying facedown on an incline bench. I let my arms hang down so they’re perpendicular with the floor, and then I curl an EZ-bar up. This one really works the contractions. It’s almost like I can feel my biceps peaks getting higher.
12. COMPOUND SETS
I’ve done every kind of intensity technique over the years. The one I used that brought on the most growth in my arms was trisets [three exercises performed without rest] or giant sets [four or more exercises performed without rest]. For triceps, I’ll always start with four or five sets of pushdowns on their own. Then I do the trisets. I’ll do dips on a machine, lying triceps extensions, and overhead rope extensions. Rotate through those three exercises four times [8-10 reps per set] without resting between sets, and you’ll get a great pump. Trisets and giant sets are effective for shocking stubborn muscles into growing. I use them a lot pre-contest.
One thing Charles has me doing sometimes is 21-curls. With these I do seven reps going from the bottom to halfway up, then seven reps going from halfway up to the top, and then seven full reps. That’s one set. These are a great final exercise for my arm workouts. They really blow out my bi’s and make sure I get everything I can get out of the workout.
14. MACHINE DIP
With machine dips, you want to stay upright and keep that tension on the tri’s. If you lean forward, you hit the chest more. I don’t like to go too high. Bringing your elbows high activates more of your chest and delts. I just want to keep tension on the tri’s, and for that I just go from about halfway up to all the way down. Also, don’t pause long on the bottom. I want to keep moving, keep my tri’s working.
15. ISO TENSION
One of those things that really bring out the extra qualities in your muscles is posing. I can get a great pump from just posing my arms. Definitely going into a contest, posing practice is like an extra workout focused only on the contractions, so you can really bring out the biceps peaks and separation in the three triceps heads. The thing is, you don’t have to be a competitor to benefit from this. Anyone can benefit from flexing their arms, whether between sets or later at home. It’s going to strengthen that mind-to-muscle connection that’s so important to getting effective workouts. If I have a secret, this is it. Flex your arms.
16. DUMBBELL FINISHER
For my last biceps exercise, I’ll either do alternate dumbbell curls, concentration curls, or hammer curls. Whichever one I do, I really want to feel the tension on the contractions with these. When doing the alternate dumbbell curls or the concentration curls, I twist my wrists so my pinkies are up, and I squeeze as hard as I can on contractions. – FLEX
Pushdown: 4–5 sets, 8–10 reps
Lying Triceps Extension: 4 sets, 8–10 reps
Overhead Rope Extension: 4 sets, 8–10 reps
Machine Preacher Curl: 4–5 sets, 8–10 reps
Barbell or EZ-bar Curl: 4 sets, 8–10 reps
Alternate Dumbbell Curl or Concentration Curl: 4 sets, 8–10 reps