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[This content was originally published in the December 2005 issue of Muscle & Fitness]
You’ve probably seen on newsstands the endless cover blurbs and headlines that scream how simple it is to add inches to your arms. In fact, I’ve read dozens of arm-training articles over the years in men’s health magazines, and they’re typically long on promises and short on delivery. That is, they recommend you do a single exercise that’ll be good for 20-inch guns. Yeah, and the check’s in the mail.
So before you flip the page complaining about more of the same old, rest assured this arm workout is different in a couple of important ways:
So if splitting the seams on your T-shirts sounds like a plan, then it’s time to get serious about your arm training.
Most bodybuilders follow a training split in which they work each body part once in every cycle to build the most symmetrical physique. But by tinkering with intermediate- and advanced-level splits that are at least five days long, you can actually train a smaller muscle group that recovers more quickly—like biceps and triceps—twice.
“Arrangement of the split is critical so that you’re not overusing a particular muscle group, which could cause overtraining on the pushing or pulling muscles if you do them on consecutive days,” says David Sandler, CSCS, Professor of Exercise Science at Florida International University (Miami). “[If you follow this type of split], you definitely want to ensure there’s enough recovery built in.”
Optimally, you can stay on this type of program for 4-6 weeks. Plenty of research suggests that introducing change into a routine creates opportunity for improvement, but that doesn’t continue indefinitely. You need a rest period during which you change the stimulus for at least a couple of weeks for the body to recover.
By focusing on the arms for this six-week period, Sandler says you should cut back on other body part training in terms of volume (number of exercise, sets and reps) because your biceps work as a secondary muscle group when you train back, and your triceps are involved in heavy chest and shoulder movements. Hence, while we add a second arm day to your split, you should reduce your other upper-body training slightly.
In addition to making minor adjustments to your various workouts, it’s also a good idea to follow this program during your overall mass-building phase. Since it’s more difficult to add arm size while you’re dieting down, make sure you get enough calories and protein to not only sustain your arms workout but guarantee muscle growth as well.
This means not missing meals, following a smart supplementation plan to ensure you get the required muscle-building nutrients and paying close attention to your post-workout meal(s). A good rule of thumb: For every 10 pounds of quality mass you gain, you can expect to add another inch to your arms. So it makes sense to incorporate this six-week program into your off-season workouts designed to add overall mass.
While you perform a pair of biceps and triceps workouts during your training split, they won’t be the same. In fact, when you train your triceps after shoulders and biceps after back (see “The Arms Split” below), they’re typically already somewhat exhausted from assisting in the training of the larger muscle group, meaning your efforts to get a good pump can be somewhat elusive. Still, because the arm flexors and extensors are already warmed up, this is a smart way to finish off that muscle group.
The second time you train these muscle groups each week, you don’t precede your session with routine for a larger muscle group, meaning your arms aren’t prefatigued. Hence, you can really give your guns your all on these days, and you’ll find that your arm strength and stamina are much improved on the days you train arms after chest, shoulders or back.
Here are a few other highlights of your six-week Peak Arms training:
As part of the focus on arms, the amount of work you dedicate to arm training will increase over the next six weeks. “I feel high-volume training brings out denser-looking, separated muscle,” says Lou Joseph, a former IFBB Pro from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. “Right now, my sets range from 9 to 15 [for arms]. The number of sets you do is relative to you and your training experience. When you first up your volume, you might feel you’re not recovering fast enough, but give [a program] a month and your body will adapt.”
Gunter Schlierkamp, three-time top-five finisher at the Mr. Olympia, agrees that biceps respond well to high-volume training. “I like to do 9-12 sets with a total of three exercises to build mass.”
You can go really heavy with the first exercise in your arm routine; therefore, the standing barbell curl is probably a better choice than the concentration curl. After your warm-up sets, lift using high resistance with low reps. “Do relatively heavier sets in the lower rep ranges at the beginning of your workout when you’re fresh,” Sandler advises. “Training in this range enhances the hypertrophy effect before going to a higher rep range later in your workout.”
Joseph agrees: “Lower-rep sets should be executed in the beginning of the workout when energy is at its highest.”
Sandler warns against going so heavy that you need to perform cheat reps, in which you throw momentum into the move to get it going. Though cheating may allow you to complete a few additional reps, if you go too heavy you remove stress from your target muscle. “That’s one reason I’m a big believer in using pure isolation movements for the arms, such as a preacher curl for biceps or skull-crusher for triceps,” says Sandler. “Other good choices for biceps movements include the one-arm cable curl and the concentration curl, in which your triceps is pressed against your inner thigh. Getting the form right is key.” >> Focus on Isolation After going heavy with your first exercise to focus on strength, the Peak Arm routines also include movements that better isolate your muscles and minimize cheating. “For overall biceps development, you want to hit both the outer and inner biceps,” says Joseph. “To make sure you hit the outer biceps, I recommend you use a fairly close grip with your standing EZ-bar curls and a neutral grip with your dumbbells curls. I find hammer curls to be extremely effective at hitting the outer biceps as well,” he continues. “And be sure you’re constantly flexing your biceps while twisting your wrists out. You’ll actually see your biceps taking more shape over time. [This technique] also helps you achieve a higher mind-muscle connection, which helps you fire off the greatest number of fibers possible to that muscle.”
Gunter favors the alternating dumbbell curl and the concentration curl for recruiting the biceps peak. “Start with your arms in the hammer-curl position [on the alternating dumbbell curl], then curl the weight and turn your wrist up until your thumb turns all the way to the outside, which puts added emphasis on the inner biceps head. Then squeeze the muscle all the way to the top.”
As for rep ranges, Sandler notes that research suggests performing 10-12 reps with a rest period of 60-90 seconds between sets is enough to release testosterone and growth hormone. Joseph favors expanding that range a bit, going anywhere from 6-15 reps per set. “It’s good to mix it up to shock the muscle a bit,” he remarks. Gunter says he trains in the 6-12-rep range, which is ideal for building strength and size as well as promoting hormone release.
As you reach the top of every rep, hold the position briefly while you squeeze your muscle; don’t just drop the weight and go right into the next rep. “Make a habit of constantly flexing your biceps as you’re turning your wrists out,” says Joseph. “You’ll actually see your biceps taking more shape over time.” Gunter comments: “I’m a fan of actually holding the peak contraction for a long count. And I love to do that every other workout—it gives me the best burn ever.”
Finally, a great arm routine consists of not only the right combination of exercises, sets and reps but also advanced training techniques that really tear down the muscle tissue—and bring on the pain.
“The use of advanced techniques hasn’t really been tested in the limited scientific research that’s available, but doing partial reps at the end of a working set is one way to add more work to a muscle than it’s used to—if you can handle it,” says Sandler. “I’d personally measure it by the pump; if you’re feeling the soreness and tightness in your arm, you’re going in the right direction.”
Over the course of the next six weeks, choose two advanced training techniques you can use at the end of each set of two exercises for both biceps and triceps. For example, select two of the three biceps exercises listed for a particular workout and do an advanced technique—forced reps, drop sets, partial reps, etc.—that allows you to take the set past the point of muscle failure. Again, your goal is to choose a weight that brings on muscle failure by the final rep, then go past the point of failure by utilizing one of the many advanced techniques listed under the exercise descriptions. That’s when you’ll really start to feel the muscle pump—and the burning pain associated with a great workout. Do the same with your triceps routines. Hey, you wanted huge arms, right?
We mentioned earlier that this program was designed to build bigger arms, most notably the biceps peak. Unfortunately, we left out one caveat: The shape of your arms is mostly predetermined by your genetics. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t choose particular exercises and techniques that make the most of what you’ve got,” Sandler points out. To enhance your biceps peak, include plenty of EZ-bar curls, supinating curls and hammer curls in your workouts.
Gunter admits that you never know your genetic potential for building a peak until you try all the muscle-building tools at your disposal. “While the shape of your biceps is determined primarily by genetics, I believe you can make them significantly larger through training,” he says. “To me, building a peak falls under increasing the mass of you biceps. Start by building bigger biceps, then you can focus selective exercises on achieving a better peak.”
Joseph also believes that the proper mind-set, while not a matter of developing a bigger peak, makes all the difference in developing bigger arms. “[The proper mental outlook] might not seem important, but it truly is,” he says. “Set the same time every day for training. During the drive to the gym, listen to music that motivates you to push harder. Practice positive self-talk: Instead of saying, ‘My biceps are weak and will never grow,’ tell yourself, ‘I accept the way my biceps are shaped, and I will improve upon them.’ Visualize your biceps training before you go to the gym. Studies have shown that athletes who visualize their performance actually perform better. Whatever you believe will be your reality.”
In designing a split that focuses on arms, it’s critical not to hit the pulling muscles (back, biceps) and the pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) on consecutive days. This sample split leaves at least 72 hours between sessions for pulling muscles and 48 hours between sessions for pushing muscles. Follow a split like this for no more than six weeks, then go back to your traditional routine.