Some people can build big arms no matter how they train. They just have the perfect genetics for arm size... or they're on buckets of drugs and can put an inch on their biceps while brushing their teeth. The natural, genetically average lifter has to work a little harder and a little smarter to build his arms. Sound like you? Then this is your guidebook.
The Basics Of Building Muscle
In his ground-breaking research, Brad Schoenfeld broke down the major mechanisms of muscle growth. You'll need to understand all three to really build your arms.
1 – Mechanical Tension
This is achieved by using substantial weight and performing exercises through a full range of motion for a certain amount of time. The time you spend under tension (TUT) creates mechanical tension in the muscles. The more significant the time, the more significant the mechanical tension.
So lift heavy, use slower eccentrics (negatives) and get strong like bull. The stronger you are, the greater your ability to recruit muscle fibers. And the more muscle fibers you recruit, the more muscle fibers you can blast into oblivion until they grow.
2 – Metabolic Stress
The pump. When you train with longer duration sets, short rest periods, and moderately heavy weights, your muscles accumulate lactate, hydrogen ions, creatinine, and other metabolites as the byproduct of muscular contractions. Because your muscles are under constant assault, blood can't escape, creating an occlusion and blood pooling effect.
3 – Muscular Damage
You know the deep soreness you feel after squatting for the first time in ages? This is muscle damage, often a result of breaking down muscle fibers and the subsequent inflammatory response. This can signal adaptation and trigger the delivery of recovery resources to repair beat-up tissues and bring them back stronger.
How do you use this info to build bigger arms? Well, training only for mechanical tension will get you brutally strong, but it won't maximize muscle growth. That's why competitive weightlifters aren't as jacked as bodybuilders. If you train only for metabolic stress and/or muscular damage you might look 15 pounds bigger when you walk out of the gym, but without a sufficient baseline of strength you won't get much more jacked.
10 Things You Need to Do to Build Arms
1 – Build A Sufficient Base Of Strength
You don't need to train like a powerlifter and always chase one rep max, but a foundation of strength will help you to create enough tension and make higher-rep pump work more effective. Here are a few metrics to aim for:
- Bench Press: 1.5 x bodyweight
- Squat: 2 x bodyweight or front squat 1.75 x bodyweight
- Deadlift: 2 x bodyweight
- Pull-Up: 12 reps, full range of motion. (This will help you access your relative strength.)
Hammer the close-grip bench presses, dips, ring dips, and overhead presses too. Keep your close grip at about 14 inches or wider to avoid too much stress on your wrists and elbows.
2 – Train For The Pump
The sweet spot for building muscle is moderate weight for 8-12 reps. This combines both tension and metabolic stress. Then sprinkle in even higher rep sets – 15 or more reps. Go to complete muscular failure occasionally to blitz every muscle fiber possible. Add unfamiliar exercises or training methods to your workouts. The goal is moderate muscular damage, not a full-out obliteration of your arms that leaves you unable to open your car door.
3 – Vary Your Grips
Sticking to the same grip from workout to workout, month after month, is a mistake. This is a problem if you're wanting jacked arms. Without variety, you're overstressing the same movement and muscle recruitment patterns. Your arms adapt from the same form of stress. A lack of variety can lead to a desensitized training effect, aggravate the elbow from overuse, and leave you with unbalanced arm development.
While you can't completely isolate a muscle within a muscle group, you can give the elbows a rest from redundant movement patterns, and stimulate stagnant muscle fibers. Here's a quick overview of different hand positions and how they'll affect your training response.
A wide grip, considered beyond 2 inches from shoulder width, hits the short head (inner portion) of the biceps a bit more. The short head works harder with the arms in front of the body, like a preacher curl.
A narrow grip, anything inside shoulder width, hits the long head of the biceps harder. For grip position on a barbell, place your hands about an inch inside shoulder width. Much more than that and you might piss off your wrists.
The long head is the primary supinator, responsible for rotating your palms away from you, and the key to developing a biceps peak. Incline dumbbell curls work well because the elbows drift behind the body and put the long head under maximum stretch.
Shoulder Width Grip
Hits the short and long head evenly. If you spend all your time here, you'd be better off taking a few weeks to add wider or narrower hand positions.
A neutral grip (thumbs up, palms facing one another) will hammer the brachialis, which sits underneath the bicep, adds thickness to the arm, and pushes the bicep up, making it appear bigger. Exercises like a hammer curl or pinwheel curl (cross body hammer) with slower tempo work well.
An overhand grip will place a greater emphasis on the brachioradialis, adding some meat to your forearms. Dedicated work with reverse curls stimulate growth in the forearms, which leads to better development in the arms as a whole.
4 – Hammer Your Triceps
Quick, flex the first muscle you think of when you hear "arm training." You did a biceps flex, right? Well, the biceps actually play second fiddle to the triceps when it comes to pure size. So one of the best steps for building bigger arms is spending more time training your triceps. Your triceps are made up of three separate heads:
- Long Head: The biggest of the triceps muscles, the long head responds well to the seated EZ-bar French press.
- Lateral Head: The lateral head is hit hardest with movements where your arms are by your sides, such as triceps pushdowns or dips.
- Medial Head: The medial head receives stimulation in most triceps exercises. Still, you can emphasize the medial head by using a supinated (palms up) grip, such as a supinated-grip triceps pushdown.
With the anatomy of your triceps in mind, it's best to train with a variety of exercises. Use close-grip bench presses and dips as your staples.
5 – Long Limbs? Do More Isolation Work
Longer limbed folks often struggle to move bigger weight than their stumpy-limbed brethren because they have a longer range of motion – a mechanical disadvantage. Being tall has its perks, but lifting weights is rarely one of them.
It comes down to having longer levers. Compared to alligator-armed lifters, the lever arm of long-limbed lifters is much further from the torso. Adding in isolation work like incline bicep curls (above) and cable triceps overhead extensions can yield better growth.
6 – Perform a Horizontal Pull Every Day
Adding a horizontal pull (rowing variation) to each workout will improve your push-pull ratio and shoulder health. It'll also help you build a thick yoke and adds a ton of accessory volume to your forearms and biceps.
You can add a row variation like an inverted row to warm-up the shoulders before any upper body workout. Then, even on lower body days, add a row variation for additional volume at the end of training.
This is a good practice for a two reasons. First, nearly everyone can use more horizontal pulling volume to balance out the chronic internally-rotated posture of modern society. Second, more horizontal pulling leads to a greater training stimulus in your biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis. Although these muscles are secondary movers in rows, the increase in volume will lead to growth in your arms, not to mention your rear delts, traps, and rhomboids.
The only caveat? Keep the intensity low and vary the rows. Your body won't be happy if you're hitting Kroc rows and barbell bent-over rows to failure four days a week.
7 – Control The Eccentric (Negative)
One of the most common pain-points for lifters is achy elbows. For many it's because they attack curls like they would a max deadlift and lose control of the weight on the way down, taxing the hell out of the tendons instead of the biceps.
Keep the goal in mind. When it comes to isolation work, your goal is to maximize the mind-muscle connection, get a pump, and stimulate the muscles, not perform kipping bicep curls for your twelve Instagram followers.
Slow down the negative and you'll strengthen the connective tissues that support your achy elbows. This protects the joints themselves while longer eccentric tempos increase the microtrauma of the muscle fibers, triggering growth. Use 3-5 second eccentric phases and pauses at the bottom of a movement (while maintaining tension) when your muscles are under stretch.
8 – Make a REAL Effort to Grow
We all know the 130-pound guy (or 95 pound girl) who works tirelessly in the gym, but can't fill out the sleeves of a small T-shirt, despite blasting arms regularly.
The reason? This lifter needs to get bigger overall. In fact, if you want ANY muscle group to grow like a weed, you'll need to focus on gaining it from head to toe and increasing your bodyweight. You'll need to eat a surplus of calories and you need to overload major muscles and movements. This will trigger the muscle growth you're wanting in your arms and everywhere else.
9 – Use Brutal Compound Sets
If your growth plateaus, add compound sets. Compound sets (not to be confused with supersets, which train opposing muscle groups) pair two exercises that train the same muscles back-to-back without rest between them. Example:
- Close-grip Chin-up 6-8 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Biceps Curl 10-12 reps
- Rest 60 seconds and repeat twice more
Compound sets create an intense amount of metabolic stress. Since there's little rest, there isn't enough time for a muscle to flush out lactate, which stimulates the release of growth hormone and other anabolic growth factors.
The second exercise in the compound set recruits muscle fibers that weren't recruited during the first. By fatiguing more muscle fibers, you'll promote a further stimulus for growth, as long as your recovery is up to snuff.
10 – Add More Variety
When it comes to isolation work, more variety in your training can be exactly what the doctor ordered to jump-start stubborn muscles. When your body is unfamiliar with an exercise, your muscles are inefficient and fatigue quicker. This leads to greater metabolic stress, recruiting dormant muscle fibers, and increasing the training response. Here are two options:
When it comes to hypertrophy, isometrics recruit the largest motor units and improve neural drive, helping you feel maximum tension in the muscle. Not only will this improve strength at the angle trained during the isometric hold, but it'll improve your mind-muscle connection based on maximum voluntary contraction.
Drop sets work by first recruiting as many muscle fibers as possible, then blasting them with volume until they swell up, leaving you with an enormous pump and the stimulation needed to grow. After a heavier set, drop the weight by 20-30% and do as many reps as possible. If you're a masochist, drop the weight another 20-30% and rep out again.
Bonus: Take A Break!
Have you been blitzing your arms several days per week for months or years on end without progress? Remember, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Try this instead: Do no direct arm work for 4-6 weeks, then obliterate arms for 4-6 weeks with a higher volume approach while dialing back volume on other muscle groups.
If you've been training non-stop, yet seeing no results, your body has either become desensitized to the stimulus you're giving it, or you're not giving yourself ample time to recover. Coach Thibaudeau has talked about the art and science of ab blitzing before. You can apply that same strategy to arms.