There is a maxim to which I have long subscribed. If memory serves, it goes something like this:
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Unfortunately, too many trainees have been doing the same program for years, somehow expecting that maybe this year, perhaps because of how the planets are lined up or some other such bullshit, that they will somehow force themselves to grow.
This habit seems to be particularly true of arm training. Most trainees regard it as their "favorite" body part to train, but yet they continue, year-in and year-out, to do 3 sets of 8-10 reps for 2-4 exercises. And, rather than choose exercises that compliment each other, they simply choose movements that "feel" right, or that make their arms look "bitchin'" in the mirror.
They might do standing barbell curls instead of standing dumbbell curls, but it is basically the same thing. Workouts are conceived with very little attention given to function or physiology in general.
In my work with NHL hockey players, we have noticed that all the "goons," sorry, "role players," have fast-twitch biceps. Conversely, all the guys who are good stick handlers have fast-twitch triceps and slow-twitch biceps. This makes sense when you think about it. Having a large number of slow-twitch, high-endurance muscle fibers allows you to control your efforts very well, while having a lot of fast-twitch fibers in the biceps makes prolonged periods of fine motor control difficult.
Hockey "goons" typically have fast-twitch biceps, which helps to pull in the opponent and to pummel his face with the opposite fast-twitch triceps.
As a rule of thumb, though, the triceps tend to be more fast-twitch and there is generally more variation in biceps composition than there is in the triceps.
Aside from being interesting (at least to me), this example helps illustrate how individual variation can and should play a role in exercise design. Similarly, some consideration should be given to exercise selection, as certain exercises clearly give "more bang for the buck" than others.
As an example, consider movements like the close-grip bench press and dips. As you begin each movement, muscles are in their advantageous position and relaxed. As you lower the resistance (in these cases, either the bar or your body), you collect and store elastic energy in the muscle, which helps you perform the concentric portion of the movement.
Conversely, the movements in which you do not begin in the advantageous position, like pushdowns and kickbacks, do not collect and store elastic energy, and thus do not recruit a lot of motor units.
Another thing that is almost universally common to men with little arms is that they do not do a lot of direct work for the brachialis. The brachialis is primarily a fast-twitch muscle and virtually everyone who has big arms devotes a significant amount of time to working it.
That is why perhaps the reverse curl is the most underrated arm exercise. If you have not made any progress in months or years, simply start each workout with reverse curls. In fact, any arm flexor movement done with the palms facing the floor or in a semi-supinated position will work the brachialis.
So clearly, trainees who are not able to get their arms to grow or who have hit a plateau need to give consideration to muscle fiber composition (typically doing 8-12 reps per set for the slow-twitch biceps and 4-6 reps for the typically fast-twitch triceps) and exercise selection.
However, sometimes, regardless of the best plans, trainees hit a plateau. Times like that call for drastic measures. As such, I have compiled various "plateau busters" for the arms. Each of the following methods is designed to make your arms stronger so that when you go back to your regular routines, you can use heavier weights for your traditional rep schemes, which in turn will make you grow.
Only adopt one method per training session, and do not perform these routines for more than 2-6 arm-training sessions.
The Repeated Maximum Effort Method
Load a straight bar or EZ curl bar to 100% of your 1RM. Do a single rep in perfect form. Wait ten seconds, remove 2 to 5% of the load and do another single rep.
Rest 10 seconds, again remove 2-5% of the load, and do another single.
Continue in this manner until you have done 5-7 singles. Rest 4-5 minutes and repeat. Do a total of 3 of these drop sets and you are done.
Strive to increase the weight used every workout.
This method works well for flexors or extensors.
Note: Ivanko makes 1 1/4 pound weights or, in a pinch, you can use weight lifting collars which typically weigh 1 1/4 pounds.
The Sneaky Bastard Method
Set up a weight with which you can only curl 4 times. Put the weight down after the 4th rep and then add approximately 20% more weight. Pick up the weight immediately and then, with the aid of a partner, curl the weight up.
Note: This is not a forced rep; your partner is to provide generous assistance. You are to do very little of the concentric rep.
When your partner has helped you complete the concentric weight, slowly lower the weight on your own over a period of 8 seconds. Repeat.
Rest 4-5 minutes and repeat. Do a total of 3 of these drop sets and you are finished.
Set up a curl bar with your 5RM. Do 5 reps. On your fifth rep, your spleen should be coming out of your eyes. Rest 3-4 minutes.
Add 15% to the weight that was your 5RM. Curl the weight as high as you can–let us say 30 degrees–and hold it there for 8 seconds. Lower, and raise again as high as you can–let us say 20 degrees this time–and hold it there for 8 seconds before lowering.
Rest 3-4 minutes. Then add 2-5% to your 5RM and crank out 5 full-range reps.
What happens is that those 2 8-second reps will cause post-tetanic faciliation and a few minutes later, you are 2 to 5% stronger.
Rest 3-4 minutes and add 15% to your new 5RM. Again do two isometric reps, pausing twice for 8 seconds.
Rest 3-4 minutes and again put the new 5RM resistance on the bar and crank out 5 full-range reps.
This method works well with flexors but not as well with extensors.
Note: Do not hemorrhage or cause yourself to drown in cortisol if the weight you add is not exactly 15%.
The Super-Imposed Method, a.k.a. the Punch of Survival
Set up the pins in a power rack so that you can only curl a bar approximately 4 inches.
Curl the bar, make contact with the pins, and maintain an isometric contraction. After 8 seconds, have your partner "punch" the bar down.
It sounds odd, but the "punch" causes the biceps to stretch rapidly under a forced contraction, thereby causing "survival fibers" to come into play to protect the biceps from damage. In short, more fibers fire up than needed, and more fiber recruitment means more growth.
Rest 3-4 minutes and then add 2-5% to what you would normally do for full-range curls. Again, because of post-tetanic facilitation, you will be able to curl more than you could ordinarily.
Rest 3-4 minutes, and repeat the "punch" set.
Rest 3-4 minutes and do another full-range set, using more than you would ordinarily.
Again, this method works only on flexors; not extensors.
Note: Make sure the pins allow you to perform a range of motion that is only about 4 inches. You do not want to have someone punch the bar when it is in mid-range position because it might cause the biceps to be damaged.
Fixation/Insertion Super Sets
In kinesiology, the origin is what is fixated and the insertion is what moves. If you can somehow superset movements that combine these two opposite functions, you tear fibers at both ends and you get super compensation.
Here is a nasty super set for biceps:
Do 4-6 reps of close-grip chin ups (or close grip pulldowns, if you are not strong enough to do the chin ups), rest 8-10 seconds, and then do 8-10 reps of incline dumbbell curls.
Do five sets, resting approximately 2 minutes between sets, and I guarantee you there will be no way you can bend your elbows for at least 5 days without feeing extreme soreness.
Here is what is happening: When you are doing the chin-up, the origin is at the elbow and the insertion is at the shoulder. Then, when you do the incline dumbbell curls, it is the opposite: the origin is at the shoulder and the insertion is at the elbow.
Mechanically, you are doing two extremes and you are inducing fiber damage beyond belief.
For triceps, you can superset weighed dips with overhead triceps extensions. Do 5 reps of weighted dips, rest 8-10 seconds, and then do 10-12 reps of overhead triceps extensions with a rope.
Rest 2 minutes and repeat. Do a total of 5 sets and you will not be able to brush your hair for a few days.
Again, because of varying arm position in these two movements, you have the elbows below the shoulders in one movement and the elbows above the shoulders in the next.
The pain is quite exquisite.
To rehash, if a trainee's arms do not grow, there are two solutions: either you create more mechanical stress, such as with supersetting, or you spend a brief time working to get stronger so that when you go back to your traditional 8-10 rep scheme, you can use a heavier weight for those 8-10 reps and start growing again.
Now, go arm yourself! You have no excuse not to try these.