Final Solutions for Frustrated Lifters: Arms

I've been criticized a lot over the years for not responding to emails as often as readers would like.

One reason is simple logistics. I receive a staggering amount of e-mails. If I were to answer even a tenth of the email I get, I wouldn't have time to train and earn a living, much less sleep, spend time with my child, or train myself.

But another reason is quite simply, that I dread answering the same questions over and over again, especially after the guy spent the first two paragraphs brown nosing and claiming to have read every single article I have ever written. For example, if I had a dollar for every time some dweeb has begged me to rationalize that his beloved leg extensions are good to enough to develop massive quadriceps, I would've retired years ago.

That being said, I do get a lot of sincere email from frustrated trainees who are experiencing a plateau of some kind. While their plateaus may vary, they're all convinced that they've "tried everything under the sun and nothing works."

Bullshit. As frustrated as these wieners may be, I know if I spent 5 minutes with them I could likely spot the reason for their lack of progress with ease. So TC has asked me to lump these questions together by bodypart and each month I will answer some of what I receive. This month's installment is dedicated to arm training.

There are basic interventions for plateaus in arm development that work time after time. And if they work with my clients, they will work for you. Remember, despite what your mother may have told you, you are not so darn special. Trust me.

Question: Hey Charles, I've performed every arm routine you've ever published yet I'm still not making any gains. What am I doing wrong?

You have to look at the whole picture. When I get emails like these, my first question is always, 'describe to me your weekly eating plan'. Nine times out of ten, the guy answers,
"Man, I eat like a pig." But when I ask them to repeat what they've eaten this week, it wouldn't be enough to fill up the youngest Jonas brother for breakfast.

First and foremost, no plateau can be overcome without adequate protein. 1.5 grams per pound is the minimum, and if carbs are not your friend, go 2 grams per pound.

Next, peri-workout nutrition is key. Everyone on T Nation is talking about Surge® Workout Fuel and Plazma™ and the way proper peri-workout nutrition can kick start gains. Well, I've been pushing peri-workout nutrition since 1982! Why? Because it works!

But it has to be quality stuff. In the last two weeks on separate occasions, a captain in the Special Forces and a SWAT team member have each relayed to me that during a seminar put on by a strength coaching governing body, the speaker was recommending peanut butter sandwiches for post workout feeds.

Not surprisingly, the speaker had the same physique as the character Allan from that hilarious comedy, The Hangover. He even apologized to the audience for being fat and having to drink a Red Bull to keep himself awake. Both officers told me he looked too dumb to operate a blender and likely needs a checklist every time he makes a peanut butter sandwich.

Anyway, T Nation is loaded with info on cutting edge peri-workout nutrition so look it up.

So address those key elements first. I simply cannot stress this enough; without sufficient protein intake and optimal peri-workout nutrition, even with the best arm routine you are wasting your time, and mine.

Question: I've been doing Doggcrapp training for the last few months, and while I've gotten really strong at weighted dips (up to 80lbs plus bodyweight), my triceps haven't grown a millimeter. I thought adding weight meant growth?

Progressive overload is still the most important factor in muscular hypertrophy, and always trying to beat your last workout performance is good advice. But the research is very clear of the positive correlation between volume and growth. Simply put, the routine you're doing may not have enough volume for you.

I believe the reason that the various low volume routines work is because so many lifters are so grossly overtrained. Noted exercise physiologist and researcher Bannister coined the expression "fatigue masks fitness" to describe how results magically appear when the training stimulus is reduced. Once these guys back off from the volume, they finally give their bodies an opportunity to grow.

So you need volume and you need progressive overload, but you also have to be mindful of not overtaxing the body's recuperative abilities. The way to achieve this is to have an effective volume reduction strategy.

One method that I've used in the past is every 3rd workout, cut the volume by around 40 to 60%. It's basic and it works as most people can't handle more than two high volume exposures in a row before requiring a deload.

Another method I like to use with more advanced trainees is this: Alternate two different arm workouts and reduce the volume every 5th & 6th workout.

For example:

  • Day 1: Arm Workout A
  • Day 6: Arm Workout B
  • Day 11: Arm Workout A
  • Day 16: Arm Workout B
  • Day 21: Arm Workout A (-60%)
  • Day 26: Arm Workout B (-60%)

Note that the two workouts should be relatively similar in design; not GVT for A and Doggcrapp for B. Think hamburgers and turkey burgers: both burgers, but different meat. This system works ridiculously well for advanced trainees.

Deloading workout 5 and 6 is just one way to do it. So which system should you try? Both! You have to figure that out on your own, and the way to do that is through your workout logbook, which I assume you've been keeping. Weightlifting legend Tommy Kono said it best 40 years ago: "The palest of ink is better than the clearest of memories."

By the way, unloading does not make you a lazy bastard. If you did the right amount of work in the first place, you would need unloading.

Question: Hey Charles, I can get great arm pumps, but they still won't grow. Doesn't a pump equal growth?

No. Go do 25 rapid-fire push-ups and I guarantee you will get a decent triceps pump. But even the dimmest trainee knows that push-ups won't do jack shit for you in terms of growth. But do weighted dips, 10 sets of 3 with a 2 second pause in the stretched position? Your triceps will grow, but you won't get a skin-tearing pump.

It's the same with other body parts, too. Look at Olympic lifters; they've never had a pump in their lives and they have quad and trap development that would put most bodybuilders to shame.

But getting back to arms, there are some instances that a great pump can be achieved along with an effective training stimulus. Tri-sets are an example; just be sure to keep the load heavy (4-6 reps) for each part of the tri-set. The heavy load combined with the extended time under tension will stimulate hypertrophy, while the high number of total reps will give you a pump that won't allow you to sign autographs.

Question: I'm trying to employ fascia stretching as a way to help kickstart some growth in my arms. I've heard everyone from John Parillo to Dante Trudel say that it works. Does it?

Fascia stretching works. The problem is, most guys who are advocating it aren't actually stretching their fascia. Look, real fascia stretching is very complicated. French osteopaths developed the best fascia stretches and it takes 20-45 minutes to learn a single stretch; and that is with constant feedback given by the instructor. For every stretch there are about ten things that you need to do at the same time, like tucking the chin or turning the elbow, just to achieve a true fascia stretch. Bottom line, for it to be effective it has to be coached.

I think what most of these guys are doing is actually performing a very deep static stretch. There is nothing wrong with this, and it might even be helpful. But it ain't fascia stretching.

Question: Charles, I do everything right. Routine, loading, frequency, nutrition, you name it. Still, my arms are pathetic. I'm so depressed that I am considering visiting Michael Jackson's medical staff.

There are actually 17 reasons – I'm not kidding – why a body part won't respond. If you are actually doing all the basics right and still not seeing results, it could be that you a have simple subluxation of a vertebrae that innervates that muscle. Get a chiropractic adjustment and you'll see near instant growth. A good acupuncturist can also do wonders in my experience. Vitamin D deficiency could be halting your gains. The norms for vitamin D deficiency are set too low. To grow muscle at an optimal range, your vitamin D levels have to be 25% higher than the upper range in blood work.

Another possible cause of your arm development woes may be in your neck. Have a qualified health practitioner look at it, as a small narrowing of the intervertebral space can limit your nervous system from firing effectively, thus hampering growth. Get some ART done on these structures so the nerves have more space and you'll get stronger, instantly. I see this a lot in American football players and rugby players who repeatedly bang their heads for a living. Often I will put them in a neck traction device right before they lift and they can always lift more. The Saunders Cervical Traction devices have been effective in my practice.

Question: Charles, a lot of guys are saying that you don't need direct arm work if you do a lot of dips and chins. I'm not happy with my arm development so I don't really want to quit training them.

Exercises like dips and chins have the greatest cross-sectional muscle fiber recruitment. If you can't do at least 12 full range chin-ups or 20 dips, then your time is best spent improving these scores, not toiling away on the Scott bench. Once you've built acceptable strength in chins and dips (which shouldn't take longer than 12 weeks anyway), then I suggest adding direct work for the elbow extensors and flexors.

Question: I'm thinking about trying this high frequency, low volume routine where you train arms three days a week, but with only two or three sets per workout. Your thoughts?

A high frequency approach like that might work for forearms or calves, but for arms, every 5 days is best. Go heavy, hit them hard, go home. Interestingly, the forearms and calves are the most genetically pre-determined muscles you can train. Former Mr. Olympian Chris Dickerson was actually a triplet, and his brother's calf development was nearly as impressive as Chris', and he didn't even train!

Question: Charles, I hear using fat dumbbells are the best for developing grip strength. My gym is pretty lame, so fat grip 'bells are a pipe dream. What else can I do?

Thick-handle dumbbells and barbells are a staple in all the gyms I have equipped. However, they are not cheap, and you can only find them in top-notch training centers.

But there is an alternative: Fat Gripz. They are the brainchild of one of my best students, PICP level 2 coach Werner Brüggeman. They're tough as hell and fit on any regular weight-training implement better than anything else I've seen. Get a pair here.

Question: Arms are my top priority. Is there anything I can take before an arm workout to help ensure I have a kick-ass workout?

For stubborn body parts, often I often find a limiting factor to be poor concentration. You want to have the greatest neural drive possible when you go to train.

To achieve this, I like to use a variety of pre-workout nootropics like vinpocetine, acetyl l-carnitine, tyrosine, or Biotest's Brain Candy®. I find everyone reacts differently, so I rotate until I find the right combination.

Question: When designing my own routine for stubborn biceps and triceps, what should I remember to do?

For biceps, don't forget the brachialis. It's the simplest way to stimulate fast elbow flexor growth. Whenever I identify an underdeveloped brachialis, I prescribe reverse curls, hammer curls, and other pronated or semi-supinated movements. And how do I identify this? Easy. You should be able to reverse curl 82% of your supinated curl. So if you can bang out 100 pounds for 5 on the standing EZ curl, you should be able to reverse curl 82 pounds for 5. If not, make your focus driving up your reverse curl numbers.

Next I would check out the long head of the biceps. Your 45-degree incline curl [done while lying back on an incline bench] poundages should match that of your Scott curl exactly. If they under-perform (most people test out at 60%), then the long head of your biceps needs work, so work on driving those incline curl numbers up. Just be sure to keep the elbows pointed straight down for at least the first 90 degrees of the movement.

Time spent improving in just these two movements can result in very rapid arm growth, especially if there was a significant imbalance to begin with. Toss in my aforementioned protein and peri-workout recommendations and you can't help but grow.

For triceps, the biggest problems I see is not enough sets of heavy, low rep work on the big money lifts and ignoring the lateral head. Generally, the triceps exercises where you handle a lot of weight and have to bust your ass are the best. Dips and close grip bench presses are yes's. Kickbacks, pressdowns, and whatever makes the pages of Men's Health are no's.

As for the lateral head? It's also known as the lazy head as research shows it only responds to heavy loads, which is why powerlifters generally have such well-developed lateral heads. Exercises with the elbows positioned directly under the bar are best, like close grip bench presses with a 10-degree decline and seated 1/2 presses in the power rack (with a 2 second pause). And dips, of course. But you probably guessed that anyway.

Question: Charles, just give me a routine I can start tomorrow that will get these pencils growing?

My absolute favorite routine for fast arm growth is the following post exhaustion routine. Do this every 5 days, balls to the wall, spleen through the eye.

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Weighted Dips
pause 2 seconds at bottom position
5 4-6 10 sec.
A2 Overhead Rope Extension
pause 2 seconds in stretch position
5 6-8 2 min.
A3 Weighted Close Grip Chin Ups
pause 2 seconds at fully stretched position
5 4-6 10 sec.
A4 45° Incline Curls
keep elbows pointed down first 90°
5 6-8 2 min.

By overloading the muscles at two different insertion points, you cause an incredible amount of micro-trauma. Expect some deep soreness.

The accumulating fatigue will likely cause you to reduce the weight with each successive superset just to stay within the target rep-range. That's okay, just continue until you reach a point that you have to reduce the weight below 20% of your first set. Then it's time to terminate the workout. As always, focus on improving your performance with each successive workout.

There's no reason that building big, strong, muscular arms has to be an exercise in futility. By training a little smarter (and probably a little harder) and following sound nutritional practices, you too can start finally stretching out your shirtsleeves.

"Trying everything under the sun" will only get you sunburn.

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