I believe it was Bertil Fox who mentioned his arms measured 16 inches when he was 16 years old, 17 inches when he was 17, and 18 inches when he was the ripe old age of 18. From there, I can't quite remember how his growth accelerated, but I can certainly remember mine.
Using Bertil's accomplishments as targets, I was able to duplicate his success all the way to 18 inches at age 18 before finally getting stuck.
I was a bit stumped by this plateau.
Up to that point, all I needed to do was keep increasing the weight I was curling and pushing by way of progressive resistance. I'd worked my way up to 80-pound dumbbell curls, 190-pound barbell curls, and dips between benches with seven 45-pound plates stacked on my lap before the gains fizzled out.
So how do you take a good arm and make it a freaky arm? In a curious stroke of "luck," my elbows began to get really irritated, inflamed, and beat up from constantly trying to increase my poundages. This forced me to lighten up and start thinking about the muscles I was supposed to be training.
It worked, and I finally hit 19 inches.
Now, back in the day, the "be all, end all" was to have 20-inch arms. I would get there eventually, but it would take me another couple years of using less weight and better form, and generally being more creative in my approach. I'm pleased to say my arms finally got to 21 inches, which is where they sit today.
Although I don't really train biceps too much nowadays as they're a bit ahead of my triceps, allow me to show you some of the things that helped me get my arms from 18 to 21 inches.
Based on the messages I've been getting, I suspect many of you may have hit a sticking point with arms, so I'm hopeful you'll find the following ideas as productive for you as they were for me.
For arm training, it's all about the following:
- Train biceps and triceps together – maximize the pump
- Exercise sequence
- Controlled eccentrics and forceful contractions
- Short rest periods
Here's why each is important:
Train biceps and triceps together.
There's just something about achieving the maximum pump your arms are capable of. You'll find no better way of doing this than by training biceps and triceps together.
- You can alternate a set of biceps with a set of triceps. For example, do a set of curls followed by a set of pushdowns. Keep this rotation going throughout your workout.
- You can alternate muscle group exercises. For example, you can do 4 sets of seated dumbbell curls, then 4 sets of bench dips, etc.
- You can also just do "straight through" training; do all of your biceps work, then all of your triceps work.
I prefer to use a combination of the above, although if I had to pick a favorite, it would be alternating a set for biceps with a set for triceps.
Exercise Sequence – Biceps
Train your brachialis first.
Pay respect to the brachialis, the forgotten muscle! Make this often-overlooked muscle found between the biceps and triceps a priority! I call this the "Lee Priest" muscle because his was always so pronounced.
One of the things you learn about bodybuilding is that a lot of it is creating an illusion. Training your brachialis is a great way to help "project" a massive arm because as the brachialis develops, it actually pushes your biceps and triceps further away from one another, making for a wider-appearing arm.
There are a number of different exercises you can use to hit your brachialis:
- Cross body hammer curls (my favorite)
- Regular hammer curls (close second)
- Reverse grip barbell or EZ bar curls (very good)
- Hammer curls with a rope on a low pulley (use sparingly)
I want you to start your workouts with one of the above, preferably one of the first two listed.
Here's another key: Grip the dumbbell as hard as you can throughout the rep. I got this arm development tip from Jim Seitzer back when he was assisting Mike Francois. Jim told me this was key to getting past arm training ruts, but like so many training tips from the trenches he couldn't explain why.
See the video below for execution of the cross body hammer curl:
Train your lower biceps second.
Picture someone like Vince Taylor who has full lower biceps right down to his elbow and I can guarantee you that person's arms look mammoth. I'm not saying you can isolate the lower biceps from the rest of the biceps during a curl. However, I am saying that there are movements that, when done correctly, will definitely drive blood to that area and work it that much harder.
For instance, preacher curls have always been the favorite of all time greats like Larry Scott, the king of full, long, biceps.
Here are some options:
- EZ bar, dumbbell, or barbell preacher curls
- Any hammer curl where you let the arm fully extend at the bottom
- Machine curls with the arms resting on a pad (can be at various angles)
I never like to start with these, as this is an exercise that's simply "meant" to be done with a pumped arm.
A big part of my program design is sequencing exercises in a way that allows you to stay healthy so you can battle with the weights for the long haul. I don't think it is safe to start with a heavy preacher curl-type movement (especially a barbell or EZ bar) when your biceps aren't at least semi-pumped. I've seen a few people tear their biceps from doing this first. It's not a pretty sight.
These movements tie in nicely with the hammer curls listed above, as those movements also engage the lower biceps when using a full range of motion. It just makes sense to start with hammer curls to focus on the brachialis, thereby warming up the lower biceps in the process before proceeding to crush them.
I've included video below of the machine preacher curls for reference, although my favorite preacher curl is the standard EZ bar version.
Train basic exercises like barbell and dumbbell curls last.
Basics like heavy barbell curls are like heavy bench presses for chest: they're best performed when the muscle is full of blood and less prone to tears or strains. The target muscle is more likely to give out first with this sequence, as opposed to a tendon or ligament.
Now that your arms are fully pumped from top to bottom, it's time to unleash the power of the "basics" on them. To make this even harder, do these with three-second descents.
Feel free to go as heavy as you want, as long as your form is impeccable.
Exercise Sequence – Triceps
Train your triceps with pushdowns or "flexing" type movements first.
Lifters often complain that lying triceps extension/skull crushers and other extension movements shred their elbows. I agree, as it's happened to me, too, so always begin your triceps training with a pushdown – rope pushdowns are the best – and get blood into the area.
By getting your triceps and elbows warm and full of blood, you should be able to do lying extensions later in the routine, without the accompanying pain that's so prevalent.
Continue with a dipping-type movement.
You can also do these first, though I prefer to have some blood in the triceps before pounding away with various dipping movements. I like to go heavy on these, so for safety and injury prevention, it's probably a good idea to do these movements second in the routine.
Finish with extension or stretching movements.
Up to this point, your exercises have all been about flexing hard and moving heavy weight. Now that your arms are wobbly, it's time to move in for the knockout. Here's where lying triceps extensions are ideal. Apart from keeping the joints healthy, it's great to finish with a movement that "stretches" the target muscle out. There are many different extension variations you could have in your arsenal:
- EZ bar incline triceps extensions/skullcrushers
- L-extensions – unique angled version
Controlled Eccentrics and Forceful Contractions
If you've read my previous articles, you'll know that I'm a big fan of three-second negatives. Let's discuss how to work both of these techniques into your biceps workout.
Use three-second descents for biceps.
Three-second descents work better on certain exercises than others, depending on the bodypart. For biceps, it works on nearly everything. Here are some general guidelines for applying this technique to your biceps training.
Don't overdo these! As you know, the eccentric portion of the lift is where a lot of the muscle damage is created. Couple that with the fact that biceps are a small muscle group and you have a recipe for overtraining if you perform this on all sets. I'd suggest using three-second descents on one exercise (3-4 sets), or on one set of each exercise (still only 3-4 sets).
My personal favorite method is with a basic exercise like barbell or dumbbell curls at the end of a workout, when I already have a great biceps pump. You won't be able to use as much weight, but you'll feel the exercise like never before.
Watch the video below to see how I do these with EZ Bar curls:
Use heavy negatives on the dip machine for triceps.
I absolutely love doing these. It's a great, safe way to overload your triceps with heavy weight. See the video below for how I do dip machine negatives:
Use forceful contractions liberally.
For some bodyparts and exercises I like constant tension, rest pauses, etc. With biceps and triceps, I believe that much of the work should include a very forceful squeeze at the end of each rep.
Try to use this technique more in the beginning to middle of your biceps workout and the beginning of your triceps workout. The hard flex will drive blood into the muscle, further enhancing the three-second descents or heavy negatives you'll do down the road.
Intuitively, I think this technique works better with rep ranges of 6-8, as opposed to say, 12-15. It's similar to performing a concentration curl with a really light dumbbell – you can feel a contraction, but not a "hard" one. That said, don't compromise form for weight.
Here's an exercise called an incline concentration curl that's really good for hard contractions:
Push the dumbbells together as shown in the upcoming video below and squeeze the heck out of them.
Watch the video of the incline concentration curl to get an idea of the form.
For triceps, as mentioned earlier, all pushdown variations work extremely well for strong, forceful contractions.
Short rest periods
I really don't see the value in taking long breaks with small muscle groups. Seriously, if you're winded and ready to pass out after a set of 8 reps on barbell curls, your cardiovascular conditioning is a joke. If you do some Googling you'll find many studies that demonstrate increased hypertrophy from shorter rest periods. I'll let you do that on your own time, as this article is more about "street knowledge."
Shorter rest periods are simply another way of increasing intensity.
Shorter rest periods help you achieve more of a pump. I know this is controversial, as many believe the pump is overrated. I don't agree. Through the years I've found the best arm training results when I was also getting the best pumps. I'm sure proper nutrition, pre and intra-workout supplementation, and other factors also play a huge role, but I'm convinced that short rest breaks on arms will pump the heck out of them if you're using good form with a manageable weight.
So how long should your breaks be? Here are a few things you should try:
1. 10-second breaks.
Sprinkle these into your arm workouts on occasion. For example, do 4 sets of 8 reps with a 10-second break between each set of EZ bar curls. It won't take much weight to annihilate your biceps. These are best used for shock.
2. 30-second breaks.
This is the rest interval I typically take when in pre-contest mode. It's enough time to recharge for your next set, but not so long that you lose focus. If you're alternating between biceps and triceps exercises, the timing should work itself out. Just go back and forth, banging out your sets.
3. 45-second breaks.
This is the standard rest time I use between sets of arms in the offseason. I don't see any reason to go past 45 seconds on any arm work. This is the maximum allotted rest break.
Note: I don't sit and actually time myself, nor should you once you've gone through a few workouts and become accustomed to a brisker pace. Autoregulation, right? It works.
Volume for biceps and triceps training is lower than with larger body parts such as legs and back. With these techniques for intensity, a high number of sets simply isn't necessary.
Like all body parts, I like to gradually increase arm volume, train hard for six weeks or so at that volume, and then bring the volume back down. Intensity doesn't change, but the difference in volume provides built in periodization.
My 12-week program for arms looks like this:
Weeks 1-3: Use a medium volume approach. The set total ranges from 6-8 sets for biceps, and 8-10 for triceps. Focus on two or maybe three exercises.
Weeks 4-9: Use a high volume approach. Now we start to build in volume each week. Your body will be adjusting to the intensity you threw at it in the first phase, so we keep it off balance by adding more overall volume and total tonnage lifted over the course of another six weeks. Sets will typically go to 9-12 sets for biceps and 12-16 for triceps, with more high intensity sets added weekly. Typically we use three to four exercises. You're going to grind for 6 weeks hard during this phase.
Weeks 10-12: Use a low to medium volume approach. Set ranges will be around 4 – 6 sets for biceps and triceps. Overall volume now goes down in terms of sets, but the sets you do will be the hardest sets you've done in your life. We generally use two exercises during this phase.
2 weeks: As with any hard program, there's a period of deloading that will benefit you in the long run by rebounding from the cumulative neural fatigue that accompanies high intensity work. Everyone is different though; I've had people insert this at the six week point and others go over 30 weeks training with lights out intensity while making continued progress. Generally, two weeks of light training is my general recommendation after a brutal 12 weeks.
Let's take a look at two sample workouts.
Here's a typical arm workout from Phase I of my program. It's 8 sets for biceps and 10 sets for triceps. Rest 30 seconds between sets on all exercises.
Cross Body Hammer Curls
3 sets of 10 reps. Do 2-3 warm up sets of 10 reps first. Do 3 working sets of 10 reps, remembering to squeeze hard on every contraction. Grip the dumbbells hard. When you lower the weight, let it come all the way down so you begin to warm up your lower biceps.
EZ Bar Preacher Curl
3 sets of 8 reps. Again, I want you to squeeze hard at the top. Lower the bar about 90% of the way down. Don't straighten your arms all the way out as this is a recipe for injury.
Barbell or EZ Bar Curls With 3-second Descent
2 sets of 8 reps. The key is to lower the weight with a 3 second cadence. Your biceps should be on fire at this point. Try to use as heavy a weight as you can with perfect form. The 3-second descent will light you up.
4 sets of 12 reps. Squeeze hard at the bottom for 1 second. Keep your elbows in tight to get a better stretch.
3 sets to failure. Add weight to your lap every set. The idea is to fail around 8-12 reps. You don't have to lock out your triceps and flex; focus more on keeping constant tension, moving up and down with the heavy weight.
Incline EZ Bar Extension
3 sets of 15 reps. On each set you do, try to lower the weight a little more behind your head. Also, pause for a second in the stretched position. This won't take much weight, trust me.
Here's a typical arm workout from Phase II of my program. It's 12 sets for biceps and 16 sets for triceps. I consider this high volume for small muscle like the biceps and triceps. Rest 45 seconds between sets on all exercises unless otherwise stated.
(This one is brutal. Please do this and let me know what you think!)
EZ Bar Reverse Curls
5 sets of 10 reps. After a few warm up sets, I want you to hit these hard. Use only a 10 second break between sets. So do 10 reps, set the weight down and count to 10, and repeat. Do 5 sets total. This might sting a bit. Your brachioradialis and brachialis will be crying.
5 sets of 10 reps. After a few warm ups, we're going to do the same thing here. I want you to take 10-second breaks between sets. You may have trouble keeping the same weight, so it's okay if you drop it a little as you go. Remember, 10-second breaks – light them up!
Machine Preacher Curls
3 sets of 12 reps. I want you to do these heavy, and to not lower the weight all the way down. Choose a weight so heavy you can only do about 6 reps, then have your partner assist you with the last 6 reps. Flex the first 6 reps hard at the peak contraction, and then on the last 6, just keep the weight moving. Your tired brachialis and brachioradialis will not be engaged much at all in this movement, so your biceps will absorb the pounding.
Ah, I love these. First let's do 3 sets of 8 heavy reps. Use a 3 second negative, and then drive the weight down hard. On the fourth and last set, do a set of heavy negatives. Use a weight that will be a hard 6 reps. This machine is probably my absolute favorite exercise for using negatives. Do 4 sets total.
Incline Concentration Curls
2 sets of 8 reps. Squeeze with everything you've got during the contraction. Your arms will be full of blood, so start stretching them at this point with some good 20-30 second stretches on each of the biceps.
4 sets of 15 reps on each arm here.
Seated Dumbbell Curls With 3-second Descent
2 sets of 8 reps. This will take whatever is left out of your biceps.
EZ Bar Close Grip Press
4 sets of 8. Lower these slowly, down more towards your chin instead of resting on your chest. It's a sort of twisted version of the Westside staple, the JM press. You can't use a ton of weight, but the isolation and pounding your triceps receive will do the requisite damage.
You want to try something that looks weird but KILLS your biceps? Check out these bamboo bar curls in the video below.
I don't even know how to explain how well these work. You don't feel anything in your elbows, and when you get the weight up, you feel a nasty contraction. This is Mr. Ohio Superheavyweight winner John Quint repping out on these:
Armed and Dangerous
Those of you who've been following my programs since they first appeared on TNation are likely noticing a trend, namely intensity, volume manipulation, perfect form, and creativity.
While it's true that the basics are the basics for a reason (i.e. they work), there comes a time in every bodybuilder's career when the basics simply quit delivering results at the same rate they once did.
When this happens, you have a choice: keep doing the same thing and expect new and improved results (what's that the definition of again?) or change things up and get on the right side of the adaptation curve.
The choice is yours, and you have all the tools you need to make the most of that decision.
Until next time!