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Lead Image Photo Credit: Christopher Bailey
Having trouble building your biceps? Got analysis paralysis when it comes to the triceps? Your best solution may be to revisit the basics. Having some staple exercises and simple rules to follow will guarantee your success.
Consider this your blueprint for bigger arms. There are ten rules to follow, but here’s a one-sentence summary:
Vary your grips, consider arm alignment, mix it up between dumbbells, bars, cables, and machines, do some stuff with arms overhead and by your sides, think about your forearms from time to time, just do 8-12 reps, and focus on feeling each exercise where you should be feeling it.
I’ll break that down below, but let’s first jump right into the good stuff.
Narrow-Grip Floor Press
While dips could work equally well at developing your triceps, these presses are far more useful for the average gym population since they don’t beat up your shoulders as much.
The floor press limits shoulder range of motion while loading the portion of the press where your triceps are the most dominant. Unlike many dipping bars, you also have the choice of grip width, making them better aligned for your elbows too. For these you could use a straight bar, thick bar, or even a football bar.
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
Dumbbell hammer curls are a staple arm-builder. They hit more of the brachialis and brachioradialis portion of your biceps than regular underhand curls. They’re a good choice for developing arm “thickness.”
Since you can typically go heavier with hammer curls than with a regular underhand grip, you’ll start with these. Try throwing some Fat Gripz onto your dumbbells to work your grip and forearms even harder.
Lying EZ-Bar Triceps Extension
Take your arms overhead to hit the triceps’ long head in more of a lengthened position. Using an EZ-bar offers different grip options than a straight bar, better aligning your elbows to take some unwanted stress out of the movement while enabling you to stimulate your triceps.
Play around with the grip that aligns your elbows the best. If you don’t like using the EZ-bar, use dumbbells instead.
Incline Dumbbell Curl
Now move to an underhand grip to hit another angle.
Set your bench at an incline so you can bring your elbows back more. This loads the bicep long head in a lengthened position and emphasizes more of the bottom to midrange.
You’ll explore different degrees of shoulder external rotation here as well, and you might even find turning the dumbbells out slightly as shown in the video (versus palms facing directly forward) will give you a smoother and a better contraction.
Rope Triceps Pushdown
There are plenty of arguments about what is and isn’t correct technique when doing these. And, while you’re arguing whether or not your elbows should be fixed by your sides or kept slightly more forwards, there’s someone else out there spending that time just putting the extra work.
Both techniques have different advantages. In the video I’m keeping my elbows forward to keep the load high at the bottom of the pushdown.
One-Arm Palms-Down Cable Curl
This is the only exercise here that’s somewhat unconventional. But that’s only because you’re not accustomed to seeing them as often as the others.
One of the most impactful things you could do with your arm workouts is to start including more curls using an overhand grip. They develop the neglected wrist extensors as part of your forearms, as well as a “shy” muscle called the brachialis.
You’d be surprised what would happen to your arms just by sprinkling in a few sets of curls at the end of your workouts using an overhand grip.
The one-arm cable variation allows you to keep your elbow in super tight to your body. This is often hard to do if you have a weak brachialis and brachialis. If you do, you might compensate with more elbow flare when doing hammer and palms-down curls.
Second, using the cable allows you to angle your grip to whatever degree feels most comfortable.
The Workout Plan
You’ll do four working sets of each of the exercises above and in the same order shown. That’s 12 sets for biceps and 12 for triceps.
You’ll do each exercise as a superset, which will improve the overall quality and efficiency of your workout. If you don’t have the means to superset, then doing each exercise one at a time will work just fine. Here’s what it looks like on paper.
|A1||Narrow-Grip Floor Press||4||8|
|A2||Dumbbell Hammer Curl||4||8||1-3 min.|
|B1||Lying EZ-Bar Triceps Extension||4||8|
|B2||Incline Dumbbell Curl||4||8||1-3 min.|
|C1||Rope Triceps Pushdown||4||8|
|C2||One-Arm Palms-Down Cable Curl||4||8||1-3 min.|
Slotting It Into Your Week
Add this workout in as an extra day on top of your regular workouts, ideally for up to 4-6 weeks. After at least four weeks you can start to layer in some exercises using the same rules. I’d recommend you work it in as part of an upper/lower training split using a schedule that looks something like this:
- Day 1: Upper
- Day 2: Lower
- Day 3: Off or Conditioning Only
- Day 4: Upper
- Day 5: Lower
- Day 6: Arm Workout
- Day 7: Off
The 10 Rules for Big Arms
Here they are in no specific order:
1 – Vary Your Grips
If you’re repeating the same exercises and angles as you’ve always been and expecting to overcome a plateau, think again.
I’m pretty sure some smart dude once said the definition of insanity was doing the same things over again and expecting different results. Varying your grip with arm exercises won’t have some magical “muscle confusion” effect, but it will allow you to target different areas of your arms.
If you kept on steering your car to the left then you’d get more wear and tear on one side. The same goes for the angles and grips you’re using when curling and extending your elbows.
Varying your grip throughout the same workout will stop you from getting cranky elbows over time. Keep it simple, and make sure you’re using a mix of overhand, underhand, and hammer-grip positions to get more growth and less pain.
2 – Pay Attention to Alignment
The hinges on your front door are like your elbows. They’re designed to only be moved in a certain way. Using exercises that properly align your joints will extend your training longevity and prevent cranky elbows.
Check out what your elbows do by using different grips and handle attachments when doing an exercise as simple as tricep pushdowns.
The straighter you can get the line down your wrists, elbows, and shoulders, the less valgus stress on your elbows. Even biceps curling with a straight bar isn’t ideal for some folks.
So going back to rule one, varying grips, attachments, and using specialty bars within your workouts helps.
3 – Change Up The Resistance
Different types or resistance can apply more or less load during certain portions of an exercise. For example, curling with a dumbbell will result in your biceps receiving the most load at about midway through the curl. Doing the same curl with a cable, band, or even kettlebell will change which portion of the movement is taxed most.
Changing body position will change the point of maximal load, too. Quite simply, to get the most out of your arm workout, a mix of different types of resistance will work best by taxing different ranges of motion.
Do some exercises that load the stretch part, do some that load the peak contraction, and do some that hit them in the middle.
4 – Consider Shoulder Angle
This is crucial. Since both the long head of your biceps and long head of your triceps cross the shoulder joint, you can greatly influence the recruitment of these muscles.
Here’s what to remember without getting too deep into the details:
For triceps, you should be doing a mix of exercises with your arms by your sides (like dips, close-grip bench presses, pushdowns), and exercises where your arms more overhead (extensions, skull crushers etc.).
For your biceps, do some exercises with your arms by your sides or back behind your torso (like incline curls, cable-behind curls, regular curls), and some others with your arms more out in front or up high (Scott curls, preacher curls, Hercules curls).
5 – Feel It!
When was the last time you did a curl and your biceps burned out before your shoulders or forearms did? Your biceps and triceps don’t give a damn that you want them to grow. They don’t give a damn how much weight you’re able to curl.
They’ll remain stubborn unless you send them the right signals.
Your arms will start growing again when you care less about the weight and more about the actual tension you’re putting onto them. Of course, the weight you’re using factors into that equation, but so does being able to contract that muscle hard through entire ranges of motion.
It sounds very simple, but if you’re not squeezing the heck out of biceps on every curl, and triceps on any press, extension, or pushdown, then you’re missing a trick.
You need a hard squeeze on the way up, a fight of the resistance, and a hard squeeze on the way down too. If you can maintain that for every rep and continue to add a little weight or reps each week, it’ll be an easy win for your arms.
6 – Don’t Neglect Your Forearms
If you want bigger arms, you can’t forget everything south of your elbows. You want to be hitting your forearms. Second, if you have weak forearms, then your biceps and even triceps won’t be receiving sufficient stimulation.
If your forearms are lagging far behind, then you should employ some targeted forearm techniques. Otherwise, the least you can do is adapt your biceps (and even triceps) exercises to get more of your forearms involved.
Some of my favorite ways to do this are using thicker bars and variations of curls that challenge your neglected wrist extensors, like curls using an overhand grip, or Zottman curls.
7 – Train Biceps and Triceps in the Same Workout
It’s old school but it works. Sure, you could tack on some bicep work at the end of your pulling workouts, and hit triceps at the end of your pressing workouts, but if you want to bring any area up then you need to prioritize.
Giving your arms their own workout will help shift your focus for the day, improve the overall quality of your arm training, and get plenty of blood around that area. There’s nothing more motivating than some localized blood occlusion and walking out of the gym with a sleeve-busting pump.
8 – Stop Overthinking the Reps
We know you can build muscle using six reps per set. We also know you can build muscle using sets of 20-30, if the set is taken to failure.
Some muscles and individuals might respond best to higher or lower rep ranges, but even if that’s true, it might only make that one percent difference. Stop overthinking the reps and under-thinking the importance of effort. The best reps for you are the ones that you’ll work hardest for and maintain the highest quality doing.
There’s one rep range that works pretty much every time, though, and won’t leave you disappointed. Just hit 8-12 reps per set and don’t overthink it.
Try Coach Paul Carter’s 8-12-8 method for an easy win. Pick a weight you can lift for 8 reps, then when you can hit 12 reps after several weeks, pick a heavier weight that takes you back to 8 reps.
Providing you make some smart exercise choices you could continue in the 8-12-8 fashion for a long time, and expect some great results from it.
9 – Don’t Overthink Rest Either
We know longer rest periods allow us to lift more and potentially grind out higher quality sets. On the other hand, we also know shorter rest periods mean a more zoned-in and purposeful workout, greater pump, and more sweat on the floor. Just rest as long as you need between sets and think no more of it.
If you prefer to rest longer (3-5 minutes) then go for it, but please remember this is an arm workout and not some build-up to a max effort lift.
If you want to keep the rest periods shorter (around 45 seconds) then that’s fine too. Just remember, you want to keep the quality of your reps high, and fatigue doesn’t help. For most, 1-2 minutes between sets is a good recommendation for arms, or up to 1-3 if using supersets or intensity techniques.
10 – Pick Good Exercises
The six exercises above may be all you’ll ever need.
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