Eighty percent of men started lifting weights because they wanted big arms. The other 20% are liars. So why do we see so many lifters with puny arms?
Doing more on the big lifts will work if you're genetically gifted for building arm size. But most people won't build a set of powerful-looking arms just by doing the big basics. Here's what to do if your biceps, triceps, or forearms are lagging.
Slow Hammer Curl with Isometric Contractions
The fastest way to improve the look of your biceps is to focus on the brachialis. The brachialis – the muscle situated underneath the biceps – contributes to upper arm thickness more so that the biceps. Increasing its size is an easy way to make the arm bigger. But the way most people train arms leaves the brachialis under-stimulated. People assume that training the brachialis is as simple as using a neutral/hammer grip. Not so.
While grip type can have an impact, the type of contraction is a much more important factor when it comes to putting tension on the brachialis. The brachialis is a lot more active during slow speed and isometric actions.
As speed of movement increases, brachialis activation decreases – more stress is shifted on the biceps. So if you're doing very heavy dumbbell hammer curls using a fast speed (even swinging a bit to lift more weight), the brachialis won't receive much stimulation; the brachioradialis will take over.
To work the brachialis effectively, do a low pulley curl with a rope attachment. But the most important thing is how you perform the set.
- Do the reps using constant tension. This means going up fairly slowly, squeezing the muscles every inch of every rep. Imagine trying to compress your biceps between your delts and forearm.
- At the top of the contraction, squeeze and hold for 2 seconds on every rep.
- At the end of the set, hold the peak contraction 10-20 seconds, squeezing as hard as you can.
If you want some variation, you can also do rope chain curls, as shown in the photo above. If you really want to prioritize brachialis development, perform all of your curls with the three guidelines above: reverse, hammer, or regular grip.
1. Decline Dumbbell and Barbell Extensions
The first solution is very simple: Focus on decline dumbbell and barbell extensions instead of the flat variations. Here's why:
There's up to 10% more muscle activity in the decline version versus the flat version. More muscle activity means more muscle fiber recruitment That means more fibers are stimulated to grow. This might be in part because the triceps are stretched more. The muscle being stretched the most is often the muscle recruited the most.
The decline version is also more effective at isolating the triceps because the shoulders are taken out if the equation – they tend to compensate in flat variations. And the decline position places the triceps under tension for a greater range of motion and more optimal loading.
2. Heavy Press Lockout from Pins
The best way to increase the thickness of the triceps is by growing the lateral head. Heavy press lockout variations are key here. The bench press, decline bench press, and overhead press are good choices for working the lockout position. Just set up the safety pins in the power rack so that you only have to press about 8-10 inches in the exercises. The lateral head responds best to heavy loading and these are the exercises that allow you to load the triceps with the most resistance.
1. Heavy Deadlifts without Straps
The mandatory big-guy answer: "If you want big forearms you should deadlift heavy and avoid using straps for pulling exercises."
If you can pull big weights without straps that means your hands are strong, and it's easy to assume that your forearms should be big as a result, right? Proponents of this approach will be quick to say something like, "Have you ever seen someone deadlift 800 pounds who had small forearms?"
It might be true, but usually the guys pulling these numbers are just big overall! Someone who has a lot of overall size will tend to have matching forearms. Just by becoming heavier my forearms get larger, even if I don't do anything different for them.
On the other hand, I've known a lot of strong pullers of less-gargantuan size who had hard-looking but small forearms. There isn't a direct correlation between hand/grip strength and forearm size. Some people have a vice-like grip and small but wiry forearms. Others have very big forearms and below average grip strength.
That's not to say that "deadlift and don't wear straps" isn't valid advice. It's a good general rule. But if your forearms are lagging behind the rest of your body you'll need more.
2. Wrist Roller and Constant-Tension Curl Superset
What works best is to pre-pump the forearms, then do an arm flexion – reverse curl or hammer curl – immediately after. Engorge the forearms with as much blood and fluids as possible, then keep them under tension by doing curls. This will lead to a monstrous, uncomfortable pump which will lead to the release of local growth factors.
Forearms respond best to training methods that create a maximal pump. The forearms are very tight compartments and are hard to expand. Training for grip strength will give you mostly neurological gains.
Grip strength is the "type" of strength that's the most dependant on neural factors. It can contribute to making your forearms more muscular, mostly by making them look harder. But extreme pumping methods are what you need to make your forearms really grow.
My personal favorite pre-pump exercise is the good ol' wrist roller, shown above. You can roll it both ways to emphasize either the extensors ("top" of your forearms) or flexors ("bottom" of your forearm). Extensors should be the pre-pump exercise used for reverse curls while the flexors should be pre-pumped before doing regular or neutral/hammer curls.
How many reps should you do? With the roller keep it lighter and do more "reps." Control the weight both on the way up and down. A lot of people let the weight drop down freely when doing the wrist roller. Don't. You're losing at least half of the stimulus.
If you use reverse or regular curls (pronated or supinated) use an extended or flexed wrist at all times during the set. This will keep the forearms even more under tension.
No need for a ton of volume either. If you do things right, your forearms will be engorged with blood after a couple of sets. A total of 3-4 work sets is enough, especially if you already did biceps work. Those 3-4 sets can be spent all on one superset or divided among two different ones. It can be done 2-3 times per week.