I love training arms. Always have, always will. I make no apologies for it. It was Arnold and his massive biceps that got me into fitness and there’s no turning back now.
Some fitness experts downplay the importance of impressive arms. Not surprisingly, these experts’ upper arm development usually resembles Steven Tyler’s, often with the man boobs to match. This article hopes to buck that trend and give you a program that’s guaranteed to add quality size to your arms.
As an arm-training geek I’ve trained guns many different ways, but the method outlined here was relatively new to me. This made it a lot more fun, in addition to helping me break past an arm growth plateau that I’d been stuck in for a long time. To top if off, it wasn’t even time intensive!
Time to Grow
Dave Tate endorsed timed sets a while ago and I’d experimented with them in the past, but I’ve never jumped in with both feet and trained that way for an entire mesocycle…that is, until this program came along.
I followed this routine for 12 weeks and finally broke the 18-inch arm barrier. Yes, they were pumped as hell, and yes, it was right at the end of the workout, but that measurement was a long time coming. And at a moderately lean 210 pounds, I’d say18-inch arms is pretty decent. Not surprisingly, I still wish they were bigger (did I mention I like big arms?) so I intend on returning to this program after peaking for a powerlifting meet.
The plan is simple. Pick one day a week and just train arms. The catch is, for most of the exercises, perform the set for time instead of reps.
Here’s the layout:
- Week 1: 3 sets of25 seconds, same weight each set (e.g. 50 pounds x :25, 50 pounds x :25, 50 pounds x :25)
- Week 2: 3 sets of 35 seconds, same weight each set, and same weight as week 1 (e.g. 50 pounds x :35, 50 pounds x :35, 50 pounds x :35)
- Week 3: 3 sets of 45 seconds, same weight each set, and same weight as week 1 (e.g. pounds x :45, 50 pounds x :45, 50 pounds x :45)
Start light with this routine – I did and had good results. For example, if you were going to do a super tough set of 10 reps, think about what weight you’d use for a warm-up set of 10 reps and use that weight to start. The extended time and progressive overload will ensure you still work hard and make gains.
For example, on the cable incline pullover I started with 35 pounds for 3 sets of 25 seconds on week 1, which is quite light. However, I finished at week 12 with 70 pounds for 3 sets of 45 seconds.
The timer starts when you pick up the weight. It’s okay to go slow but don’t set down the weight or stop, no matter what. If you do I’ll find you and kick you in the gonads, so for the sake of your future offspring, finish that set.
While every exercise is different, 25 seconds generally translates to 10-12 reps, 35 seconds to 13-16 reps, and 45 seconds about 16-20 reps. Completing 2 reps every 5 seconds is a decent guideline to follow, but ultimately lift at a speed you’re comfortable with and focus on the time under tension, not the number of reps.
The first exercise for each muscle group will not be timed – the point here is to go reasonably heavy and maintain/build up your strength. Perform the timed sets for the subsequent exercises.
The exercises are as follows:
- Close-grip Bench Press: Two fingers on the smooth and two fingers on the grip works well for most. Obviously more than just the triceps are working here.
- Cable Incline Pullover: Hits the chest, lats, and rear delts, but you’ll feel this most in the long head of the triceps.
- Pullover Skull Crusher: Perform a skull crusher but include a pullover motion.
- EZ Power Curl: Using an EZ bar, start leaning forward about 15 degrees and use a bit of swing to complete the rep. End the rep standing up straight and avoid leaning back excessively. The little swing should help your strength go up, but this shouldn’t look like a half-clean, half-seizure abomination.
- Straight Bar Cable Curl: Attach a straight bar to a low cable and, well, curl it. Be strict with form and try to get a stretch at the bottom of the rep. Straight bars can be hard on the wrists but using cables and going light usually mitigates this.
- DB Hammer Curl: Perform a standard dumbbell curl holding the ‘bells like two hammers (thumbs up style).
- Machine Biceps Curl: Use a curl machine that allows for a supinated grip.
The exercises need to be performed in the order listed, but you have the option of performing them as straight sets or in a superset fashion (superset triceps exercise one with biceps exercise one, etc). If you choose to superset, perform the two exercises back to back for one set each and then rest.
Regarding rest time, on the timed sets keep the rest week one fairly short – about 30 seconds works well. On week two, 60-90 seconds is ideal, and on week three (which is the toughest) just keep the rest under three minutes.
If you’re in a big group then definitely superset the exercises – I often train with four or five guys at the same time so that’s how we do it.
Although this is set up as a 3-week program, it needs to be repeated for a few cycles to really see the beauty of it. Progression occurs by increasing the time each week; upon completing the cycle, you increase the weight on each exercise (normally by about 10 pounds or 1 plate on a machine) and repeat the whole process.
Follow this for at least two cycles, although three, four, or more cycles is better.
The Heavy Stuff
Note: The first exercise for each muscle group is not a timed exercise. Each has its own set and rep scheme, as shown below.
- Close-Grip Bench
- Week 1: 5 x 3, straight sets (e.g. 225 x 3, for 5 sets)
- Week 2: 5 x 4, straight sets, same weight as week 1 (e.g. 225 x 4, for 5 sets)
- Week 3: 5 x 5, straight sets, same weight at week 2 (e.g. 225 x 5, for 5 sets)
- Week 4: Add 5-10 pounds to week 1 poundage; repeat (e.g. 235 x 3, for 5 sets)
- Power Curl
- Week 1: Set of 8, set of 4, set of 2, set of 4, set of 8 (Note: last two sets are lighter than first two sets for the same reps, for example, 80 x 8, 100 x 4, 120 x 2, 90 x 4, 70 x 8).
- Week 2: Set of 10, set of 5, set of 3, set of 5, set of 10. (Same weight as week 1. For example, 80 x 10, 100 x 5, 120 x 3, 90 x 5, 70 x 10)
- Week 3: Set of 12, set of 6, set of 3, set of 6, set of 12. (Same weight as week 1. For example, 80 x 12, 100 x 6, 120 x 4, 90 x 6, 70 x 12)
- Week 4: Add 5 lbs to each set on week 1; repeat (e.g. 85 x 8, 105 x 4, 125 x 2, 95 x 4, 75 x 8).
Here’s the entire program.
|A2||EZ Power Curl||5||8,4,2,4,8|
|B1||Cable Incline Pullover||3||25 sec.|
|B2||Straight Bar Cable Curl||3||25 sec.|
|C1||Pullover Skull Crusher *||3||25 sec.|
|C2||DB Hammer Curl||3||25 sec.|
|D||Machine Curl * *||3||25 sec.|
* Pullover Skull Crusher – Many lifters find doing one light set of pushdowns for 8-15 reps helps warm up the elbows.
* * Machine Curl – No other exercise accompanies the final exercise; it’s performed alone. You can pair it with a pushdown if you wish but I found this to be superfluous.
|A2||EZ Power Curl||5||10,5,3,5,10|
|B1||Cable Incline Pullover||3||35 sec.|
|B2||Straight Bar Cable Curl||3||35 sec.|
|C1||Pullover Skull Crusher||3||35 sec.|
|C2||DB Hammer Curl||3||35 sec.|
|D||Machine Curl||3||35 sec.|
|A2||EZ Power Curl||5||12,6,4,5,12|
|B1||Cable Incline Pullover||3||45 sec.|
|B2||Straight Bar Cable Curl||3||45 sec.|
|C1||Pullover Skull Crusher||3||45 sec.|
|C2||DB Hammer Curl||3||45 sec.|
|D||Machine Curl||3||45 sec.|
Once you complete the cycle and plan to repeat it, analyze each exercise and see if you feel you’d benefit from performing that exercise for another 3 weeks.
I found the triceps exercises listed work great and never really felt the need to tweak them. Initially I was on the fence with the cable incline pullovers as I didn’t feel them too much, but over time I saw results and it also offers a nice stretch for the shoulder girdle. All told, this program really helped bring up the long head of my triceps, which has been a frustrating weak point for me.
For biceps I went through a couple of exercises. I’m usually not a fan of machine curls but found the machine works well in the latter stages of the workout. I used concentration curls initially but after a point, adding 5 pounds is too large an increase; strict curls work okay but you tend to hit a wall with them.
At first I combined this workout with my shoulders, but as the workout got harder and longer I soon designated one day as the Gun Show day. My split then became the following:
- Day 1: Arms
- Day 2: Legs and Lower Back
- Day 3: Chest, Shoulders, and Back (I wasn’t benching during this cycle but focusing more on the overhead press)
You don’t have to use that split by any means, just pick a day when you can blast your arms when they’re reasonably fresh and go for it.
You also have the option of training the rest of the body in the timed sets fashion. I did and it was a healthy change of pace, especially considering I was only training three days a week (it was a particularly busy time for me).
To sum up, timed sets certainly aren’t new (is anything really?), but they’re an effective way to kick-start growth in a stubborn set of arms. So paint on your tightest tank top and get ready to put in some effort – you just might find the gift of sleeve splitting arms waiting for you at the end of this timed set rainbow.