Back in the day, before bodybuilding turned into chemical warfare, nobody had two hours a day to spend in the gym. The guys with the top physiques had limited time and limited equipment. What they had in abundance was a willingness to work hard for the results they wanted.
A typical workout for guys like Steve Reeves, Clancy Ross, Leroy Colbert, Larry Scott, or Freddie Ortiz would send one of today's Wii-playing, Sponge Bob — watching, wedding-stick-wanking health-club members running to the powder room for some porcelain therapy.
And yet, those beanpole-armed guys wimping their way through their workouts walk into the gym each day with images of baseball-size biceps and triceps like horseshoes. They dream of 20-inch upper arms. In reality, very few guys' arm muscles have the genetic shape to achieve proportions like that. If you want bigger arms, you have to think and train like the old-school guys, fighting like hell for every quarter-inch gain.
But most guys figure they'll go on a biceps-heavy program and painstakingly add a 1/4 inch or 1/2 inch over the course of six months.
Here's my question to you:
Why take 6 months to do it when you could do the same thing in 2 freakin' weeks?
Did you hear what I just said?
Stop. Get up and take a long look at yourself in the mirror. I'm talking directly to you.
You've been lifting weights for several years now, and your physique reveals only sparse development. You need to throw in the towel and move on to something else. Or, if you're still with me . . . try another approach.
The catch? You'll have to do real workouts, old-school workouts, three times a week.
The pump doesn't get much respect these days. Smart guys refer to it as "accumulating byproducts of fatigue." The bodybuilders from the 1950s and '60s didn't describe it that way, but it was their best and most reliable way to induce small but measurable gains in their arm muscles.
To get that pump, it's important to mix and match exercises, never allowing your biceps and triceps to get used to a routine. But it's even more important to extend your normal sets until your muscles feel as if they're on fire. If it doesn't hurt, you aren't doing it right.
Here's how to do the following workouts:
- You'll train three times a week, on nonconsecutive days, for two weeks. You'll do three different workouts, repeating them in the second week. When you repeat the workouts in the second week, it's crucial that you make progress – more weight or more reps of each exercise.
- Each workout features a three-exercise cycle for biceps and another for triceps. The exercises change each workout, so you'll do 18 different arm exercises. The key to each cycle is that you must do all three exercises with no rest in between. That means you have to set up everything you need before you start the first exercise.
- You'll only do one set of each exercise, using the most weight possible for 8 to 12 repetitions. It's very important to "go for the burn" on each arm exercise.
- In addition to the six arm exercises, you'll do four other exercises, for a total of 10 exercises per workout. On these exercises, do one all-out set of 8 to 12 reps. Rest only as long as it takes to break down your equipment from one exercise and set up for the next.
- The program works best if you have a training partner. That way, you each have someone to spot and help you change the weights faster than either of you could do it solo. Just make sure that one guy completes an entire three-exercise cycle for biceps or triceps before the other begins. Whoever goes first can recover while spotting the training partner. When you finish with the biceps and triceps cycles, you can alternate the remaining exercises in the usual way – you do your set, and then recover while your training partner does his.
- Bench press with underhand, shoulder-width grip. No rest.
- Bench press with overhand, normal-width grip. No rest.
- Bench press with wide grip. Rest two minutes as you set up for the biceps cycle.
Using a reverse grip is novel way to do bench presses that stresses the triceps in a slightly different way. Set up as you normally would, but grab the bar with an underhand, shoulder-width grip, and hold it with straight arms over your chest. Keep your elbows close to your sides as you lower it slowly to your chest.
Touch your chest with the bar and then, without pausing, reverse the movement and press the bar back to the starting position.
Remember, you aren't powerlifting here. You're not trying to break a record. The goal is to accumulate fatigue by pumping your arms full of blood. So you need slow reps with smooth transition from lowering to lifting and back to lowering.
When you finish the set, take 20 percent of the weight off the bar as quickly as you can. It helps to think this through in advance, and remember to use plates that allow quick removal. (Obviously, a training partner helps with this part of the process.)
Do the next set with your normal, overhand grip. Take another 20 percent off the bar, and finish with your hands about a foot wider – six inches per side – than they were for the normal-width set.
This is a real gut-check moment for you. Your triceps are deeply fatigued, but with the shortened range of motion due to the wide grip, you'll be able to force out another set. Don't worry about slow and smooth here; you'll have to go fast to knock out 8 to 12 reps.
- Barbell curl with narrow grip. No rest.
- Barbell curl with normal grip. No rest.
- Barbell curl with wide grip. Rest two minutes.
You can use a seven-foot Olympic bar, a shorter Olympic bar, or an EZ-curl bar. Use about 30 percent less weight than you normally would for 10 reps.
Grab the bar underhand with your pinkies about four inches apart. Stand with a slightly wider-than-normal stance for balance. Bend forward at the hips about 45 degrees. Let your arms hang straight down so they're perpendicular to the floor.
Now do 8 to 12 reps at a deliberate speed, with smooth transitions from lifting to lowering and back to lifting. When you've done as many reps as you can, set the barbell down on the floor. Don't change the weight.
Reach down and grab the bar with an underhand, shoulder-width grip. This time you'll stand upright as you do your curls, rather than bending forward. Anchor your elbows firmly against the sides of your waist and keep them there. Curl the barbell deliberately and smoothly for 8 to 12 reps.
When you've done the last one, try to do one more. (This actually applies to every exercise in this program.) When you can't get one more, set the bar down. Don't change the weight.
Reach down and grab the bar underhand with a wide grip – you want your pinkies about 24 inches apart. Stand upright, and this time start with your elbows bent slightly and pulled back so they're behind your torso. As with the wide-grip bench presses, you want to shorten your range of motion, since they're almost completely fatigued.
As you curl the bar upward, keep it near your torso. There's an intense sweet spot in the middle of the range of motion you'd use in a normal curl, and that's all you're trying to hit here – forget about the bottom and top. Don't worry about rep speed on this final exercise. Just get through the set, and then admire your pump while you can.
- Barbell back squat
- Calf raise on machine (any variation you choose)
- Sit-up on incline board
- Barbell wrist curl
You aren't going to do any tricky variations on the barbell squat, calf raise, slant-board sit-up, or wrist curl. Just choose the most weight you can do for 8 to 12 reps at a deliberate speed and with smooth transitions from lifting to lowering and back again.
When you're finished with your last set, break down your equipment and get the hell out of the gym. Eat lots of good stuff, and get plenty of sleep. Don't do anything taxing that involves your arm muscles. Not a good time to put a new roof on your parents' house, in other words.)
- Barbell reverse curl. No rest.
- Dumbbell hammer curl. No rest.
- Dumbbell Zottman curl. Rest two minutes as you set up for the triceps cycle.
This three-exercise cycle works the biceps, but it also brings into action a couple of smaller elbow flexors that assist the biceps: the brachialis (a flat, thick muscle that lies beneath the biceps), and the brachioradialis, the uppermost forearm muscle. When fully developed, these muscles add significant size to your arms.
You'll need to load up your barbell for the reverse curls and grab dumbbells for the hammer and Zottman curls before you start.
For the reverse curl, take a shoulder-width, overhand grip on a barbell and stand. Stabilize your elbows against your waist. Curl the barbell to the top position without moving your elbows forward. With a smooth transition, lower the barbell smoothly and do 8 to 12 reps at a deliberate tempo.
Set the barbell on the floor and grab the dumbbells for hammer curls.
Hold the dumbbells at your sides, with your palms toward your thighs. Using strict form, curl both dumbbells together to your shoulders without rotating them in or out. Make a smooth transition as you lower them, and continue for 8 to 12 repetitions.
Set those dumbbells on the floor, stand, shake your hands for a few seconds, and pick them up again for Zottman curls, a modification of an exercise invented by strongman George Zottman in the 1920s.
Stand with your palms facing forward. Curl both dumbbells together in the normal manner. Pause at the top and rotate both hands inward so your palms face forward. Lower the dumbbells with your palms down. Pause at the bottom, rotate your hands outward so your palms are again facing forward, and continue for 8 to 12 reps.
- Triceps pushdown with straight bar, underhand grip. No rest.
- Triceps pushdown with straight bar, overhand grip. No rest.
- Triceps pushdown with rope attachment. Rest two minutes.
Set up with a straight bar on the high cable pulley, with a rope attachment nearby to use in the final exercise.
First is an underhand-grip pushdown, which, like the underhand-grip bench press, targets some of the deeper fibers of the triceps. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart or closer. Get into an athletic position, with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart and your knees bent slightly. Keep your torso upright and your elbows to your sides throughout the movement.
You know the rest – do 8 to 12 reps with a deliberate tempo and smooth transitions at the top and bottom.
When you're finished, switch to an overhand grip and repeat the set. You'll be slightly stronger in this version, so there's no need to reduce the resistance.
After 8 to 12 reps, switch to a rope attachment. (If you don't have one, you can loop a rolled-up towel around the middle of the bar, and use the ends of the towel as handles.)
Don't change the weight; grind out 8 to 12 reps even if you have to speed up your pace.
- Barbell stiff-legged deadlift
- Barbell shrug
- Barbell shoulder press
- Barbell reverse wrist curl
Use your normal form on these four exercises, all of which you should be able to do with the same barbell (changing weight on each exercise, of course): stiff-legged deadlift, shrug, shoulder press, and reverse wrist curl.
Same instructions as above: one set per exercise, 8 to 12 reps, deliberate speed, and smooth transitions from lifting to lowering and back again. Really push yourself to get the last rep possible on each exercise, and then get out of the gym, eat, and rest.
- Dumbbell preacher curl. No rest.
- Barbell preacher curl. No rest.
- Very slow negative chin-up, one repetition lasting 30 to 60 seconds. Rest two minutes as you set up for the triceps cycle.
Preacher curls were favorites of Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia in 1965, and a guy known for his football-shaped biceps.
Larry Scott, 1938 – 2014
Not all preacher-curl benches are created equal. The best ones have a pad with two sides you can use: one that puts your arms at a diagonal angle, and another that allows a vertical arm position. If you have access to one like this, I want you to use the vertical side for the first two exercises. Also, if it's adjustable up or down, it's better to stand, or at worst kneel on the pad. (My least-favorite variation is sitting with your arms diagonal to the floor, but if that's all you have, don't sweat it.)
Also, you'll probably want to place a towel over the pad, both for comfort and to avoid grinding your arms into the last guy's germ-infused sweat.
First is the dumbbell preacher curl. Grab the weights and get into position with your armpits over the crook of the pad. (Even better is to have a spotter or training partner hand you the weights.) Start with your palms facing up, and curl the weights toward your shoulders.
Next is the barbell preacher curl, which you can do with a straight or EZ-curl bar. (Again, if you have a training partner, you don't even have to get up from the bench to switch to the second exercise – he can take the DBs and hand you the barbell faster than you can do it for yourself.) Use a shoulder-width, underhand grip. You want to keep your elbows in, and avoid excessive wrist involvement when you make the transition from lowering to lifting.
Very Slow Negative Chin-Up
Make no mistake, this exercise will kick your ass real good, especially if you fail to focus and don't pay much attention to my directions. Place a chair or bench under the chinning bar so you can climb up to the top position and get your chin over the bar without taxing your biceps. All you have to do is lower yourself as slowly as possible. Your goal is 60 seconds, but most guys are lucky to get 30 to 40 seconds.
I recommend dividing the downward movement into a dozen one-inch increments, breathing with short, forced exhalations. If you have a training partner, he can call out each five-second bloc. Or you can count to five each time before you lower yourself another inch. Either way, the goal is to get to a dead hang in 60 seconds, although I'll be extremely surprised if even one T-Nation reader can last the entire 60 seconds right after two grueling sets of preacher curls. It would be as rare as shit from a rocking horse.
What makes the very slow chin-up so painful is the fact it occludes most of the blood flow in the arms, which appears to heighten the sensation that something bad may be about to happen. That bad then turns to good, when afterward you get what seems like double the normal volume of blood pooling in your biceps. It's a pump like you've never felt before.
- Barbell lying triceps extension. No rest.
- Dumbbell standing triceps extension, one dumbbell held in both hands. No rest.
- Very slow negative dip, one repetition lasting 30 to 60 seconds. Rest two minutes.
Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
This one's an old standby from the 1940s, frequently used by Steve Reeves and Clancy Ross, both winners of the AAU Mr. America. There are several ways to do it, but this is the version I prefer.
Load a barbell and grab the bar with an overhand grip, your hands about four inches apart. I don't often recommend a false grip – placing your thumbs on the same side of the bar as your fingers – but I think on this exercise, in this program, it helps you control the bar, allowing for smooth transitions from lowering to lifting. Just be careful; there's a reason why this exercise is also called "skull crusher."
Lie on your back on a bench and hold the bar with straight arms over your lower chest. Lower the barbell slowly toward the bridge of your nose, keeping your elbows pointed towards the ceiling. Pause without actually touching your nose, but come as close as you dare. Now make a smooth transition as you push the bar back up. Keep your upper arms in the same position throughout the exercise. You want all the action in your elbow joints, which means your triceps are doing the work.
Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extension
I don't like to brag, but I've got a bunch of bodybuilding trophies from 40 years ago, and I don't know if I could've won any of them without this exercise. In my view, it's the very best way to blitz and bomb your triceps.
Stand holding one end of a single dumbbell over your head with both hands. Starting with your arms straight and elbows in tight. You want your upper arms close to your ears throughout the movement.
Bend your elbows and lower the dumbbell slowly behind your neck. Again, you want all the action in your elbow joints, with your upper arms in the same position.
Very slow negative dip
This is the finisher of finishers for triceps work, like whipped cream with a cherry on top, except it has no flavor and hurts like hell if you do it right.
Same drill as the negative chin-up: Start at the top, and then make a slow, agonizing descent. About halfway down, the pain should be brutally intense. That's a sign it's working the way you want it to. Breathe continuously.
When you're finished, rest as long as you want before you start the final exercises. I recommend five minutes.
- Leg curl on machine
- Leg extension on machine
- Dumbbell lateral raise
- Dumbbell side bend
You know how to do a leg curl, leg extension, lateral raise, and side bend. (Use one dumbbell on the side bend, and give equal work to both sides of your body.) Just make sure you give all of them as much effort as you can muster after the most challenging biceps and triceps cycles of the program.
When you're finished, go home, rest up for at least two days, and then get back into the gym the next week and repeat the three workouts. Make sure you exceed your performance on every exercise – more weight, more reps, slower descents on the chins and dips. Measure your arms after you're finished. You'll discover why the old-timers relied on workouts like this to build championship-winning arm muscles.