No region of the body gets more attention than the upper arms. Massive biceps and triceps have long been considered symbols of strength. After all, when someone says, “Make a muscle,” you flex your biceps, not your pecs. Your arms also tend to be exposed more than any other muscle group. Unless you opt to wear nothing but baggy, long-sleeve shirts, there’s simply no way to hide skinny arms.
While genetics certainly play a role in the size of your arms, the root cause of weak upper-arm development is inevitably traceable to substandard exercise programming. The good news is that the bi’s and tri’s generally respond favorably to regimented resistance exercise. While you might never be able to achieve the mountainous biceps peaks of Arnold or the horseshoe-like triceps of Ronnie Coleman, virtually every guy can substantially improve the appearance of his arms by taking a scientific approach to training.
What follows is a blueprint for creating a customized upper-arm routine. Follow the principles as outlined, stay consistent with your training and watch your arms grow.
As with any muscle group, the exercises you perform for the upper arms will have a big impact on results. Without question, you can achieve substantial hypertrophy of the bi’s and tri’s solely by performing multi-joint upper-body work. Recent research from my lab shows that performing exercises such as seated rows and variations of lat pulldowns promoted significant increases in biceps thickness in lifters. Similarly, pushing movements such as shoulder presses and bench presses have an elbow extension component and therefore develop the triceps.
For maximal development of the bi’s and tri’s, however, you need to include direct upper-arm work. The reason comes down to basic structural kinesiology. Specifically, the length/tension relationship of the biceps and triceps is suboptimal during multi-joint movements. Consider an exercise such as the chin-up. At the start of the movement, the biceps are shortened at the shoulder joint and lengthened at the elbow. These aspects then reverse as you pull yourself up to the bar so that the biceps shorten at the elbow while lengthening at the shoulder. The upshot is that the biceps does not fully shorten during the exercise, which shortchanges your results.
A similar phenomenon occurs with the long head of the triceps when performing multi-joint pushing movements. During the bench press, for example, shoulder-joint position changes throughout the range of movement so that the long head of the triceps is shortening at one joint while lengthening at the other. This compromises the length-tension relationship and thus doesn’t allow for optimal development of the muscle.
We’ve established that performing direct upper-arm work is advantageous for hypertrophy. But this doesn’t mean that any old combination of arm exercises will produce similar results.
With respect to the elbow flexors, training from a variety of arm angles is necessary to fully stimulate the musculature. Studies show that the long head of the biceps is maximally activated in exercises such as incline curls and drag curls, where the humerus is extended behind the body. This goes back to the length-tension relationship, as the long head being placed in a greater stretch position compared to the short head is thus able to produce more force. It therefore follows that the short head of the biceps is best targeted when the upper arm is placed in front of the body, making exercises such as the preacher curl optimal for developing this aspect. Moreover, the short head is also targeted in exercises such as cross cable curls on a high pulley since shoulder abduction renders the long head somewhat actively insufficient.
It’s also important to remember that the elbow flexors are comprised of more than just the biceps brachii; the brachialis and brachioradialis also contribute to the overall size of the upper arms. These muscles can be targeted by varying grip positions throughout the workout. Neutral-grip exercises such as hammer curls place the brachioradialis in an optimal position to exert force, while pronated-grip movements like reverse curls are most favorable for working the brachialis.
Varying exercise selection is equally important for developing the triceps brachii. As mentioned, the long head is the only aspect of the triceps that crosses the shoulder joint. Since a muscle produces maximal force when placed in a position of slight stretch, the long head can be targeted by performing exercises such as overhead triceps extensions. On the other hand, since the lateral and medial heads don’t cross the shoulder joint, they become increasingly active in exercises such as pressdowns and dips, where the shoulder joint is extended due to the long head becoming slackened.
Range of Motion
Another consideration when training the upper arms is range of motion. Evidence shows that the biceps brachii are “partitioned,” with both the long and short heads comprised of individual architectural compartments each innervated by private branches of the primary nerves. This anatomical structure has practical significance. Studies show that muscle fibers in the lateral portion of the long head are recruited for elbow flexion, fibers in the medial aspect are recruited for supination and centrally located fibers are recruited for nonlinear combinations of flexion and supination. Alternatively, the short head has been shown to be more active in the latter part of an arm curl (i.e., greater elbow flexion), while the long head is more active in the early phase. The bottom line is that training through a full range of motion is needed to fully stimulate the fibers in the biceps brachii. Exercises such as 21s can also be employed to better target individual aspects of the muscle.
Volume and Frequency
Research shows a clear dose-response relationship between number of sets and muscle growth. In other words, the greater the volume, the greater the hypertrophy of a given muscle. The threshold whereby this relationship ultimately levels off is not as clear. Further confounding practical application is the fact that the upper-arm muscles receive extensive work during multi-joint upper-body exercises. Thus, the amount of total work needed to fully stimulate the bi’s and tri’s is less than for larger muscles such as the lats, pecs and thighs. A good rule of thumb is to perform no more than about nine total sets (three to four sets of two to three exercises) of direct arm work per week.
The number of repetitions is also an important consideration. Recent research from my lab indicates that hypertrophy is optimized through a variety of rep ranges. From a general standpoint, this means that it’s beneficial to include low (one to five), moderate (eight to 12) and high (over 15) rep ranges in your routine. Problem is, performing very low reps in single-joint movements is murder on the joints. You can’t continually perform singles, doubles and triples of exercises like curls and skullcrushers without getting sore elbows.
In light of this fact, it’s best to leave the lower-rep work for your multi-joint pushing and pulling movements. Direct upper-arm work should be carried out in the moderate and higher-rep ranges. Moderate-rep sets should form the foundation of your training. This rep range targets the full spectrum of fiber types, with particular emphasis on the strength-related type II fibers. Conversely, adding in some sets of higher-rep training will better target the fatigue-resistant type I fibers so that overall muscle development is optimized.
Given all the ancillary work that the bi’s and tri’s receive during upper-body pushing and pulling exercises, one day of direct arm training is generally all that’s needed to maximize results. If your arms are slow to develop, then you should prioritize the lagging muscle group by training it first in your routine. Understand, though, that this can negatively impact subsequent performance of exercises for the back, chest and shoulders. Detrimental effects can potentially be alleviated by having an “arm day” in which the arms are trained by themselves. These considerations must be taken into account within the context of your overall training scheme and workout availability over the course of each week.
The Finishing Touch: BFR Training
An effective technique that can be employed to kick-start upper-arm growth is blood flow restriction (BFR). Simply stated, BFR involves obstructing circulation of the working muscle by wrapping a restrictive implement around the limbs while performing a low-load exercise, usually in the range of 20 to 30 percent 1RM. The objective of BFR is to block venous flow without significantly affecting arterial circulation. As such, blood enters the muscle but can’t escape.
There’s a ton of research showing that BFR increases muscle growth. Although the mechanisms behind BFR’s muscle-building effects are still somewhat murky, it’s believed that an increase in metabolic stress is what drives anabolism. Metabolic stress refers to the accumulation of training byproducts called metabolites. These byproducts — including lactate, inorganic phosphate and hydrogen ions — build up substantially when training is carried out in an oxygen-limited state, which occurs with BFR. Several possibilities have been proposed to explain how metabolic stress impacts hypertrophy. An increase in growth factors, reactive oxygen species, cell swelling and/or systemic agents are all working theories. Alone or in combination, these factors ultimately lead to increases in protein synthesis and satellite cell activation, key elements for muscle growth.
Researchers generally carry out BFR studies using sophisticated pressure cuff devices that cost thousands of dollars. Fortunately, budget-friendly elastic knee wraps work just as well. It doesn’t really matter what brand you purchase. The most important consideration when choosing a wrap is its width. Two-inch wraps are generally best. Any wider and you cut off arterial circulation at lower pressures, which hastens the onset of fatigue.
An important technical concern is to secure the wraps so that they’re snug on the limb but don’t cause excessive discomfort at rest. Wrapped too tightly or too low on the arm (the wraps should be positioned as high as possible on the upper arms, above the level of the biceps) and you’ll impede arterial flow as well as venous flow. This increases perceived effort, thereby reducing training volume. An easy way to gauge optimal tightness is to use a perceived rating scale. Aim for a pressure of seven on a scale from one to 10. It’ll take a little practice to get it right, but within a few sessions you should have a good sense of how tightly to wrap the muscle.
There are numerous ways to integrate BFR into your arm routine. Reserve the technique for one biceps and triceps exercise per session — generally the last exercise of the bout. Keep rest periods short (about 30 seconds between sets) and the loads light. Do not remove the wraps until all sets of the exercise are completed. Remember, the goal is to engorge the muscle with blood and generate maximum metabolic stress. On the first set you should get about 25 to 30 reps, and successive sets will progressively drop off due to fatigue. If done properly, you’ll achieve skin-splitting pumps like you’ve never experienced.
Incline Dumbbell Biceps Curl
Start: Lie supine on a 40-degree incline bench. Grasp two dumbbells and allow the weights to hang behind your body with your palms facing forward.
Movement: Keeping your upper arms stable, curl the dumbbells upward toward your shoulders. Contract your biceps, then slowly return the weights back to the start position.
Start: Sit at the edge of a flat bench with your legs wide apart. Grasp a dumbbell in your right hand and brace your right triceps on the inside of your right thigh. Straighten your arm so that it hangs down near the floor.
Movement:Curl the weight up and in along the line of your body, contracting your biceps at the top of the move. Reverse direction and slowly return to the start position. After having completed the desired number of reps, repeat the process on your left.
Cable Rope Hammer Curl
Start: Grasp both ends of a rope (or loop handles) attached to the low-pulley apparatus of a multifunction machine. Press your elbows into your sides with your palms facing each other. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, your torso erect, your knees slightly bent and your core tightly flexed.
Movement: Keeping your arms stable throughout the move, curl the rope up toward your shoulders and contract your biceps at the top of the move. Slowly reverse the direction and return to the starting position.
Start: Place your heels on the floor and your palms on the edge of a flat bench, arms straight. Add weight plates to your lap as needed to increase resistance so that the target rep range is achieved.
Movement: Slowly bend your elbows as far as comfortably possible, allowing your butt to descend below the level of the bench. Make sure your elbows stay close to your body throughout the move. Reverse direction by forcibly extending your arms and returning to the start position.
Start:Lie supine on a flat bench with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Grasp an EZ curl bar (or alternatively a barbell) with your palms facing away from your body and straighten your arms so that the bar is directly over your chest (your arms should be perpendicular to your body).
Movement:Keeping your elbows in and pointed toward the ceiling, slowly lower the bar until the weights are just above the level of your forehead. Press the bar back up until it reaches the start position.
Barbell Drag Curl
Start: Grasp a barbell with a palms-up, shoulder-width grip and allow it to hang in front of your body with a slight bend to your elbows. Assume a comfortable stance and maintain a slight bend in your knees.
Movement:Keeping your upper arms close to your sides and stable throughout the move, bring your elbows back behind your body, curling the bar along the line of your torso up toward your shoulders. Contract your biceps, then slowly reverse direction and return to the start position.
Dumbbell Prone Incline Curl
Start:Lie facedown on an incline bench set at 30 degrees. Grasp two dumbbells and allow the weights to hang straight down from your shoulders with your palms facing away from your body.
Movement: Curl the dumbbells upward toward your shoulders, keeping your upper arms stable throughout the movement. Contract your biceps and then slowly return the weights back to the start position.
Barbell Reverse Curl
Start: Grasp a barbell with a palms-down, shoulder-width grip and allow it
to hang in front of your body with a slight bend to your elbows. Assume a comfortable stance and maintain a slight bend in your knees.
Movement:Keeping your upper arms stable, curl the dumbbells upward toward your shoulders. Contract your elbow flexors, then slowly return the weight back to the start position.
Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension
Start: Grasp the stem of a dumbbell with both hands. Sit at the edge of a flat bench or chair, bring the dumbbell overhead, bend your elbows and allow the weight to hang down behind your head as far as comfortably possible.
Movement: Straighten your arms, keeping your elbows back and pointed toward the ceiling throughout the move. Contract your triceps and then slowly lower the weight along the same path back to the start position.
Cable Triceps Pressdown
Start: Use an overhand grip to grasp the ends of a rope (or loop handles) attached to the high-pulley apparatus of a multifunction machine. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, your torso erect, your knees slightly bent and your core held tightly. Press your arms against your sides with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle and your palms facing one another.
Movement: Keeping your elbows at your sides, straighten your arms as far as possible without discomfort. Contract your triceps, reverse the direction, then return to the starting position.
Cable Triceps Kickback
Start: Grasp a loop handle attached to the low-pulley apparatus of a multifunction machine. Bend your torso forward so that it’s roughly parallel to the floor. Press your right arm against your side with your right elbow bent at a 90-degree angle and your palm facing backward. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, your torso erect and your knees slightly bent.
Movement: Keeping your upper arm stable, raise the handle by straightening your arm until it’s parallel to the floor. Then reverse the direction and return the weight to the starting position. After finishing the desired number of repetitions, repeat the process on your left side.
The Scientific Workout
The two sample arm routines shown here reflect the principles I’ve discussed. You can train bi’s and tri’s on separate days or combine them in the same workout. There is really no right or wrong way to go about it. Note that the exercises were selected to work different aspects of the respective muscles. This is accomplished by varying arm and hand position of the movement. In addition, the exercise modalities are varied as well so that you train with a combination of barbells, dumbbells and cables. Each will have different effects on fiber recruitment and stimulation, albeit subtle, that can help optimize muscular development.
Perform two to four sets per exercise. Most importantly, employ a variety of rep ranges. The focus should be on the six- to 12-rep range, but you should also incorporate sets of 15 to 20 reps as well, perhaps going even higher on some sets. This can be done either in the same workout or on a workout-to-workout basis. Rest should generally be one to two minutes between sets.
Finally, experiment with adding BFR training into the mix. Even doing so a couple of times a month can spur additional growth. The first set of BFR should allow for the completion of approximately 25 reps, with successive sets decreasing to the 12- to 15-rep range. Rest for 30 seconds between the BFR sets.