To a lot of strength- or performance-minded lifters, doing arm workouts is the most redundant part of their routine — if their routine even asks for an arm-specific workout in the first place. Droning through biceps curls and triceps pressdowns may be fun for gym bros, but it can be a giant snorefest for a lifter who has built his foundation around compound movements that provide more bang for their buck.
Let’s be honest — there’s good to be found in both crowds. You won’t get strong and develop that very foundation without having solid experience with compound movements such as deadlifts, squats and overhead presses. Alternatively, even though those lifts are good for building muscle, bringing cosmetic physique changes to the next level will require more isolation, which is where zeroing in on certain muscle groups — arms, for example — has plenty of validity. Applying a little science to get the best of both worlds may be just what it takes to satisfy everyone who’s after a big set of guns.
Exercise 1: Chin-Ups
This is considered the king of arm exercises for a couple of reasons. The supinated grip (palms facing you) will stimulate the biceps like no one’s business. Beyond that, things get a bit more technical. The brachialis muscle sits under the biceps muscles and is typically more difficult to target using conventional curls. When it’s developed, it contributes to building the coveted “peak” so many athletes are after.
The good news is that doing work from overhead places a pre-stretch on this muscle and therefore targets it much more effectively. For evidence of this, find some high-level competitive gymnasts and examine their biceps development and peak. Regardless of overall size, they likely have otherworldly development in this area. The frequency and volume of their overhead pulling (as part of their athletic programming) speaks for itself where the gun show is concerned.
To take things a step further, it’s not just a matter of doing chin-ups. And, in a departure from good training advice, we’ll offer this:
Abandoning good back-dominant form in favor of just pulling with the arms would actually be a smart move if you really want the biceps and brachialis to work hard. Just sayin’.
Exercise 2: Dips
Compound exercises create more muscle. Who knew? By including dips in your workout, you’re allowing for a greater overload on the triceps than you normally would in isolation. Plus, you are training your triceps to work in concert with other muscles, which satisfies the performance-trainer sect mentioned in the beginning of this article. The dip, which also can be trained to greater overload using a weighted vest or dipping belt, emphasizes that ever-visible outer head of the triceps.
In order to keep the triceps fully engaged and to minimize the contribution from the pecs, it’s important to keep your body posture as upright as possible and your elbows tight to the body throughout.
Exercise 3: Band-Resisted Curls
If you’re a sucker for biceps curls and need them to be in your program, then upping the octane by attaching some bands to your barbell or dumbbells would be a smart move. The science here is simple: In most weight-bearing exercises, there are different parts to the force curve. The amount of effort your muscles have to go through isn’t equal as you progress through the rep. In conventional curls, the biceps usually have very little work to do in the last 15 to 20 degrees of the movement. The hard part comes from the fully extended arm position until just inside 90 degrees.
Since bands increase in tension as you stretch them — a principle known as linear variable tension — they’re the perfect additives to make the final segment of your curls more stimulating for the arms. Wrap one end of a band around your dumbbells or barbell, and stand on the band creating adequate tension. Next, go to town and curl to oblivion. As an added bonus, feel free to drop the bands off mid-set and burn out with just the weights for a great hybrid set. As an alternative, you also can try dedicated band training with a cool set like the SPRI Exertube Heavy (vitaminshoppe.com, $19).
Exercise 4: Skullcrusher Plus
Many serious trainers rely upon the conventional skullcrusher — or lying triceps extension — for triceps development. But if you’ve had to deal with elbow stress when doing this movement, understand the biomechanics of the movement rather than sidelining it altogether.
First, using gravity to your advantage can be a good initial step, so put the bench on a slight decline. This will change the force angle a bit and allow your elbows to point back farther naturally rather than pointing directly up or even forward. Second, remember your anatomy: The triceps have three heads. The most elusive of the three for most lifters is the long head, which is most effectively hit — you guessed it — via overhead movements. Take that tip and run with it by adding a “pullover” component to your skullcrushers.
As soon as you get to skull level with the weight on your eccentric phase, reach the weight down toward the floor by flexing at the shoulder joint to move the arms behind the head. You’ll feel a huge stretch in the triceps by doing this. Remember to keep the elbows facing forward; don’t let them flare outward. Once you feel a good stretch, reverse the movement and mimic a soccer throw-in pattern to return to the full extension position.
It’s OK if you use a touch of momentum here, but be careful. You might even consider using a lighter weight than usual. But prepare for your upper arms to be lit all the way up to your armpits.