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Arms Workouts

Build Biceps Like Arnold

Take these lessons on crafting bigger arms, as culled from the master himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In his prime, seven-time Mr. Olympia champion (and former California governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger was a full 20 to 30 pounds lighter than the behemoths that lumber onto bodybuilding stages today. Still, his physique remains the standard by which so many measure their own progress. Most people you ask, for instance, will mention Schwarzenegger’s arms as being par excellence, regardless of the era. His triceps, full and etched, provide the bulk of his upper-arm mass, but it was his freakish biceps peak that really made his guns the stuff of legend.

It is natural, then, that so many seek out every nugget of information that they can get their hands on about how he trained his bi’s — and trust us, there’s volumes — so we decided we’d dish you five of his best biceps-building shock techniques. You may never possess his peaks, but by implementing his approach to biceps, you can get closer than ever to reaching your full sleeve-busting potential.

1. Dial Up the Frequency 

If you’re reading this, bigger biceps are a training goal for you. If that’s the case, you should consider Schwarzenegger’s penchant for training arms — like he did with some other bodyparts — twice a week. By going beyond the typical “once a week” training style of many bodybuilders, his biceps were forced to respond in kind. Before a contest, he’d take it a step further, hitting bi’s up to three times per week.

2. Reach Your Peak — And Hold It

Schwarzenegger has been quoted a few times saying that dumbbells provided a much better contraction for him than barbells, even though barbells allowed him to use more weight. By using dumbbells, “The Austrian Oak” was able to get a bit of an extra squeeze at the top of the movement, supinating his wrist (i.e., turning up his palm) as far as possible to maximize his biceps peak. To get the most of this approach, start with a few heavy sets of barbell curls, then grab the dumbbells and focus on holding the peak contraction at the apex of each repetition.

3. Crank the Volume

How many sets are you currently doing for biceps? Twelve? Maybe 16? Schwarzenegger was a high-volume guy, period, and for biceps this usually meant around 26 sets in his competitive offseason. This was his hard-and-heavy cycle, where he’d complete six to seven sets of three exercises, then five sets of another, all of them in the strength-and-hypertrophy range of six to eight reps. Schwarzenegger would stick with normal rest periods (one to two minutes) between sets to maximize his poundages throughout the workout.

4. Cheat Wisely

While Schwarzenegger was one of the earliest vocal proponents of strict-form training — he said that “feeling” the biceps working throughout the range of motion was key to shaping the muscle, more so than heaving incredible amounts of weight — he was not against using a little body English to grind out a few extra reps with heavier-than-normal loads on standing curls to stimulate growth. This is a technique best reserved for more experienced lifters because there’s a fine line between just enough swing to complete a rep and full-blown, out-of-control momentum. If used judiciously, though, you can prod your guns past sticking points and into a growth phase.

5. Embrace Variety

Relying on one or two exercises for complete development is not enough because each movement challenges the muscle in a different manner. Schwarzenegger recognized this and included exercises that took advantage of multiple hand positions: Barbell curls (palms up), reverse curls (palms down), hammer curls (palms facing each other) and dumbbell curls (leaving your palms free to move between these various positions) served to form complete workouts, in which the biceps was challenged from insertion to origin and from its depths to the peak.