I’ve been writing articles about arm workouts for 15 years. Besides abs, there’s no trait that guys desire more than muscle biceps and defined triceps, which is why I have a big confession to make: I wish I shut up and learned a little more before writing many of my earlier articles.
For years, I was pulled in one extreme direction or the other, never really finding the sweet spot that resulted in real growth. It started when I was sucked into the idea of “you don’t need curls to build bigger arms.” Big mistake.
After my anti-curl era, I was obsessed with progressive overload. That is, I only concerned myself with using heavier weights on all exercises—curls included. This led to non-stop elbow issues and more time rehabbing than growing.
Today, things are different. I know the exercises, rep ranges, and frequency that help build an impressive set of biceps and triceps. Avoid my mistakes from the past and follow my tips for the future, and maybe – just maybe – I’ll never have to write one of these articles again.
Arm Workouts Require a Pump
As much as I love using heavy weights, great arm workouts usually require plenty of volume to help with growth and reduce the likely of injury to your elbows. And the reason is simple: when you go very heavy, you start cheating more than you want. A few cheat reps are fine on any exercise, but your arms will grow by volume and tension. If the weight is too heavy, you start to use your traps, shoulders and momentum, which removes the tension from where you want it — your biceps and triceps. Stick to sets of 8-15 reps, and even sometimes finish with sets of 20 reps.
Make it Simple(r)
There are approximately 800 exercises for your arms, and most are a waste. Hammer curls, EZ bar curls, and dumbbell variations (standing, seated, and incline) are all your biceps need. For your triceps, think big movements like ring dips, close grip bench presses, and pushups. This creates overload, which will force them to grow. Finish them off with movements that create a greater stretch throughout the movement, such as cable extension or skull crushers.
And don’t forget your forearms, whether it’s through direct work or preferably heavy weighted carries like farmer’s walks. These exercises, while not seemingly great for size, will dramatically improve your grip strength. This will help increase weight on all exercises, and especially pulling movements, which are an important part of overall arm growth.
Try Arm Workouts on Leg Day
Here’s something you don’t hear too often: if you want big arms, train your legs. This isn’t a ploy. You see, your body likes to grow in proportion. So while there are plenty of guys that skip leg day and still have some big arms, you will rarely find a guy with a big squat and deadlift with pencil arms. It just doesn’t happen.
But here’s the trick: because your biceps are a smaller muscle group, they can respond well to high frequency, especially if you have a couple of years of weight training experience. You want to train them at least 2-3 times per week for optimal growth. A way to make this happen: add direct arm work on your leg days (Actually, begin your workouts with the arm training.) This is something former Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, did early in his career, and it works.
Target Your Training
Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth.
If you want big arms, don’t train arms like crazy year-round. Instead, pick an 8-12 week period where you focus on training your arms 2-4 times per week. Make them a priority and they will grow, and then back off for another 12-20 weeks, before focusing on them again.
Stretch and Grow
If you’re like most guys, you treat stretching like hair conditioner: great in theory, but not worth your time. But if you want sleeve-expanding arms, a good stretch is invaluable. You won’t see much research on it, so this is about observation from some of the best in the business. After a few sets, your arms are pumped and full of blood. A good stretch can help increase blood flow, which means more potential growth. You can wait for the science, or you can do it and experience the results for yourself.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.