Everybody likes the idea of having python-packed sleeves, but athletes need to face a simple fact: their arms constitute only about 10 percent of their bodies. That means that when you’re training your biceps or triceps, most of your body is at rest.
It should follow, then, that doing exercises that work only the arms are, for the most part, a waste of time. Yet walk into any gym and you’ll likely see legions of people curling and skullcrushing away. Heck, you’ve probably dedicated more than one of your own workouts to arms.
We get it. No one wants to look like Scrawny Arms Rob Lowe. So if you feel compelled to work your arms, at least you need to do it right—and only after you’re strong enough to justify taking time away from other more important exercises.
“Having big strong arms is rarely going to be a detriment,” says Tony Bonvechio, a strength coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. “But your workouts need to be prioritized based on the physical demands of your sport.”
Unless you’re training for the sequel to Over the Top, arm training should fall pretty low on your priority list. Most athletes should focus primarily on the big lifts—Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, Bent-Over Rows, Pull-Ups and Push-Ups. If you’re training these moves correctly, your arms will get bigger and stronger too.
“The best strength athletes in the world don’t even do arm days,” Bonvechio says. “Direct arm training is done to make a main lift better and provide symmetry. A powerlifter or strongman competitor will do Curls or tricep exercises to keep their elbows healthy.”
If you’re an athlete, you need to think about how important arm strength is in relation to your sport before spending valuable time on your arms in the weight room. And if you’re just trying to get in shape, spending too much time working isolated muscle groups won’t do you much good in the grand scheme of things. Unless you’re a meathead who loves to show his “guns,” training your arms should never be a priority.
But My Arms Are Tiny and Make Me Look Weak
OK, fine. If you’re concerned about your arms and want to train them, you first need to determine if you’re strong enough to work them. Without a base of strength in your primary exercises, working your biceps and triceps won’t do much good. Bonvechio suggests that athletes need to be able to do the following four things before they earn the right to do arm exercises:
- Bench Press x 10 reps with a weight equivalent to your body weight
- Bent-Over Row x 10 reps with a weight equivalent to half of your Bench Press max
- Pull-Ups x 10 reps with strict form
- Push-Ups x 20 reps with strict form
How to Properly Train Your Arms
Did you make the grade? If so, congrats. But hopefully you’re still not going to spend hours getting ready for the gun show. Big lifts and primary exercises should still be your priority, with arm exercises serving as complementary accessory movements at the end of your workouts. If you do arms early on, the fatigue in your biceps and triceps will hurt your more important lifts.
Bonvechio advises athletes to train arms only in the off-season, when they have more time and the demands of their sport are reduced. Even so, you should keep the volume at no more than 30 total reps for your biceps and triceps and use a relatively light weight.
“Make it efficient and quick,” Bonvechio adds. “You’re doing it more to get a pump than to grind out heavy sets.”
Bonvechio recommends the six exercises below for safely and effectively working your arms.
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Nearly every gym has one of these bars. It’s a popular way to train the biceps because it’s a bit easier on the wrists and elbows.
Incline DB Curls
Set up on an incline bench and do Curls through a full range of motion. Emphasize lowering the dumbbells slowly and you’ll get a nice stretch at the bottom. Your biceps will be on fire!
In this variation of the Hammer Curl, you bring the dumbbell across your torso to the opposite shoulder. You get a more concentrated squeeze in your biceps and bring your forearm muscles into the mix.
This is one of the best exercises for building strong triceps. Bonus: It will help you lift more on your bench.
A safer version of Skullcrushers or Tricep Extensions, the Tate Press puts puts minimal stress on the elbows.
Band Tricep Push-Downs
This is the only exception to the 30-rep rule. Perform Tricep Push-Downs with a lightweight resistance band for one to two sets of 30-50 reps. Your triceps will be bulging out of your arms when you’re finished!