As gym newbies, intent on building a pair of massive, sleeve-splitting arms, it’s only natural that the first exercises we gravitated to in the gym involved every variation of elbow flexion and extension we could find.
However, despite weeks of intense curling, our guns grew very little and girls still didn’t want to speak to us.
It’s not that these isolation exercises are terrible—far from it—but they aren’t the most suitable choice for beginners.
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Your level of training level will determine what exercises and methods you use to build bigger arms, or what’s technically called hypertrophy.
When a young athlete first goes to the gym with the intention of amplifying his arm mass, he has two choices in relation to arm exercises:
- Focus on direct arm work (Curls and Press-Downs)
- Focus on compound movements (Chin-Ups and Dips)
However, there’s a catch:
Neither choice will elicit growth in the early stages of training.
Nope, all initial gains will revolve around neural adaptations.
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Neural adaptations refer to improved intramuscular coordination, which means the lifter will have an improved ability to recruit motor units and improved potential for hypertrophy, since the more motor units that can be recruited (and fatigued), the greater the muscle growth.
Therefore, beginners should opt for exercises that allow for the greatest loading. This will set them up for greater motor unit recruitment later in their training.
This means selecting compound movements and focusing on building strength with good technique and through a full range of motion, which incidentally has been shown to have a profound effect on muscle hypertrophy in more experienced lifters and is something that should be drilled in early on.
At this stage in their training career, isolation exercises will be particularly inferior when it comes to stimulating arm size.
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Instead, they will have much better success focusing on getting stronger and lifting with good form.
An example of an upper-body routine could be as follows (this could be part of a bigger routine, which would include lower-body exercises):
|A1) Bench Press: 3×5, 60-90 secs rest
|A2) Chin-Ups*: 3xmax reps, 60-90 secs rest
|B1) Dips: 3×6-8, 120 secs rest
|B2) Seated Rows: 3×8-10, 60-90 secs rest
*Use partner/band assistance if need be. If they can do more than 10 reps, add weight.
It may look incredibly simple, but that’s all beginners need.
Properly applied progressive overload and a calorie surplus will see young lifters making a strong start toward their dream goal of huge arms with this training format.
Once a lifter has advanced beyond the beginner stage and is capable of deriving muscular gains from their training, it’s time to learn how to develop the mind-muscle connection by focusing on “feeling” the muscle during isolation exercises, since research has shown that this elicits higher degrees of activation.
By learning how to contract their muscles fully and from an early point in their training, they will have a fantastic head start when it comes to dedicating entire workouts to arm training.
The following workout, performed twice a week, will generate continued arm growth in intermediate lifters:
|A1) Bench Press: 3-4×6-8, 120 secs rest
|A2) Weighted Chin-Ups: 3-4×6-8, 120 secs rest
|B1) Dips: 3×8-10, 90 secs rest
|B2) Incline DB Curls: 3×8-10, 90 secs rest
|C1) Straight Bar Pushdown: 2×10+*, 60 secs rest
|C2) Standing Rope Curl: 2×10+*, 60 secs rest
*Aim to do at least 10 reps but hit complete technical failure.
The more a lifter advances, more volume is needed to disrupt homeostasis and trigger muscle growth.
This can justify the use of an arm day, whereby an entire training session is devoted to training arms and stimulating as much muscle as possible.
Assuming that the advanced lifter has developed a strong mind-muscle connection and has joints that need to be spared from heavy loading, he can successful use many more single-joint exercises with far better results that his beginner and intermediate lifting buddies.
The wide variety of training methods and exercises available to them, if they wish to hit their muscles with a large training volume, is not just a privilege but a necessity for further arm development.
The following techniques can be regular features of their arm training routines:
- Drop sets
- Mechanical drop sets
- Extended sets
- Partial reps
- Supersets/Tri-sets/Giant sets
- Occlusion training (blood-flow restriction training)
- Rep targeting (e.g., 50 reps in as many sets as required)
It’s not that these methods are completely wasted on less experienced lifters, but considering that more advanced lifters can handle greater loads, spend more time under tension, tolerate greater pain levels and establish a stronger mind-muscle connection, it makes sense that they should be reserved as more advanced arm training methods.
Also, note that the majority of these methods use lighter weights, thus reducing the stress on the joints of older lifters and limiting the training stress on novice lifters.
The following routine involves more volume than the intermediate program. It relies on the lifter being able to maintain tension on his muscles during every rep of every set.
|A1) Lying EZ-bar Triceps Extension: 3×8-10, 10 secs rest
|A2) Dips: 3×8-10, 10 secs rest
|A3) Overhead Rope Extension: 3×10-12, 120 secs rest
|B1) Incline DB Curls: 3×8-10, 10 secs rest
|B2) Standing BB Curl: 3×8-10, 10 secs rest
|B3) EZ-bar Reverse Curl: 3×8-10, 120 secs rest
|C1) Straight bar Pushdown: 2x Drop set*, 60 secs rest
|C2) Straight Bar Cable Curl: 2xDrop set*, 60 secs rest
*Hit failure at around 10-12 reps, reduce the weight by 10-15%, hit failure, reduce the weight by another 10-15% and hit failure again.
Fast hypertrophy in the arm muscles, the goal of many lifters, is best achieved by utilising the methods most appropriate for their training age.
Saving the fancy methods and routines for when the time is right will prevent a great deal of frustration in the early days of lifting and will allow for continued progress over time as the lifter becomes stronger and requires exposure to greater levels of training stress in order to achieve all-important gains in muscle size.
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2. Pinto RS, Gomes N, Radaelli R, Botton CE, Brown LE, Bottaro M. “Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness.” J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2140-5.
3. McMahon GE, Morse CI, Burden A, Winwood K, Onambélé GL. “Impact of range of motion during ecologically valid resistance training protocols on muscle size, subcutaneous fat, and strength.” J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jan;28(1):245-55.
4. Calatayud J, Vinstrup J, Jakobsen MD, Sundstrup E, Brandt M, Jay K, Colado JC, Andersen LL. “Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Mar;116(3):527-33.
5. Schoenfeld, BJ, Contreras, B. “Attentional focus for maximizing muscle development: The mind-muscle connection.” Strength & Conditioning Journal. 38(1):27-29, February 2016.