In the gym, the classic “high school boy” workout comprises the Bench Press, Bicep Curls and a whole lot of nothin’ where the legs are concerned. Trainers scoff at this workout, which yields less than stellar results; but surprisingly, it is still used today in some form when gym rats want to earn passes to the “gun show.”
In their pursuit of big arms, many novice lifters close-grip bench and curl their way to oblivion with limited results. For cosmetic purposes, we can agree that large and rock solid arms are coveted—but what’s the most effective way to get big arms?
Upper-Arm Anatomy 101
I’m not going to get into a full-fledged discussion of upper arm anatomy, but here’s a brief primer.
The triceps are located on the back of the upper arm and are made up of three muscles: the long head, the lateral head and the medial head. Hitting all three adequately is the way to build size in the tri’s. Of the three, the long head has the most responsibility, but is typically the least trained. It’s your job to make sure it receives more attention. Dips and Close Grip-Bench both favor the lateral head, as do Triceps Press-Downs.
The biceps are made up of two muscles on the front of the upper arm: the long head and the short head. In general, it’s not too hard to hit the biceps, so making them larger is a different case. We’ve all heard of Strict Curls, Concentration Curls, Hammer Curls, Reverse Curls and even Zottman Curls.
Boyce’s Choice: Triceps
Skull Crushers are great, but in my opinion, the single best triceps isolation exercise is the French Press. The further away the upper arm moves from the torso in an exercise, the more of a chance it has to engage the long head of the triceps. With a completely overhead load, the French Press allows no excuse, in contrast to Skull Crushers, which start like a Close-Grip Bench Press.
Set an adjustable bench one notch below upright and turn your elbows in as far as possible. At the beginning, it won’t take much weight to really feel a contraction and stretch in this exercise. I recommend using an EZ bar rather than a straight bar, because it’s more friendly to the wrists. Remember to set your shoulders to ensure your arms are stable in the overhead position.
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Boyce’s Choices: Biceps
When you want your arms to get bigger, the biceps should be only part of your focus. You need to attack the brachialis muscle, which is located deep under the biceps tissue. My favorite exercise to hit this muscle, along with the biceps, is the Chin-Up. The good news: Chin-Ups are also a great way to hit the back muscles. Use a palms-in grip to maximize the effect on the biceps and go to town.
It’s not always easy to do Chin-Ups for reps, so I recommend starting with a band wrapped around the bar and under one foot to help “sling” you up as you pull. Use the band if you can’t perform more than five Pull-Ups in one shot when you’re fresh.
Once you’ve mastered 12 Pull-Ups with a band, use a skinnier band. Continue the progressions until you no longer need a band at all. At this point, as long as your technique holds up, you can consider Weighted Chin-Ups. If not, don’t be afraid to do more reps with bodyweight chins.
2 Tickets to the Gun Show
These two exercises may seem like an unorthodox way to blast the arms, but they’re the two best exercises to hit what are often considered dormant muscles in the upper arms. Not only do they allow you to lift a considerable load, they also zero in on the individual muscles that make up each group. Pepper plenty of each exercise into your routine and you’ll need a license to wear spandex at formal events.