Arm yourself with the knowledge to develop bigger, stronger guns
There are many ways to structure an arm workout. Some like to combine arms with agonist muscles – a muscle that contracts together with another to move a part of the body, such as chest and triceps, or back and biceps, for example. Others prefer to hit the main arm muscles twice a week, either with a back and triceps, chest and biceps split routine, or they include a day dedicated to arm training to build on the accessory work done during chest and back training days.
Whatever approach you choose based on your ultimate goal, careful consideration should be given to the structure of any arm training session. Do you hit your ‘bis’ first, then your ‘tris’, or vice versa, or do you follow an antagonist approach?
Selecting your approach
Before you structure any training routine it is important to first establish your goal. Exercise programming, as it is commonly referred to, is developed with this end goal in mind, be it increased strength and/or size, correcting imbalances, or merely restoring function to an injured muscle group.
Either way, there is no ‘wrong’ approach if the fundamental elements are adhered to. However, there are certain methods that provide better results than others depending on your desired outcome. For the purpose of this article we will focus on arm training for aesthetics, and arm training for increased strength. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, one approach will deliver greater gains in size, while the other will create more significant gains in strength.
Training for size
When it comes to muscle growth (hypertrophy) body builders have perfected the art. One of the key principles they use is time under tension (TUT) – a factor of the load (weight) lifted, and the amount of time spent ‘under’ the load. This approach requires slower, more focused reps, with a focus on total load (weight x reps).
Extending the duration that muscles are required to work causes a greater degree of muscle tissue breakdown, which is the training stimulus that leads to bigger muscles when this damage is repaired through rest and nutrition.
Based on this premise, a body builder often structures his routine so that all bicep exercises are performed consecutively before he moves on to the tricep exercises, for example. This overloads the targeted muscle, causing the degree of micro-trauma required to initiate a more pronounced anabolic response.
Training for strength
When it comes to developing arm strength, be it for specific functional reasons, or merely to be able to lift and push more on the big lifts, volume becomes less important. In this case the weight, rep structure and the tempo of lifts are the all-important factors in creating the desired physiological response – increasing the contractile force of the targeted muscle fibres.
In addition, there is a great deal of benefit to training with an antagonist approach. The bicep and tricep muscles naturally work in unison, as an antagonistic pair, but in opposition to each other; when the bicep, the flexor, contracts, the extensor muscle, the tricep, extends and opposes the force of the contraction, and is also responsible for returning the arm to its initial resting position.
The reason why an antagonist programme structure – performing a bicep exercise, followed by a tricep exercise, in this case – is ideal for improving strength is due to the greater motor-unit activation this type of training produces.
Research shows that power generation can be increased when the initial agonist action is preceded immediately by a contraction of the muscle’s antagonist. This means a bicep and tricep exercise are performed, one after the other, to complete an agonist-antagonist paired set (APS). Once both exercises have been completed then a rest interval can be taken between each set.
This approach works because the antagonist exercise primes the motor neurons that force the agonist muscle to contract more intensely, resulting in a stronger, more powerful movement. This forceful stretch-shortening cycle is similar to that produced during plyometric training, another great form of exercise to boost strength and power.
The research supporting this way of training, published in 2005 in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, found that alternating agonist and antagonist muscle exercises increased power output by 4.7% over the control group. The research team, led by Daniel Baker from the School of Biomedical and Sports Science, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Western Australia, concluded that the results “may affect power training and specific warm-up strategies used in ballistic sports activities, with increased emphasis placed upon the antagonist muscle groups.”
It is also worth considering that increasing maximal arm strength initially will help you lift a greater weight for more reps or time, which increases total load significantly. This will greatly improve muscle size in the long-term, and has a beneficial carry-over into the bigger compound lifts.
Bigger, badder arms workout
|Standing alternating dumbbell curl||4||8-12|
|Standing alternating hammer curl||3||8-12|
|Standing behind-the-head cable curls||4||8-12|
|Overhead tricep extensions||4||8-12|
|Tricep rope pushdowns||3||8-12|
|Reverse grip tricep pushdowns||3||12 (each arm)|
Stronger arms workout
*perform the first exercise in the list, immediately followed by the second to complete one set.
|1. Standing alternating dumbbell curls|
2. Skull crushers
|1. Standing alternating hammer curls|
2. Tricep rope pushdowns
|1. Standing behind-the-head cable curls|
2. Overhead tricep extensions
|1. Concentration curls|
2. Single arm reverse grip tricep pushdowns
|3||12 (each arm)|
Standing Alternating Dumbbell Curls
Stand upright holding dumbbells in either hand, by your sides, with your palms facing in and your arms straight. Raise one dumbbell and rotate the forearm until your palm faces your shoulder. Return to the starting position and repeat with the opposite arm. Continue to alternate between sides.
Standing Alternating Hammer Curls
Stand upright with a slight bend in your knees. Hold dumbbells in either hand, positioned at your sides, with your palms facing in and your arms straight. Keep your elbows at your sides, then raise one dumbbell upward, until your forearm is vertical and your thumb is facing your shoulder. Lower the dumbbell back to the original position and repeat on the other side.
Standing Behind-the-Head Cable Curls
Attach stirrup attachments to each high pulley cable on a cable crossover machine. Stand between the two towers with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grip each handle and extend your arms out to your sides to form a Y-shape, with your palms facing up. Curl your arms toward your shoulders. Laterally rotate your forearms so that your palms are facing your shoulders at the top of the movement. Keep your elbows in place and slowly return to the starting position.
EZ Bar Skull Crushers
Lie on a bench holding an EZ bar with an overhand grip. Extend it overhead, above your shoulders, by extending your arms. Lower the EZ bar down toward the top of your head by flexing your elbows. Allow the bar to descend as low as possible, Extend your arms to return to the starting position and repeat.
Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
Hold a dumbbell overhead with both hands under the inner plate using a diamond-shaped grip. With your elbows overhead, lower your forearms behind your upper arms by flexing your elbows. Flex your wrists at the bottom of the movement to stop the dumbbell from hitting the back of your neck. Raise the dumbbell back up by extending your elbows while hyperextending your wrists.
Form tip: Position your wrists closer together to keep your elbows from flaring out too much.
Face the high pulley and attach a rope attachment. Grasp the ropes with your palms facing one another. Position your elbows by your sides. Extend your arms downwards while pronating your forearms so that your palms are facing backwards at the bottom of the movement. Squeeze your triceps at the bottom of the movement before returning to the starting position by flexing your elbows.
Form tip: Your elbows can travel up a few inches at the top of the movement. Stay close to the cable throughout the movement to provide resistance at the top of the motion.
Single Arm Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdowns
Grasp a single stirrup attachment, attached to the high pulley, with an underhand grip. Position your elbow to the side of your torso. Extend your arm down, then return to the starting position, with your forearm close to your upper arm. Repeat for the required reps before continuing with the opposite arm.