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.