It’s one of the most common things that men want – bigger, more muscular arms. I mean, who wouldn’t want them? Even through the confines of dress shirts and business attire, muscular arms demand attention. As men, we are predisposed to having proud, muscular arms by our hormonal starting points. While genetic differences may show a difference in size and shape of the arms from person to person, men can get their arms built much more than a woman.
It is important for men to briefly understand how the upper arm muscles work to get the best benefit from exercising them. Let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of the biceps and triceps to best understand how to attack them in the weight room.
Behind the Scenes with the Biceps and Triceps
The biceps are actually two-head muscles (‘bi’ meaning two, like in bicycle) and the triceps, in turn, have three parts to them. The biceps muscle connects to your upper arm bone (the humerus) and the front side of your shoulder blade (also called the scapula, this is the bone that connects your arm bone with your collarbone). Further down your arm, both heads of the biceps muscle join together into one tendon that connects to your radius bone, one of the bones of the forearm. Because of way the biceps connects to the different bones, it allows it not only to control the flexion of the elbow joint but can also contribute to the rotation of your wrist as well. Your triceps muscle also attaches to the scapula and humerus, although all three heads combine together into a single tendon mass that connects to the other forearm bone (the ulna) and give your body the ability to extend your elbow joint.
Your biceps and triceps muscles move the same joint in opposite motions, extension and flexion. Scientifically, they are called antagonistic pairs for this very reason. The important thing to remember is this: your biceps and triceps work against one another at the same moment in time to provide stability to your elbow joint. That means that these two sets of muscles will help hold your elbow joint steady if it’s under pressure. It also means that if there is an imbalance between your triceps and biceps muscles, you can be setting yourself up for injury.
The Common Sense of Arm Size
When most people are asked to make a muscle, do you know the number one muscle that is flexed? You probably guessed it – the biceps. Did you also know that this muscle actually comprises less than half of the muscle mass of the upper arm? It’s true – the triceps muscle actually makes up more than half of the upper arms muscle mass and yet is often neglected by the very same people seeking to get ‘bigger guns.’ Since the muscle heads of the biceps and triceps are roughly the same size if you could take all of them apart and lay them next to one another, it does make sense that a muscle with three heads would be bigger than a muscle with two heads. At the same time, the most important thing to understand here is that by correctly working your biceps and your triceps along with a couple of supporting upper arm muscles, you will be maximizing your muscle growth potential. A swooping triceps muscle can help accentuate a bulging biceps muscle even more. With that said, let’s take a look at some key exercises that can take your arm size to the next level.
For all of these exercises, please pay close attention to the following items:
- With curling exercises, if your elbows come forward too far away from your body during a curling exercise, the front of your shoulder will kick in and steal some of the attention away from the deserving biceps. Focus on keeping your elbows from kicking forward and you’ll get a more intense feeling. It may help to squeeze your upper arms against your sides as you work these lifts to keep the elbow locked in place.
- The muscles that flex your elbow help to make that joint look great — experiment with different wrist rotations and see where you feel the different exercises… just remember to keep your wrist straight in line with your forearm and solid to help prevent joint stress. (Curling with your wrists bent at 90º isn’t so wise.)
- Regardless of the triceps exercise that you’re doing, remember to squeeze the dickens out of those puppies when your arms are most straight during each movement – if they feel like they’re going to cramp, relax for a little bit and then continue.
- There are two main ways in which the triceps are worked – pressing and extending. As you exercise your triceps, try to cover both of those movements as shown with the two movements selected below.
Curls – Biceps
- While standing with good posture, hold weights (either dumbbells or a barbell) of appropriate weight in your hands with your arms extended (hands down by your thighs). Grip the weight firmly but not so hard as to go white-knuckled.
- While keeping your elbows from moving as best you can, raise the weight up in an arc toward your chest.
- At the top of the movement, squeeze your biceps and hold for a brief second before lowering the weights back down smoothly to your thighs.
- Keep the speed of the movement in a fast yet controllable and safe speed.
French Presses – Triceps
- Carefully raise a dumbbell over the top of your head with both hands securely holding one end of the weight. Keeping your elbows closer to your head is better — be careful not to let your elbows go wide as this may cause undue stress in your shoulder. (This exercise can be performed seated or standing — seated can put less strain on your lower back.)
- Smoothly lower the dumbbell behind your head being careful not to hit yourself in the back with the weight.
- Raise the dumbbell up by extending your arms overhead and briefly squeeze your triceps at the top of the motion.
Hammer Curls – Biceps
- Start this exercise with dumbbells just like the Biceps Curls, but instead of keeping your palms forward, rotate the dumbbells so your palms face toward one another with your arms hanging at your sides.
- Follow the same motion as with the Biceps Curls exercise, keeping your elbows at your sides as best you can.
Close-Grip Push-Ups (always from toes, never from knees) – Triceps
- Lay face-down on the ground or a soft surface with your legs together and body in a straight line. Put your hands against your body with your thumbs touching your ribs just below your chest muscles. Rotate your hands out just a bit and keep your elbows facing back while you press up into the top of the push-up position.
- Keep your chest out and head in line with the rest of your stiff body as you press out each repetition. Keep your chest sticking out and your neck in line with your straight back. Your upper arms should be about parallel with the line of the rest of your body at the bottom of the movement.
- Press yourself back up and briefly squeeze your triceps when your arms are extended. Repeat the movement for each repetition of the close-grip push-ups.
- If completing these movements for less than five reps in good form is challenging, try heading to the stairs or using a fitness bench sideways to operate at an angle and take some of the pressure off until you get strong enough to do this movement from the floor.
Some Additional Movements
While all of the fundamental mass-building arm motions hinge off of the above exercises, there are a couple of variations that are good to know about. Generally, these involve slight variations of wrist position or the angle at which the arm muscles are attacked. For non-cable upper arm curling or extension exercises, the most challenging point of an exercise is generally when your forearm is parallel with the ground. This will happen roughly around an elbow bend of 90º with a standard curl. But if you change the position of your upper arm, it’s possible to alter the angle of the elbow when the forearm is parallel to the ground. For instance, preacher curls hit this point when the elbow is quite extended, while concentration curls hit this point when the elbow is mostly flexed. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some other exercises that can be utilized for building bigger guns.
- Preacher Curls
- Reverse Curls
- Concentration Curls
- Cable Curls
- Incline Bench Dumbbell Curls
- Skullcrushers/Lying Triceps Extensions
- Triceps Pressdowns
- Reverse-Grip Triceps Pressdowns
- One-Arm Push-ups
- Supinated/Rope Triceps Pressdowns
- Dips (off stand or bench)
Specific Lifting Techniques
The following techniques will detail out particular phases to cycle your arm training. This will keep the stimulation coming from all angles and is a global perspective compared to actual exercises. Too many times people focus on specific exercises for results instead of how these exercises are utilized. The exercises are the tools, but the application technique is the method to use the tools for their best use.
The term ‘phase’ is used below to describe a period of time. In general, this should encompass a biceps workout and triceps workout during the same week for simplicity’s sake. Consider a single productive workout for a muscle group as the passage of one phase. While your own body will have different recovery periods when compared to the person next to you, it’s important to note that every person will need some recovery time after hitting a specific muscle group to avoid overtraining, a dangerous state leading to inevitable injury and stagnated results.
The Time Under Tension Phase
During the time under tension phase, techniques should focus on optimizing the time under tension for muscles being worked. This is accomplished through a couple of means.
- Slower rep tempo: perform repetitions at a speed of 2-6 seconds per rep. This will be agonizingly slow in some cases, but your muscles will be forced to respond to this increased tension demand.
- Incorporate partial movements: Acting like a pre-fatigue method, if you add partial movements into a set you can increase the total time under tension for a muscle in question. 21s are great examples of this: the first seven repetitions of the set are performed only in the bottom ½ of the range, the next consecutive seven repetitions are performed in the top ½ of the range and the final seven repetitions utilize the full range of motion. When using this method, always add the partial repetitions to the beginning of the set.
- Stripping sets: Also called drop sets, this is really a giant set of two to four sets of the same exercises performed back-to-back with descending resistances. A sample triple stripping set of standing dumbbell curls may look like up to 12 reps with 30 pound dumbbells followed by up to 12 reps with 20 pound dumbbells finishing with up to 12 reps with 15 pound dumbbells.
The Strength Phase
During the strength phase, it’s important to push the limit strength of your muscle for better power development. The goal here is to hit heavier weights, thereby forcing a lower rep range. Strength training like this may not leave you with a great pump, but it will certainly build the base power of your muscle and force it to respond like no amount of higher rep sets can provide. You will probably need longer rest times between sets here and the total number of sets performed can be lower as your body can only produce near-maximal output a couple of times before it cries ‘Uncle.’ Always be sure to use proper warm-up techniques before lifting in this range. The goal here is to squeeze out your reps with maximum intensity while using weights that restrict your reps down to the one to six range.
The Circuit Phase
During the circuit phase, the goal is to get a massive pump by hitting your muscles from multiple angles one after another. This isn’t a whole-body circuit, but instead stringing three to six different exercises together like a giant set and then repeating this set multiple times with rest between each circuit. Alternate triceps and biceps exercises so there is a slight bit of rest for each muscle group while you keep on moving. Here’s a sample circuit:
- Cable Curls
- Triceps Pressdowns
- Hammer Curls
- Standing Biceps Curls
- Close-Grip Push-ups
Mass Building Secrets
Now that you have some solid arm exercises along with specific techniques how to utilize these movements, it’s important to understand some critical pieces of information – secrets to building arm mass.
- Muscle is built with protein building blocks. If your body doesn’t have a healthy supply of these building blocks (proteins are broken down into amino acids and utilized by the body to help build and rebuild muscle tissues, among other things) you could just about lift until you’re blue in the face and you won’t see the progress you’re hoping for.
- Pump is important – it is good to have your muscles completely engorged with blood as part of your cycle of arm exercises. There seems to be some growth response that’s related to the ‘my arm is a sausage about to explode’ feeling that comes from certain exercise techniques. Higher rep, ‘endurance’ methods tend to get more blood into the muscles over time.
- Strength is important – while true strength training doesn’t tend to pump the arms up like some of the endurance methods, it is nonetheless critical to develop sizeable upper arm muscles. As your strength increases, this will affect the total power output your muscle is capable of producing and that will in turn affect everything you do with your arm lifting.
- Rest is a critical part of mass building. If you work a body part out too soon or too frequently, it will not have time to super-compensate from the last workout and get progressively stronger. The heavier the workout, the more rest is normally needed to recover.
- Build volume, but don’t keep building time. While the total volume of sets and reps that your arms are capable of will continue to grow as you positively develop, it’s important that the total workout time does not increase at the same rate. Intensity is better than volume, so keep your workouts blasting with as little rest between sets as necessary and you’ll reap the rewards.
Wrapping It Up
We’ve covered a lot of ground here and by now, you’ve learned not only what your biceps and triceps muscles do, but how to work them best to blast your arms with awesome size and strength. Strong arms are a great compliment to balanced, powerful shoulder and torso joints. (And they look pretty darn impressive as well.) Have fun with it and go bring out the big guns!