From the moment you first stepped into the gym, you probably had the burning desire to sculpt an impressive pair of sleeve tearing guns. You know what I'm talking about.
It's something us serious lifters are associated with a stamp of masculinity, a statement of sheer, brute power. Nothing is more impressive, from general societies perspective, then a chiselled set of biceps and triceps hanging like granite horse-shoes. Yet why do so many of us fail to achieve the goal we arguably work hardest towards.
Its actually quite a simple question to answer, and one which this article will help rectify the common mistakes associated with the quest to build massive, showstopper arms. Read on if you want to learn the exercises, techniques and training program that is guaranteed to pack on slabs of lean meat onto your arms.
The first mistake a serious lifter makes when it comes to biceps and triceps training is that in a nutshell, they?re overtraining their arms. Who would've thought it? The muscle groups we generally train the most intensely and give our undivided attention to, are actually faltering behind for that very reason.
The fact is that in comparison to your chest, back and legs, the biceps and triceps muscles are generally small muscle groups. Yet most individuals are training them with sometimes twice the volume! Even worse, you have to remember that when heavily training chest, you're also activating the triceps to a large degree. Likewise, heavy pulling movements for back, stimulate the biceps massively. Still, we battle on, thinking these muscle groups are generally 'stubborn' and refuse to give in to our demands. Our ignorance can be startling. It's fair to say, we are 'over-stimulating' these muscle groups with either too much volume, too much intensity, or a combination of both. Hence the term: 'overtraining'.
If you were after a secret exercise that would blast your arms into another dimension, then unfortunately, you're going to be disappointed. But if you're a realist who is willing to adapt, then simply follow these quick, helpful tips and learn to rectify your mistakes. Oh, and I guarantee, you'll be well on your way to constructing a huge set of arms.
I won't bore you with tons of physiological literature, but this is something we quickly need to go over so you understand the methodology and training principles that will be outlined within the article.
First, the biceps muscles, are compromised of two sections (hence the name 'bi'). In order to achieve maximum growth, we need to stimulate both sections directly. They are;
The main function of the biceps is supination (rotating the forearm) and to flex the elbow.
The triceps, as suspected, have three sections (hence the name 'tri'). Like the biceps, we need to stimulate all three heads to encourage maximum and full muscular growth. These are (simplified);
The main function of the triceps is to extend the elbow.
The important thing to remember is that many people have the impression that when their arms are weak, it's time to do more for biceps. This is simply wrong. The triceps are typically 2/3rd's of the arm, so if you're seriously worried about your arms, don't follow the rest of the bicep warriors doing countless sets of curls pay some attention to the bigger muscle group. Of course, this doesn"t mean your biceps may not be a weak muscle group, but don"t follow the delusional act of most and neglect the triceps they"re much more critical to building overall arm mass.
The Exercises - Biceps
Outlined below, are the only exercises you need to do to hit all the muscles in the biceps and triceps effectively. You"ll also greatly stimulate the forearms directly with these movements as an added bonus. Do these exercises in the recommended rep range with the correct volume, and you"ll provide a great stimulus to get your guns growing again. Remember, without adequate nutrition, you will stagnate, and potentially regress. You need to rebuild the muscle tissue you cause trauma to, and the effective way of doing this, is quite simply, with quality calories.
Barbell curls (2 sets of 5-8 reps): Barbell curls should be the foundation for your biceps workout. They provide the greatest opportunity for overload on the intended muscle groups, meaning maximum stimulation and poundage utilised. The barbell curl primarily targets the biceps branchii the shorter head, associated with "peaking" the biceps more prominently, however they also hit the brachialis effectively too.
To perform the barbell curl, load a straight barbell with a weight which you can take to around 6 reps. Stand vertical, upright with the elbow tucked into the side of your body, and simply curl upwards. Remember to not swing the weight, and concentrate on your biceps doing the work. On the eccentric contraction (the negative portion of the lift) always lower slowly and under control. This is what causes more damage to the muscle, so it's important we emphasise this portion of the lift on heavy movements, from a bodybuilding perspective.
Perform two sets of 5-8 reps. On the last one or two reps, if you're struggling, you may cheat the weight up slightly. However, this is an advanced technique to provide more overload on the muscles, and should not be used primarily. Maintain good form, and then simply extend the set using this cheating technique for a couple of reps, still maintaining a solid negative portion of the lift, lowering slowly.
Incline dumbbell curls (2 sets of 8-12 reps): Incline dumbbell curls provide a unique advantage over most bicep movements in that they provide constant tension on the target muscle group throughout the range of motion. Being a unilateral exercise, it also allows for equal development of each arm and attention to symmetry and proportion from an aesthetic perspective. They hit the biceps branchii predominantly, with the brachialis being a synergist in the movement.
To perform incline dumbbell curls, set the bench to an incline of around 70 degrees. Sit back, with your elbows at the side, and hold the dumbbells tightly with a supinated grip. As a tip, hold the dumbbells close to the ends, as this really enhances the stretch at the bottom of the movement. Simply curls up until peak contraction with strict form, and with the same emphasis on a slow negative, return to the deep stretch starting position.
Perform two sets of 8-12 reps. Due to the strict form and inevitable burning sensation when performed correctly we won't shoot too high on the rep-range. If you're keen to increase the intensity factor similar to barbell curls, as a tip, once you reach failure, you can alternate the dumbbells one arm at a time to provide more stress.
Dumbbell Pinwheel Curls (2 sets of 8-12 reps): It's time to pay some increased attention to the longer head now and we typically do this by switching to a neutral grip, which will also provide more intense tension on the forearms, too. Pinwheel curls are a unique exercise, not utilised by a lot of lifters as they are quite simply unknown. However, performed correctly, they are one of the ultimate mass builders for biceps and the longer head, as they allow you to place heavy loads on the muscle group.
To perform a pinwheel curl, stand upright in the starting position hold a dumbbell at your side. Instead of curling upwards, this time we're going to come across the body diagonally. So, with your arm straight, with the dumbbell held neutrally, curl towards your opposite shoulder and lower slowly to the starting position. You can perform these unilaterally, or alternate the dumbbells if you want to go heavier.
Again, we're going to shoot for two sets of 8-12 reps, which is optimal for biceps growth. This movement is one that you will need to be relatively strict on to get a good feeling of stimulation on, but again, feel free to extend the set using the alternating method, or some cheated reps for an added intensity factor.
Follow this routine and it'll provide excellent development to the whole biceps muscle. There are other movements I am fond of, especially if your forearms are predominantly strong. If this is the case, I recommend looking into Spider Curls, and Preacher curls. Both can be very useful exercises especially the Spider curls! Always remember as well, when training biceps, to keep your knuckles turned towards your body when you're curling for maximum tension on the biceps, and to keep your elbows firmly in position at the sides so you don't cheat the weight up.
You're probably wondering how to integrate this into your routine. Personally, I recommend doing it either alongside chest (antagonist muscle groups combined allow you to have better strength levels, paving the way for more growth), or breaking the movements up into two separate days. It's flexible, and nothing is set in stone, so just ensure you're getting adequate rest and there is no overlap in the muscle groups being trained, and you're good to go.
The Exercises - Triceps
Anatomy is boring for most and unlike the biceps it's increasingly difficult to isolate all three heads of the triceps for optimal development. The fact is you don't need to worry about that. You'll build horse shoe triceps with the following movements, or at least come close to your genetic potential given attention to detail. The three segments of the triceps fire together most of the time regardless, so as long as you're including an extension movement of the elbow, followed by a heavy press (which you usually do for chest days and shoulders anyway), you'll be well on your way to building some dense triceps.
Decline Close-Grip Bench Press (3 sets of 5-8 reps): You've probably read a fair bit about close grip bench press being good for the triceps, so why do I suggest decline It's quite simple, really. Numerous studies have shown that the triceps are stimulated and activated across the three heads more on a decline position as opposed to the standard flat. This also rings true for extension movements. Why is this? The most obvious reason is usually the increased range of motion for an extension movement and deeper stretch which may be interlinked to several growth processes itself. It also minimises the shoulder movement and places more emphasis directly onto the triceps muscle group resulting in more muscle fibres being recruited. Quite a useful piece of information, if I don't say so myself!
The decline close grip should be performed with arms around shoulder width apart. There's no real necessity to go any closer. Too many people make this mistake and place a huge amount of unnecessary stress on the wrists. With your standard bench form back arched, chest up, elbows tucked to the sides simply bring the bar slowly down to the sternum, and press back up in a straight line. The rep range is a bit vague on this, as many advanced lifters like to use it as a pure power movement and the rep range low, whilst volume trainers will inevitably keep the rep range slightly higher. I've gone for a happy medium in between, but feel free to experiment and find a suitable template for progressive overload yourself. To extend the intensity of the set, you can always have a spotter for forced reps, but unlike the biceps, we've got a lot more room for progression on triceps exercises, so it shouldn't be of paramount concern.
Parallel Bar Dips (2 sets of 10-12 reps): Again, this is a press, only a different variation with the neutral grip. Parallel bar dips place emphasis on all the three heads and hit the medial head (near the elbow) probably more effectively than decline close grip, giving you that thick look, from the bottom to top of the arm.
Why have I included Dips? Because of the body moving against gravity in an upright position, it becomes an excellent movement for not just the triceps, but also the deltoids, pectorals and your core. Of course, we're trying to isolate the triceps and that is our objective. I suggest you look at the phenomenal triceps development of male gymnasts who spend a lot of time on the parallel bars.
To perform dips, ideally you should have a weighted belt once you've progressed past the rep range stated with your bodyweight. It's important we try to keep the reps relatively moderate to high on dips, as going in a lower rep range can put us at a serious chance of injury. Stand upright, come down until your elbows are parallel with the floor, and press hard up.
You can alternate Dips with close grip bench every now and again if you like, to preserve shoulder health. My suggestion is if you do substitute one or the other, make up for the volume with another extension movement; preferably in the form of a cable or machine to preserve joints and tendons.
EZ Bar or Dumbbell Skullcrushers (2 sets of 10-15 reps): Skullcrushers are a fantastic movement, both with the dumbbells or the EZ Barbell. The fantastic thing about this versatile movement is that it stresses the lateral head significantly if you get a good stretch on it, giving your triceps that sweeping look to the muscle from the side. The lateral head makes up a significant portion of the triceps, so undoubtedly these are great mass builders as well.
You can perform skullcrushers on various angles, but again, most people I've encountered got superior results off a decline or flat bench. Hold the weight hovering above your head, the elbows locked and extend back to the top of your forehead or just behind it for a deep stretch. Do not let the elbows travel backwards; keep them in a locked position to ensure the tension is firmly on the triceps. The rep range is slightly higher on this movement as low reps can trigger a host of elbow issues which is terrible for the consistent lifter.
Unilateral cable movement (1 to 2 sets of 12-15 reps): It's not a necessity to include this in your workouts, but if you've performed all the aforementioned exercises with straight barbells or movements which are performed with both limbs at the same time, then it's wise to include some unilateral work. You can do a drop-set or another technique on this; just keep the reps high and focus on achieving tension on the muscle throughout. Some good exercises include underhand cable extensions, overhead cable extensions (just holding the ball), cable kick-backs, etc.
The full works
The triceps routine is variable, as is the biceps one as to where to incorporate it into your training split. You can perform these exercise with an antagonist muscle group such as back as you'll be fresh, or alternatively, place them in with shoulders (as long as you're not doing too much pressing, it shouldn't affect triceps strength significantly).
The key with the triceps is focusing on elbow movement and not allowing accessory muscle groups to take charge. Remember, building excellent triceps strength will provide a superb correlation into your other important pressing movements such as bench press, military press and more. They are a very neglected muscle group and an experienced, dedicated lifter knows the true importance and role of the triceps in their arsenal. After this article, you should be equipped with the knowledge yourself to further your training.
This plan works flat out. The volume isn't enormous, but it doesn't need to be if you train correctly. With a solid mind to muscle connection, and the concept of progressive overload given respect, you'll make fantastic gains following this program. If you plateau, simply switch a couple of movements around, and continue to add poundage to the weight each week.
Remember that nutrition is equally important. Not enough calories and you won't grow. Rest a lot, train with intensity, and enjoy your new guns. You'll deserve them after applying yourself to this routine!
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