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Big Arms—It's Not Just in the Genes, Gents

By James Parker

So you've been pumping those biceps and pushing away on your triceps—but you're just not getting any bigger. The giant muscleman at the dumbbell rack is telling you more is better, but it's not working. If not, well then, it must just not be in your genes, right? Not so. The biggest impediment to arm size is a lack of understanding of these particular muscles. More than other muscles, your arms are not only sensitive to how much you lift, but to how you go about it. Time to rethink your program.

Both the biceps and triceps are smaller or supportive muscles when compared to the bigger muscles of your chest, legs, and back. So you're going to have to think about them differently than you do the other muscles you usually target. In fact, using the same size formula one uses for the bigger muscles can actually impede the growth of your arms. Because they are naturally smaller, arm muscles are easily overworked. Contrary to popular belief, overuse will only slow the wanted growth—you can't just keep hitting them more and harder. And it's easy to overuse arm muscles because they are implicated in exercises that target most of the other muscles of the upper body. Remember, the arms are used indirectly when you perform exercises for your chest, back and shoulders, too. So you really need to target the arms in a different way when you go after them as primary lifting muscles. That means keeping it short, and keeping it intense.

The key to arm growth is brief intensity. Intensity can be many things, but usually consists of extending the time a muscle spends under tension. With this in mind, many people use the "work to failure" method. That's fine for creating intensity—but remember, for your arms you also want to keep it brief. The problem with "work to failure" is the amount of time and the volume of work required to reach failure. It's hard to be brief when failure takes you an hour. So, how to be brief but intense? Follow these four strategies for arm growth:

1. Start with Supersets
A superset consists of two exercises performed back to back with little to no rest. For example: a supinated biceps curl followed by a dumbbell hammer curl. Performing two sets of these exercises back-to-back is certainly intense—but in a condensed time-frame. If you do this after all your back exercises, your biceps will have had sufficient warm-up as supporting muscles to sustain the intensity.

2. Break Exercises Into Phases
Another concept to add brief intensity to your workouts is the tri-phase exercise. Simply put, take any given exercise and cut its range of motion into two parts or phases. Perform a certain number of repetitions at one phase of your range of motion, immediately followed by the same set in phase two of your range of motion. Finally, you'll do the same number of reps for the full range of motion (phase three). This exercise fatigues the muscle at different phases of contraction, meaning that you can squeeze out additional reps from different regions of the muscle. You're still doing three sets, but getting more out of them in combination. Dumbbell 21 curls, a favorite of famous bodybuilders of yore—like Arnold Schwarzenegger and the blond bomber Dave Draper—is a familiar example of a tri-phase exercise. One executes this biceps exercise by curling a bar from the bottom, or downward extended, position up to the middle of the range of motion, where the forearm is horizontal, seven times. Next is a curl from the top or peak contraction to the middle position for seven reps, followed by seven reps of the whole curl. Trust me, if you can do this exercise through its entirety more than twice, you don't have enough weight on the bar.

3. Use More Free Weights
Make sure at least one exercise per body part is with free weights (dumbbells, barbells, cables) so that you are forced to stabilize a mobile weight. Free weights are more functional exercises than their machine counterparts, helping you build strength but also balance, stability, and coordination. Free weights also keep your body from compensating for weakness in one side as many machine exercises do.

4. Work Both Sides Together
Many people tend to work their biceps with their back and their triceps with their chest. That's all fine and good, as these are complementary muscle groups. But mix it up and keep your body guessing by working your biceps and triceps together on some days. These "all-arms" days will help you develop both muscle groups together.

Below, you'll find a short and simple three-exercise workout that covers all of these bases—supersets, the tri-phase, more free weights, and a balance of bis and tris. Remember to focus on brief intensity—these are small muscle groups that tire easily. Use as much weight as is required to reach failure in the specified number of repetitions. For more functional exercises to work your arms, search RealJock's biceps and triceps video exercise demos.

Exercise Muscles Sets Reps Notes
Triceps Bench Dips Triceps 2 8 - 10 Have the cable machine set up for the next exercise, and move there immediately after finishing the second set of bench dips.
Cable Rope Power Overhead Skull Crushers Triceps 2 8 - 10 Take a brief recovery before moving on to biceps.
Dumbbell 21 Curls Biceps 2 7 at each range of motion 30 – 60 seconds between cycles (no recovery between sets)
Exercise Overview
Triceps Bench Dips Place two flat benches parallel to each other, leaving approximately the length of your outstretched legs in between them. When estimating the distance between the benches, try to leave just enough room so that you can dip down and engage your triceps without hitting your back on the bench. Sit on the edge of one bench and face the other bench, with your hands at your sides on the bench you're sitting on and your fingers facing the other bench. Scoot your butt forward and place your feet on the opposite bench, with your legs slightly bent. Grip the bench you are sitting on with your fingers. Engage your arms and lift yourself off the bench so that you are being held up by your hands on one bench and the heels of your feet on the other bench. Drop your body down to perform a triceps dip, making sure to keep your hips as close as possible to the bench your hands are resting on. Keep your elbows in throughout the movement. This will help focus the effort on the triceps and will prevent injury to the shoulders. When you reach the bottom of the dip, reverse the motion and push your body back up to starting position.
Cable Rope Power Overhead Skull Crushers Attach a double-handled rope attachment to the low setting on a cable machine. Take the handles in each hand and take them overhead as you turn around, so that you end up with your back to the machine and the rope handles in each hand behind your neck. Stand tall with your elbows bent but held high, and your hands together. Straighten your elbows to bring your hands straight up into the air, ending with your arms fully extended above you and slightly in front of vertical. Your motion should be controlled but swift and powerful, as though you were throwing the handles toward the ceiling. Bend your elbows to return your hands to the starting position, letting your triceps stretch at the bottom of your movement.
Dumbbell 21 Curls Stand upright with dumbbells held in each hand at your sides and your palms facing forward. Keep your upper arms at your side throughout the exercise. Hold your elbows in front of your ribs; this will help keep the biceps muscle engaged throughout the movement, and will prevent you from inadvertently swinging your body to lift the weight. Next, use a scooping motion to begin as you lift the dumbbells up together until you are halfway through a full bicep curl, pause, then lower your arms back to starting position. Flex your bicep at the top of the movement, and resist the weight all the way down. Don't fully unlock your elbow at bottom of movement. Try your best to never allow your bicep to rest at top or bottom of any of the three series of movements. Do a total of seven of these lower-half bicep curls. After you have finished seven of the lower-half bicep curls, you are ready to move on to upper-half biceps curls. Lift the dumbbells up to a starting point that is halfway through a full range bicep curl, with your elbows at a 90-degree angle and the dumbbells held out in front of you. Curl the dumbbells up together to the top of a bicep curl, but lower down only until your elbows are back at the 90-degree angle. Again, flex your bicep at the top of the movement, and resist the weight all the way down. Do a total of seven of these upper-half biceps curls. After you have finished seven of the upper-half bicep curls, lower the weights to the original starting position, with the dumbbells held in each hand at your sides and your palms facing inward. Lift the dumbbells up together and do seven full range of motion biceps curls. When you have finished seven of these curls, you have completed one set of hammer 21 curls.
About James Parker: James Parker is a Certified Personal Trainer and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.