By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS, Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning
For most major muscle groups, crushing the bodypart with heavy weight covers a multitude of sins. But when it comes to the smaller muscles like the biceps and triceps, load isn’t nearly as forgiving. Simply put, because you’re limited to how much weight you can use for bi’s and tri’s, heaven knows it takes a smart and creative approach to answer your prayers for the best arms possible. Here are three keys to keep in mind.
3 Keys for Building Big Arms
1) The Right Angle
It’s critical to attack your arms from various angles, because that’s the only way to stimulate and innervate as many fibers as possible. Both the biceps and triceps have multiple muscles that get directly targeted by the angle of your limbs to your torso.
2) Get a Pump
Not only does it feel fantastic, but a good pump actually enhances the stretch on muscle cells, which triggers them to grow by bringing all the nutrients (e.g., amino acids, creatine, glucose and hormones) and oxygen needed to support energy production, growth and recovery within each muscles’ heads.
3) Use a Wide Spectrum of Rep Ranges
Like we said, weight is but one way to challenge your arms. Hit your bi’s and tri’s with both heavier weight and lower reps to stimulate the fast-twitch muscle fibers as well as light weight and higher reps to flush the muscle at the end of your workout.
The Full Scale Assault Arm Workout
Decline Skullcrusher 3 Sets x 8, 12, 20 Reps
Dumbbell Kickback 3 Sets x 8, 12, 20 Reps
Weighted Parallel-Bar Dip 3 Sets x 8, 8, 20 Reps
Wide-Grip Barbell Curl 3 Sets x 8, 12, 20 Reps
One-Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl 3 Sets x 8, 12, 20
Alternating Dumbbell Curl 3 Sets x 8, 12, 20
It’s tough to find an exercise that can add as much size to your tri’s as the skullcrusher, and this decline version hits the long head with greater accuracy. At the end of the set, you can either hand the bar to your partner or simply lay it on the floor.
All three heads, with emphasis on the long head
DO IT RIGHT:
Lie faceup on a decline bench. Have a partner hand you the bar (or simply grab it from the floor) and hold it above your face with a shoulder-width grip. Unlock your elbows as you slowly lower the bar toward the top of your head. Pause when the bar comes to an inch or so away from your head before pressing it back up to the start.
Press the bar up from the top of your head back toward your spotter. Doing so will better engage the meaty long head.
Don’t worry about going heavy on this move, which invites poor form and could put undue stress on your shoulder joint. Instead, select a weight that you can easily manage. Hold and squeeze at the top of each rep.
All three heads with emphasis on lateral head
DO IT RIGHT:
Grasp a light dumbbell with one hand and place your other hand on a stable surface. Lean forward until your torso is almost parallel to the floor and stagger your feet. Keeping your back flat, raise your upper arm so that it’s parallel to your torso and keep it pressed into your side. Holding your upper arm in place, kick your hand straight back to full-arm extension.
Commonly done wrong, don’t allow your elbow to drop as you lower the weight. Hold it back and up alongside your body.
Weighted Parallel-Bar Dip
This is a great multijoint move, but typically you need a partner to place weight across your lap. If you don’t have a partner, sit on one bench and set the weight across your lap, then put your hands in position.
All three heads with emphasis on the lateral head
DO IT RIGHT:
Position two benches a few feet apart and parallel to each other. Sit on the middle edge of one bench facing the other. Place your hands just outside your hips on the bench, cupping it with your fingers. Place your heels on the opposite bench and press yourself upward so your body forms an “L” in the top position. With weight across your lap, slowly lower your glutes toward the floor until your arms form 90-degree angles. Pause, and then forcefully press back up to the start position.
As with parallel bar dips, keeping your elbows tight to your sides — not allowing them to flare out — keeps the muscular stress on the triceps.
Wide-Grip Barbell Curl
Taking a wide grip on the barbell increases the tension on the short (inner) head of the biceps by reducing the amount of stress on the long (outer) head. That’s important because the inner head helps develop density and adds depth to the biceps and even helps the appearance of the long head (peak).
Short, inner biceps head
DO IT RIGHT:
Stand erect holding a barbell with your arms extended with a wide (a few inches outside your shoulders), underhand grip. Keep your abs tight, chest up and head neutral. Contract your biceps to curl the bar toward your chest, keeping your elbows at your sides as much as possible. Hold and squeeze at the top, then slowly lower the bar along the same path.
While the wide grip better targets the short head, taking a closer grip (hands just inside shoulder width) better focuses on the long head.
One-Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl
Because your arm is out in front of you, the tension on the long head is drastically reduced, placing much of the stress on the inner head. At the bottom of each rep, avoid the tendency to completely straighten your arm; by keeping a slight bend in the elbow, you allow for constant tension of the biceps.
Short (inner) biceps head
DO IT RIGHT:
Set up a preacher bench so that the top of the pad fits securely under your armpit. Keep your feet on the floor and your head straight, eyes focused forward. Flex your biceps to bring the dumbbell upward without allowing your elbow to flare out or rise up off the bench. Squeeze your biceps hard at the top before slowly returning back to the start.
Keep your hand, elbow and shoulder all in alignment for maximal strength and efficiency.
Alternating Dumbbell Curl
The use of body english and a slight torque as you alternate sides will allow you to achieve a few more reps with each arm. By starting with your hands neutral (palms facing in), you’ll call into play the brachialis as well as the brachioradialis muscles of the forearms. Perfect for the end of your workout.
Biceps, short and long heads, forearms
DO IT RIGHT:
Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with a neutral (palms-in) grip, arms extended. Keep your abs tight, chest up and head straight. Contract your biceps to curl one dumbbell up toward your shoulder, turning your hand up (called supination) along the way. Try to keep your elbow tucked into your side as much as possible. Squeeze the biceps, then lower the dumbbell along the same path and repeat with the opposite arm.
Keep your elbows back by your sides as you curl; avoid the tendency to allow your elbow to be pulled forward in an effort to raise the weight higher.