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Radical Arm Hypertrophy

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Sick of arms that refuse to grow? This wicked four-week method for maximum biceps and triceps growth focuses your entire split on sleeve-splitting size.

By Bret Contreras, MA, CSCS

Everyone who’s ever hoisted a barbell has craved bigger arms. But despite this clear, persistent goal, the list of questions surrounding arm training is both varied and endless: Should you hit triceps after chest and biceps after back, or should you dedicate a separate day to arms? What about high reps or low reps? And should you hit arms once or twice per week? The fact is, few lifters know how to program for adding maximum size to their bi’s and tri’s, and even fewer know how to fit their arm-growth goals into their full-body split.


The questions may be endless, but if we apply the most important aspects of hypertrophy training (translation: muscle building) to an arm-specialization routine, then the answer is simple. To maximize growth you need to focus on two critical concepts: progressive overload and cell swelling.


Progressive Overload


To understand the importance of progressive overload, let’s start by considering two scenarios:


1. Little Johnny is currently benching 135 pounds for four sets of five reps and can barely do a bodyweight underhand-grip chin-up. He trains hard all year long, mixing in all sorts of crazy biceps and triceps isolation exercises and getting crazy pumps. After an entire year he’s still benching 135 for four sets of five and struggling to perform chin-ups. And I’ve got news for you: Little Johnny’s arms are still little!


2. Little Johnny doesn’t perform a single biceps or triceps isolation exercise but focuses on increasing his strength on the bench press and chin-ups all year long. At the end of the year he’s bench pressing 245 pounds for three sets of five reps and hanging a 45-pound plate from a dip belt for his chin-ups. Surprise! Little Johnny’s arms aren’t so little anymore!


The fact of the matter is that strength is intimately related to muscle size. When you go heavy, you maximize muscle activation and mechanical tension, and mechanical tension is the primary stimulus for muscular hypertrophy.


Cell Swelling


For a complete picture of the ingredients of optimal hypertrophy, let’s look at two more scenarios:


1. Little Johnny spends an entire year building up his benching and chin-up strength as in the second example above, and he adds an inch and a half to his arms without focusing on specific arm-isolation moves.


2. Little Johnny spends all year performing an arm-specialization routine that has him performing heavy compound lifting on chest and back day, with a high-rep superset workout on a day dedicated entirely to arms. When the year is up, Little Johnny has put two solid inches on his arms and earned the nickname “Big John.”


When all is said and done, strength isn’t the only factor involved in muscular hypertrophy. If it were, then powerlifters would be bigger than bodybuilders. When you achieve a pump, your muscle cells swell (researchers call this mechanism “cellular swelling”), blood flow to the muscles is slightly occluded, and oxygen supply to the muscle fibers is restricted. These events lead to a host of benefits, including increased fast-twitch fiber recruitment (since there isn’t much oxygen to fuel the type-1 fibers), increased lactic acid and growth hormone levels, increased mTOR activation (a prominent hypertrophy pathway) and increased satellite-cell activity. Satellite cells donate their nuclei to the myofibers (muscle cells), allowing them to increase their size proportionately to the increased number of nuclei. Some trainers even believe that the fascia surrounding the muscle expands, thereby enabling the muscles to grow larger, though this has yet to be proven. Finally, by cranking up the volume on your high-rep superset workout, you increase your time under tension, which is an essential factor for muscular growth.

 


All in a Day’s Work

While pairing a large and small bodypart is a common way to set-up a training split, the bi’s and tri’s are simply too exhausted to be properly worked after a back or chest workout. To get bigger, they’ll need their own day. This doesn’t mean they don’t get blasted hard on back and chest day, but there are three reasons for dedicating a special day to arm training. First, when you alternate between opposing muscle groups (doing tri’s and bi’s together on their own day), signals that inhibit muscular contractions diminish, thereby allowing for more powerful contractions. Second, when you alternate between biceps and triceps exercises, your arms swell to their maximum size, which provides a psychological boost, motivating you to stay on track. And third, the arm day isn’t very taxing on the central nervous system (CNS). This last point is important because if you’re following a five-day split, you need some easier days to balance out the more strenuous back- and leg-training days.


Plan of Attack

You’ll do heavy (low-rep) chest and back days to start the week, then an arms-superset workout later in the week that specifically addresses the bi’s and tri’s. Of note, the chest and back workouts start out with moves that heavily recruit secondary muscle groups (i.e., the close-grip bench press is your first chest exercise, and that emphasizes the triceps, and the underhand-grip chin-up is your first back move, and that heavily recruits the biceps). Hence these heavy workouts are designed to put extra emphasis on the arms.

During your heavy sessions for chest and back, you’ll increase the load on close-grip bench presses and weighted chin-ups by 5 pounds each week, for a total of 20 pounds for the month. Rest two minutes between sets of these movements. On your heavy days, think “quantity.

During your high-rep supersets for arms, focus on keeping constant tension on the targeted muscles. You’ll have to go a bit lighter than usual, but use strict form and don’t pause between reps. Rest for only one minute in between supersets. On your arm-superset days, think “quality.”

Since the triceps are a larger muscle group than biceps, you’re best to train them in the order specified. You may, however, reverse the order of each pairing (training bi’s before tri’s) on alternate weeks if you feel that your biceps need more attention.

If you’ve been struggling with underachieving arm development, this four-week plan of attack will be just the ticket for shocking them into new growth with a two-pronged approach. Follow this total-body, arm-focused split for the next four weeks, and return to it periodically when you feel your arm development lacking.


Radical Arm Hypertrophy Workouts

Use this sample full-body workout plan to gear every workout toward bigger arm size by focusing on both progressive overload (increased strength) and cell swelling (increased surface area). 

EXERCISE
SETS
REPS
Monday – Chest and Abs


Close-Grip Bench Press
5
5
Incline Dumbbell Press
4
5
Weighted Dip
4
8
Hanging Leg Raise
3
FAIL
Oblique Crunch
3
20
EXERCISE
SETS
REPS
Tuesday – Back and Calves


Weighted Chin-Up
5
5
Reverse-Grip Bent-Over
Barbell Row
4
5
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
3
8
Standing Calf Raise
3
20
Seated Calf Raise
3
20
EXERCISE
SETS
REPS
Wednesday – Legs


Back Squat
4
10
Romanian Deadlift
4
10
Walking Lunge
3
8
Leg Extension
3
20
Lying Leg Curl
3
20
EXERCISE
SETS
REPS
Thursday – Shoulders and Abs


Seated Military Press
3
10
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
3
10
Bent-Over Dumbbell
Lateral Raise
3
10
Dumbbell Shrug
3
20
Decline Sit-Up
3
20
EXERCISE
SETS
REPS
Friday – Arms Superset Combos


Arms 1


Dumbbell Neutral-Grip
Skullcrusher
3
12
Standing Dumbbell Curl
with Supination
3
12
Arms 2


Incline Dumbbell Cross-
Body Extension
3
15
Incline One-Arm Dumbbell Curl
3
15
Arms 3


Bent-Over Rope Triceps
Overhead Extension
3
20
Rope Hammer Curl
3
20


 

Bret Contreras obtained his master’s degree from Arizona State University and received a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist certificate from the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Bret is currently pursuing his PhD at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand and maintains a blog at www.bretcontreras.com.

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