Yes, I just used a terrible joke as the title of this post. I wanted to discuss a bit about building size in the arms, but couldn’t get myself to write a “how to” title. Let’s discuss what it takes to build bigger arms. Despite what many would suggest, I believe beginners need to mix in isolation work to get the most “arm building power” out of the heavier compound movements.
[Insert your bad “Tickets to the Gun Show” joke here.]
Bench Presses Build Triceps and Chin Ups Build Biceps?
No doubt that various presses will build up your triceps and various pulling exercises like chin ups or rows will build your biceps. This is especially true once you have a strong mind-to-muscle link to these muscle groups from yeas of lifting. Most experts recommend that beginners stick to compound movements and avoid arm specialization. My argument against this approach is that a quicker mind-to-muscle link can be achieved when direct arm isolation work is thrown in. Once this mind-to-muscle link is created to these smaller muscle groups, that is when compound movements work their magic.
Isolation Movements As a Primer for Compound Exercises?
Once a mind-to-muscle link is created to these smaller muscle groups with isolation exercises…is when compound movements work their magic. The old school approach of just starting off with the compound lifts is basically just “hoping for the best”. Hopefully the biceps or triceps are contracting as hard as possible in a coordinated effort to lift or pull the weight. The problem is that it is so hard to know if the compound lift is challenging the smaller muscle groups to the max.
Experienced Lifters Can Milk Every Exercise to the Max
…beginners will only feel an exercise in certain muscle groups. I believe in isolation exercises because I think it creates better body awareness to do compound lifts properly. I think people have it backwards…experts can get away with doing compound movements because they can get maximum benefit from these bigger lifts. When I first started lifting and did bench presses, my triceps would barely even feel like they were contracting. These days my chest, triceps, shoulders, and forearms all feel worked after doing a few sets of bench presses.
How I Fixed My Stubborn Triceps Problem
I spent 2-3 years doing heavy close grip bench presses and dips to build up the size in my triceps. The advice was to lift heavier and heavier to build size in this stubborn area…and it wasn’t working. Do you know how I finally fixed this problem? I began doing light dumbbell kickbacks and high rep/high volume pull downs. I really aimed to feel the burn on these isolation lifts and eventually developed a strong mind-to-muscle link to this stubborn muscle group. The isolation exercise allowed me to finally get results from the heavy compound lifts. When I went back to the compound lifts they finally helped me add size in these areas.
A Backwards Approach That Works Well
This isn’t something you will want to do very often, but is a good way to shock your arms into growing a bit. Work your biceps directly with isolation exercises before doing back exercises like chin ups and rows. If your biceps are a weak link, they won’t be for long. Same deal with triceps…do some tricep isolation work and fatigue them before doing bench presses or military presses. Again, this is only something to do if one of these body parts is lagging a bit.
Heavier Lifting Does NOT Always Equal Bigger Arms
For quick growth aim for higher reps 6-15. For dense muscle and a little slower growth, go the 5×5 route. For strength with minimal size stay under 5 reps. Much of this blog is dedicated to increasing muscle definition without size increase, so that is why you see the past posts with lower rep recommendations. Also when doing 6-15 reps for quick growth, make sure you get in at least 2-3 sets over 10 reps. A mistake I see is guys doing a set of 10, then a set of 8, followed by 3-4 sets of 6 reps. Get in at least a few 10+ rep sets for maximum results.
What About Going Heavy With Isolation Exercises?
Another way to mix up your arm training a bit is to go heavy with isolation movements. You barely ever see anyone doing 5X5’s with concentration curls, but you can generate a really strong contraction if you use heavy weights. A few years back I spent 6 weeks trying to increase the weight on lying triceps extension for 5 sets of 5 reps. I got up to an impressive weight and it certainly showed in my arms.
Note: You only have to increase the mind-to-muscle link to a muscle group one time in your life. Once you learn how to contract a muscle hard it is like riding a bike…it is a skill you will always have.
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