The number one reason why men start training with weights is to have bigger and more muscular arms. Sure, some guys also want thicker chests or trimmer midsections; nevertheless, big arms are also high on their wish list. Somehow an idea has evolved in the male psyche that big arms equals sexual prowess and overall strength. Whenever a man hits a pose to display how fit he is, he will always flex his biceps. The pose and the gesture are simply a part of our culture.
As a result the novice firmly believes that, in order to gain the big arms he so desperately wants, he must put most of his energy into exercises that hit the biceps and triceps directly. Often his entire weight- training program revolves around upper-arm exercises. Those for the back and legs are done with token weights almost as an afterthought. After all, the only bodypart that matters is the arms.
The problem with the above approach is that type of training for the arms doesn’t work. True, if the beginner puts in a great deal of work, he may in fact increase the shape of his arms. However, seldom does he add any noticeable size to them. Giving the arms priority while neglecting the other bodyparts will also result in a comical physique. Large arms on a proportioned physique are admirable, but they are not on a person with skinny legs and a flat, undeveloped back.
Another problem exists for those who only focus their training on their arms. These individuals do far too much specialized work on the arms, and in most cases, do so before a strong enough foundation has been built to handle all the substantial stress to muscles, tendons and ligaments. The result is sore elbows or shoulders or both from overtraining.
I used to visit a nice gym located just across the Mason-Dixon line in Pennsylvania whenever I was on vacation from school. One time I was on my Christmas break and I made the scenic drive north. I got to the gym early to beat the rush and found only two others working out – high school boys doing leg presses. By the time I finished warming up they were doing straight-bar biceps curls. With nothing else to do, in between my sets I watched these guys. They did a half-dozen curls with the straight bar, moved to the EZ-curl bar and did 6 sets, and then concluded with 10 sets of dumbbell curls. Next, they started in on their triceps: French presses, skullcrushers and pushdowns on the lat machine. I didn’t bother trying to count all the sets, but these guys did a lot of them.
I did my hour and one-half workout, and they were still hitting their triceps when I left. I must admit these individuals were determined to attain bigger arms; however, I also knew they were going about their goal the wrong way. I decided that if I ran into them again, I would break my rule about offering unsolicited advice and talk to them. I didn’t see them again until spring break. They were hammering away on EZ-bar curls when I stepped into the gym. Both wore tank tops, and I took a look at their arms to see if they had made any progress. One of them had his elbows wrapped. I concluded their arms were more shapely than before but I swear I didn’t see any increase in arm size
I went over and introduced myself. The one with the wrapped elbows was Jerry, and the other was Bert. Bert recognized my name from some articles he had read in MuscleMag and this fame was useful because it gave me some weight as an authority. At least they would listen to what I had to say. Understanding that no one of any age likes to have his program criticized, I tried to be diplomatic. “Would you two like some advice on your program? Or are you happy with what you’re doing?” I asked. They glanced at one another, and then Jerry answered, “We were just talking ’bout that. We’re kinda stale right now. We might switch to Scott [preacher] curls and maybe some pulley curls. Whaddaya think?”
“I have a suggestion a bit more drastic in mind. I’m assuming your main goal for being here is to get bigger arms, right?”
“Yeah,” they said in unison.
“Is what you’re doing now working?”
This question threw them for a moment. Then Bert replied, “Somewhat, I guess.” He flexed his biceps muscles. While his arms did have excellent definition, some female members in the gym had bigger arms than him.
“Where did you get your routine?”
Jerry reached in his Gym Bag and pulled out several articles on arm development along with photos of the authors. I scanned the articles and photos, handed them back and said, “You know, boys, these guys are very advanced bodybuilders, and the odds are they’re using steroids and most likely some other stuff. What they’re doing just doesn’t apply to you right now.”
Their mouths dropped open, and they wore stunned expressions. Bert said “Are you saying these guys are wrong?”
“Not at all. Their advice is very useful to those in the same category as they are. That category includes only very advanced and professional bodybuilders. What they recommend doesn’t fit your category. You’re beginners and need to take another approach if you want bigger arms. Now I understand that arms are the main focus of your workouts, but would you mind if your legs, back and shoulders got bigger too? Or if you put four or five inches on your chest?”
Their eyes lit up as they imagined such a transformation. Jerry gushed, “No, that would be great. We wanted to get our arms big first and then concentrate on some other bodypart – probably the chest.”
“Well, I’ve got some good news for you. You can get all your muscles, including your arms and chest, bigger at the same time.” I paused as their grins grew wider. Then I dropped the bomb. “But you’re going to drop the curls and those triceps exercises you’re doing now.”
“How are we gonna get our arms bigger if we don’t do curls?” blurted Bert.
“You’re going to get bigger arms by making your entire body bigger. Once you pack on some bodyweight and establish a solid base of strength, you can go back and use curls to shape your biceps, but doing hour after hour of both curls and triceps work isn’t getting the job done for you right now. What you need is more mass, to get bigger.”
I gave them a few moments to let this sink in and then added, “What I’m talking about is a program built around concentrated hard work on the large muscles. The small groups such as the biceps and triceps will take a back seat for a while.”
“You talking ’bout doing heavy squats and deadlifting – stuff like that?”
“But we’re not interested in a strength routine. We’re bodybuilders. We’re not powerlifters.”
“Well, being a powerlifter isn’t such a bad idea, but that’s not where you’re heading – unless you want to later on.” Anticipating after our prior encounter that I may run into this pair again, I had packed some old Strength & Health magazines in my Gym Bag. First I showed Bert and Jerry some photos of Tommy Kono and Bill March when they won Mr. Universe titles in conjunction with the Olympic-lifting world championships. “Great upper-arm development, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I think so,” admitted Bert. Jerry nodded agreement.
“Neither of them did any bodybuilding at all. They were champion Olympic weightlifters. They got their amazing arm development from doing heavy overhead presses, jerks and pulls – no curls whatsoever.”
“That’s amazing,” muttered Bert.
I opened another magazine and showed them a photo of Phil Grippaldi flexing his huge triceps. “Here’s another national-champion Olympic lifter: Phil Grippaldi from New Jersey. His arms got so big from doing the Olympic lifts that he had to do exercises to tone them down. They were preventing him from racking his cleans.”
Jerry chuckled. “I never heard of anybody wanting to make his arms smaller.”
“Well, he’s the only one I ever heard about.”
While they were most impressed, Bert voiced his objection. “But I still don’t see how we’re gonna gain size on our arms by squatting.”
“How much weight have you gained since you started on this program?”
They looked at one another. Then Jerry provided, “Two to three kilograms.”
“Where do you think the additional muscle for your upper arms is going to come from? You can’t shift bodyweight from your glutes or your midsection to your arms.”
Jerry argued, “We didn’t want to put on a lot of weight because we figured some of it would end up on our guts. And we didn’t want that.”
“I fully understand, but in order to gain size in any area of your body, you have to pack on more bodyweight. You can get stronger while staying at the same bodyweight and you can certainly shape your muscles. However, you cannot get bigger muscles. Granted, not all of the new bodyweight will be where you want it, but you have to give a little to get a lot. This strategy is how all the top bodybuilders go about adding new muscle. First, they bulk up, and I guarantee you all the added weight is not where they want it to be either. Once they get to their target bodyweight, they start to cut back and get rid of unwanted kilograms. They may gain 15 kilograms and lose all but five of them as they prepare for competition.”
“What’s the point of getting bigger if you’re just going to turn around and lose it?” contended Bert.
“Good question. In the process of getting heavier, the top bodybuilders also get considerably stronger. Their muscles, tendons and ligaments adapt to the new stress and are able to handle much heavier weights on all exercises as well as allowing the bodybuilders to Sustain training at a more intense level for longer sessions. This staying power really gives these guys a big edge when the time comes to trim down, and they don’t lose all the weight they gained. They are now five kilograms heavier than they were in their last cycle.”
“I’m still not sure I understand how getting bigger will help us get bigger arms if we’re not working them hard.”
“You will be working them hard. Much harder than ever. Now for anyone to curl 225 kilograms is impossible, but both of you will be capable of shrugging that much and doing high pulls in excess of 130 kilograms in a few months. Much of the work done on those two exercises is done by the biceps and the prime movers of your upper arm – the brachioradialis and brachialis. If you increase your strength levels by 50 percent or more during a strength phase, when you come back and start in on more specific exercises for your arms, chest or any other bodypart, you’re going to be able to use more weight than before. How much are you using for your straight-bar curls?”
“40 kilograms,” said Bert. “For 15 reps.”
“All right. Let’s say you work hard and increase your bodyweight and add weight to all the primary lifts by a considerable margin – maybe to where you’re doing twice as much in the high pull and shrug as when you started out, and to where you increase your squat by a 45 kilograms and your bench press by 20. When you come back to the straight-bar curls, you’ll be able to use a great deal more weight than before. How would your biceps respond to using 60 rather than 40?”
Their faces beamed at such a prospect – curling an Olympic bar with two 20 kilograms plates.
“The same notion applies to your triceps. If you really work your flat benches, incline benches and weighted dips as you pack on bodyweight, I can assure you that your arms are going to grow because your triceps are going to grow.” The two made eye contact with one another. Bert nodded, and Jerry said “All right. I can’t see what we have to lose by trying out your program. Lay it out.”
“First, you both have to agree to stick with it for at least two months. Second, you have to do exactly what I tell you. No more, no less. No slipping in some of your own exercises on the sly. If you do, the results will not be nearly as positive. As I mentioned earlier, you will not be doing any curls or those triceps exercises I’ve seen you do. Both French presses and skullcrushers are really stressful to your elbows. Some advanced athletes can get away by doing them, but not beginners. Instead of curls you will do chins, which I consider a great biceps exercise, that also gives an added bonus of helping you build a broad back. The only specific exercise you will do for your triceps is the straight-arm pullover. It’s not at all stressful to the elbows and hits the long head of the triceps. Still interested?”
“Sure,” said Bert on their behalf. “Lay it on us.”
“Since you may not know how to do some of the exercises, I will go through the program with you all this week – today [Monday], Wednesday and Friday. Then you’ll be on your own till the end of the semester.” They nodded in agreement, and I said “Go do a set of crunches, or situps, and 25 back hyperextensions. We’ll start out with squats.”
On that Monday we did
full squats, 5 x 5
clean-grip high pulls, 5 x 5
bench presses, 3 x 5, 3 x 3, plus a back-off set of eight reps
chins, 4 x max
incline dumbbell bench presses, 2 x 20.
As we trained I found out these guys had already been squatting, but only with 100 kilograms. They also did some pulls in the seated lat machine. I didn’t push the numbers up but I primarily taught them how to go low in the squat. I also gave them pointers in the high pulls and bench.
Bert remarked, “I can see where heavy benching might help get the triceps bigger and how those high pulls can help the biceps, but how do squats fit in? I mean, they aren’t connected to the arms at all.”
“Well, in a way squats are connected. Squats are included in your program because they are the very best exercise to do if you want to add bodyweight. They stimulate growth in the entire body. The squat is the key exercise in this program.”
Even though Bert and Jerry had been doing some back and leg work previously, the squats and high pulls dug deep into those large muscle groups. When I arrived on Wednesday, I found two very sore pups waiting for me. However, the soreness was like a tonic to them. They couldn’t wait to get started. I had them spend additional time warming up and then we did
incline bench presses, 5 x 5, plus a back-off set of 8 reps
light squats, 5 x 4
good mornings, 4 x 8
straight-arm pullovers, 2 x 20
weighted dips, 4 x 8.
I told them, “You have to up your caloric intake if this program is going to work. Muscle can’t be formed out of thin air. You have to eat a lot more. Your body has to have extra fuel because you’re working a great deal harder than you were before and you need some excess to pack on bodyweight. Eat lots of small meals throughout the day and night. Drink a Protein milk shake right after you complete your workout and drink another at bedtime. Many bodybuilders used to carry hard-boiled eggs around with them and would eat those eggs periodically throughout the day – an excellent way to maintain a positive nitrogen balance. Be sure to stretch out tonight. Stretching will help you get rid of some of your soreness.”
By Friday the soreness in their tarps and legs was gone, but the good mornings had been hell on Bert’s and Jerry’s lower back. Bert confessed he had difficulty getting out of bed the next morning. I informed him, “That pain you feel is why good mornings are often referred to as tomorrow mornings.”
full squats, 3 x 5, 2 x 3, and a back-off set of 8
flat benches, 4 x 8
shrugs, 5 x 5
straight-arm pullovers, 2 x 20
chins, four sets of as many reps as we could do and then three sets of free-hand dips.
“How are you guys doing on your diet?” I asked.
Jerry replied, “Well, we drank a shake at the dairy bar after we finished on Wednesday but we haven’t yet put together enough money to go to the health food store and buy some Protein powder. That stuff ain’t cheap.”
“I’m very aware of the cost of commercial Protein powder. Here’s what you can do. Go to the supermarket and buy some dried milk. A one kilogram carton will run you about eight dollars. A cup of the dried milk will provide 32 g of Protein. Add in some ice cream, milk and maybe some yoghurt, and you’ll have 50 g of Protein. That amount is all your body can assimilate at one time anyway.”
“Eight dollars we can manage,” Jerry said as he wrote in his training book. I had insisted they keep accurate records of all the exercises they did, as well as sets and reps and weight used, and they complied readily.
While they recorded their numbers for the last few exercises, I said “Every other week, substitute bent-over rows for clean-grip high pulls. Other than that, keep every aspect of the program the same. One final rule is you have to get a lot of rest. This routine is a demanding one. If you’re feeling droopy when you get out of bed in the morning, get more rest the next night. Eat like a starving Viking. Train hard and get plenty of rest.”
I had already taught them how the progressions on the various lifts should go and I helped them set some realistic goals for the next two months. I gave them my phone number and said they could call me if they ran into any problems. Jerry called twice, mostly to brag, but also to ask about proper weight selection for a few of the exercises.
Ten weeks passed by before I saw them again. They were at the squat rack. Jerry and another gym member were spotting Bert, and I was pleased to see Bert was handling 150 kilograms for his final set of five. My pupils’ physiques had altered rather remarkably in such a short period of time. They maintained erect postures, proudly displaying bulging tarps, pecs and quads with pride.
My students were glad to see me and couldn’t wait to show me all the improvement they had made. Bert had gained seven kilograms. He increased his squat by 40 kilograms and his bench by 30. Jerry was five kilograms heavier. He had added 35 kilograms to his squat and 15 to his bench.
“How about your arms?” I asked with a grin. Their arms were noticeably larger. “An inch bigger,” beamed Jerry, and Bert offered, “Almost an inch.”
“That’s great. You boys did good. Now you can go back to your beloved curls if you want. You kept your end of the deal.”
Jerry looked at Bert. They laughed, and then Jerry said “Nah, we’re gonna stick with this routine a bit longer. You don’t get big arms doing curls.”
Views 1462 Comments 5
|09-07-2010, 09:40 PM||#2|
Join Date: Nov 2009
Very good article! Recommend!!!
|09-07-2010, 09:52 PM||#3|
Join Date: Aug 2010
Location: Alexandria, VA
Bill Starr was a beast in his prime. Overhead pressed 300 plus pounds at a bodyweight under 200 lbs.
|09-14-2010, 08:41 AM||#4|
Join Date: Aug 2010
Training Exp: 25 +yrs.
Training Type: Chaos & Pain
Fav Exercise: leg press
Fav Supp: Red Meat
good read thanks Steve
Human by Birth
Animal by Choice
|10-20-2010, 09:35 AM||#5|
The Irish One
Join Date: Jun 2010
"To dream is to reach new heights and revelations within ones own self. Aspiring new properties and possibilities from within." - ME
|10-20-2010, 04:18 PM||#6|
Join Date: Apr 2010
Training Exp: 5
Training Type: Strongman
Fav Exercise: Cable flyes
Fav Supp: Celltech
=) good article
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