Neophytes: A Call to ?Arms?
The greatest amount of misinformation isn’t only readily accessible to beginners. It’s also exceptionally well written. How do trainers stand a chance against magazines, fitness trainers from the local hole in the wall gym articles, and a few websites (we’ll leave unnamed) that suggest things like “Six Weeks to Massive Arms?”
The first place beginners will turn are the professional bodybuilders. It makes sense to them because they look like they hold all the secrets. They crack open the latest magazine and see these 5–6 day high volume splits accompanied by a couple pictures of the professional flexing huge, ripped arms. They never stood a chance, as the pictures took away their critical thinking. Without a second thought, they will cut and paste the exact routine those professionals are doing and hit the gym. Almost right away they start to see results. Months of weight gain follows and ultimately the appearance of success. So what’s the problem?
The problem is beginners don’t realize that they’re moving from nothing to something. Take any trainee who has never spent one day in the gym and put them on the Arnold Schwarzenegger advanced six-day blue plate special and they’ll report instant results. Those “successes” get engrained in their minds. I must continue doing advanced splits because that’s all I know. More importantly, that’s all I know that works!
What ends up on the forums is a slew of new threads asking how their five-day split looks. They don’t want to hear any advice other than which exercises they can incorporate or small tweaks to their overall volume (sets x reps). All others need not apply. Remember, they’re beginners, and all they have experienced is results. How those threads play out in the forums is a textbook case of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms what they already know or think they know regardless of whether the information is indeed accurate. They will interpret any responses they receive in their own biased way. That could mean disregarding advice even from very reputable members and only selectively responding to those few posts that reflect what they want to hear.
One of the greatest enigmas I’ve seen over the years is that other beginners are the ones who are posting responses that feed into the bias. This is why you have to be careful and put everything into context. As you read through the responses, look at their avatar. Read their profiles. Would you really take advice from a person who’s only been lifting for less than 2–3 years weighing a buck sixty soaking wet with rolls of quarters in their pockets? Of course you wouldn’t. However, there are many beginners out there who aren’t computer savvy. Many others aren’t familiar with the boards. They may mistake post counts for experience. It becomes very hard for them to contextualize who is giving the advice or how to interpret what they are reading when they have no experience themselves to draw upon and compare it to.
Here is an example of a common question along with the proper analysis and response:
“I’m following the training program “Six Weeks to Sick Arms Guaranteed.”
What do you guys think?”
First, take a step back and use some deductive reasoning. Do the smallest muscles in your body really deserve the most attention? Using that logic, why do I never see anyone spend a day or two on just calves? Or a few days training only abdominals? The reason is a human one. The most recognizable body part that garners the most attention is the guns. Everyone buys tickets to the gun show. I’ve never heard anyone compliment a great set of calves. If that were the case, all the guys would wear shorts to the bar instead of T-shirts.
Second, that “routine” has you hitting your arms every training day either directly or indirectly. Go ahead and blast away on Monday’s arms day and see how that affects Tuesday’s presses. Yeah, I’ll have the tendonitis please and the Mrs. will have the Outback special. That’s a lot of attention for what are the smallest muscles in your body! What ends up happening is that the beginner will do whatever is necessary to incorporate every recommendation in that routine—even at the expense of the weight used. Progression should be about always getting stronger and stronger. That is how to increase your size. Sacrificing load to accommodate volume and frequency is extremely counterproductive.
Third, beginners are not in the refinement stage of their development. Beginners should not be targeting body parts with 5–6 day splits. That is the wrong mindset. The first few years of training should be devoted to training exercises, not body parts. You can try to bypass gaining strength, but sooner or later it will be time to pay the piper. It’s very alluring to start building the house without a foundation in strength. It’s much more appealing to target body parts because it feels like you’re getting bigger. Never mind the beginner is only using 20-lb concentration curls, close grip benching 135 x 10, or hammering out an ultra-tough set of 30-lb dumbbell flies. All that matters is that they feel a wicked muscle pump in the targeted area and experience a few days of wicked DOMS (muscle soreness).
Why? Simply put, beginners equate a + b to growth. If it’s sore, I must’ve damaged it enough to where it’ll repair and grow! C’mon now. Think critically for a moment. If I thought along those lines, I would include breaking a good sweat conductive to growth as well. Hell, if muscle soreness is an indicator of an effective workout, why not do sets of 25–50 reps per set? You’ll get real sore, but I wonder how much growth you’ll register from doing that?
What beginners don’t realize is that soreness and/or a muscle pump does not equate growth. The biggest mistake they make is that the number one answer for anything is to throw more volume at the problem. Stopped growing? Add some more sets or another exercise. Hey, add another day to your routine to increase the frequency. Try rest pausing or drop sets. All wrong. Do you want to know the one thing that will never fail you? Load. No matter what you do, as long as you rely on progression, you will succeed in reaching your goals. Progression could be increasing weight or reps, adding another set, or even decreasing your rest periods. Your goal is to somehow increase your performance from last time.
Here is what I’ve learned that got me up to 19.25 inches:
1) Triceps make up two-thirds of your arm size, so that should tell you something. Less beach work on the biceps and more time with the heavy triceps pressing.
2) Arm size is largely influenced by genetics. My brother is 18 inches and trains full body 2–3 times per week in his basement on a Bow-Flex. My dad reminds me of Popeye. He still has massive arms, forearms, and calves. He also hasn’t hit the gym with any regularity since he was in high school about thirty years ago. I came back from Operation Iraqi Freedom eating two MREs per day for four months, lost almost 20 pounds, and still had 17-inch arms easy.
3) You don’t need to spend an entire day on arms. I’ve seen trainees yield the best results training most of the body every session (either an upper/lower or a chest/shoulders/triceps and back/biceps/legs), focusing primarily on the heavy compounds and reserving the last 5–10 minutes satisfying the urge to blast away with the curls and extensions within reason. In the order of hierarchy, they’re last because if you’re plugging away on the heavy back or pressing work, your arms will be worked hard. A few curls and extensions afterwards are what we in the military call “expend all remaining ammo.”
If you still decide it’s necessary as a beginner, that is out of my hands and I wish you the best of luck. My only recommendation for you is don’t spend your entire day doing all types of kickbacks and concentration curls. Limit all isolation curls and extensions as much as possible. Instead, spend the bulk of your time doing heavy compound work like dips, JM presses, Dick’s press, and heavy dumbbell or barbell curls. What that will do is at least provide some indirect work to your major muscle groups.
4Once you reach the refinement stage, you’re looking for areas that need special attention. There aren’t any beginners at this stage in their development, but most of them train as if they are! Upper intermediate and advanced trainees may want to reduce the frequency and increase the volume to get some additional work in.
5) If a trainee has 14-inch biceps, should he put a lot of time into curling or should he bring his squats and deadlifts up another hundred pounds? There was an excerpt from Brawn I really enjoyed reading from Stuart McRobert called “Squatting for Big Arms.” Most beginners take that article at face value and think to themselves that it’s impossible because you aren’t actually using your biceps while squatting. There are two main points from that excerpt that I want to highlight.
First, all the focus must fall on squats, deadlifts, and rows to develop your legs, hips, and back. If you structure your routine around these lifts and put the time in under the bar, it will transfer over to the rest of your exercises. Those lifts also provide one hell of a full body growth response. Add in some pull-ups, presses, and a little beach work at the end of your workout and you’ll grow. Period. Provided of course that you’re in a caloric surplus.
Second, no trainee will start growing big muscles on his arms, calves, shoulders, or chest unless he first builds a considerable amount of muscle around the thighs, hips, and back. I remember Arnold’s encyclopedia talking about approaching bodybuilding like a sculptor. Look in the mirror. Add a little mass here and there with special exercises. What’s the context? The context is that he is talking about himself and his experience already at the advanced level. That is the refinement I referred to earlier. How can you refine your physique when your deficiencies encompass your entire body from your head to your toes?
One thing missed and something else McRobert would hammer on is that you aren’t going to have much arm size without some kind of weight gain. The 170-lb guy who starts with 13-inch arms and thinks he will have 17-inch arms at 175 lbs is confused. He will likely have to be well into the low 200s to see this kind of size gain. In my experience, every 10–15 lbs of legitimate lean body mass gain equals another inch on the upper arms. Your mileage may vary.
In a perfect world, beginners would invest all their time on their heavy presses and pulls—heavy weighted chins, rows of all shapes and sizes, close grip bench, and dips. If you want to work arms, ask yourselves if you’d rather isolate and/or spend a day on the smallest muscles in your body or get more bang for your buck. Beginners need to focus on training economy. Personally, I’d rather focus on developing my yoke, back, and rear delts with bigger biceps as a byproduct of doing so from my heavy chins and rows.
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