Let’s be honest, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, at some point in your life I’m sure you’ve wanted or admired the toned arms of a friend, colleague or celebrity. You know the ones I’m talking about, the set of arms that will both stop traffic AND open tight jars! Women appreciate the well-toned and svelte arms of Frist Lady, Michelle Obama and men aspire to a be like Hugh Jackman in Wolverine.
In some fitness communities, isolated arm training is shunned because of the associated image or perceived lack of functional application. I’m here to tell you that having nicely sculpted arms are most certainly functional for improving self confidence and can also progress a few of the other compound lifts if targeted correctly. Weaknesses can present in certain positions of movements that can be addressed by some arm exercises, however if you clicked on the title of this article, chances are you just want to know how to fix your soft spaghetti arms!
First things first, I’m going to give you the key principles to follow and things to avoid. Making sure you’re effective and not wasting your time looking like a dill doing bicep curls in a squat rack. Unless you have 24-inch arms, doing curls in an Olympic lifting platform or a squat rack is a gym etiquette no-no.
- Don’t forget you have triceps. It’s common for people to focus on the muscle they can only see in the mirror and curl all day neglecting the bicep’s three neighbours: the triceps (Brachii lateral, Medius and Longus). Generally triceps take up more than half of your arm circumference and affect every pressing movement (via elbow extension). So pay just as much attention, if not more, to your triceps when training your arms.
- Diet and lifestyle play a role in results. It would be remiss of me not to mention this. You can do the best arm workouts in history but if you don’t get this right, then your newly sculpted muscles can be sitting under layers of fat getting no love. If you want veins like road maps, put down the cheesecake.
- No swinging. Save the swings for the kettle bells. You will recruit more of the desired muscle fibres with focused technique rather than emphasis on big weights.
- Being mindful and present with an internal focus on the desired working muscle for a better contraction. Studies have shown that by selectively thinking and engaging the targeted muscle, increases the muscle contraction compared to without engaging the mind-muscle connection. (1, 4) Bodybuilders have been doing this for many years and for good reason. On a side note, if you’re doing a maximal lift (>80% of 1RM) external focus produces better results.(1, 7) An example of external focus would be pushing though the floor.
Changing variables for improvements
Two important variables that need to be accounted for when training arms are hand and elbow position in relation to the body. Getting a grasp of functional human anatomy will enable you to understand what position will work certain parts of the arm and further allow you to focus your mind-muscle connection for better results. For those not interested and who just want to get jacked arms, all you need to do is ensure that there are variations of both hand and elbow positions in each workout.
For hand position, there are three variables for both biceps and triceps:
- Supinated – Hands facing up
- Pronated – Hands facing down
- Neutral a.k.a. the hammer grip – Pick up a hammer or a tennis racquet and that is the grip
Implementing all three of these grips and even a combination of rotating your hands during the exercise will help for developing all aspects of the arm.
The following table will show a FEW examples of different elbow positions and exercises. There are too many to list in this article, but the key point is to understand the positions and how you can change the variables.
|Elbow Position||Bicep Exercises||Triceps Exercises|
|Elbows beside the body||Standing or seated DB/BB curl||Cable triceps extension, partial JM press|
|Elbows in front of the body||Preacher curls/Scott curls||Lying triceps extension DB or BB, machine triceps extension|
|Elbows behind the body||Incline DB curls/Incline offset curls||Parallel bar dips|
Note most of the above exercises can be modified with hand positions.
Training with increased bar diameter (Watson Bars or Dumbbells) or attached fat gripz has been shown to increase grip strength, muscle development in the forearms and neural drive, which can carry over to improve some of your other lifts such as deadlifts. (3, 5, 6) It is common for grip strength to be a limiting factor in some strength exercises and should be considered when training arms to improve the possibility of any weak links. Using the fatter grips will also help to keep you from having one of those terrible wet-fish handshakes and help you make a more favourable first impression with a stronger handshake. Please take note not to train with a fat grip for every single exercise. Too much of anything can do more damage than good, so keep variation in the mix for better results. Also, people with small hands will probably not be suited to fat grip training.
Tempo and Eccentric Training
Using a tempo controlled style of lifting weights will increase the amount of TUT (Time Under Tension) that the working muscles will work in each set. Increasing TUT has been indicated to be one of the key factors in skeletal muscle hypertrophy. (2, 6) An example of this is an uncontrolled tempo of a bicep curl might take you an average of 15 seconds to complete one set, however completing a set of ten with a 5-0-1-0 tempo* (see tempo explained below) will take 60 seconds, translating to an extra 45 seconds of mechanical work vs. uncontrolled. Leave your ego at the door, because the weights will be lighter, however your arms will grow stronger and more prominent.
Arm training can be programed as a day by itself or can also be incorporated into existing training days. For example, you could do all pulling movements on one program day and incorporate all your curls/bicep work on that day too. The key with programing is to make sure you actually write down your reps, sets and weights down for tracking basic linear progression. Aimlessly walking around doing any exercise in front of the mirror without tracking progress is a fast way to nowhere!
Now that you have acquired the key principles and variables to attaining a better set of pipes, don’t forget to take action and implement this into your training program. Knowledge means nothing without taking action.
“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
– Zig Ziglar
Read, learn and APPLY!
* Tempo explained: Example 5-0-1-0 = 5 seconds lowering (eccentric) – 0 seconds at the bottom of movement – 1 second lifting (concentric) – 0 seconds at the top of the top of the movement.
- Calatayud J, Vinstrup J, Jakobsen MD, Sundstrup E, Brandt M, Jay K, Colado JC, and Andersen LL. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European journal of applied physiology 116: 527-533, 2016.
- DEL MONTE V. 3 ADVANCED TRAINING TECHNIQUES REVEALED.
- Grant KA, Habes DJ, and Steward LL. An analysis of handle designs for reducing manual effort: the influence of grip diameter. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 10: 199-206, 1992.
- Marchant DC, Greig M, and Scott C. Attentional focusing instructions influence force production and muscular activity during isokinetic elbow flexions. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23: 2358-2366, 2009.
- Ratamess NA, Faigenbaum AD, Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, and Kang J. Acute muscular strength assessment using free weight bars of different thickness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 21: 240-244, 2007.
- Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24: 2857-2872, 2010.
- Wulf G, Dufek JS, Lozano L, and Pettigrew C. Increased jump height and reduced EMG activity with an external focus. Human movement science 29: 440-448, 2010.