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Build Impressive Arms

Men and women turn their training attention to their arms for different reasons.
  • Women typically want to "tone" their arms, usually as a reaction to sagging triceps. So, they hit the gym and do basically useless exercises with very light weights. They often believe working their arms properly according to bodybuilding principles will somehow give them huge bulging biceps. I will dispel that myth there and explain how women can have beautiful arms.
  • Men typically have watched some action movie or by some other means become impressed with some other guy's bulging biceps. Consequently, they want those also. So they hit the gym and either faithfully do three 8-rep sets of curls three times a week, or just do as many curls as they can. I will explain why that does not work and what to do instead.

I'm also going to explain what makes an impressive arm, at least in my opinion. Let's start with that, then I'll tell you how you, too, can have impressive arms.

Impressive arms must:

  • Be built for actual strength. Think of Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee, or Sylvester Stallone.
  • Have support. That means strong shoulders, back, abs, and legs.
  • Have balance.
  • Be lean.
  • Show vascularity. Rather than explain, I'll show you in a photo below.
  • For men, arms should have some bulk. For women, not so much. The good news is your hormones determine what you get here. So guys who aren't on a feminizing diet (most American males are) can easily get big arms. Women who aren't taking steroids are very unlikely to get huge arms but will instead have powerful looking arms that compliment and complement their female curves.
 

All of these photos were taken just after my 50th birthday.

Some things you can see in the first photo:

  • A very thick shoulder in relation to the rest of the arm.
  • No round ball on top of a stick.
  • Huge muscle at elbow joint.
  • Overall lean physique.

Many guys who are just fat think they have "big guns" but not much happens when they flex. We'll see more flex response in a couple other photos.

Here's that vascularity, shown more clearly. This shot was taken after a deliberate pumping up of the vein, whereas the one above it was taken only during a biceps flex with no pre-pumpup.

Novice bodybuilders are often proud to get a little trace of blue under the skin above their biceps.

Notice how this stands out and stands up on the surface of the arm.

How do you get this vascularity? It's not from doing endless reps. Quite the contrary. It's from doing high-intensity, low-volume workouts. These workouts place tremendous strain on the muscles, causing them to call for more oxygen than the blood can deliver. The body's adaptive response is to increase blood vessel size. Pumping up pushes more blood into the vessel, but it does not cause the enlarging adaptive response to any great degree.

Some things you can see in the second photo:

  • The triceps muscle. Big arms aren't all about biceps. It takes a whole arm to raise a village, or something like that....
  • No extra fat. Notice how tight the skin is.
  • The mass in the biceps is substantial enough that you can see it even with the arm extended.
  • The triceps make up a substantial part of the arm mass. Look at the anchor points to help gage its size.
  • The shoulder is substantial.
  • Some of the vascularity is apparent.

To develop shoulders, see our Build Impressive Shoulders article.

Here are some fat loss articles:

The main thing to understand from this photo is you are not going to get impressive arms without total conditioning. The same is true of impressive abs or an Impressive Back.

Unfortunately, many people misapply this truth and try to build everything on the same workout. That does not work, one reason being it sacrifices Intensity.

  
Those of you who reading this hoping to find out how to build bulging biceps won't be disappointed, after all. These last two photos show the eponymous bulging biceps.

You can also see definition, vascularity, etc. Notice the size of the pectoral in that last photo.

The biceps consists of two muscles (the Latin "bi" meaning "two"). What makes the bulge like that is the brachialis, which is the underlying part of the biceps. It anchors at the elbow. When this muscle enlarges, it pushes up the other muscle. That gives the biceps a rounded appearance.

A classic exercise for building the brachialis is the hammer curl. But just doing hammer curls will not give you great guns.

A common approach in gyms is to do a bunch of pansy routines on fancy machines. These do not:

  • Properly load the muscles, even if they do seem to challenge the muscles.
  • Invoke the hormonal response you need to signal the muscles to grow.

How do we know these things? The fact that people routinely do this kind of "workout" three times a week tells you it's ineffective. Especially if combined with work on other body parts.  You cannot do an effective biceps workout 3 times a week as part of a circuit training regimen. You'll see this when I describe my biceps training, next.

 

My biceps workout

I do two biceps workouts on the same day. My next day for biceps workout will occur 3 to 5 days later. I work myback in this same workout. Throughout, I maintain a high level of intensity with every rep of every set.

Morning

  • Alternating sets of chinups and pullups, with about 1 minute of rest between. Typically, 4 to 6 reps per set--all of them at low speed and maximum range of motion. If I wanted to, I could crank out 30 or more reps in a row by going very fast and not quite all the way up or down. But this is about training, not accumulating a rep count. I'll do enough sets to ensure I have a good burn and then pose hard to make the burn intense. The number of sets ranges from 6 to 10, depending on what I can do that day.
     
  • Bentover rows. I do these slowly and in perfect form, squeezing very hard at the top. I follow with hard posing to make the burn intense. Most guys use far too much weight and sloppy form. When traveling, it seems I always end up in gyms where guys play the silly "I'm lifting more than you are" game. When a guy does that while I'm doing rows, I take off my shirt and pose my upper back. That ends the silly competition.
     
  • Traditional standing curls. I start usually with 40 lbs in each hand, and do four slow reps. I might do another set with this weight, but then do the next weight down. Every rep is slow; every set leaves me gasping for breath.
     
  • Hammer curls. I start usually with 40 lbs in each hand, and do a couple of slow reps. Then I go on sets of six with 30 lbs. Every rep is slow; every set leaves my arms just burning.
     
  • Combo curls. With two 30 lb dumbbells, I do a rotating motion. How many reps and sets I do depends on how much energy I have left.
     
  • Posing pumps. I finish by doing 2 or 3 sets of posing pumps. These don't stimulate muscle growth, but they do help with recovery by moving a lot of blood through the arms. Also, they help psychologically because seeing yourself pumped to the max is quite rewarding.

Afternoon

All of these are done at an ultra-slow speed. For example, I may take 20 seconds to lower the weight during a curl. The whole point here isn't to tear down the muscle but to get the adaptive response.

  • Alternating sets of chinups and pullups, with about 1 minute of rest between. Typically, I do only 2 or 3 reps per set and only 3 to 4 sets. During these, I am flexed as hard as I can and my muscles are just screaming.  After each set, I do hard posing--it's painful.
     
  • Bentover rows. I do these slowly and in perfect form, squeezing very hard and holding for 2 to 3 seconds at the top. Typically, I do only 2 or 3 reps per set and only 2 to 3 sets. During these, I am flexed as hard as I can and my muscles are just screaming. The whole point here isn't to tear down the muscle but to get the adaptive response. After each set, I do hard posing--it's very painful.
     
  • Traditional standing curls. I use 30 lbs and do only two sets. I do them very, very slowly. This takes extreme discipline to finish.
     
  • Hammer curls. I use 30 lbs and do only two sets. I do them very, very slowly. This takes extreme discipline to finish.
     
  • Combo curls. With two 30 lb dumbbells, I do a rotating motion. I usually do 4 sets of 2 to 3 reps, trying for a 20 second lowering speed and a 10 second raising speed on the weight.
     
  • Posing pumps. I finish by doing 2 or 3 sets of posing pumps. What I see in this afternoon workout blows away what I see in the morning workout. My muscles have half a day to take up various nutrients and water, and the pump is maximum.

There is no way you can do this kind of workout without a few days rest between a repeat of it. In fact, when my rotation falls such that I have back/biceps, chest/triceps, and squats occurring in succession with no rest day between any two of them I know I have to pick one workout to scale back on. Sometimes, I skip the afternoon back/biceps workout or sometimes I skip the afternoon chest/triceps workout. I cannot do but one squats workout on the same day, so there's no afternoon squats workout to skip (squats work so many muscles, you can't recover enough to do anything more later in the day without overtraining).

I alsosupplement appropriately, get adequate sleep, and maintain a healthy diet. These three practices are foundational to building a great body, yet few people put much thought or discipline into them. With a little attention to this area, you can really put your program on the fast track.

What was that about rotation? I do a split routine program. There is no single right way. There are a few ways that are generally accepted by serious athletes. Here's mine:

  • Workout one. Back and biceps.
  • Workout two. Chest and triceps.
  • Workout three. Shoulders.

I do these workouts on a rotating basis on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Three workouts and four days means the pattern changes each week.

In addition to this rotating pattern of upper body workouts, I do these:

  • On Mondays, I do front squats. I try to do these every week, and that's possible only because of supplementation with glutamine. Even so, there are occasionally Mondays where I skip this workout due to recovery concerns. Done properly, front squats work the core and are a fantastic ab exercise.
  • On Fridays, I do hanging leg raises followed by calf raises.

In these photos, I was at 5% body fat and am still there about a month later as I write this. In fact, I have been at 5% bodyfat since early this year. I'll probably stay that lean well into the future.

One reason I can be that lean is the way I have these workouts scheduled. This kind of scheduling plays off the cortisol/testosterone responses the body goes through when subjected to the kind of stress that an intense workout puts on it.

Of course, eating six small meals a day and paying attention to what's in those meals is another factor that allows a 50 year old person to be at 5% bodyfat. It isn't genes, trust me. If I can do it, anyone else can do it.

This article touches on the key aspects of building powerful, impressive arms. Many people will focus on some minor detail or another, but not properly assemble the big pieces. Now you have a good idea of how the big pieces go together. In our other articles, you'll find the details of exercises and diet. Before you implement those details, put together your total fitness plan based on what you've just read.

Photographer: Aaron Lindberg,http://www.aaronlindberg.com/

 

 

 

 

Article Authorship

The articles on this site are authoritative, because:

  • Every contributor is an expert in his or her field.
  • The articles comply with the accepted principles of the bodybuilder literature.
  • The articles comply with the teachings of such luminaries as 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

 Where an article is not bylined with a specific author's name, it was written by Mark Lamendola (see photos on home page and elsewhere on this site). Mark is a 4th degree blackbelt, has not been sick since 1971, and has not missed a workout since 1977. Just an example of how Mark knows what he's talking about: In his early 50s, Mark demonstrated a biceps curl using half his body weight. That's a Jack LaLanne level stunt. Few people can even come close. If you want to know how to build a strong, beautiful body, read the articles here.

 
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