Anyone at any age is bound to do a few sets of curls when they enter a gym. Whether these exercises are performed with a barbell, dumbbell, or as part of an exercise machine circuit, building a better bicep is a universal goal in weight training. But the thing is, there’s a lot more to arm training than pumping the biceps.
First, a complete arm workout would include exercises not just for the biceps, but also the triceps and the forearms. In fact, the triceps make up the majority of the size of the upper arm, so if building a pair of sleeve-busting arms is your goal, you need to spend at least as much time on the muscles that extend the arms as those that flex them. As for the importance of the lower arms, consider that having a relative weakness in the brachialis (a muscle that lies between the biceps and triceps) can limit the amount of weight you can use in upper arm exercises.
When designing a workout to develop a specific muscle, you have to consider the resistance curve of the exercise. For example, because of the influence of gravity, during a standing biceps curl the most resistance is felt at the mid-point of the exercise. For complete development of the biceps, it follows that you would need to perform curls that have a stronger resistance curve at the start of the movement (such as the Scott curl with an EZ bar) and a curl with a stronger resistance curve at the finish (such as an incline curl with dumbbells).
For complete development of the triceps, you need to perform exercises that affect all three heads of the muscle group (long, lateral, and medial). The long head is the largest triceps muscle and forms a horseshoe shape on the back of the arms. Many exercises, such as dips and close-grip bench presses, work all three heads of the triceps. However, exercises that position your arms further away from your belly button, such as the overhead triceps extension, increase the recruitment of long head.
For the forearms, one of the easiest ways to work these muscles is to use thick-grip equipment, such as thick barbells and chin-up bars, or thick-grip attachments such as Fat Gripz.
A motor unit is a single motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it activates; thick bar training increases motor-unit activation. The more motor units you recruit and the higher their firing rate, the faster the gains in strength. Thick-bar training also increases grip strength. You should still occasionally perform direct forearm exercises, such as reverse curls, but thick-bar training is undoubtedly a time-saver.
A classic reference book that examines how different exercises affect development of specific muscles is Target Bodybuilding by Per Tesch. Rather than electromyography (EMG), which measures electrical activity, Tesch used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine muscle fiber stimulation.
Putting all this together, let’s look at three arm workouts that fulfill a variety of needs:
Limited Time Workout. For those short on time, workouts should focus on the major muscle groups. One time-saving compromise for arm training is post exhaustion, where you perform a multi-joint exercise immediately followed by an isolation exercise that focuses on a single muscle used in the first exercise. Here is an example, combining two “pull” exercises with two “press” exercises:
A1. Chin-Up, Close-Grip, 4 x 4-6, 4010, rest 10 seconds
A2. 45-Degree Incline Dumbbell Curl, 4 x 6-8, 5010, rest 180
B1. Parallel Bar Dips, 4 x 4-6, 3210, rest 10 seconds
B2. Overhead Rope Extension, 4 x 8-10, 3110, rest 180 seconds
Consider that with the above program design, the second exercise should have a resistance curve that focuses on your weaknesses. This example used the incline dumbbell curl as often trainees place too much emphasis on traditional barbell and dumbbells curls so that their upper and end-range strength levels become relatively weak.
Strong Arms Workout. This advanced program uses the maximal weights method. It’s for those who want arms that are strong as they look:
A1. Close-Grip Barbell Scott Curl, 6 x 2-4, 5010, rest 120 seconds
A2. Parallel Bar Dips, 6 x 2-4, 5010, rest 120 seconds
B1. Seated Dumbbell Hammer Curl, 6 x 2-4, 5010, rest 120 seconds
B2. Seated Half Presses in Power Rack, 6 x 2-4, 2201, rest 120 seconds
Plateau-Buster Workout. If you want to shock your arms into growth and get an enormous pump, tri-sets are the way to go. In the following example, the “A” exercises work the elbow flexors, and the “B” exercises work the elbow extensors:
A1. Paused, Mid-Reverse Grip EZ Bar Curls, 3 x 4-6, 3210, rest 10 seconds
A2. Barbell Curl, 3 x 4-6, 3020, rest 10 seconds
A3. Seated Dumbbell Hammer Curl, 3 x 6-8, 2010, rest 120 seconds
B1. Lying Barbell Triceps Extension to Forehead, 3 x 6-8, 2210, rest 10 seconds
B2. California Press, Thick Bar, 3 x 6-8, 3010, rest 10 seconds
B3. Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extension, 3 x 6-8, 2201, rest 120 seconds
It’s been said that the best workout is the one you’re not doing, emphasizing the point that to achieve your goals in the weightroom you have to experiment with a variety of training methods. Get off to a good start by trying one of these three workouts, and then become a student of the Iron Game and find out what arm exercises and training methods work best for you!