A Trip to the Gun Show: Thoughts on Training Arms

It’s a bit of a status symbol to have big arms, at least if you’re a guy. Looking around I’m noticing that some of the ladies want these muscles developed too – they just use the code-word ‘toned’ (which means “just a little muscle and a lot less fat” for those not in the know). Depending on who you ask, you’ll get two different answers as to the best way to develop this “muscle group”.

Orthodox bodybuilders are going to tell you to do 5-10 different curl exercises, 5-10 different kinds of triceps extensions, and if history is anything to go by, you’ll be told to do this for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps. The “new wave” of Internet strength-training doctrine, however, is going to suggest almost exactly the opposite: very limited arm training, maybe even none at all.

Who’s right? This is one of those instances where I don’t think there is a completely correct answer for all situations. There’s some merit to both sides depending on what you’re after. So let’s have a look.

The Arm Flexors: Biceps and Such

What most people just call “the biceps” can actually be broken down into three smaller muscles which we can just call thearm flexors. We call them that because, get this, they flex the arm at the elbow. When you move your hand towards your shoulder, that’s an example of flexing the arm.

As I said, there’s three muscles (largely) at work here: the brachioradialis, which runs on the top and outside of your forearm, the brachialis, which lies on the outside of your upper arm, and everybody’s favorite, the biceps brachii itself. The biceps brachii actually has two heads, a long head and a short head, although it’s still just one muscle.

All three of these are involved in arm flexion to some degree or another. Here’s where things get tricky: the involvement of (or lack thereof) the biceps brachii in a curl movement (arm flexion) is dependent on the degree of wrist pronation. If you hold your arm out in front of you and your palm faces the floor, then your wrist is said to be pronated. If you do the opposite and face your palm upwards, then your wrist is supinated.

The biceps brachii seem to be best activated when the wrist is strongly supinated. The more your wrist pronates, the more the brachioradialis and brachialis come into the movement. There’s also some suggestion that slower movement speeds will tend to recruit the biceps brachii more than faster movements. So that gives us the following:

Reverse Curl – The wrist should be pronated. Trains the brachioradialis and brachialis.
Regular-grip Curl – Trains the biceps brachii. The wrist should be supinated. Should be done with a steady, not fast, tempo.
Hammer Curl – The hammer curl is done with a neutral or palms-facing grip, which tends to train the arm flexors with no real emphasis.

And that’s it. We can argue to a degree over shoulder positioning, as the biceps brachii is involved in raising the arms upwards, but that’s a rather small contribution. If you think it makes a difference, you can alternate between curls on an incline bench, curls standing up or on a preacher bench, and spider curls (with the elbows up near your head). Other than that, it’s the wrist positioning that makes the biggest difference.

The Arm Extensors: The Triceps

The good news about the triceps is that they aren’t nearly that complicated. They do one thing: extend the elbow, which is the opposite of arm flexion. The hand moves away from the shoulder, which is arm extension. OK, that’s not entirely true – the triceps do involve themselves in some shoulder articulations, but that’s not terribly important in most instances.

The triceps brachii, as this is formally known, is also a multi-headed muscle like the biceps. The difference is that there’s not really any significant difference between the three heads. Some have suggested that, like the biceps, the position of the shoulder can make a difference – specifically, that positioning the arms over your head can preferentially stimulate the long-head of the triceps. No idea on whether there’s any truth to that, but if you’re convinced it matters, it’s there.

Because of the role as arm extensors, many people assume that extending the elbow is the best way to train the triceps. This is why you’ll see lying dumbbell extensions, overhead dumbbell extensions, rope extensions, cable pushdowns, and the beloved tricep kickback all suggested in the same workout. I just want to say that this makes even less sense than doing 15 biceps exercises – at least there are some things that can be varied in that instance. In comparison, the elbow is either extended or it’s not. Even changing the grip doesn’t seem to matter that much.

Triceps are strongly involved in any sort of pressing movement. Even though the close-grip bench press is a commonly-suggested triceps exercise, any sort of pressing will train them to some degree. Closer grip work does seem to give them some emphasis, however.

So basically training the triceps is going to boil down to heavy pressing exercises and then lighter elbow-extension movements.

Some context issues

Now that you understand a little more of the issues involved, we can actually talk about training these jokers. At the beginning of the piece, I said that there’s two schools of thought on the matter: train the hell out of the arms, or barely train them at all.

The latter viewpoint assumes that you’re already working with a program based around big compound exercises. If your upper body training is built around bench pressing, overhead pressing, barbell rowing, and weighted chinups, then the arm muscles are already taking a pounding over the course of a training week. So far so good.

The problem with this philosophy arises when you get to a strength level where you have to start specializing on a lift in order to get that lift stronger. In other words, you may have to start performing an exercise in a way that doesn’t correlate so well with muscle-mass gains. Maybe you’re training your bench press with six doubles (6×2) at 80% for three sessions a week. Bench press is getting stronger, sure, but for several reasons your triceps themselves may not be stimulated to grow optimally. In this situation, you might actually find that the lack of direct work can hold you back, if weak triceps are an issue. It happens.

What I’m trying to say here is that if you want bigger arms (or better developed arms, as the girls have to say), then you need to train for that goal. For beginners and other not-so-strong folks, working with big compound lifts is going to line up with that. In that case, you can get away with little to no direct training. If you’re a bit more advanced, with many years under your belt and demonstrable improvements, then you need to specialize your training. Big compounds can still be a part of that, but you shouldn’t get into the mindset that they’ll be sufficient, alone, for your needs.

What you might consider is lining up any direct arm training within your overall strategy. For example, if you spend some training blocks working on “getting stronger”, then you might need little direct work during those blocks. You can let the big compound movements handle the arms. When you switch to a block devoted to “getting bigger” then you might be able to get away more direct work. I don’t think I’d ever go as far as to have a specific “arm day” in a split routine, but there is a rationale for adding in a bit more direct work than the orthodoxy would suggest.

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