Everybody wants bigger arms and we get that. But the thing many dedicated bodybuilders tend to forget is that regardless of how great it feels to have greatly developed biceps, you shouldn’t neglect the rest of the muscles in the arm. In fact, if you want to build truly admirable arms, you need to train every muscle in the arm with the same volume and intensity as you do your biceps. Nobody admires guys with ridiculous muscle imbalances, so it’s crucial to create a balanced approach to training arms that won’t leave any muscle behind. Here are our suggestions.
The anatomy lesson
Your upper arm is made up of two major muscle groups: the biceps and the triceps.
The core muscle of the biceps muscle group is the biceps brachii muscle, which is composed of a long (outer) head and a short (inner) head that work as a single muscle. The biceps brachii is responsible for flexing the elbow and rotating the forearm and since its fibers are aligned in a fusiform arrangement (which allows for a great degree of shortening), this muscle is capable of producing a wide range of motion. Deep under the biceps brachii lies the brachialis muscle, which is responsible for flexing the elbow, while the brachioradialis muscle which is found in the forearm is heavily involved in rotating the forearm. It’s important to know that the biceps is mainly composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are able to produce quick and powerful contractions.
The triceps, as the name implies, contain three heads – the long (upper inside), medial (lower inside) and lateral (outside) head – and it makes up 2/3 of the upper arm. Of the three heads, the long one is the meatiest, but for achieving a well-developed look, it’s important to adequately target and train each head. The medial and lateral heads are comprised of a mix of fast and slow-twitch fibers, while the long head is dominated by fast-twitch fibers. The long head attaches above the shoulder joint, which means that it’s stretched only when your arm is raised overhead.
With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of 6 great arm exercises that you probably aren’t doing often enough. These moves will help you train your arms in ways that your regular routine can’t and powerfully hit the biceps and triceps heads that you might have been neglecting so far.
Arm training for maximal growth
#1. Tricep Dips
Enter the king of triceps builders. Tricep dips help you target all three triceps heads at once with a heavy load which translates to a maximal recruitment of muscle fibers and more growth.
Dips are complex in that they require movement of a number of joints and thereby promote the development of multiple muscle groups at the same time. So before even thinking of doing triceps isolation exercises, give your triceps a nice burn with this potent move. Depending on your level of strength, you can perform triceps dips on a bench or using a set of parallel bars, mostly found on an assisted pull-up/dip machine. If you’re a beginner, start with a weight that’s roughly two thirds of your original body weight until you get the hang of it.
- Approach the machine with your arms fully extended on both sides, then wrap your fingers around the outside of the parallel bars with your thumbs on the inside.
- Your wrists should be angled so that they allow the elbows to bend backwards.
- Hold your body at arm’s length with arms nearly locked above the bars.
- Slowly lower yourself down with an upright torso until your biceps touch your forearms and your triceps are fully stretched. The elbows should stay close to your body.
- Press yourself up, squeezing your triceps.
- If you’re a beginner, perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps. As your strength increases, progress to 5 sets of 10 reps.
#2. Rope Triceps Pushdown
The triceps pushdown is a thorough and balanced exercise which should be an essential part of any triceps program. It hits all three heads of the triceps, but emphasizes the lateral and medial heads slightly more than the long one, while also working your shoulders, abs and upper back. If used regularly, this move will help you build stronger and more toned triceps with the much sought-after ‘horse shoe’ shape. While there are many ways do it, performing it with a rope attachment helps isolate the triceps better and achieve optimal contraction.
Additionally, the rope enables you to target fibers that lie deep within the triceps and move through a greater range of motion. In fact, one 2011 study found that the rope triceps pushdown was more effective than the bar pushdown when it comes to recruiting triceps muscle fibers.
- Pick a moderate weight and attach a rope attachment to a high pulley on a cable machine.
- Grab both ends of the rope with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and stand upright with a straight torso and a very slight inclination forward.
- Bring the upper arms close to your body and have your forearms point up towards the pulley.
- Squeeze the triceps and pull the rope down, bringing each side of the rope away from the other and to the side of your thighs until your arms are fully extended and perpendicular to the floor. Only the forearms should move while the upper arms remain stationary and close to the torso in order to eliminate any momentum.
- Hold for a second then bring the rope to the starting position.
- Perform 5 sets of 12-15 reps.
#3. Dumbbell Overhead Extensions
Overhead extensions work great for adding mass to the triceps by targeting all three heads but emphasizing the long head. But the unique benefit of performing overhead extensions with a dumbbell is that this version allows you to isolate all three individual triceps heads to a degree unmatched by a straight bar.
Furthermore, if you modify the movement by doing isometric holds at few different points in the range of motion, you can get extra benefits such as improving scapular retraction, correcting poor scapular stability and increasing the range of motion of the shoulders.
- Stand up with feet at shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell with both hands with your thumbs around it, palms facing up towards the ceiling.
- Use both hands to slowly lift the dumbbell over your head until both arms are fully extended.
- Keeping your upper arms close to your head with elbows tucked in, lower the dumbbell behind your head until your forearms touch your biceps. Make sure that only the forearms move and the upper arms are stationary.
- Squeeze the triceps and slowly lift the dumbbell back to the starting position.
- Perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
#4. Preacher Curls
As far as bicep exercises go, preacher curls are somewhere on the top of the list, especially when you’re looking to fully isolate the biceps. They don’t require heavy weights, are immune to cheating and are the single best way to build a mighty biceps’ peak which will make your arms appear much bigger and fuller. You can perform this exercise with dumbbells, a cable pulley, a barbell or EZ curl bar. When using a bar, a wide grip will help you emphasize the short head while a narrow grip will place more stress on the long head.
- Find a preacher bench and rest your upper arms on the preacher bench pad with your chest firmly against it.
- Grab an EZ curl bar (have someone hand you the bar or grab it from the front bar rest) at the close inner handle with your hands slightly tilted inwards
- Keeping the chest and arms firmly in place, hold the bar at shoulder length.
- Slowly lower the bar until your upper arms are fully extended and your biceps are fully stretched.
- Squeeze the biceps and curl the weight up to the starting position, in line with your shoulders. Hold this position for a couple of seconds, then start lowering the bar again.
- Perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
#5. Reverse Cable Curls
The reverse cable curl is perhaps the most underused and underrated arm exercise of them all, which is pretty sad because this move could be exactly what you need to push the size and strength of your arms to a truly great level. It mainly works the brachialis muscle, which some people feel is not important as the brachii, and that might be the reason why they will never build huge arms.
The other reason why gym-goers bypass this move is because it doesn’t allow you to lift as much weight as you would using a barbell curl with a regular grip. But on the plus side, reverse cable curls promote significant brachialis growth with the use of slow eccentrics (which is what the brachialis respond best to) and by forcing your brachialis to grow, you will actually push your biceps upwards and make them appear larger.
- Set the cable attachment on a low pulley and hold the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip with palms facing down.
- While holding the upper arms stationary and keeping the elbows close to the torso, curl the weights up towards your head while contracting the biceps until they are fully contracted and the bar is at shoulder level.
- Hold the contraction for two counts while squeezing the biceps, then very slowly bring the bar back to the starting position. This part of the movement should take 3-4 counts.
- Perform 5 sets of 12-15 reps.
#6. Dumbbell Hammer Curls
While traditional curls are performed with palms facing forwards, hammer curls are done with the palms facing inwards towards the torso. Dumbbell hammer curls primarily target your biceps brachii, involving the brachioradialis as a secondary muscle and also working the brachialis to some extent. Size improvements in the brachioradialis and brachialis muscles will make your biceps appear a lot fuller in size, accentuating their shape even further, so training them is more than worth the trouble.
In addition, you can use a lot more weight for this exercise compared to the standard dumbbell curl, so make sure to pick a heavier weight and push yourself as hard as you can.
- Stand up with an upright torso, holding a dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length with the palms of your hands facing your torso.
- Hold your upper arms stationary and keep your elbows close to the torso. Only the forearms should move.
- Curl the weight forward while squeezing the biceps until the dumbbells are at shoulder level.
- Hold the contraction for a second, then slowly lower the dumbbells back down.
- Perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps.