The BEST-Ever Training for Big Biceps & Triceps – 1

Big biceps & triceps

A vast majority of men step into the gym with a goal of building boulder biceps & horseshoe triceps and the picture of Arnold’s huge 22” arms in mind. Yet, lifters with ‘puny’ arms are a common sight in gyms across the country.

If we carry out a survey of all the male lifters in the 20 to 40 age group and ask them if they would like to have bigger arms? At least, 80 % of them will respond in affirmative. Off-course, rest of the 20% would be lying.

Big biceps & triceps
Arnold’s Big Arms

To be clear, we’re here talking about the sort of ‘bodybuilder-esque’ big biceps & triceps with the visible veins & muscular-cuts on display, and not the ‘fatceps’ – in which case your arm measurements doesn’t matter anymore. Because your arms are going to look still ugly and unimpressive with an extra 2-3 inch girth of fatty layers.

Now that we’re clear on our goal, let’s talk about the significance of arm training and building big guns.

A Case for Arm TrainingBig biceps & triceps

Arm training is often touted by many ‘functional training zealots’ as just only for cosmetic purposes with no real significance towards sports performance. This is a pure hogwash as stated by the study of human performance as well as the real world on-field experience.

Big and strong arms, not only boosts the performance in sports but also offer an insurance against many common injuries. For example, in Powerlifting whenever an athlete set-ups and initiates any of the three lifts (Bench press, Squats, Deadlift), it requires a great deal of stabilization in the glenohumeral joint, and biceps & triceps play a crucial for the proper positioning and bracing of the joint.

Another example, Erick Minor (strengthstudio fame), renowned coach and fellow colleague, during his stint as a strongman competitor experienced that the day after the event when he performed feats like Stones lifts and Conan’s wheel, his lower back and legs were a little sore but his arms were completely destroyed. He said that he was lucky to get through the competition without any major injury. In his own words, “It’s not that I hadn’t trained; I’d done farmer’s walks, log presses, Zercher squats, sled drags, and heavy squats and deadlifts – all the lifts you’d expect an aspiring strongman competitor to do. What I didn’t do was direct arm work. Big mistake.”

So we can safely assume that incorporating Biceps & Triceps work in your training is a good safeguard for the stability and safety of shoulder and elbow joints along with helping you to put big numbers on your main lifts.

This takes us to the next big point of discussion and controversy in the strength world. Whether isolation work is absolutely mandatory or training arms through compound movements is sufficient?

Arm Training ControversyBig biceps & triceps

Some strength coaches believe that devoting extra work or sessions for arm isolation work interferes with the training economy and exacerbates the shoulder problems. And they’re right!

Strength athletes who partake in games like contact sports, hockey, cricket, football etc. already perform so much training on and off the field that their gym-training need to be restricted to bare-minimum, most bang of the buck exercises to promote recovery and performance. These athletes just can’t afford to waste time and energy.

Also, many a time the cause of shoulder pain in athletes is due to the inflamed biceps tendon (often seen during Bench Press). Spending an extra volume of training on arm isolation causes inflammation at the coracoids process of the scapulae and supraglenoid tubercle (shoulder joint).

Besides, for beginners and natural lifters looking for fastest gains in mass, focusing on the strength and performance of compound lifts is must rather than spending energy on doing endless sets of curls. A valid argument is, will a beginner lifter who progresses up to performing multiple reps with 100 Kg on Bench Press have underdeveloped triceps if he didn’t do any triceps extensions and kickbacks? Off-course not!

But it’s where this discussion gets more interesting; isolation training does works and it works great. We’ve all seen those college going kids in the gym with really skinny legs, underdeveloped shoulders & back, but with an unmatched pair of muscular-ish arms. What these kids do is just the direct biceps and triceps work for the majority of their workouts.

Another good example is of the bodybuilders who perform lots of isolation work for their arms. They display an excellent level of muscular development especially if we compare their arms to that of the athletes.

So what’s the final verdict here?

Finding of FactBig biceps & triceps

There’s no one size fits all solution for big arms. The real key is the individualization of training depending upon an individual. Even if two persons have the same common goal and background of training, depending on each person’s leverages and muscle dominance their training requirements could be different. Moreover, depending upon the weak points in the main lifts (especially in power lifting) you may require isolation work to strengthen your weak links.

Let’s say you have dominant shoulders and/or long arms, and your bench press had plateaued. In this case targeted triceps isolation work will not only help you boost your bench press but will also improve your triceps development.

But there are some generalizations which hold true for most of the cases. If you’re a beginner lifter with less than six months of training experience, then arm isolation work is totally unnecessary for you. Your main focus should be to learn the technique of big basic movements and get stronger & efficient in performing them. Initially, compound lifts will provide enough stimulus for your arms to grow.

Similarly, in the training of athletes, isolation work shouldn’t play a big role in the workout unless it’s for weak point correction or muscle dominance issues. Compound work takes care of most of the needs of an athlete.

Programming Compound Work for Big Biceps & TricepsBig biceps & triceps

A compound or Multi-Joint exercise allows you to lift more weight than isolation or Single-Joint exercise. You will always be able to lift more weight on Bench Press than Barbell Triceps Extension, it’s a no brainer.

But, EMG data on triceps activation show similar activity with either compound or isolation exercises. Researchers compared 10 RM loads for Regular Bench Press, Close Grip Press, Dips with Lying Triceps Extension, Over-Head Extension, and Pushdowns.  They didn’t find much difference in electric activity with any of the exercises!

Now, even if both types of exercises produce similar activation in muscles, you’re still able to lift more load on compound exercises than single-joint exercises because of the involvement of supportive muscle groups. For eg. loading on close grip bench press is significantly heavier than lying triceps extension due to the involvement of front deltoids and pectoral muscles.

Many consider it as the drawback of compound movements because your stronger muscles take over and diminish the results for the desired muscle group. Well, it’s true if you choose inappropriate exercises for your purpose and structure. But the proper selection of compound work will only further your gains because it allows the targeted muscle to lift more weight than any of the isolation movement even if the EMG activity is similar. Heavier loading equates to better progress and fast hypertrophy & strength gains.

Compound Training Routine for Arms Development

Big biceps & triceps
Yates Rows

As we discussed above that making proper exercise choices is paramount if you want Compound-only training to work optimally for athletes and time-constrained lifters. Here’s an example, Besides Chin-ups, Yates Rows (Barbell Rows with Palms-up) shown above is the commonly prescribed exercise to lifters who want to target biceps through heavy loading with a big multi-joint exercise. (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s training schedule also includes it!) It’s not a bad choice, but the way most lifters perform it (excessive weight, heaving through hips & lower back) makes it suboptimal for bicep stimulation.

Big biceps & triceps
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

The solution here is to remove the cheating by stabilizing the torso. Perform the Dumbells Incline Prone Row with palms-up (supinated grip). To optimize this exercise for bicep stimulation, do it with constant tension without stopping the dumbbells at any point, and avoiding the lockout at the bottom & hold at the top. Perform the concentric portion (lifting) fast and eccentric portion (lowering) slow in about 4-5 seconds. Heavy eccentrics create low-level muscular trauma, which initiates satellite cell proliferation, mTOR signaling, new fiber synthesis, and adaptations that enhance muscle growth and strength.Big biceps & triceps

Similarly many people like Diamond Push-ups for compound triceps work. It is in itself a great closed kinetic chain exercise, but it lacks sufficient loading for good hypertrophic results. To increase the difficulty level, many people like to raise their feet on a bench, but still, it’s comparatively easier to tame. Many athletes are capable to churn out 20 plus reps with the feet-up version easily. Here some coaches suggest using an unstable surface like exercise ball to raise the feet. This increases the stability demand on triceps and makes the exercise tougher.

Big biceps & triceps
Diamond Push-Ups

But research has shown that unstable surfaces for pressing exercises are inferior to stable exercises. It is way better to work up to Handstand push-ups than falling for gimmicky versions like unstable surfaces. Another good alternative is to use feet elevated push-ups as a triceps burn-out at the end of triceps training for max reps.

Big biceps & triceps
Feet Elevated Push-Ups

Sample Compound Schedule for Big Biceps & Triceps

The compound exercises designed for strength and muscle growth should be put at the forefront of your workout rather than at the tail end. The ideal frequency of training for most lifters to hammer a weak body part with enough volume and oftenness is twice a week.

Here’s the routine:

Arms Day 1

A: Incline Prone Dumbell Rows with palms-up, 4 Sets X 8 Reps (performed in an above-prescribed manner)

B: Pull-ups (bodyweight only, neutral grip, hands facing each other), 4 Sets X Max. Reps (performed with peak contraction squeeze at top, 5 seconds lowering, no lockout)

C1: Close Grip Bench Press, 4 Sets X 8 Reps (5 seconds eccentric, no rest at bottom)

C2: Dips (body weight only), 4 Sets X Max Reps (Controlled eccentric)

C3: Push-ups (body weight only), 4 Sets X Max Reps (Controlled eccentric)

A, B are straight sets; means you perform all the sets of exercise A and then proceed to B and so on.
C1, C2, C3 are alternate sets; means you first perform a set of C1, second a set of C2, and third a set of C3; rest as little as required, and restart with C1 again till all the 4 sets are completed.

Arms Day 2

A1: Chin-ups (Weights attached, supinated grip, palms facing you), 4 Sets X 8 Reps (performed with similar technique as Pull-ups)

A2: Dips (Same Weights attached as Chin-ups), 4 Sets X Max Reps (Controlled eccentric)

B1: Incline Prone Dumbell Rows with palms-up, 4 Sets X 15 Reps (performed in the prescribed manner)

B2: Feets Elevated Push-ups (bodyweight only), 4 Sets X Max Reps (Controlled Eccentric)

A1, A2 are alternate sets; means you first perform a set of A1, then a set of A2; rest as little as required, and restart with A1 again till all the 4 sets are completed. After that, proceed to B1, B2 in the same fashion.

You can see that these Arms workouts not only hammer your biceps and triceps hard but also provide a good growth stimulus to back and chest muscles. So you don’t have to plan anything extra for pushing and pulling workouts during this weak point training phase for your arms. This is the beauty of compounds only training, it’s very economical.

A good and sensible 4 day split for athletes and other busy lifters looking forward to incorporating it into their training is as follows:

MONDAY

PAIRINGEXERCISE
AFront Squats
BBulgarian Split Squats
C1Leg Press
C2Leg Extension
DConditioning Work

TUESDAY

Arms Day 1

Here you can add one more exercise to this day depending upon the movement pattern you want to emphasize, ie, Military Press or Bench Press for 3 Sets X 5 Reps.

THURSDAY

PAIRINGEXERCISE
ADeadlifts
B1Single-Leg Dumbell Deadlifts
B2Leg Curls
CLunges
DConditioning Work

SATURDAY

Arms Day 2

Here you can add one more exercise to this day depending upon the movement pattern you want to emphasize, ie, Military Press or Bench Press for 3 Sets X 5 Reps.

References
  • Anderson D, Jackson M, Kropf D, Soderberg, G. Electromyographic analysis of
    selected muscles during push-ups. Physical Therapy. 1984;64(1):24-28.
  • Boehler, B. Electromyographic analysis of the triceps brachii muscle during a variety of triceps exercises. MS in Clinical Exercise Physiology, December 2011, 38 pp.
  • Cogley R, Archambault T, Fibeger J, Koverman M, Youdas J, Hollman J.
    Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the
    push-up exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
    2005;19(31):628-633.
  • Ferreira, Diogo V.; Ferreira-Júnior, João B.; Soares, Saulo R.S.; Cadore, Eduardo L.; Izquierdo, Mikel; Brown, Lee E.; Bottaro, Martim. Chest Press Exercises With Different Stability Requirements Result in Similar Muscle Damage Recovery in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2017 – Volume 31 – Issue 1 – p 71–79.
  • Lee J. Finally! Firm, stronger upper arms. Shape. 2007;26(5):88-92.
  • Lehman G, MacMillan B, MacIntyre I, Chivers M, Fluter M. Shoulder muscle EMG activity during push up variations on and off a Swiss ball. Dynamic Medicine. 2006;5(7):1-7.
  • Soubhagya R, Ashwin K, Madhan K, Latha V, Vasudha S, Merin M. Four-headed biceps and triceps brachii muscles, with neurovascular variation. Anatomical Science International. 2008;83:107–111
Part 2 covers the Best exercises to develop each and every head of biceps and triceps directly through focused isolation work.
Part 3 covers the programming aspect for The BEST-Ever Training for Big Biceps & Triceps.

10 thoughts on “The BEST-Ever Training for Big Biceps & Triceps – 1

  1. You certainly know more about your area of expertise than lots of people out there in the fitness field. Really appreciate you sharing this post.Thanks Again. Really Great.

  2. Spot on info. I’m a 41 year old trainer and wish I had this knowledge when I was young. I always Knew and spot the weak links in bicep-tricep training through compound work but didn’t knew how to formulate it. A big big thank you and eagerly looking for the part 2.

  3. This is very different training for arms, my biceps, back & tricep were so sore after the arm day that I had to take 3 days off from lifting. Please post the next instalment soon. Thank you

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