Everybody wants to build big arms, but nobody wants to apply ‘nuff logic.
Well, science not only appears cumbersome to most but also an over-kill. So, most trainers, as well as trainees, shut down their critical thinking when it comes down to training guns which is evident from the way they program arm training in their routines.
Due to the small size of arm muscles relative to other big muscles like quadriceps and hamstrings, and due to repeated use of biceps & triceps during all the major upper body movements, many coaches think that a couple of sets of curls and elbow extensions here and there suffice to accomplish the goal of well-developed arms. This is not at all optimal.
Others perceive the task of achieving big arms as too cumbersome to accomplish and they tackle it with ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach. The big problem with this approach is the lack of rational thinking and creativity; after all, in how many ways can you flex and extend your arms? Too much volume of the repetitive motions ultimately leads to some nasty elbow tendinitis sooner than later.
Both of the above approaches are insufficient when it comes to developing a balanced and well-proportioned pair of biceps and triceps which are not only mesmerizing but highly functional as well.
We are going to provide you the real world solutions in this article which will serve you for a long long time in future, so pay ATTENTION.
Simplifying the Arm Training
The meat of the elbow flexors lies in the biceps-brachii muscle which consists of two heads medial (inner) and lateral (outer). Other elbow flexors which are significant from strength and muscle mass perspective are brachialis (lies below the biceps brachii) and brachioradialis ( the muscle at the top of forearms which crosses the elbow joint). The function of biceps is to bend elbows, raise arms at the shoulders, and supinate at the wrists.
On the other hand, elbow extensors (triceps) consist of three heads, long head, medial head, and short head. The main function of triceps is to extend the arms at the elbow joint.
It makes sense to look into the anatomical structure and functioning of each muscle and its respective heads if we want a balanced growth throughout the muscle. Small tweaks like shoulder positioning and wrist manipulations can indeed shift the stress on a particular head.
The angle of force applied, and peak force optimization over the entire range of motion also make a significant difference. This is the reason why at times machines and cables are superior to free weights. But don’t worry if you don’t have access to specialized machines or cables. We’ll teach you about the ways you can optimize free weight exercises for max results.
A Word of Advice
The first and foremost thing to consider for complete development of biceps/triceps or any muscle group is to select movements and methods which provide ample tension to the overall musculature without any serious imbalance.
Now the approach we utilize with our clients is individualization. We cater to the unique demands of each and every individual which conform to their anatomy, weaknesses and current requirements. This leads to different solutions for different lifters.
But for the sake of simplicity and to make things as comprehensible as possible, we’ll provide suggestions on how to put stress on each and every different head to develop it fully. This will empower you with the enough knowledge to create a sensible program for yourself depending on your weaknesses.
Best Biceps Training
As we learned above complete biceps training involves the development of three muscle groups; biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis. In this section, we’ll give you best exercises for the complete development of each muscle group one by one.
This is the largest elbow flexor of upper arms consisting of two heads. Most coaches when prescribing exercises for both heads use narrower grip curls to emphasize the long or outer head, and wide grip for short or inner head. This is not necessarily bad, but at times you need a more elaborated approach to hit the biceps optimally.
Biceps Brachii: Outer Head
The outer head (lateral head) is the larger one of the two. It originates at just outside of shoulder joint (Coracoid Process) and inserts into the elbow towards the distal biceps tendon. The outer head is largely responsible for the biceps peak. If it’s a weakness in your arms, it’ll require special attention and lots of effort to correct. Best exercises which target the long head largely are those which stretch the biceps at the shoulder joint. The excellent choices are:
Resting your back against an incline bench with your arms hanging by your sides creates a great deal of stretch at the shoulder joint. This helps in involving the long head and peak force contraction right from the start up to the midpoint. As the muscle being recruited at the start of the movement is the one targeted effectively; incline curls are an effective way to target the long head.
This exercise requires cable-pulley apparatus. Curl the handles to right behind your neck. It’ll create a great deal of peak contraction at the end point of force curve. If you don’t have access to cables use the below exercise
Single Arm Concentration Curls on Incline Bench
The use of incline bench minimizes the momentum or cheating which otherwise cancels the benefits of this exercise. Use of single arm allows you to put a better focus on the performance of each rep.
Initiate the curl without any arm swinging and squeeze hard at the top. At this point lift your elbows slightly by moving the shoulder joints. This will create an even harder peak contraction at the top. Why? As we learned earlier that long head attaches at the outer shoulder joint. Flexing shoulders a little at the top contributes to a greater biceps flexion and a nasty pump. This was why Dorian Yates was doing EZ bar curls to the nose in his epic Blood and Guts training video.
Biceps Brachii: Short Head
The short head of biceps originate at the just inside of shoulder joint (Supraglenoid Tuberosity) and extends up to tubercle of the radius at the elbow. It is responsible for the biceps thickness especially when viewed from the front. This head is involved in lots of biceps exercises and is rarely ever a problem. But if you have an underdeveloped short head, utilize the following exercises:
Preacher Curls with straight bar
Preacher curls allow you to start the movement from the slightly shoulders flexed position. This puts the long head at the disadvantageous position which shifts tension towards the short head. Straight bar puts the involvement of brachialis to the minimum. Peak force contraction is achieved from the start to the mid-point.
Cable Curls with pulley at bottom
This exercise maximizes the tension at the top range of motion. This completes the stimulation of short head over the entire force spectrum. In case you don’t have cables, use the next exercise.
Use the preacher bench in opposite direction to execute this exercise. It stresses the peak force contraction at the top.
This is the most neglected and incorrectly trained part of biceps. Most of the lifters don’t even know where it’s located and the significance of training it. Those who train it do it in a heavy egoistic manner which nullifies the effects of training.
First of all, you need to have your body fat percentage fairly low to visualize the brachialis development. And due to its position under the biceps brachii, it literally pushes the biceps muscle to create a bigger peak when developed.
Second, you need a neutral wrist position to work this muscle.
Third, the speed of movement needs to be slow and controlled for the brachialis to be recruited optimally, otherwise, brachioradialis takes over. This means the loads need to be relatively light.
Following exercises are best to target the brachialis:
Perform this exercise with a moderately heavy weight and perform the reps (both lifting and lowering part) under full control with a squeeze at the top. This exercise done correctly works the full range of force spectrum.
This exercise provides a constant tension throughout the movement. It is a really good variation for brachialis development.
This muscle when developed fully gives your biceps a full and long look especially if your biceps brachii length is short. The visual effect is strikingly noticeable with the full development of the radiobrachialis. The exercises which target it thoroughly are performed with pronated or reverse grip. Also, you need to perform this exercise in a controlled way to achieve its full effects.
Reverse Grip Preacher Curls
Using preacher bench eliminates cheating and limits the amount of weight you got to use. But it also assures that the majority of work is done by the targeted muscle and not your shoulders or hips. Here, you can substitute straight bar with EZ bar if it bothers your wrists. The motion should be controlled with the emphasis on lowering part (eccentric).
Best Triceps Training
Triceps are the big brother of biceps. They not only are the largest muscle group in upper arm but also play a bigger role than biceps when it comes to either performance or any cosmetic purpose. This section will provide you best exercises for the complete and full development of each and every head of the triceps muscle, viz. long head, medial head, and short head.
The long of triceps is most involved in the stretched position with the shoulders flexed. This is due to the long head being attached to scapulae crossing shoulder at one end. Thus the exercises which put the shoulders in a contracted position while stretching out the triceps like, Overhead triceps extension are best suited for this purpose.
But it’s a double-edged sword as strong shoulders take the tension away from the triceps at the stretched position. Moreover, the internally rotated positioning of shoulders in this exercise may be problematic to someone with not so flexible shoulders which is most of the people. Also, EMG data had shown that contraction focused triceps exercises also produce a greater mean and peak activity in triceps. Therefore, the best candidates for targeting long head of triceps are the following:
Decline Triceps Extension
The decline angle has been shown to produce superior triceps activation, and it produces a greater stretch in triceps (up to 10% more than flat variation). Decline version keeps the shoulders in a slightly flexed position but doesn’t allow them to overpower the triceps. The overall force spectrum of triceps movement is covered by this exercise with a slightly greater focus on the beginning range of motion and a little lesser at the end range of motion.
Rope Triceps Extension with pulley at top
This exercise stresses the end range of motion of the force spectrum for the long head. It is also easier on elbows and shoulders than the Overhead dumbbell extension. If you don’t have access to this machine, use the exercise below.
Triceps Extension with band attached at top
This exercise follows the same mechanics as the above exercise. It is easy on your joints, stretches the long head, provides focus on the contracted position, and only requires a band or a cheap worn-out bicycle tube.
Lateral & Medial Head
Even though the name medial head suggests that this head is situated at the side or the outermost aspect it is actually not so. The lateral head is situated at the side of the upper arms which gives your arms that coveted 3D look when viewed from the front. The medial head is located below the long head and is not really visible but it adds to the overall meatiness of triceps when developed.
The lateral and medial heads of triceps are the Karan-Arjun of elbow extensors. It is not really possible to isolate the functioning of the medial and lateral head, and they always work together. Just as Karan-Arjun lived together, died together, and reincarnated together, medial and long head always function as a team.
The best exercises for the lateral and medial head are:
Close Grip Bench Press
This exercise is for lateral and medial triceps heads what Squats is for legs. The long head is excluded in this exercise, and the majority of tension is shifted towards other two heads. To make this exercise more effective, do not go all the way down to the chest. Cut your reps about 2 inches above chest on each rep. This will keep the constant tension on triceps while reducing the spillover towards pectorals and shoulders. It hits the mid and start of the peak force contraction for the lateral and medial heads.
This is the only exercise which allows you for the slight manipulations to shift tension towards the medial or lateral head. The pronated grip pushdowns hit the lateral head a little more, and the supinated grip pushdowns work a bit more of medial head. The bottom or end range of force spectrum is addressed with this exercise. If you don’t have access to this machine, use the following exercise.
Triceps Kickback with wrists pronated
Kickbacks are bashed by most of the hardcore lifters and their coaches worldwide, because of the limited capacity to load on this exercise. It’s assumed that since this exercise can’t be loaded enough without distorting the correct form and muscle feel, this exercise is not very effective to put meat on the triceps.
The reality is that triceps kickbacks can be used as:
- An effective finisher for triceps after heavy work.
- A muscle activation drill before initiating triceps training for a better mind-muscle connection.
Pronation of wrists renders a better contraction of the medial and lateral head making this exercise more effective. It loads the end range of motion and hits the top contracted position of muscles providing a nice pump.
Dips are an exceptionally good time-tested triceps builder. To focus more on the end range of motion, do not go to the full lockout at the end of each rep. Cut your reps just short of lockout. In case your shoulders don’t like dips, you can also use any of the push-up variations with elbows tucked to your side. Do not lock out your reps to keep the constant tension on triceps.
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Part 3 covers the programming aspect for The BEST-Ever Training for Big Biceps & Triceps. Click to read Part 1.