Blitzing the Arms for Uncharted Size and Shape: A 12-Week Program to Get Your Guns Growing Again

Since the first weight was lifted for the express purpose of building the body, a massive, well-proportioned set of arms has been, for most dedicated lifters, the Holy Grail of physical accomplishment. In fact, looking back through the bodybuilding ages, many photos of former physique stars – most notably from the 50s and 60s – show a distinct lack of back, legs, abs and chest development; these champs were all shoulders and arms.

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Building Your Guns

Ben Pakulski Arms

Why the fascination with bulging biceps, titanic triceps and forearms of steel? For one thing, the arms are our most readily apparent muscle grouping, more visible than other body parts to the gaze of both onlooker and owner. Back in the day, and even today, the “train only what you can see” mentality assured, and assures, a league of “upper body only” bodybuilders whose focus on arms, and to a lesser extent shoulder and chest development, took precedence over all other groupings. Clearly, well-balanced muscular development is preferable to building one grouping at the expense of others – from both an injury prevention and aesthetic standpoint – and the arms should be but part of this equation.

On the other side, we have, in much smaller numbers, those who feel that because the arms are smaller than, say, the back, they should not be trained as frequently or, alarmingly, as hard. This is yet another myth to be shattered. Arm training should never be neglected. Here’s why.

Comprising 18 individual muscles, the arms – collectively the biceps, triceps, forearms and related, assistant muscles that support these larger and more visibly appealing groups – act on the elbow and wrist joints to produce the bending, straightening and twisting actions associated with each muscle group. And as we know, the elbow and wrist joints are instrumental in governing the amount of weight we can lift in most other movements, from chin ups to bench presses. Thus, a strong set of arms will aid our chances when lifting heavier weights and utilizing excellent form to build bigger muscles through incorporating a wide variance of movements.

Often the weak link which negates overall upper body strength can be traced to subpar arm strength and development.

Want ripped biceps in a literal sense? Try deadlifting a maximal weight with 13 inch “guns”. Another important reason why we should devote as much of our physical resources to building the arms as we do to blitzing other body parts is because, aesthetically speaking, they significantly enhance our physical proportionality. Weak arm development alongside tremendous chest and back shape will throw off the symmetry of an otherwise impressive body of work. And, yes, there is a correlation between the amount of work we do for arms, and the intensity we apply to training them, and their eventual size and shape. Want the best of both worlds? Read on.

Program Overview

With all this talk of adequate arm training, how often should we pulverize them into submission? Though there are many great arm training routines currently doing the rounds, it may surprise many people to learn that working them once a week is more than sufficient to stimulate optimal growth. One major caveat must first be considered; to fully build strength and size in our arm muscles we must first become as strong as humanly possible on three so-called power-bodybuilding movements: the squat, bench press and bent over barbell row; the systemic effect each of these movements places on the entire body, including the arms, cannot be compensated for through an additional set of biceps curls or triceps pressdowns, isolation exercises that do not overload the entire physiology of the muscular system (to promote growth hormone and testosterone release) to the same extent that the aforementioned larger movements can.

Optimal size cannot be achieved without adhering to a well-balanced training protocol utilizing major, multi-joint movements.

The program outlined in this article assumes the user has an existing comprehensive training plan incorporating a full spectrum of mass-building movements in place. While this is a specialized arm training program which promises to develop uncharted size and shape in your upper appendages, I strongly urge you to continue advancing your overall strength and size gains through heavy leg, shoulder, back and chest training. Rather than detracting from your arm size gains, such training will actually enhance your arm-training progress.

Arm Development Anatomy and Bio-mechanics

As is the case when preparing to train any other muscle group, it’s worth knowing a thing or two about the anatomical and biomechanical features which underpin bicep, tricep, and forearm movements. In knowing why and how each of these groupings functions the way it does we come to understand exactly why we must train them specifically as outlined in this article (with excellent form and in working each muscle through its strongest possible plane).

Knowing how a muscle functions and, more specifically, when it is at its strongest helps us to maximize the leverage we can apply to building it larger and stronger.

For example, in knowing in physiological terms the mechanics behind why the bulkier forearm flexor muscles move a certain way to stabilize the working back and biceps muscles we are better able to isolate them by keeping the back and biceps in a fixed position when specifically targeting the flexors for muscular development.

The Biceps and Brachialis

A two-headed muscle grouping, the biceps includes a long head – positioned on the outside of the upper arm – and a short head – found on the inside, upper arm region – which respectively originate on the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and the coracoid process of the lateral edge of the superior anterior portion of the scapula, and insert via one tendon at the radial tuberosity on the medial aspect of the forearm. Got that? Great.

While the long biceps head functions primarily to lift the upper arm in front of the body and to flex it at the elbow joint, the short head assists the long head to perform supination of the forearm (twisting the wrist to ensure the palm faces upwards). The biceps, as a whole, is collectively considered to be tri-articulate, meaning it works across three joints (the upper forearm, elbow and shoulder).

Technically separate from biceps complex, the brachialis – a strong, thick muscle which lies between the biceps and the humerus and attaches to the ulna (the major forearm bone) –assists, as the biceps does, elbow flexion when the palm is either in a neutral position, or pronated (facing down). When viewed from the side the brachialis helps to convey the impression of greater arm size (running lengthwise between the biceps and triceps it is cylindrical in shape). Thus, to adequately target the brachialis we would position our palms neutrally (as with completing a hammer curl), or facing down (necessary to perform the reverse curl). Assisting the brachialis is the brachioradialis, an (outer) forearm muscle responsible for elbow flexion. This muscle originates at the lateral supracondylar ridge of the humerus and inserts at the distal radius.

The Forearms

The forearm flexors and extensors are the major forearm muscles and are responsible for, um, forearm flexion and extension. The flexors, which are comprised of the flexor carpi radialis (originating at the medial epicondyle of the humerus and inserting at the second and third metacarpal bones) and flexor carpi ulnaris (originating at the medial epicondyle and inserting at the pisiform, a small wrist bone) are found on the underside of the forearm and assist, as outlined above, stabilization of the working biceps and upper back muscles. Situated on the opposite side of the forearm, the extensors consist of three muscles: the extensor carpi radialis longus and brevis and extensor carpi ulnaris. All three originate from the lateral supracondylar ridge (the outside edge of the upper arm bone) and insert, respectively, at the second, third and fifth metacarpal bones. They help to stabilize the elbow joint, as can be witnessed during any movement that requires elbow extension. Thus when specifically training the forearm flexors it is important to keep the elbow fixed, moving only the wrist backward to target these most stubborn of forearm muscles.

The Triceps

A three-headed grouping of muscles, the triceps main function is to extend the elbow joint; they also play a lesser role in lowering the arm to the side of the body. Situated on the inside rear upper arm and originating on the scapula is the long head; found on the outside rear upper arm, originating at the posterior humerus and forming half of all triceps mass is the lateral head; and situated below the lateral head, directly above the elbow and also originating at the posterior humerus is the medial head. All heads insert at the olecranon process of the ulna. Resembling a horseshoe and comprising two-thirds of upper arm size (making it the largest of the upper arm muscles, which means it can handle a little more work compared to the biceps and forearms), the triceps is one muscle group you cannot hide, whether it be on the stage or the beach. The triceps assists enormously in all pressing movements, meaning its development is crucial when hoping to get those ego-gratifying bench numbers up. The medial and lateral triceps heads help to assist elbow extension while the long head enables the execution of movements such as the pullover chin up and pull down. Thus, when aiming to build massive triceps via the targeting of the larger and stronger lateral and medial aspects of this muscle, movements that emphasize elbow extension, such as triceps pressdowns or, you guessed it, extensions, should form the bulk of triceps training.

The Movements - Triceps

Lying Triceps Extension

The lying triceps extension is for the triceps what the standing barbell curl is for the biceps; both are considered pure mass builders. Allowing the greatest possible stretch while simultaneously working all three heads, this movement ensures gravity dictates the result as lifters strive to move the weight through a full range of motion.

Muscles Worked: all three triceps heads

Advantages: a great mass builder; places tremendous stress on the triceps.

Execution

Grasp bar with an overhand grip while lying on a flat bench (have partner hand bar to you); hold bar at arm’s length above your face while being be careful not to drop it and transform your handsome visage into that of a seasoned MMA fighter; angle the arms slightly back toward the head. Then, lower the bar behind your head to the back of your neck; push bar back to starting position. Remember to breathe throughout.

Rope Pressdowns

The rope pressdown is a great movement for isolating all three triceps heads as it allows for an exaggerated pronation of the wrist at the bottom of the movement to increase muscular overload across the entire complex. It also more conveniently allows for drop sets (stripping weight 30 percent at a time over three consecutive sets with no rest in between).

Muscles Worked: all three triceps heads

Advantages: isolates all three triceps heads; safe to execute.

Execution

Face cable on machine and grasp rope attachment, keeping hands in neutral position (palms in); position elbows to the side; press weight down, extending arms to full contraction (pronate wrist at the bottom).

Triceps Dips

A great mass builder, the triceps dip allows bodyweight to be used as resistance, which can enhance concentration levels and help us to adjust the angle of resistance throughout the movement (bodyweight can be shifted to help ensure the best stimulus response). Providing a tremendous stretch on the descent, this movement really stretches all three triceps heads.

Muscles Worked: all three triceps heads.

Advantages: bodyweight (and additional weight) can be used as resistance; one of the best triceps mass builders around.

Execution

Position yourself, with arms fully extended, on a dipping bar; keep arms straight and ensure shoulders are above hands (keep hips straight) and knees are bent; lower body, bending at elbows and extending elbows back, until a shoulder stretch is felt; at the bottom of movement, press hands down until upper body returns to starting position.

Close Grip Bench Presses

The close grip bench press generates a tremendous pump through promoting the intensive contracting of all triceps heads. Another mass builder, it is the perfect companion for the extension and dipping movements outlined above. It also allows maximal weights to be lifted and full recruitment of the entire triceps region.

Muscles Worked: all three triceps heads

Advantages: a great mass builder; provides intense muscle pumps.

Execution

Lie on flat bench, grasp bar with the closest grip possible. Lower weight to chest level, then push weight back to starting position, ensuring all three triceps heads are flexed hard.

The Movements – Biceps, Brachialis and Forearms

Incline Dumbbell Curl

Evoking a similar response to the standing bar curl, this movement – which capitalizes on the effect gravity has on the sustained tension needed to force the failure of both biceps heads – ensures the biceps are stretched to capacity while supination of the wrist is enhanced. Excellent size and shape development is thus encouraged.

Muscles Worked: long and short biceps heads, forearms flexors, brachialis and brachioradialis.

Advantages: allows a greater stretch; a good shape-builder.

Execution

While sitting on a 45-60 degree incline bench, allow arms to hang straight down and grasp dumbbells (with palms facing inwards). Raise dumbbells while rotating forearms until palms face shoulders, and fully flex before lowering weight in a controlled fashion (supinate wrist at the top).

Standing Barbell Curl

A mass-building favorite of almost every champion bodybuilder to have graced a professional stage, the standing barbell curl allows one to use ultra-heavy weights while targeting overall biceps size and shape. This movement also stimulates the forearm flexors and, to a lesser degree, the brachialis.

Muscles Worked: long and short biceps heads, forearm flexors and brachialis

Advantages: allows massive weights to be lifted; is relatively safe to execute; and is second to none as a biceps mass builder.

Execution

With an underhand grip, firmly grasp a straight bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, while maintaining a straight back. Curl bar until weight hits the gravity line (usually close to chest level, where no further resistance can be felt; indicating a lessening of biceps contractibility); lower bar slowly, ensuring the biceps are fully stretched.

One Arm Preacher Curl

The dumbbell preacher curl helps eliminate forearm involvement to ensure a powerful peak contraction and optimal isolation of the biceps; it thus throws the bulk of its stress onto the biceps and brachialis.

Muscles Worked: (primarily) long and short biceps heads, and brachialis.

Advantages: helps to create the coveted biceps peak and isolates both heads of the biceps along with the hard to reach brachialis.

Execution

Holding the side of a preacher curl (incline) bench, place arm to be trained on the supporting pad and allow it to hang straight down with forearm flexors exposed. Curl weight until peak contraction is achieved (be sure to supinate wrist at the top of the movement).

Dumbbell Hammer Curl

As mentioned, by stimulating brachialis growth we can create the impression of greater biceps size through squeezing the brachialis against the biceps to create superior height (by pushing out further the biceps peak). The best exercise for accomplishing this is the hammer curl; this movement also targets the brachioradialis of the forearm.

Muscles Worked: brachialis and brachioradialis

Advantages: builds the hard to isolate brachialis and brachioradialis

Execution

Upon taking a pair of dumbbells that will allow 8-12 repetitions done in strict form with back straight and elbows fixed to your sides, allow arms to hang straight down before curling weight while maintaining forearms in a neutral position (do not supinate or pronate wrist – keep palms facing the sides).

Barbell Wrist Curl

To fine-tune the flexors like nothing else can, this forearm version of the biceps mass-builder will work wonders. This movement will also burn like no other.

Muscles Worked: all forearm flexors.

Advantages: a great forearm flexor mass builder; heavy weights can be handled for maximum size and shape.

Execution

With palms facing up, rest the forearms on a bench (or your thighs) and let the wrist bend outward, thus stretching the forearm flexors. Using wrist strength, curl weight to a full contraction (supinate wrist at the top of movement).

Barbell Reverse Curl

In targeting multiple upper arm muscles, the reverse curl works the both biceps heads, brachialis, brachioradialis and, in particular, all forearm extensor muscles.

Muscles Worked: all forearm extensor muscles, biceps (both heads), brachialis and brachioradialis.

Advantages: an effective movement for targeting the forearm extensors; also builds mass in the brachialis; heavy weights can be handled for great size gains.

Execution:

Upon grabbing barbell with an overhand grip (with thumbs facing each other), curl bar to full contraction by bending the elbow and keeping the wrist straight. Again, as with all other biceps movements, keep back straight and do not move elbows forward at any stage during the movement.

The Program

Note on Movement Technique

As when training any other muscle groupings, a full range of motion is needed to maximize the stimulation of all arm muscles. From the bottom of each rep to the top, no rest is to take place at any stage during each set. All sets must be done with fluid technique – no bending at the waist or excessive swinging – and muscular failure must be reached on each set.

Note On Cardio

All effective training routines include a cardio component and this one is no exception. Drill cardio 3-4 days per week – depending on your body composition goals – for 30-40 minutes per session. For an optimal fat burning effect, aim to train aerobically in the early morning hours, ideally before breakfast.

Week 1

Monday - Chest and Back

Routine of your choosing – Check out Building a Bigger Chest: A 12-week Program for Guaranteed Success

Tuesday

Rest day

Wednesday - Biceps and Forearms

  • Standing Barbell Curls: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Incline Dumbbell Curl – super set with – Reverse Curls: 3 sets of 8-12
  • One Arm Preacher Curls: 3 sets of 4-6 (increase weight)
  • Hammer Curls – super set with – Wrist Curls: 4 sets of 8-12

Thursday - Legs

Routine of your choosing

Friday - Triceps

  • Rope Pressdowns – super set with – Triceps Dips: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Lying Triceps Extensions: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Close Grip Bench Presses: 4 sets of 4-6 (increase weight)

Saturday - Shoulder and Abs

Routine of your choosing

Sunday

Rest day

Week 2

Monday - Chest and Back

Routine of your choosing – Check out Building a Bigger Chest: A 12-week Program for Guaranteed Success

Tuesday

Rest day

Wednesday - Biceps and Forearms

  • Incline Dumbbell Curls: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Standing Barbell Curls – super set with – Hammer Curls: 3 sets of 8-12
  • Wrist Curls – super set with – One Arm Preacher Curls: 3 sets of 8-12

Thursday - Legs

Routine of your choosing

Friday - Triceps

  • Close Grip Bench Presses – super set with – Triceps Dips: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Lying Triceps Extensions – super set with – Rope Pressdowns: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Triceps Dips: 2 sets of 10-15

Saturday - Shoulder and Abs

Routine of your choosing

Sunday

Rest day

Week 3

Monday - Chest and Back

Routine of your choosing – Check out Building a Bigger Chest: A 12-week Program for Guaranteed Success

Tuesday

Rest day

Wednesday - Biceps and Forearms

  • Reverse Curls: 3 sets of 8-12
  • One Arm Preacher Curls: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Standing Barbell Curls: 3 sets of 4-6 (increase weight)
  • Hammer Curls – super set with – Wrist Curls: 3 sets of 8-12

Thursday - Legs

Routine of your choosing

Friday - Triceps

  • Lying Triceps Extensions: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Triceps Dips – super set with – Rope Pressdowns: 4 sets of 8-12
  • Close Grip Bench Presses: 4 sets of 4-6 (increase weight)

Saturday - Shoulder and Abs

Routine of your choosing

Sunday

Rest day

************************************************************************

For weeks 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12: repeat weeks 1-3

Conclusion

By scheduling triceps and biceps/forearms training on two separate days, as outlined in the above program, we can better maximize the intensity we apply to training each grouping. This is not to say that other arm training programs are ineffective, as there are many excellent plans available, which do generate fantastic results; rather, the idea behind the one you are about to embark on here provides a welcome, unorthodox change of pace, which will ensure you are more heavily armed than ever. The exercise selection combined with a fresh scheduling of each movement’s order and grouping over each three week phase (of a 12 week total training period) will ensure the growth trend continues exponentially upward.

References:

  • Delavier, F. (2006). Strength Training Anatomy (2nd ed). Human Kinetics: USA
  • Inner Body: Your Guide to Human Anatomy Online. Online at http://www.innerbody.com/htm/body.html
  • King, I. (2003). The Book of Muscle: The World’s Most Authoritative Guide to building Your Body. Rodale Inc. USA
David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

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