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A Complete Guide to Upper Arm Training

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There’s nothing more impressive than massive arms. It’s a telltale sign that you workout, train hard and have immense strength. As the body part most likely to be on show too, it’s the first sign that indicates your masculinity and athleticism.

Although in the grand scheme of things it’s a small and simple groups of muscles, many men still struggle to build worthy arms. With hundreds of different variations of curls and extension for you to try, you’re not without choice. But there’s more to a good arm workout than a few different exercises.

So if you want to weaponize your arms then follow this guide. It’s all you need to follow to show off your sleeve bursters.


Anatomy of the Arm

Your arms are classed as part of the appendicular skeleton. It is a limb that is made up of the shoulder joint, elbow joint and wrist joint and functions to carry, lift and grab.

To grow bigger arms you need to have a good understanding of the biomechanics of each joint, and the way in which each muscle works around it. There’s a little bit of science involved here but trust us – get a good understanding of what we’re talking about here and you’re already halfway there.

#1. Biceps Brachii

This muscle lies on the front of your upper arm between your elbow and shoulder and is often the go to muscle when you want to add arm mass. Tell someone to tense a muscle and it’s pretty likely they’ll show off their biceps before any other muscle.

The bicep itself has two different heads, named the short head and the long head. Together, each of these individual muscles allow the biceps to function in a number of different ways.

The short head attaches onto the coracoid process of the scapula and medial side of the forearm – to you and me that means it attaches onto the shoulder and the inside of the forearm.

The long head attaches onto the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and also the radial tuberosity. Again, in plain English it attaches just above the shoulder and forearm.

Both heads combine to form a common tendon at the elbow but form two different tendon attachments at the shoulder. This means that each head is responsible for some same and some different movement patterns.

Biceps Function

Both bicep heads are responsible for flexing the elbow so when both contract simultaneously your wrist moves up towards your shoulder. They also both pull the palm of the hand upwards – a movement called supination. This is most powerful when the elbow is flexed and an important part of overall arm development.

Other functions of the short head include pulling the arm in towards the body such as when clapping and the long head does the opposite. The long head is also weakly involved in flexing your shoulder due to where it attaches.



#2. Triceps Brachii

Similar to the biceps, the triceps muscle is made up of different heads – this time three. The muscle lies on the back of the upper arm directly opposing the biceps. The individual triceps muscles are called the long head, the lateral head and the medial head.

The long head originates at the infraglenoid tubercle which is on the scapula so crosses the shoulder joint. The lateral head originates at the dorsal humerus which is at the back of the arm. Finally, the medial head also originates at the dorsal humerus, but at a different point.

All three heads then converge at the elbow into a common tendon that then crosses the elbow joint.

Triceps Function

The function of all three heads is to work in unison to extend the elbow. In other words they straighten the arm.

The medial head has a slightly higher level of responsibility in extending the elbow and works directly against the biceps. As it is somewhat weaker than the combined two muscles of the biceps though, you’ll find that you have a slight bend in the elbow when we you let your arm hang by your side.

As the long head of the triceps crosses the shoulder and attaches onto the shoulder blade, it is responsible for not only extending the elbow, but also involved in extending the arm behind the body (retroversion) and also pulling it into the mid-line of the body (abduction). It is particularly activated without overhead work.



#3. Brachialis

This muscle is an undervalued part of arm training but massively important for overall development. It attaches mid way up the upper arm directly onto the humerus bone, and inserts below the elbow joint at the tuberosity of the ulna – the underside of the forearm just below the elbow joint.

As it grows it pushes the biceps outwards, further contributing to size and growth.

Brachialis Function

It largely lies underneath the biceps muscles but even though it is deep within the upper arm it contributes greatly toward flexing the arm. In fact, the brachialis is actually the strongest of all of the arm flexors. Additionally, it also stops the arm from hyper-extending.


The Most Important Arm Training Tips

Taking the biomechanics of each of these muscles into account you can see that arm training is a complex beast. Each muscle has its own role and responsibility and these need to be taken into account when planning a successful program.

So what do you do with this information?

Well to fully hit each muscle you’ll need to take an analytical approach. Analyzing each individual muscle and it’s own unique movement patterns helps you to plan a more comprehensive workout schedule. And that means bigger gains!

In a nutshell, here are the most important points to remember:

Biceps

  • Pulling the elbows behind the body will target the long head more than the short head.
  • By elimination, having the elbow in front of the body will target the short head more.
  • The position of the palm is important in biceps training. Supination targets the short head whereas a neutral or ‘handshake’ grip hits the long head more.

Triceps

  • Most triceps exercises work all three heads, but to varying degrees dependant on the individual exercise.
  • Overhead work stimulates the long head of the triceps more than the other two heads.
  • The medial tricep head is stimulated more with the elbows overhead or in-front of the body.
  • Placing your thumb over the bar reduces the amount of brachialis involvement, meaning the triceps will work harder. For safety though you should only do this on exercises where a ‘false grip’ is safe to perform.
  • Aiming to push through the outside of the palm on cable extensions (trying to bend the bar) switches on the triceps reflex extension manouvre (TREM) which boosts muscle activation and potential to add mass.

Brachialis

  • A reverse or pronated grip where the palm faces the floor is inefficient for the biceps and targets the brachialis more.
  • A neutral grip will stimulate the brachialis more than a supinated grip but will still activate the biceps at the same time. This is why you’re often stronger doing exercises like hammer curls.
  • As the brachialis grows it pushes the on the biceps from underneath making the whole arm appear larger.


Muscle Fibers and Arm Training

If you really want a pair of sleeve bursting arms then you’ll have to train them in isolation, not just as part of back or chest day. Although small muscles, you’ll find that they fully develop when you ramp up the training volume.

Importantly, the triceps and biceps respond better at different loads. Get your head around this and you’ll open up new doors to arm development. Here’s what you need to know:

Muscle Fiber 101

Within your body you have different types of muscle fibers, each with their own unique role. Whilst genetics controls how many of each type of muscle fiber you have, science can guess with a certain amount of authority which muscles have more of each type.

Type I muscle fibers are small in size and don’t produce much force. They can grow in size and contribute towards overall muscular development but are better targeted with low weight and high reps as they take longer to fatigue.

To target these muscles you’d typically aim for sets of 8-15 reps.

Type II muscle fibers are the opposite. They are large in size and can produce large amounts of force. They have a potential to grow in size much more than type I fibers but fatigue quickly. For that reason they are best targeted with heavier loads and lower rep counts.

There is at least one other type of muscle fiber in your body but for ease and simplicity these two are all you need to know about right now. The others play a less important role in the context of this article.

To target these muscles you’d typically aim for sets of 4-8 reps.



Use These Rep Ranges to Boost Arm Growth

Because of the different types of muscle fibers, no one muscle in your body should be trained the same. Each one is made up a little differently and therefore to really ramp up your gains you’ll need to take an individualistic approach. This is what we refer to as muscle targeting. 

Your triceps are around 67% type II fiber based, meaning that two thirds of your training should be heavy and one third should involve lighter weights.

That means that whilst kickbacks and rope extensions are useful, the bulk of your training needs to revolve around lifts where you can load up. Narrow bench press, heavy overheads and french presses are what you really need to focus on.

Your biceps however have a pretty even mix of fibers with around a 55% dominance of type II fibers. This means that you can pretty much attack the muscle with a full range of loads, reps and positions. The more variety, the better.

Lastly, your brachialis is around 60% type II based, meaning you’ve got good reason to ramp up the weight on neutral and reverse grip curls.

What About Overall Volume?

Now that you know your rep ranges, you just need to consider overall training volume. Although your upper arms are made up of small muscles, you can really give them some hammer.

Aim for 3-4 sets of each exercise and an overall session rep count of no less than 60 or so reps per muscle group. This will really spark some growth. But if your’e not quite able to do this yet then build up to it. 40 total reps should be the minimum you’re aiming for to fully develop the arms. You can then build it up from there.



The 4-Week Program

So putting all of the above information together makes it easier to organise an effective program.

Now isn’t the time for experimenting with fancy new exercises – it’s time to stick with tried and tested exercises that work. And that’s what we’ve done in your program.

Aim to train one body part every 5-7 days. To maintain maximal effort and optimize the growth stimulus we’ve given you a biceps training session and triceps training session that are to be completed on separate days of the week.

When you put these in your training program is up to you – just make sure you avoid training both muscles on the same day. Don’t sacrifice other muscle groups throughout the remainder of the week either. Make sure you still get your normal chest, back, legs and shoulder workouts in where possible, preferable after training your arms if you can.

Lastly, you’ll notice that the program relies heavily on free weight exercises. This isn’t because fixed machines don’t build muscle, it’s just that without knowing which machines you have available, it’s hard to provide you with an effective workout schedule. At least this way you should have all of the necessary equipment to follow it to the letter.


Week 1: Session 1

NameRepsSets
Narrow grip bench press4-82-4
Body weight dips (add weight if necessary)6-82-4
Rope triceps extensions8-122-4
E-Z bar French press 8-122-4

Week 1: Session 2

NameRepsSets
Neutral grip chins8-122-4
Barbell bicep curls4-82-4
Incline dumbbell curl with forced supination8-122-4
E-Z bar preacher curls8-122-4

Week 2: Session 1

NameRepsSets
Narrow grip bench press4-82-4
Body weight dips (add weight if necessary)6-82-4
Rope triceps extensions8-122-4
E-Z bar French press 8-122-4

Week 2: Session 2

NameRepsSets
Neutral grip chins8-122-4
Barbell bicep curls4-82-4
Incline dumbbell curl with forced supination8-122-4
E-Z bar preacher curls8-122-4

Week 3: Session 1

NameRepsSets
Dumbbell overhead triceps extension6-82-4
Reverse grip narrow Smith machine press6-82-4
Straight bar triceps extension with TREM effect8-122-4
Decline E-Z bar French press 8-122-4

Week 3: Session 2

NameRepsSets
Underhand grip chins (add weight if necessary)4-82-4
Dumbbell concentrations curl8-122-4
E-Z bar spider curls8-122-4
Reverse grip preacher curl8-122-4

Week 4: Session 1

NameRepsSets
Dumbbell overhead triceps extension6-82-4
Reverse grip narrow Smith machine press6-82-4
Straight bar triceps extension with TREM effect8-122-4
Decline E-Z bar French press 8-122-4

Week 4: Session 2

NameRepsSets
Underhand grip chins (add weight if necessary)4-82-4
Dumbbell concentrations curl8-122-4
E-Z bar spider curls8-122-4
Reverse grip preacher curl8-122-4

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