Who doesn’t love a good arm?? We do! The arms, along with the pecs, are basically a central focal point for just about everyone. When first meeting someone or seeing someone for the first time, the first thing you generally notice is the size of their arms. Ironically, though, arm size has virtually nothing to do with functional arm strength. The biceps and triceps muscles are pretty much the smallest muscles in the body, and are mainly there for support to their bigger counterparts which rely on them for support (ie back, chest, shoulders).
Not to mention, alot of athletes and gurus don’t even do direct arm training anymore these days, claiming that bigger, more compound, complex movements stimulate muscle growth in the bi’s and tri’s more so than direct work. Well, this actually is kinda true. Direct arm work is not needed to be strong in the big lifts or to be a strong athlete. In our opinion, and the opinions of many, the arms are a “beach muscle.” Meaning, there main purpose is that of aesthetics.
Direct arm training has been done less and less as the years go by, as it seems like a waste of sets and reps, when complex movements could be utilized instead, yielding better results. We agree, but we also kinda disagree. Gone Liftin’ doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong with direct arm training (if done the right way, of course), and neither does author Adam Vogel, in his T-Nation article, called The Return of Direct Arm Training.
At some point during the last decade, direct arm training became a dirty phrase. Anyone who wasted precious training time on “nonfunctional” isolation exercises was immediately labeled stupid, vain, or behind the times.
I’m all for intelligent programming, but let’s get real – biceps curls don’t turn people into raging douchebags. Direct arm work can and should be a part of any well-rounded “functional” routine.
And to yet again restate our own point as well:
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that direct arm work should displace heavy, compound, multi-joint movements like squats, deadlifts, presses, chin-ups, and rows. I’m saying that it’s time we cut the elitist bullshit that makes it okay to isolate the anterior fibers of your gluteus medius but wrong to do a triceps pushdown.
Well then… now that that’s outta the way, we can go on to the main purpose of the article: the best exercises (functionally) for the bi’s and tri’s. Don’t be nervous to try any of these exercises, even if they seem unorthodox or what-not, and definitely don’t be scared into thinking you’re wasting your time by performing isolation work. Done properly, direct arm training can certainly enhance and add to your main power lifts. Everybody wins!
The Biceps muscle consists of 2 heads. Unbeknownst to many (sad, we know), the biceps is smaller than the triceps. When someone goes “whoa look at those pythons,” they are, directly or indirectly, referring to the tricpes muscle. The triceps make up 2/3 of your arm, and without proper tricep development, arms will not look meaty and sexy. With that said, however, biceps are a huge focal point. Nice, defined, vascular biceps, will certainly turn heads – male and female alike!
Barbell Cheat Curls
Some might write-off the cheat curl as misplaced weight room bravado, but that doesn’t change the fact that muscles respond best to heavy overload. And in that department, nothing touches the cheat curl.
Yep – couldn’t get simpler than that…
The “cheat” – a slight bump from the hips to jumpstart the movement of the bar – provides just enough initial momentum to get past any sticking points. This way you can hit the biceps’ optimal position for force generation – about 40 degrees of elbow flexion – with a weight that it rarely encounters in any other exercise.
Parallel Fat-Grip Pull-Ups
Yes, it’s true – pull-ups and chin-ups and any kind of pulling motion works the biceps pretty damn good. When a fatter grip is thrown in, the stress causes the biceps to be recruited more so than normal pretenses.
Along with being a phenomenal upper back/lat development exercise, the parallel or neutral grip pull-up is one of the most effective biceps exercises for generating both peak and mean muscle activation. Simply put, it’s one of the best exercises you can do to stimulate a large number of muscle fibers to produce consistently high levels of force.
Incline Bench Dumbbell Curls
These are usually (or should be) staples of any biceps routine. Why? Because they are hard and because they are effective!
The incline dumbbell curl is performed sitting on an incline bench set at approximately a 45-degree angle. Your arms should hang down perpendicular to the ground and slightly behind the rest of the body. This start position has two effects.
First, it makes it virtually impossible to gain any momentum from the back or upward lift from the shoulder, placing 100% of the burden on the biceps. As a result, you’ll probably want to decrease the amount of weight you would use for a traditional dumbbell curl by 10 to 15%. Second, and more interestingly, the start position of the exercise places both the shoulder and elbow in full extension, thus stretching the proximal and distal attachments of the biceps. Animal studies suggest that these type of loaded-stretch positions could lead to muscle fiber hyperplasia, or an increase in the number of muscle cells by way of one large muscle fiber splitting into two smaller fibers.
As stated above, the triceps muscle makes up 2/3 of the arm, and is the muscle that gives your arm its “meaty” look. The triceps muscle consist of 3 heads, and is utilized in virtually all pushing exercises, from Bench Press, to Shoulder Press, to Dips, and so on and so on…
Close-Grip Bench Press
The king of tricpes exercises, bar none!
Similar to the parallel grip pull-up for the biceps, this exercise brings the collective strength of your entire upper body to the table for the triceps to take advantage of, allowing you to handle much heavier weights and overload the muscle.
Along with the traditional close-grip press – which uses a standard barbell lowered to the chest – you can also use an EZ-curl bar, which takes pressure off the wrists, or two-boards against the chest. The board press limits the range of motion and stresses the elbow lockout position, thus maximizing the contribution of the triceps.
Chain Loaded Skullcrusher
You’ve probably heard of, and done, the Triceps Skullcrushers. It’s one of those staple exercises, too – Skullcrushers recruit all 3 heads of the tri’s and really put a hurtin’ on the back of your arms. This variation is tweaked to make it a little more effective…
Apart from holding the title of the Best Name for an Exercise Ever, this twist on the old school skullcrusher uses accommodating resistance to maximally stress the peak contraction point – elbow extension – while mercifully sparing the wrists and elbows from being locked in place by a barbell.
Along with the joint-sparing benefits, the movement of the chain also adds an element of dynamic instability since the links of the chain swing as you move through the range-of-motion. This unstable environment can be useful to turn on the rotator cuff apparatus, acting as a type of quasi-perturbation.
…Whatever you say, professor…
TRX Weighted Triceps Press
What da hell?! Yea, it’s a doozy…
The TRX triceps press is a lot like the skullcrusher, but with some important differences.
First, it allows for greater shoulder flexion, approximating the full overhead position. This maximally stretches the long head of the triceps, positioning it to take on the lion’s share of the workload. Second, it’s performed in a closed kinetic chain environment – you have to move your body around the resistance, rather than moving it through the resistance – which has a higher carryover rate to open chain exercises. Last, there’s an obvious demand on core stability that’s not present during the skullcrusher. Any exercise the ties together the triceps, shoulders, and abdominals is a win in my book. For added difficulty add a weight vest or two.
Forearms are probably the most overlooked and underworked muscle in the body. It’s true that forearms get stimulated during all types of heavy lifting, but that is no excuse to leave the muscle without direct isolation work, if you’re doing arm training anyway. The forearm is a muscle, is it not? Do not be prejudice to this aesthetically pleasing piece of meat…
Dumbbell Farmer’s Carry
The famer’s carry is the granddaddy of grip/forearm training exercises. It’s the archetype for simple, low-tech, full-body, heavy-loaded, self-limiting exercise.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is to treat carries like any other mass building exercise and limit the total time it takes to complete the set to 15-20 seconds. Otherwise you’re not really building grip strength, you’re just building grip endurance. Furthermore, if you can hold onto a weight for longer than 30 seconds, it’s probably too light.
Reverse Curl With Extension
The overhand grip on the bar primarily stresses the brachialis and brachioradialis, located underneath the biceps and on the front of the forearm respectively. To emphasize the lower arm musculature, add some extra wrist extension at the top of movement.
Though this above video does not demonstrate the extension at top of the movement, you get the idea. It’s basically just like performing a palms-down reverse wrist curl, after you’re done the reverse curl movement.
Well, there y’all have it, peeps. Now dust off those guns, and throw in some isolation arm training for fuck’s sake. It will help you look better, feel better, and it will certainly add some poundage to your main, big lifts!