When people choose exercises to train their arms, they often choose exercises by what kind of exercises gives the most pump. Of course, you get more pumped if you train the same part of the arms with more than one exercise, but it’s not the best to do for maximal muscle or strength development. Biceps have two heads, and triceps have three. So, how many exercises do you need to blast your workout and get all muscle heads working?
Simple math tells us you need to do five exercises for an optimal arm workout! How could you possibly know what muscle head you are activating with one exercise? It’s pretty easy, actually. You just put your arm in different directions to activate different muscle heads.
For triceps, you need to do one exercise with your elbow over your head, one exercise with your elbow in the front of you, and one exercise with your elbow pointing against your stomach.
For biceps, you should do one exercise with your elbows at your sides and one exercise with your elbows pointing forward like a Scott Curl. I cycle these exercises in my regular program and do some exercises after max effort and dynamic effort upper body.
For this article, I'm going to assume you train by muscle group. The program I’m about to suggest is based on the fact you have one day set aside for arms training. If you train in the same way as I do, cycle the exercises in where it fits. Otherwise, use this day in your regular program.
I think it’s important to cycle between heavy sets and high rep sets since the heavy sets get your muscles used to work with heavy loads and strengthen the muscle tissue (the tendons and the joints). When your muscles work with a higher load, you can also train with higher weights for high reps. The high reps get your muscles more elastic and increase the blood flow, which will benefit your recovery and increase lactic acid transport. Some studies suggest heavy and high reps could trigger the release of growth hormone. I’m not sure if this is actually the case, but personally, I feel a big difference when I put high reps in my program!
To gain strength for most exercises, I don’t think you should go to failure because the recovery will suffer. Specific to arm training, though, your arm muscles don’t include any big complex movement, so they will recover much faster than legs, chest, and back. Go to failure, and often! The arm muscles can recover in 24-48 hours. However, your joints and nearby tissue need more time to recover, so don’t train your arms more than twice a week.
Below are four different examples of how an arms session could look. You can either follow this as a program for four weeks and start over or pick inspiration from it to set up your own program. The rest between the sets should be 30-45 seconds.
If you train your arms like this, you will have a big arm hanging out from your car window while driving through the town this summer.
- Hammer curl with dumbbells 6x6 reps
- Seated Scott curl with Z-bar 4x20 reps
- Rope pushdowns 4x12 reps
- Close-grip bench press 6x6 reps
- Overhead dumbbell extensions, both hands 4x12 reps
- Biceps curl with Z-bar 4x12 reps
- Standing Scott curl with dumbbells 4x8 reps
- Banded pushdowns 100 reps
- Tate press 6x6 reps
- Lying triceps extensions behind-the-neck 4x20 reps
- Biceps curl with rope 6x6 reps
- Seated Scott curl with dumbbells 4x20 reps
- Close-grip bench press from pins 6x6 reps
- Overhead triceps extensions with rope 4x12 reps
- Dumbbell kickback (both arms) 4x12 reps
- Shaking curls, biceps curl with a powerlifting bar (or bamboo bar) with weights attached in bands 4x20 reps
- Seated Scott curl with kettlebells in a fixed grip with the kettlebell over your hands 6x6 reps
- Close-grip push-ups 3xmax reps
- Dips (weighted) 6x6 reps
- Skull crushers with Z-bar 6x6 reps
After reading this article, I hope that you will understand how and why you should choose exercises in a more effective way. For fitness people, exercises are often chosen with the pump as a reference. Powerlifters often choose to do triceps work at the end of their training session. In reality, it's important to really make the best out of your training to gain more muscles and strength.
Stefan Waltersson is a professional strength coach certified by Westside Barbell, lecturer, physiotherapist, author, personal trainer, kinesiologist, sports massage therapist, nurse assistant, and founder of Seminoff Sport & Rehab in 2004. Stefan has previously worked in neurology (Sahlgrenska University Hospital) and with researching doctors in microbiology and clinical chemistry.