I’ve always been a big believer in using bodybuilding movements as accessory lifts when training for strongman and powerlifting. In both these sports, arms tend to be put on the back-burner, with maybe a set of dumbbell curls and pressdowns at the end of an upper-body session. Unfortunately, biceps and triceps tears are both very common in strength sports. Direct arm training is a must to strengthen the tendons, and these movements can improve pressing strength and grip.
For most of my accessory work, I like to use fat grip attachments and bars just to improve grip. When it comes to strongman especially, grip is extremely important. For powerlifting, anyone that has lost a deadlift due to grip understands how frustrating it can be. The good news is that it’s an easy fix. Also, pressing with fat bars activates more triceps (a huge benefit for many events in strongman), and a big bench needs strong triceps. If you feel like your arms are really lacking, you can train them on a separate day with high volume.
The nice thing is that you can superset each biceps and triceps movement with short rest periods, as none of the movements are as taxing as a heavy deadlift, for example. The collection of movements I’m going to outline below I was able to knock out in less than 25 minutes at the end of my upper body session. Having a variety of bars and cable attachments will make a huge difference in your upper body training, and will keep arm day far more interesting than just hitting some dumbbell curls.
American Press Bar Curls
I love the the American Press Bar for a lot of reasons. The angled grip is very comfortable to press with, and with the camber, anyone can do floor presses and have their elbows touch the floor (even lifters with a big belly). Recently I’ve been flipping the bar around to simulate a two-board press, really hitting the triceps. Using it for curls has been great, as the angle is very easy on my wrists. I’m sure many of you have experienced wrist or elbow pain when curling with a straight bar, so give this a try.
Having multiple grip options allows a kind of drop set where I can start doing curls on the outside grips for a number of reps, then as I fatigue I bring the grip in to hit the biceps from a different angle to keep going. This is a perfect one to start your arm training with, as you will be hitting 30 reps total in a set, so you will get a good pump right away.
Muscle Mace Triceps Extension
For any of you that have elbow issues and can’t do heavy extensions, this is a perfect exercise. The chains take all the stress off the joint at the bottom, but you can still work a full range of motion. With the Muscle Mace, you can again do a drop set without having to change a thing. Start with the first ball, do 10 reps, drop to the middle for another 10, then on the end do a max rep set. Your triceps will be on fire, and this is why I like to start with this exercise. It’s elbow-friendly and warms you up for any triceps exercises to come.
Fat Bar EZ Zig Zag Curls with Arm Blaster
For this one, I’m combining one of my favorite fat bars for accessory work with the Arm Blaster, which I feel is very underrated. It will make any curl far more difficult, so you will have to drop the weight from a normal curl. With a fat bar you are again strengthening your grip, and now really isolating the biceps with the Arm Blaster. Nothing fancy here, just keep it light with strict form, squeeze the top, and control the weight down. Remember, for biceps you are just going for a big pump. A common mistake is going too heavy and sacrificing form. With all the heavy compound lifts we do (rows, pull-ups, Atlas stones, etc.) the biceps get plenty of heavy work.
Triceps Extensions with Supra Curl Bar
I absolutely love the Supra Curl Bar for biceps movements, but especially for triceps, as it rotates with you and eliminates wrist pain. Since I began with extensions on a flat bench, these can be done either on an incline as shown in the video or at a decline.
Cross-Body Curls with Kettlebells
Using kettlebells for arm training is one of the best ways to improve your grip strength and to change the angle of simple curls and extensions. For triceps, try lying extensions on a decline bench. Having the kettlebells pull back as you lower puts your triceps in a stretch that can’t be reached with dumbbells or a bar.
For curls, this is one of my favorites to end with. You should always have some kind of neutral grip or reverse grip in your arm training to keep things in balance for elbow health. Take a pair of kettlebells and do a normal cross-body curl that you would do with dumbbells. Because the weight is now in front of your hand, and not around it like with a dumbbell, you have to squeeze the kettlebell handle much harder. Having to squeeze the handle more will activate more muscles and, as we discussed, improve your grip strength.
No triceps workout is complete without some variation of a pressdown. At elitefts, you have a huge variety of attachments to select, and I would recommend you vary them in your program. One of my recent favorites has been simple one-arm pressdowns using the grenade attachment. I like doing pressdowns for high reps for getting as much blood into the muscle as possible. Save the low reps for the compound movements. Sets of 15 to 20 are best for pressdowns. Also, notice with the grenade how I tilt my wrist at the bottom for a stronger contraction.
Note from the Editor:
Although this article was originally written in September of 2017, the mainstays above remain in Matt's arsenal for building arms in 2022. Watch as he subtly changes his form, approach, or explanation using American Bar Curls, Grenade Pressdowns, and Kettlebell Pin Wheels.
How I Program Arm Training
To give an idea of how I program these movements, here is what I did in my program. This is my second press day of the week, which is more of a hypertrophy day, as my other days are fairly heavy and include strongman events.
1. Log Strict Press — 4 x 5
2. Log Z Press — 3 x 6
3A. Dumbbell Front Raises — 3 x 10
3B. Dumbbell Lateral Raises — 3 x 10
4A. Lying Muscle Mace Chain Extensions — 3 x 30 (10 each grip)
4B. Cambered Bar Curls — 3 x 30
5A. Supra Curl Bar Incline Triceps Extensions — 3 x 12
5B. Fat Bar Curls with Arm Blaster — 3 x 12
6A. Grenade Pressdowns — 3 x 20
6B. Cross-Body Curls with Kettlebells — 3 x 12 each
As you can see, there are a lot of exercises here. But once past the compound movements, I was able to move very fast. Take only a minute rest between supersets. Isolation exercises should be done with higher reps and never need long rest periods. If you have trouble fitting these movements in then I suggest timing your rest periods. You may be surprised how much time you waste. In case you haven’t read it yet, elitefts athlete Ben Pollack has an article on a few arm exercises of his own he uses for hypertrophy and elbow health you can check out here.
Matt Mills is a graduate of the University of Connecticut, earning both his bachelor's and master's degrees in Strength and Conditioning. He is also certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a strength athlete, he is an accomplished powerlifter with a best deadlift of 800 pounds. He is a middleweight pro strongman with best competition lifts of a 360-pound log press, 900-pound pound Hummer tire deadlift, and a 410-pound Farmers Walk. Matt is the owner of Lightning Fitness, located in South Windsor, Connecticut. He has worked with over a thousand athletes, helping them reach their fitness and nutrition goals.