Training the arms with the proper intensity and intention is heavily abused.
The ringleaders being your classic squat rack curlers who use more swing than the Golden State Warriors offense.
It’s no surprise that the pipes they aspire for are usually nothing more than a faint glimmer of hope over the real life pipe-cleaners they possess.
The top 3 exercises in my books to make arms grow may seem unconventional for the split, but the benefits will speak for themselves.
Exercise 1: Chin Ups
If you really want to see your guns grow, it’s time to get overhead and focus on some chins. If you question the efficacy of chin ups for biceps development, let’s look at things from the most practical method we can.
Here’s a little homework: Find any high level gymnast that doesn’t have impressive biceps development for his overall size and frame. It’ll prove to be a more difficult task than you think. The reason is simple, the cumulative volume of overhead pulling most gymnasts go through as part of their sport makes the biceps respond using the SAID Principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands).
In layman's terms, the amount of overhead pulling causes the biceps to simply get bigger and stronger to adapt.
It doesn’t stop there. Pulling from overhead also optimizes the involvement of the brachialis muscle, an upper arm muscle that runs deep to the biceps. When it’s developed, it creates thickness from inside and also increases the prominence of the coveted “peak” lifters are usually after. It’s something standard curls don’t hit quite as effectively.
As a directive, it’s important to remember your emphasis when using the chin up for arm development – and this is the only place you’ll see me recommend anything less than great form for a chin up. Proper chin ups ask for a set shoulder and a pull through the elbows to hit the lats and upper back muscles that are primarily responsible for the lift.
Since we’re targeting the biceps, it’s a good idea to at least partially abandon that emphasis and pull using the hands and arms instead. Let your arms bear most of the load that you’re pulling instead of your back. It makes the lift harder, but your arms will be the recipient of endless gains.
Exercise 2: French Press
On a similar wavelength, overhead triceps work will target the long head of the triceps, which is a neglected muscle skipped in favor of press downs, close grip bench press, and other lateral head-dominant movements.
The French press may be a humbling exercise at first as far as weight lifted goes; it’s not a heavy hitter meathead movement that you can load up like you can a close grip bench. But when they’re done correctly, they can leave the triceps on fire and possibly even create a bit more mobility at the shoulder joint.
One common mistake when training this movement is to let the elbows flare outwards a lot. Some outward rotation is acceptable –especially if you’re a bigger guy – but in general, the goal should be to keep the elbows turned in. Using an EZ Curl bar to adjust your wrist position can help this cause.
If you have a history of shoulder issues, or you can’t quite create the range of motion at the shoulder joint to facilitate this movement with good form, a suitable alternative could be the skull crusher plus.
Traditional skull crushers also hit the lateral head of the triceps and can cause varying levels of elbow stress in the process. Adding an overhead component to the skull crusher can alleviate elbow stress and tap into the long head as well as the lateral head.
Exercise 3: Dips
This exercise is difficult for a reason. Bodyweight and weighted dips are supreme mass builders for the triceps, front deltoids, and chest. Many lifters gravitate to bench dips with the feet elevated, but I’d actually recommend against that for most populations.
The setup for bench dips places the upper arm in a very internally rotated position, which isn’t the safest environment for the shoulder capsule to bear load. To make matters worse, there’s no correction for this positioning.
Instead, use parallel bars, and get deep. Many lifters complain about similar shoulder stress when doing this variation. In truth, there will be certain exercises that don’t agree with the skeletal frame of a lifter. The parallel bar dip was always one of those for me personally.
Over time, however, I’ve found a couple of hacks that can make the exercise feel much better and more effective in hitting the muscles without hitting the joints.
Use Fat Grips
I’ve found that during pressing movements, performing the lift using thick grips helps distribute the load over a greater surface area in the palm of the hand. This directly affects joint stress as relates to the elbow and shoulder. All things equal, you’ll find immediate relief, at least on a marginal scale if you typically experience discomfort.
Examine Your Width
As a bigger guy myself, I’ve found that many pull up/dip complex stations have a very narrow setup that can’t be adjusted at all. It can be a bit constricting to squeeze into this uncomfortable position and attempt to crack out dips in the process, and that chaos usually lends to joint discomfort.
A better alternative would be to make a makeshift dips station in a squat cage, given it’s available for use (you might not want to be “that guy” in a crowded gym).
To do them, set up a pair of bars across the pins just above waist level, and customize the width between them and wrist angle. Set the bars on thin yoga mats if you’re worried about them sliding. Next, step inside and go to town!
As a final note, it’s important to remember the ratio of triceps to biceps: The triceps have 60% of your upper arm muscle. That means it’s probably a good idea to train them with a bit more emphasis. Curls for the girls are fine every once in a while, but for true upper arm mass, it’s important to remember your triceps.
Applying these directives to your arm days will probably leave you too gassed out to even bother with curls anyways, and your arms will be torched until it’s…. time to do more chin ups on back day!