Having large, defined arms is the number one goal for a lot of trainees, but this can sadly also be a never-ending quest for most individuals.
The reason that an awesome set of guns is hard to come by is because many people don’t understand that the muscles in the arm area don’t follow the same training principles that you may apply to your legs or back.
Factors such as mechanical and metabolic stress or simple training frequency are essential for growth but not applied in the same manner as they would be for other body parts.
In this article, I’ll discuss the science behind different advanced arm-training techniques and provide some sample workouts that you can use to immediately improve your sleeve size and arm gainz.
Essentials Of Building Muscle
It’s important to keep in mind that the arm muscles, (such as the different heads of the biceps and triceps in addition to forearms and deltoids), are smaller muscle groups than the muscles of the major chest, back and legs.
Often times, people suggest arm training should be performed with lighter weights to accommodate for this, but that’s not entirely true. While arm training may benefit from slightly different styles of training, these muscle groups are still governed by the very same principles of ‘overload’ and therefore require sufficient tension, just like any other body part.
Related: How to Build Muscle - 5 Step Guide to Lean Gains
Progressive overload is essentially a theory that you need to increase the stress you place on the muscle over time to consistently grow1,2.
Essentially, if you aren’t constantly increasing the weight you’re using, the reps and sets you’re completing or, in a perfect world, all three, then you can expect that your arms will never grow. To use this method, you’ll need to ensure that you consistently increase the stress placed on these muscles if you want them to grow.
Mechanical Stress, Metabolic Stress & Exercise Variation
Next, it’s important that you consistently increase the amount of mechanical stress that you place on the muscle. Mechanical stress is essentially the physical force that is being applied to the muscle when you attempt to contract it against a weight.
When your muscle cells become physically stretched and contracted (from flexing and extending your limbs), many different reactions are initiated inside the muscle cells. The reactions promote growth to ensure that future stress of a similar magnitude isn’t as much of a threat. Typically, mechanical stress becomes relevant as weight increases or sets are taken very close to failure3,4,5.
Third, we have to consider metabolic stress. Metabolic stress is essentially the buildup of metabolite by-products, which are produced by constant muscle contraction. This, in essence, is the pump.
Recent research suggests that metabolic stress, and other related factors like cellular swelling, may play an integral role in the muscle increasing in size over time. While mechanical stress is important, it’s possible that metabolic stress is also important6,7,8.
Lastly, we must consider practicing exercise variation. With arms in particular, many people will use the same exercises day in and day out, then wonder why they haven’t seen progress.
Just as you can adapt to a certain weight or rep range, so too can you adapt to specific exercises. In fact recent research suggests that having regular variation of exercises, even by just changing small variables like bar placement, grip width or foot stance, can provide a new stimulus for continued growth9.
Rest assured that throughout the following workouts, we’ll be touching on each of these pillars of muscle growth to ensure that your arms grow in a timely and efficient manner.
Workout 1: Rest-Pause
In workout 1, we introduce a technique known as Rest-Pause. Rest-Pause is an advanced technique that incorporates high amounts of mechanical and metabolic stress, enabling an incredible pump, while using high amounts of weight for rep ranges you’re probably not used to10,11.
The process goes like this. Choose a weight for an exercise that you’ll fail with around 6-8 repetitions. Complete your first set around 1 rep short of failure. From there, rest for 30 seconds, taking 10 deep breathes. Then repeat. Then, repeat the process 1 more time.
Essentially, you’re taking a weight that you typically fail with around 6-8 repetitions and now use that weight for upwards of 12-15 reps.
|1. Barbell Curls||3-4||6-8*|
|2. High Cable Tricep Pushdown||3-4||10-12*|
|3. Overhead Bicep Cable Curls||4||12-15|
|4. Low Cable Bicep Curls||4||12-15|
|5. Barbell Overhead Tricep Extensions||4||12-15|
|6. Rope Tricep Extension||4||15-20|
*Choose your weight. Complete reps & rest for 10 deep breathes. Lift to 1 rep short of failure & rest for 10 deep breathes. Lift to 1 rep short of failure. That’s 1 rest-pause set.
Workout 2: Drop Sets, The Right Way
Drop sets are a technique that can typically provide large amounts of metabolic stress, due to short or even non-existent rest periods and a high volume. However, traditional drop sets are, in my opinion, a waste of time.
The reason I believe this is because mechanical stress declines drastically after your first set. In this case, unless repetitions are taken very high with the lighter weight, the benefit of using this method can be worthless12.
When using drop sets, rather than starting with a normal weight and reducing from there, I prefer to start with a much heavier weight and lower rep range and then move towards a higher volume. While this may seem like typical drop sets, here’s a better explanation.
With a typical drop set, you might start with an 8 RM weight, complete that set for 8 and then immediately drop weight to increase repetitions. However, what if you ended your last set with that 8 RM weight instead?
Considering that mechanical and metabolic stress are essential, this method allows you to maximize both, rather than sacrificing mechanical stress for that of metabolic stress.
|1. EZ Bar Preacher Curl||1||4-12*|
|2. Close Grip Bench Press||1||4-12*|
|3. Machine Tricep Extension||4||15-20|
|4. Dumbbell Concentration Curls||4||8-10|
|5. Dumbbell Alternate Curls||4||15|
*Start with 4 RM weight, complete to 1 rep short of failure. Reduce weight to 6 RM weight, complete to 1 rep short of failure. Reduce weight to 8 RM weight, complete to 1 rep short of failure. Reduce weight to 10 RM weight, complete to 1 rep short of failure. Reduce weight to 12 RM weight, complete to 1 rep short of failure
As you can see in the example above, by shifting the initial starting weight, you can work in traditional weight and rep ranges while using drop sets – this has the potential to stimulate growth to a much greater extent than a typical drop set, which would start relatively light.
Workout 3: Blood Flow Restriction
Blood flow restriction (BFR) is a fairly new and popular technique that actually has a fair bit of science backing it7,8.
Essentially, depending on the movement and limb being worked, you’ll wrap your limb with a tourniquet at the proximal end, or the end close to your torso. For example, when using BFR for biceps and triceps, you wrap the tourniquet around your upper arm, in the crease between deltoid and biceps/triceps.
Related: Kaatsu Training - A Techinque for Enhanced Muscle Growth
BFR is an interesting technique that essentially allows you to receive a similar response to the one you would observe with a heavy weight set, yet you get to use around 40% of your 1 RM.
Typically when using this amount of weight, you’d need to complete upwards of 20-40 repetitions to actually stimulate muscle growth. BFR allows the same response to occur, faster.
Essentially, by wrapping your limbs you’re causing blood to pool in the muscle by inhibiting venous return or the return of blood from your muscles to the heart. Research suggests that the build of metabolites achieved by this method causes a muscle-building response, typically observed with much heavier lifting.
Note: When using BFR, you should wrap your arms with a tightness of 7/10, with 10 being your arm falling asleep. If you lose sensation in your arm, you’ve wrapped too tightly. Remove the tourniquet immediately. Further, ensure you remove the tourniquet immediately after finishing the exercise. It is not advised to keep your limb wrapped for the duration of the workout.
|1. Alternate Dumbbell Hammer Curl||4||12|
|2. Dips||4||Short of failure|
|3. Machine Preacher Curl||3||failure*|
|4. High Cable Tricep Pushdown||3||failure*|
*Using around 40% of your 1 RM, take this set to failure, around 30 reps. Rest 15-20 seconds. Complete same weight to failure. Rest 15-20 seconds. Complete same weight to failure. Rest 2 minutes and repeat the cycle 2 more times.
It’s important to notice that I placed the BFR sets later in the workout. This is because BFR is extremely demanding and will fatigue the muscle you’re working maximally. It’s suggested that if you plan to do other exercises, you complete them before the BFR sets.
Workout 4: Giant Sets
Giant sets are an advanced technique that allows for exercise variation and high amounts of metabolic stress and cell swelling. The reason for this is that giant sets incorporate 3-exercise sets, with minimal rest.
Giant sets are much like supersets in that you’ll complete exercises back-to-back, yet this includes a total of 3 or more exercises per set, as opposed to only two. By having a high volume with minimal rest, you can begin to create extremely high amounts of metabolic stress, which can potentially improve muscle mass7,8,13.
|1a. Close Grip Bench Press||3-4||15|
|1b. EZ Bar Skull Crusher||3-4||12|
|1c. Rope Tricep Pushdown||3-4||20|
|2a. Barbell Curl||3-4||8-10|
|2b. Alternate Dumbbell Curl||3-4||15-20|
|2c. Machine Preacher Curl||3-4||12-15|
|3. Alternate Dumbbell Hammer Curl||4||15|
|4. Low Cable Bicep Curl||4||12|
|5. High Cable Tricep Pushdown||4||12|
|6. Overhead Barbell Tricep Extension||4||12|
Workout 5: Antagonist Sets
With traditional training, many people complete exercises for the same muscle group, back-to-back. While this may give you a pump, it may also mean you could be working at a lower intensity than if you were to use antagonist movements14.
Antagonist exercises simply involve training the opposite muscle group every other set. Essentially, on exercise one you’ll lift biceps and on exercise two, you’ll lift triceps.
By using this method, while one muscle group rests, the other works. Essentially, you’ll be able to train with a higher intensity on each muscle group overall, than would be possible if you were to become fatigued from back-to-back, single muscle group exercises.
|2. Barbell Curl||4||12|
|3. Tricep Cable Pushdown||4||12|
|4. Machine Preacher Curl||4||15|
|5. Machine Tricep Pushdown||4||15|
|6. Cable Curls||4||15|
|7. Rope Tricep Pushdown||4||15|
As you can see, there are a few unique considerations for arm training that can expedite growth, such as higher training frequency. With that being said, other fundamental factors such as progressive overload. mechanical and metabolic stress are also important and must be abided by!
If you want to put that theory into practice, give these 5 brutal workouts ago and monitor the crazy progress you get!
- Hass, C. J., Feigenbaum, M. S., & Franklin, B. A. (2001). Prescription of resistance training for healthy populations. Sports medicine, 31(14), 953-964.
- Kraemer, W. J., Ratamess, N. A., & French, D. N. (2002). Resistance training for health and performance. Current sports medicine reports, 1(3), 165-171.
- Martineau, L. C., & Gardiner, P. F. (2001). Insight into skeletal muscle mechanotransduction: MAPK activation is quantitatively related to tension. Journal of Applied Physiology, 91(2), 693-702.
- Li, C., & Xu, Q. (2000). Mechanical stress-initiated signal transductions in vascular smooth muscle cells. Cellular signalling, 12(7), 435-445.
- Vandenburgh, H., & Kaufman, S. (1979). In vitro model for stretch-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Science, 203(4377), 265-268.
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Sports medicine, 43(3), 179-194.
- Suga, T., Okita, K., Morita, N., Yokota, T., Hirabayashi, K., Horiuchi, M., ... & Tsutsui, H. (2010). Dose effect on intramuscular metabolic stress during low-intensity resistance exercise with blood flow restriction. Journal of applied physiology, 108(6), 1563-1567.
- Loenneke, J. P., Fahs, C. A., Rossow, L. M., Abe, T., & Bemben, M. G. (2012). The anabolic benefits of venous blood flow restriction training may be induced by muscle cell swelling. Medical hypotheses, 78(1), 151-154.
- Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., ... & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(11), 3085-3092.
- Marshall, Paul WM, et al. "Acute neuromuscular and fatigue responses to the rest-pause method." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 15.2 (2012): 153-158.
- Prestes J., et al. "Strength and muscular adaptations following 6 weeks of rest pause versus traditional multiple-sets resistance training in trained subjects". Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Published Ahead of Print DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001923.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., & Peterson, M. (2016). Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(4), 715.
- Schoenfeld, B. (2011). The use of specialized training techniques to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(4), 60-65.
- Baker, D., & Newton, R. U. (2005). Acute effect on power output of alternating an agonist and antagonist muscle exercise during complex training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 19(1), 202.
Should each workout group be done for a specific amount of weeks; then say change to work-out 2? Or should each week try a different workout group?
Are all the exercises in one workout group to be done on the same day? Or can the group be split up during the week as you add to regular work-out done for other parts of body...