If you’re like most guys–and…I’m not going to lie…like me–you got into weightlifting to build big arms and a big chest.
Well, I know where you’re coming from.
I remember when I first watched The Predator and…
…yeah, that’s pretty awesome.
Nothing inspires flattering looks and comments from strangers faster than muscular arms and well-developed pecs. A physique just isn’t complete without full, round, “3-dimensional” arms.
Well, in this article we’re going to talk all about what it takes to build biceps, triceps, and forearms that make eyeballs pop.
Let’s start with the anatomy of arm and learn what needs to happen to get the look we want and then move on to the arm exercises and workouts that will get us there.
When most people think of arm muscles, they think of the biceps.
Big biceps = big arms…right?
Ironically, the biceps contribute substantially less to overall arm size than the triceps, which are a much larger muscle group.
You can see this clearly in a shot like this (might as well stick with the Arnie worship?)…
Thus, one of the little-known “secrets” to building big arms is building big triceps.
I’m getting ahead of myself though, so let’s rewind and look at each of the arm muscles in detail.
The biceps (or, formally, biceps brachii) is a two-headed muscle that looks like this:
Another muscle you need to know about is the biceps brachialis, which lies beneath the biceps brachii and assists it in flexing at the elbow.
Here’s how it looks:
While this muscle isn’t nearly as prominent as the biceps brachii, it plays an important role in the overall appearance of your arms.
When well developed, the brachialis looks like a “knot” in between the biceps brachii and triceps, and it noticeably impacts the overall aesthetics of the arms.
Here’s a picture of me that I think illustrates my point:
So, when we get to the exercises and workouts portion of this article, we will be including some work to target the brachialis.
The next muscle group to talk about is the triceps, or triceps brachii, which has three heads:
As you can see, the three heads combine to form the distinctive “horseshoe” that can become quite pronounced, when properly developed.
Here’s another shot of me showing where I’m at with my triceps:
As I mentioned earlier, the biceps are given far too much focus in most people’s arm workouts.
Small triceps mean small, disproportionate arms, regardless of the size of the biceps.
Last but not least are the forearms, which are comprised of several smaller muscles:
Forearms are like the calves of the arms.
They aren’t the immediate focus, but if they’re underdeveloped, it’s sorely obvious. If they’re well developed, however, it greatly enhances the whole appearance of the limbs.
Well, I’ve been practicing what I preach in this article for several years now and my forearms have made quite a bit of progress, which I think you can see nicely here:
Alright then. Those are the muscles we want to develop and why.
Let’s now discuss how to best do it, starting with the fundamentals of proper arm training.
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There are a lot of theories out there about how to best train arms.
Some people say you have to focus on high-rep training and really feel the burn.
Others say the key is training them several times per week.
Others still say you don’t have to directly train them at all and should focus on major compound movements instead.
Well, I’ve tried all the above and more, and I’ve worked with thousands of people, and what I’ve found is a combination of the above seems to work best.
That is, building big arms requires that you perform heavy compound lifts and directly train your major arm muscles with both low- and high-rep training. And, like with all major muscle groups, you have to emphasize heavy weightlifting to best stimulate muscle growth.
Exercise choice is also a very important part of proper arm training because some exercises are better for progressively overloading the muscles than others.
For example, the standing barbell curl is an all-around more effective biceps exercise than the cable curl.
Another aspect of your arms training that you have to get right is volume, or the total number of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the general rule is this:
The heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
Heavier weights necessitate more recovery, which means you can’t do as many reps every week as with lighter weights without risking overtraining.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the biceps and triceps but to every other major muscle group as well.
Now, I would modify this slightly in the case of arms training because the biceps and triceps are heavily involved in your pressing and pulling.
So if you’re also doing 60 to 70 heavy reps for both back and chest every week (and you should be), you probably want to do a bit less direct work on your bis and tris. I’ve found that 30 to 40 reps per week is plenty.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best arms exercises for building muscle and strength.
We’ll start with the biceps and then move to triceps and forearms.
Like with most muscle groups, there are scores of biceps exercises you can choose from but only a small handful are really necessary.
Just because you can do twenty varieties of curls doesn’t mean you need to. The following are the most effective:
The barbell curl has been a bodybuilding staple for over a century now for good reason: it’s one of the best all-around biceps builders you can do.
I will switch to the E-Z Bar variant from time to time to give my wrists and elbows a break from the stress placed on them by the barbell curl.
Like the barbell curl, this is a time-proven exercise that builds bigger biceps.
The hammer curl is particularly useful for building up the biceps brachialis (the smaller muscle that helps give your biceps a visual boost).
The chin-up is a great “functional” movement that targets the biceps.
Like the biceps, the sheer number of potential triceps exercises you can do can be overwhelming.
Here’s what you need to focus on to really bring out your horseshoes:
If I were to do just one triceps exercise, it would probably be the close-grip bench press.
It’s a compound movement that allows you to safely push heavy weight and it also gives a little boost to your chest development.
When doing a close-grip bench press, your grip should be slightly narrower than shoulder-width and no closer.
You’ll see many guys place their hands just a few inches apart, and this is a bad idea—it puts the shoulders and wrists in a weakened, compromised position.
This is one of my favorite triceps exercises because it enables you to safely press heavy weight and overload the triceps.
The lying triceps press involves a motion similar to the overhead dumbbell press and it’s great for developing the triceps.
This is the most common triceps exercise that people do and, surprisingly, it’s quite good.
That said, I like to save it for later in my workouts after I’ve done heavier work on the other exercises given in this list.
I also like the V-bar and straight bar attachments more than the rope.
There are two types of dips you can do: the bench and upright dip. Both are good for training the triceps and benefit the chest and shoulders as well.
Here’s the bench dip:
And here’s the upright dip:
I’ll often get asked what I do for my forearms, and people are surprised to learn that I do no direct forearm training. All development has been a result of heavy back, chest, and arm training.
I’m not a fan of directly training forearms for two reasons:
That said, if you really want to train your forearms, or if you need to develop a stronger grip for your pulling, then you can find an effective routine here.
That’s it for the best arm exercises.
The key, however, isn’t just doing the exercises–it’s progressing on them. That is, increasing the amount of weight you can move over time.
If you don’t get stronger, you won’t get bigger.
But if you do work on building your strength on these exercises, and you eat enough food to grow, your arms will respond.
A good arms workout trains both the biceps (and both the biceps brachii and brachialis) and triceps (each of the heads) and, indirectly, the forearms, and focuses on heavy weights.
Just like any other muscle group, arms can benefit from higher-rep work, but you have to emphasize heavy weightlifting if you want them to continue to grow over time.
You can learn more about programming workouts in my books Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger, but I want to give you a simple arms workout that you can do for the next 8 weeks to see how my advice works for you.
What I want you to do over the next 8 weeks is perform the following arms workout once every 5 – 7 days:
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Close-Grip Bench Press
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
2 sets of 6 – 8 reps
Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Press
2 sets of 6 – 8 reps
That’s it–just 16 to 20 heavy sets for your entire workout.
Don’t superset these exercise. Instead, do this:
This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.
For instance, if you get 6 reps on your first set of barbell curls, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can curl it for 6 reps, and so forth.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
While workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your arms (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.