It’s a universal desire among guys who want bigger muscles: The possession of a set of “pythons” extending from a pair of short shirt sleeves. ‘Building upper arms’ seems to be among the top three objectives of anyone who takes up the ‘iron game’ with the intent of actually adding noticeable pounds of bodily muscle mass. And why not: The instinctual reaction to the sight of big arms makes ‘building upper arms’ a primal concern; they show potential adversaries that the one possessing them is no pushover. They subconsciously confirm to a prospective mate that the ‘heavily armed’ man is a capable protector and provider. The desire for bigger, stronger, more powerful arms was ancestrally developed and inborn; it’s not just a frivolous yearning spawned by vanity.
Despite this appeal, ‘building upper arms’ remains an elusive feat for many aspiring muscle builders. They perform countless sets of ‘standing barbell curls’ and ‘lying triceps extensions.’ They do their ‘dips’ and ‘alternating dumbbell curls.’ They do all variations of these exercises, to little avail. Many just quit in frustration, writing off the idea of ‘building upper arms’ as something to only be enjoyed by those willing to withstand the possible side-effects of steroids.
I know all this firsthand because I used to be in the same boat. My desire for ‘building upper arms’ was so exceeded by the reality of the muscles NOT getting any bigger that I nearly gave up. I’m glad I didn’t. I now enjoy ever-increasing girth in my biceps and triceps that I’m convinced will only cease when I decide they’re as big as I want them. That decision definitely won’t occur any time soon.
The best part of my relatively recent personal surge in upper arm growth is the sensation of my arms being noticeably bigger in the relaxed, hanging position. At one time, it would only be evident to me that my arms were getting bigger when they flexed as I bent at the elbows. That’s no longer the case; I’m now getting “bigger hanging arms” – the development of which I attribute to emphasis of certain exercises and principles. These will be the focus of this article so that YOU will enjoy better progress in upper arms growth than you might have in the past.
‘Building Upper Arms’: The Triceps have Three Heads
It’s no secret that most of your increased upper arms size will come from successfully building your triceps. This is not to say that maximum biceps development isn’t important; it surely is. But two-thirds of upper arms size is comprised of triceps, and their augmentation is what most contributes to bigger “hanging arms.” Moreover, the triceps have three sections, or “heads.” It’s important to successfully hit all three heads in building upper arms. When you do this effectively, you’ll make the biggest contribution to arms that appear big when just relaxed at your sides.
The three heads of the triceps are the long head, lateral head, and medial head. The long head is the long section on the inside of the upper arm extending nearly from the rear deltoid to the elbow. The lateral head is that slightly shorter and bulky piece that sits just outside of the long head and really flares out when the triceps are pumped. The medial head is the smallest section and sits just below the lateral head near the elbow. The development of all three heads creates a sort of “horseshoe” shape to the entire triceps area. Moreover, it can create a huge appearance to the upper arms when well-developed and the arms are extended and relaxed.
There’s a school of thought that says we should start a triceps workout using a movement that hits all three heads in one exercise. I don’t think this is nearly as imperative as three principles that are vitally important in building upper arms:
- Make sure to adequately work all three heads during triceps workouts.
- Use a successful “overload system” so the muscle tissue is adequately challenged.
- Apply adequate recuperation so the muscles have a chance to build compensatory strength and size.
The second and third on this list are principles familiar to my regular readers. They actually apply to the successful building of any muscle. They’re worth reiterating at every turn, however, because it’s amazing how infrequently they’re stressed given their relative importance. Reading most muscle building literature would have you think that exercise selection and form supersede everything else. But good selection and proper execution of movements will be a complete waste of time if we under-train, over-train, or under-recuperate. Therefore, all three principles must be present in order that bigger triceps become the result.
For those who subscribe to the idea of hitting all three triceps heads with the first exercise, a great one to use is bench ‘triceps dips.’ This is the movement in which two benches are placed parallel with one another at about leg’s distance apart. While placing the feet on one of the benches, the upper body remains upright at a 90-degree angle to the legs while supported by placing the hands on the other bench directly behind the hips. The upper body is then lowered down by bending the elbows until the mid-section of the back is even with the edge of the bench behind it. Pushing back up to the extended-arms position constitutes one rep. A dumbbell or weight-plate can be safely placed in the lap for added resistance.
Another excellent exercise for targeting all three heads of the triceps at once is ‘triceps press-downs’ using a rope handle. These should be performed with strict form, keeping the elbows tight to the sides of the body and avoiding movement anywhere except the elbow joint. If upper body/hip movement is used to help move the resistance, it will only take stress off the triceps and contribute to hindered upper arm development.
Of the three triceps heads, the long head is the one that tends to suffer the most under-development for beginning bodybuilders. For some, this might be due to neglect. For others, overtraining might be the culprit resulting from too many sets and exercises. In either case, taking measures for increased size of the long head is important for building upper arms and, especially, for getting big ‘hanging arms.’ A great exercise for targeting the long head is lying French press with dumbbells. This is the movement whereby you lie down on a bench with dumbbells held straight above the head in each hand. Keeping the palms facing each other and held at shoulder width apart, the elbows are bent until the dumbbells are brought down to the point of being next to the ears. Moving only at the elbows, the weights are then extended back up to the top position in the positive half of the movement.
Another terrific exercise for long head development is the close-grip bench press. For targeting triceps, I think this movement is best done on a Smith Machine with the body slightly farther back on the bench. This way, the bar can be brought down to a point right at the bottom of the rib cage, effectively working the triceps more than the pectoral muscles. I also prefer to keep the hands gripped on the bar at no more that about two inches apart.
‘Building Upper Arms’: Biceps Require Focused Targeting
Even with the triceps accounting for two-thirds of upper arm size potential, building bigger arms requires effective working and maximum growth of the biceps. Especially for big ‘hanging arms’, the biceps need to be developed fully from their insertion points near the elbow and shoulder joints, as well as everywhere in between. To do this effectively, the biceps need to be worked with more focused form and avoidance of ‘cheating’ than many trainees realize.
One way of building upper arms with this type of focused biceps targeting is by using machines and a sort of “forced confinement” by way of ‘split repetitions.’ I actually demonstrate this kind of biceps workout on a short video right here. By splitting the full range of curling motion into three separate movements of one-third range, the biceps really get shortened up and worked to the maximum. When doing this, I choose exercises that put max tension on each respective third of the range of a full biceps curl; I work the bottom area, the middle area, and the biceps peak. I’ve made fantastic biceps gains by doing these in place of free weight curls for years.
For those of you who are standing barbell curls ‘purists’, however, there are some guidelines for maximizing the positive effects of free weight biceps curling. The most important keys are fivefold:
- Use a shoulder-width grip and keep the elbows in tight against the upper body.
- Move only at the elbow joints; avoid rocking the upper body to move the weight.
- Avoid “resting” the weight in the shoulder girdle area at the top of the movement.
- Keep the bar close against the upper body throughout the curl.
- Keep the hands fully supinated (palms facing upward) throughout the movement when using dumbbells (a straight barbell forces this).
Following these guidelines will force stricter form. This will likely necessitate a reduction of the workout poundage if your form hasn’t been optimal. That’s okay and expected. Bodybuilding is about augmenting volume lifting capability relative to moving that volume with the good form that will maximally target a specified muscle. It’s not simply about “moving weight.”
‘Building Upper Arms’: The Weight DOES Matter
It seems to be in vogue these days for top bodybuilders advocating good workout form to say things like the following paraphrase:
“The amount of weight you lift doesn’t really matter that much. What really matters is proper targeting of the muscle and continuous tension.”
This takes describing the importance of using good exercise form a step too far. You and I both know that if it were true, pro bodybuilders could save time and trouble in the gym by just using a 'Peewee Herman' amount of workout weight while continuing to enjoy the muscular development they plainly possess. That’s not about to happen. When big muscles exist on a bodybuilder who uses good workout form, big weights are being used relative to total volume moved and the strict form being executed. Granted, it’s less weight than they’d use if executing with sloppy, ‘cheating’ form. But the key is that they’re using much higher workout weight volumes than when they started out with smaller muscles.
To build upper arms (or any muscle), you’ll need to be strictly moving heavier workout weights in the future than you are now. Inversely speaking, if you keep using the same workout weights for your biceps and triceps, they won’t get any bigger. It’s like the proverbial ‘definition of insanity’ saying: … “continuing to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.”
A big key to continuous progress in ‘building upper arms’ is in learning how to coax the muscles into greater workout volumes and avoiding the 3 biggest bodybuilding mistakes. Once you get these principles mastered, there’ll be no stopping your upper arms from gaining size.
You might even end up with the steroid users at your gym feeling green with envy when they see what’s hanging from your shirt sleeves.