4 Mistakes Keeping You From Big Arm Gains
BUILDING A SET of eye-catching (and massively strong) arms isn’t as easy as simply going into the gym and doing dumbbell curls until everything hurts. If it were that simple, everyone would have Captain America-level biceps popping out of their t-shirts.
If you really want to truly grow big arms, it’s about focusing on the little details. Your goal with every rep is to stimulate the muscles you’re training while not taxing your joints; this will keep you healthy and fresh so you can attack your arm training day after day. You’ll also need to choose the right exercises to build your arms. Again, this means more than basic curls and skull crushers. To spark arm growth, you may need to vary the positioning of your arms, the style of resistance (spoiler alert: Don’t just use dumbbells!), and the tempo of every movement.
The good news: You don’t have to figure all of this out alone. That’s why I put together the 90-Day Arm Challenge with Men’s Health, a book that gives you a full 12 week program focused on building you up. It’s a set plan that’ll have you challenging your arms almost every day for three months, with an eye toward serious biceps and triceps growth.
4 Arm Workout Mistakes to Avoid
Your Arm Training Is Too Basic
Curls, pressdowns, and lateral raises are all great exercises—but they can quickly lead you to the dreaded training plateau.
Why? Muscle development comes with consistently progressing the stress and intensity you can handle in a workout. Building muscle and changing your physique requires you to push your body hard enough to force it to adapt. That adaptation, in this case, is muscle growth. And for that adaptation to happen, you’ll need to change up your exercises, reps, and weights to constantly force your body to adjust and get stronger. That can’t happen if you just keep doing curls, triceps pressdowns, and lateral raises in the same way you’ve always done them.
How to Fix it
Variation doesn’t need to be complicated. Simply think about changing your arm angle with every exercise—moving your elbow closer to or further away from your torso can change how an exercise challenges your biceps or triceps. A standard biceps curl, with your elbow near your torso, for example, challenge our biceps most in the middle of the motion and at the end, when you squeeze your biceps. A preacher curl, which has your elbow in front of your torso, is hardest when you’re starting the curl, and easiest at the very top of the motion.
You can easily rotate between six of your favorite arm exercises (three for biceps and three for triceps) in every workout. Just make sure each has your elbow in a different position. Do two to three exercises at least twice a week.
You Rush Your Reps
“Mechanical tension” may sound like a technically advanced concept, but it’s one every lifter should learn. In its simplest terms, it’s about the force you apply to your muscles via resistance (weights). This force can be key to stimulating muscle growth.
In practice, you’ll feel the strain as you use your muscles to apply force to complete a movement. But very often, as you use heavier and heavier weights, you lose this feeling, because your form breaks down and you start to use other muscles (and momentum) to complete the movement. To most effectively grow targeted muscle, especially in your arms, you want to focus on creating mechanical tension, no matter how heavy the weight gets. Yes, “progressive overload” is important. But to truly grow muscle, you must progressively overload—and still feel it.
Understand this: You can get strong without growing your arms. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of strong people who don’t have the aesthetics to match their strength. You also see guys curling 15-pound dumbbells who have jacked arms. Why? Because they focus on mechanical tension.
How to Fix It
Follow a tempo for every rep, regardless of the weights you’re using. Aim to take one to two seconds to raise your weight, pause at the hardest moment of the exercise, then lower with control, counting out one to two seconds. Getting in this habit will help you keep the focus of all your arm exercises on (you guessed it!) your arms.
You Stick to the Same Grip
Curls, palms up. Triceps, palms up. If you keep the same hand position over and over in your movements you are creating one key issue: You’re repeatedly using your muscles in the same way. While you are looking to build two groups of muscles in your biceps and triceps, these muscles have different parts—all of which are responsible for different tasks.
This is important for two reasons: your potential to add madd and your joint health. If you want superhero-sized arms, adjusting your hand position through exercises changes how your muscles are impacted. Your biceps, for example, will distribute the stress differently even if you just rotate your palms to face each other only slightly. That can lead to more balanced forearm development, which can keep you healthier in the long term—and complete your jacked set of arms, too.
How to Fix It
Vary up your hand position through your biceps and triceps training. Play with three different ideas (palms facing the ceiling, palms facing each other, and palms facing the ground) on all biceps curl variations and skull crushers too. In every workout, aim to hit at least two of these positions.
You Don’t Train Your Arms Enough
Bodybuilding splits could be the downfall of your arm training success. Why? Because they often demand that you train each body part once a week. For guys who aren’t staying in the gym for three hours to hit every curl variation in the book on arm day, this isn’t going to be enough. You need more consistent stress to either master your key arm exercises or stimulate overall growth.
The good news: Your arms can take more than one day of training per week. Unlike exercises like bench presses, squats, and deadlifts, most arm exercises have you using comparatively lighter weights. Add in the fact that they’re rarely challenging your entire body, and you’ll realize that arm exercises can be done a few times a week. Just think about it: No matter how hard you push yourself, two to three sets of curls won’t crush you as much as two to three sets of squats.
How to Fix It
Train your arms on at least two to three different days. Aim to do this on upper body days. For example, on days you do pullups, you can easily include a few biceps exercises. Are you bench pressing or shoulder pressing on a day? Add in a few triceps exercises, since you’re hitting your tris when you bench press anyway. Retain one dedicated arm day a week (arm days are fun!); you’ll suddenly be pushing your arms to grow three times a week.
Truth is, if you’re smart and targeted with it, you can actually train arms almost every single day. All you need is the proper strategy, and you’ll be on your way to getting swole.
For more actionable tips, exercises, and full workout splits, check out the Men’s Health 90-Day Transformation Challenge: Arms training book.
David Otey, CSCS is a fitness writer, NYC-based strength coach, and Men’s Health Advisory Board member who specializes in strength and hypertrophy protocols as well as athletic performance. For more on Otey check out www.oteyfitness.com.
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