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Posted 9 months ago

Growing your arms

I’m very open about the fact that years ago, I stopped training arms. It was around 2017: I had stepped off stage for the first time and vowed never to step on stage again. Of course, I kept training because I did love that part of the process, but whilst I continued to progress my physique across the board, my arms just fell further and further behind. It was only until it got to the end of 2019 that I realised how much they were lacking in size and density relative to the rest of my physique; this was also around the time that I had decided I wanted to compete in classic physique.

Since then, I have incorporated arm training 3x across the week to try and bring more balance to my physique. However, I have learned some valuable lessons along the way regarding what works and what doesn’t work for me. Therefore, the aim of this article is to discuss different strategies you can implement into your own training, by reflecting on mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Should I go heavy?

Biceps and triceps are like any other muscle: you will need to accumulate more load over time to see an increase in muscle size and density. That’s all well and good if you are only hitting them once a week, but as you start to increase frequency, you’ll no doubt find that you simply cannot do that every session.

There are a few reasons that explain this. Firstly, you need to remember that you are training your biceps/triceps on the days where you train chest/back. Although they are not the prime movers, they will have to exert a little bit of force whilst you press or pull. If you pair this with training them in insolation 2-3 times a week, you’ll find that your elbows simply cannot handle going heavy each time.

This is when you’ll realise that your tendons/ligaments cannot recovery at the same rate as the muscle can, and if you aren’t aware of it yet, they will soon let you know about it. In 2020, when my mindset shifted and my training changed accordingly, I went heavy every time I was training arms, and guess what happened? Yep, you guessed it: I ended up getting a niggle here, sore tendon there etc., which meant I had to back off training arms for a short period of time.

This of course was counterproductive as it was the one area I was looking to bring up. It meant I had to shift my focus around how I could hit my arms more frequently across the week, without experiencing pain, and getting the benefit of more growth in the area I wanted.

Should I go lighter?

You’ve probably figured out that if you can’t go heavy multiple times across the week, then you could go lighter. But you might be wondering whether that’ll give you the same growth as lifting heavy weights, so let’s remind ourselves of the three mechanisms underlying hypertrophy: mechanical load, mechanical tension, and metabolic stress/cellular swelling.

These three mechanisms are what lead to muscle damage and thus, the adaptive response we are trying to create for growth. If we know we can’t increase the load on the bar each time we train arms, but we are keeping the tension on the muscle the same, it leaves us with the option of exploring that third mechanism: metabolic stress/cellular swelling. This process involves driving a lot of blood to the target muscle group and generating a lot of waste product build-up such as lactic acid (through high reps/limited reps). This stimulus is enough to cause the adaptive response we are looking for, albeit perhaps not lifting or feeling as strong as if we were physically able to go heavy each time.

However, we now have a scenario whereby we can work our arms multiple times across the week, without causing any pain in our elbows, tendons, or forearms. The lighter work also doesn’t impact other days that involve larger muscle groups such as pressing/pulling motions.

What I will tend to do is have one arm session across the week in which I’ll go heavy, one session where I go lighter, and then the third one in which I’ll simply go off how I feel. One week it might involve going lighter twice, the next it might be heavy twice; truth be told, you’ll just have to find out what works for you and not simply copy what I do.

Changing moves frequently

You might have been able to progress the same hack squat week in week out for the past 5-6 months, but it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to do the same for a bicep curl or a tricep pushdown.

Why is that? I mean… Take a look at the sheer size and density of your quads, think of how much weight you shift on that hack squat, and the amount of force those quads can produce to do so. Now go look at your arms. Even a blind person can tell the size difference between these limbs and the muscle groups that make them up! And guess what that means? Correct, they cannot produce near as much force, and your progressions will no doubt be far less frequent or certainly, a lot slower.

This is where I would typically recommend that you change up your direct arm work movements more regularly than you would do for larger muscle groups. This is because you’re likely to stall sooner and reach that point of no progression quicker; thus, it would make sense to change up movements whenever they begin to slow down.

This might be a straight swap such as dropping a tricep dip for a close grip press. However, if you’re like me and have a limited access to equipment, you’ll need to get more creative. Therefore, what you could do is incorporate different tempos and pauses to your moves. I’ve found these to be particularly beneficial on cable movements and will often ‘feel’ the move more when I switch these variables up. This is simply because I am increasing mechanical tension on the same move. Although the movement is the same, the stimulus is subtly different, and consequently enough to evoke the adaptive response we are looking for.

This doesn’t mean you need to change the move every time you’re in the gym: you might get a stint of 4 weeks before things begin to slow down, therefore I encourage clients to make the changes as and when they see fit, so long as they communicate that change with me.

Increasing your frequency

Once you’ve decided you want to grow your arms you’ll no doubt have to change the current split you are doing. This might involve dropping some volume in other body parts to accommodate the increase in arm work, but there are also some other ways you could increase your volume without too much of a change up in your split.

One method could simply be tagging on them at the end of another day. If we use your leg day as an example you might add 3-4 sets of biceps onto the end of your workout. Do this twice across the week and you’ll have an increase of 6-8 sets for your biceps, which is more than enough to help you bring up the size and density of your arms.

This may follow the heavy/light alternate days we have discussed earlier, or you could even incorporate blood flow restriction/occluded training as a new stimulus to elicit growth. You can learn all about occluded training by clicking here.

However, I have found that with some clients that you just have to bite the bullet and dedicate a whole day towards arms and completely change their split. Another option might be to shifting the exercise order and working arms first, prior to other body parts, as this has also been shown to bring about more growth.

In summary, when trying to bring up your arms, if you increase your training frequency you are more than likely going to have to implement a mix between heavy training, lighter training and perhaps occlusion training. Alongside this, you will more than likely have to switch up your movements more frequently than you would for larger muscle groups to see continuous progression. You could also increase the frequency of your arm training by tagging on them at the end of other days or dedicating a whole day towards them.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons

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