A guide to getting big arms - Part 1

A guide to getting big arms - Part 1

"The only way to bag a classy lady is to give her two tickets to the gun show"

I think Will Ferrell summed up the general social perception of how arms fit into society pretty well - biceps and Triceps, Bi’s and Tri’s, the guns, the swans. We’ve all done it and gone through a period where all that mattered was chest and arms day! Posterior chain?? Backside of the body? What are Lats?! Even I remember my first year of training – chest and biceps, 3 times a week... Hands down, without a doubt, the most common question I get asked as a trainer is ‘What do you do for your biceps?’ or ‘How do you get arms like that?’. Most of those who ask me this question are expecting some long elaborate combination of advanced training methods; super-setting barbell curls with banded incline dumbell curls followed by a static plate hold until failure? Lying cable EZ bar curls? 21s Anyone? Or was it 22s? However, they find themselves sorely disappointed and gobsmacked with my response when I explain that I have no secrets to arms training whatsoever, my routines are relatively simple. One common trend I notice is the kinds of people asking these questions; generally inexperienced new starters, individuals with poor nutrition or individuals who probably haven’t even heard of a compound movement. The following is not intended to be backed by any ‘latest study’ or groundbreaking research but on experience, analysis of trends in the fitness industry and plain common sense. Compare the following physiques; WSM competitors, Crossfit junkies, Bodybuilders, Wannabe Bodybuilders. Now look at how they train:
  • Crossfit Junkies – inverted bosu ball barbell curls – mostly silly overly complicated movements claiming to be ‘functional movement’ (I remember all those times I had to jump onto a raised surface with an inflatable bouncy object on top of it that take up 50% of the gym’s equipment and take around an hour to set up.
  • Wannabe Bodybuilders – 10 different variations of isolation movements, 5 minutes rest time while making small talk about their new stringer vest/texting their Lady Luck and plenty of swinging ego-weights – no trace of compound movements or exercises requiring much maximal effort, routines consisting of as many exercises possible to ‘isolate’ the muscle group, all performed with poor form.
  • WSM competitors – lift heavy stuff. Lots of it. Find heavier stuff. Lift more of it – lifting big, heavy, awkward objects, pulling 15 tonne trucks, pressing quad bikes overhead and generally challenging real functional training. The stuff that makes the damsels turn weak at the knees.
  • Bodybuilders – aim to hit every body part with intensity, train each muscle to the limit to force growth, in the aim of achieving a balanced physique – precise, directed, logical and balanced training requiring intensive mental and physical sacrifice in the quest of bodily balanced perfection, form and function. Also involves lots of heavy stuff. Also involves making damsels turn weak at the knees (those that value having a real man in their life).
After reviewing the above physique comparisons, now play ‘spot the difference’:
  1. The first two are intensely complicated, the latter are not.
  2. The first two involve minimal raw heavy iron, the latter is based around raw heavy iron.
  3. The first two require 3 hours of Youtube watching per exercise, the latter require a brief overview and a focus on maximal contraction or maximal force production in a single plane of movement.
  4. The first two have no major inspiring names etched into history’s books, the latter have hundreds (Bill Kazmaier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Phil Heath, Marius P Dereck Poundstone, to name a few).
There are clearly two common trends and limitations in your ‘average Joe bicep blaster’; not enough heavy compounds and not enough simplicity. Now by ‘heavy’ I’m not suggesting you need to aim to test your one rep max on your barbell curl, that would in fact keep you in ‘Wannabe Bodybuilder’ status for years to come, I’m talking about challenging movements that really take it out of your target muscle groups. Compare resting the back of your triceps on your thigh and curling a weight up to your shoulder, to pulling your entire bodyweight against gravity until your chest touches whatever you are pulling from – I’ll leave you to decide what you think is going to elicit more of a ‘you want me to do WHAT??’ response from your body. As it so happens the overhand pullup and weighted overhand pullup (roughly 6RM weight) have been shown on EMG tests (designed to show muscular activity per group via electrical signalling) to be the best exercises in eliciting peak and average contraction of the biceps brachii. So you can take your ‘but I want to isolate the muscle to make it grow more efficiently’ and see how far it gets you, or else work hard in a purposeful way on compound exercises. As for cross-fitters if you are going to try and use this as a basis to justify your ridiculous ideas and combinations for arm growth please take a look in the mirror and back at the last two images displayed above before attempting to formulate a response to avoid embarrassment and disappointment.

The latter two images both perform very simple movements with a simple mode of action. When we perform a movement the brain has to communicate with the muscles required for movement via the motor neurons along the nervous system with to initiate an action/response. The simpler the action the quicker the brain can formulate the correct response and the quicker this response can be communicated to the muscles, making it less demanding on the brain and leaving more energy and thought process to be given to the muscles themselves for contraction. The greater the capacity we have to focus on contraction, the greater capacity we will have to lift more weight which means more effort required and more muscle stimulated, resulting eventually in more growth incurred. Say in the case of the truck pull event, even though the lats and legs are providing most of the power, it doesn’t mean the biceps aren’t maximally contracting. I’m pretty sure pulling a 15 tonne truck would leave everything maximally contracting! This is just one point of how an inherently uncomplicated movement can elicit far greater potential for gains in strength, size and general awesomeness – who wouldn’t wanna be able to pull a 15 tonne truck? The above aren’t sharing any revolutionary secrets you may have hoped for but plain, pure and simple, common sense. Like most things we human beings engross ourselves in, we have a habit of making things over complicated but in order to focus on the factors that will really drive your results, you need to discard this mode of thinking. Stay tuned for the follow up article on how to logically incorporate advanced methods into your arms routine without over complicating things or wasting time in the gym when you could be out doing fun and awesome things like eating feasts of meat, watching Django before it goes off circuit or impressing the girl next door by pulling her car out of the snow.