Since mankind first developed a sense of body awareness the symbol of strength has always been depicted by the robust and defined arm. Therefore, it is no surprise that building solid arms is of the most sought after goals of fitness enthusiasts today. Even novices who have little or no experience with fitness and decide to give it a go for the first time usually pop the famous question: "How do I get arms?" Second in line only to the chest, the arms are high on the priority list for beginners and advanced lifters alike.
Just for clarification, when talking about the arm, I am talking about the area between the shoulder and elbow joint. The area between the elbow and wrist joints is referred to as the forearm and that will not be the focus of this article. Look for a later column about that.
When standing in an anatomically correct position, the musculature on the front of the arm is referred to as the biceps muscles. The musculature on the posterior side of the arm is called the triceps. They are given these names because the biceps have two different muscle heads, or bellies, while the triceps have three. This is why most people can typically lift more weight when working the triceps as opposed to biceps- that extra muscle head makes a difference.
Let's talk about the biceps first. The biceps are one of three different muscles that act to flex the arm. The other two are the brachialis and the brachioradialis. The biceps lie superficial to the brachialis, while the brachioradialis crosses the elbow joint and extends into the forearm. It is the biceps however that gives that nicely symmetrical "pumped" look when trained properly.
Here are some tips for effectively training the biceps.
1) Use a supinated grip. Supinated means to have the palms face up during the exercise. This hand position will put the greatest amount of stress on the biceps muscles.
2) Make sure your wrists stay straight and neutral. Especially when using free weights, the wrists can have a tendency to hyperextend causing potential injury to the wrist joint. Keep them straight!
3) Incorporate free weights into your arm routine. Free weights are always more effective in that they recruit more muscle fibers and call synergistic muscles into action as well. The core is also called into action for balance and support.
4) When using barbells, grab the bar at a width that is slightly outside of the shoulders. The best way to assess this is to stand in anatomical position with the palms facing away from the body. Wherever your hands fall is where you should grasp the bar. A closer grip can cause potential injury because the shoulders become internally rotated.
5) Make sure to keep the feet planted at about shoulders distance apart, with the knees soft (not locked) and the belly button pulled inward toward the spine. This is called the "supported" position and will help to prevent the lower back from arching.
6) When curling the arm, try to avoid any movement at the shoulder joint. This will involve the shoulders in the exercise and take away from the work that is being done by the biceps. The elbows should remain at your side and not shift forward or backward. If done correctly, the bar should not touch the chin at the top of the curl, an action that has been rumored to be correct. However, this belief is a misconception. Also, make sure that you do not fully extend the arm at the bottom of the movement. When this happens, the biceps relax. In order to achieve the full benefit of the exercise, you want the biceps to be in tension for the entire duration of the set.
7) When using machines, it is important to line up your elbow with the machine's axis of rotation. This axis is almost always depicted on the machine and is easy to find.
8) Do not vary your grip on the barbell. Some people believe that by having a narrow grip on a barbell, you can isolate the different heads of the biceps. This is not true. As I said before, make sure you grab the barbell with a grip that lies slightly outside the shoulders.
9) Incorporate variety. As with everything else, variety is the key to finding results with arm training. Keep trying different exercises. And for advanced lifters, make sure you are increasing the intensity and lifting heavy on a regular basis.
10) Don't expect any certain "look". The shape of a muscle is genetically predetermined. So don't be expecting your biceps to look exactly like they do on that hot guy in the gym. Yes, they will grow and change in appearance, but the shape will remain the same.
When training your biceps it is also a very good idea to train the other arm flexors as well: the brachialis and the brachioradialis. This can be done by using a neutral grip (palms facing each other) for the brachioradialis and a pronated grip (palms face down) for the brachialis while curling the arm. This will enhance your bicep training and give a more symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing look.
Now let's take a look at the triceps. The triceps muscles are involved in extension of the elbow. There has been some controversy over whether or not extending the arm to a fully locked position is appropriate for the triceps. Personally, I say it's OK. I have trained people for years using the fully locked approach and no client of mine has ever experienced any problems. When your arm reaches full extension against resistance, the triceps muscles are still contracting. This does not necessarily mean you have to go to full extension every time. But I do think it's a safe approach.
Here are some tips to remember when training the triceps:
1) Again, there should be no movement at the shoulder joint. The action of extension of the arm comes only from the elbow joint, and that is the only joint that should be moving during the exercise.
2) For cable exercises, a shoulder width grip should be used to maximize the load to the triceps. Too narrow of a grip will once again cause the shoulders to internally rotate, but this time even more so than with the bicep curls. Too wide of a grip will limit the range of motion for the triceps. If using a rope, make sure that the rope is long enough to prevent internal rotation of the shoulders.
3) As with biceps, make sure that your wrists stay neutral. Avoid hyperextension!
4) Incorporate free weights into your triceps training. Be mindful however, of exercises such as the skull crusher. This exercise involves lying on a bench and holding a barbell straight above your shoulders and then slowly lowering the barbell to the forehead without actually touching it. Your elbows should remain over your shoulders for the entire duration of the set. Elbows should always be close to the body as moving them outward will cause internal rotation of the shoulders. The eccentric or "lowering" phase of the movement should always be twice as slow, especially when using free weights.
5) When performing cable press downs of any kind, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and knees soft. Slightly flex forward at the hips. This will increase your range of motion for the triceps and give you greater leverage.
6) Incorporate variety for your triceps training for both exercise selection and intensity.
I hope this gives you some direction for training arms. One thing I didn't mention is that the arms are one of the smallest muscle groups of the body. Therefore, when training them with other muscle groups, they should be worked last as arms are involved to some degree in most other upper body exercises. Perform your larger, more explosive exercises first, and follow them with single jointed arm training. Follow these rules and you will be well on your way to developing a nice pair of arms. There aint nothing like a good pair of guns!
Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last fourteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website, www.MichaelElder.com.