Don’t lie to yourself – you know you that filling out your T-shirt sleeves with a little more mass would be a cool side effect of your strength program.
I know that most of my clients are not looking to become bodybuilders, but anyone that trains with weights consistently likes to add a little muscle mass to their frame, and for a lot of guys it starts with the arms.
One of the biggest mistakes trainees make when trying to build up their arms is too much focus on the biceps. The reality is that the triceps make up the large majority of the upper arm mass and that’s where most of your attention should be. The side benefit of added tricep work is that your Bench Press and Overhead Press will likely improve as well.
The tricep muscle is composed of three heads and complete development of the muscle mass means that you need to be performing exercises that target all 3 heads. These are not really 3 separate muscles and you can’t truly isolate one head from the other. Basically any pressing exercise or any tricep isolation exercise will train all 3 heads. But through careful exercise selection you can place emphasis on one specific area.
If you want to test this out you can use the “soreness” test to see where each exercise focuses most. Simply perform one exercise for 5-8 total sets of 8-12 reps and see where you are sore the next day. As you rotate through different movements you will notice that localized soreness occurs in different parts of the arm.
Tip #1: Train the Medial Head with Lying Tricep Extensions and Standing Cable Pressdowns
In reality, both these exercises do a pretty good job of training all 3 heads fairly comprehensively. Both of these movements place the humerus in a position that is either directly out in front of the torso (LTE) or about 45 degrees out in front of the torso (pressdowns). In this position all 3 heads are very active and this makes these two movements ideal candidates as your primary tricep isolation movements. I prefer to do LTE’s strict, meaning I lower the bar down to the forehead. Depending on the length of your forearms the bar will naturally fall somewhere between your eyebrows and your hairline. Use the inside grip of an ez-curl bar for reduced stress on the elbow and wrist joints. I like to do 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps on these. Occasionally I like to take these heavier into the 4-6 rep range but only on occasion. Going too heavy on these can tear up the elbow joints.
I like a straight bar or slightly cambered bar for pressdowns and generally do these for higher reps and a lot of volume. 3-6 sets of 10-15 reps on short rest intervals will blow your triceps up.
Tip #2: Train the Outer Head with Dips
Often called “Squats for the Upper Body” , Dips do a good job of developing the triceps as well as the chest and shoulders. Dips allow you to load up a little heavier and push some bigger weights which can help you break through strength plateaus. Because these are a multi-joint movement you can take dips heavier more often without the stress on the elbows.
Weighted Dips are excellent if you are hitting sets of 10+ with just body weight. Most of the time we use a belt with weight hung from a chain. If you are really feeling like punishing yourself you can do Dips against band tension. To do this you have to SECURELY fasten a band to the bottom of your dip station and then loop the other end around your neck. As you get to the top of the movement the tension on the bands increase and your triceps really have to work to lock out. The continuous tension of the bands and the difficult of the lockout will give you a tricep pump like you have never experienced. These are an advanced movement though so please be careful with these.
Tip #3: Train the Triceps Overhead to Develop the Long / Inner Head
Less common than the Lying Tricep Extension (LTE) is the Overhead Tricep Extension or French Press. These can be done seated or standing, and again, use an ez-curl bar. With arms straight overhead, lower the bar behind your head and then return to lock out. This will target the long head of the tricep or the length of muscle that runs on the inner-underside of your arm more than any other exercise. According to Westside Barbell’s Louie Simmons this is the most important area of the tricep to develop. Especially on Overhead Presses, the long head of the tricep is extremely important. Another way to blast this area of the tricep is to do some higher rep sets of Overhead Presses. If you are used to training with sets of 5 or less, throw in a few sets in the 8-12 rep range and you’ll feel the pump in your triceps (as well as your delts).
Tip #4: Stop Doing Alternating Dumbbell Curls
If you want the biceps to grow, then understand that they respond well to exercises that place them under continuous tension. Alternating DB Curls which are often billed as a “mass exercise” allow tension to come off of one arm while work is being done with the opposing arm. DB Curls are fine, but if you are going to do them, then do both arms simultaneously and don’t rotate the wrists – keep the palms up throughout the whole movement. Rotate these around with standard Barbell Curls and you’ll grow your biceps. Training the biceps is really really simple in terms of exercise selection. The key is not to rotate through a bunch of different curl variations, but rather work through a wide variety of rep ranges. With either barbells or dumbbells, do a small volume of work in the 4-6 rep range to keep strength moving up, but focus the majority of your volume on sets of 8-12 with strict form.
Tip #5: Don’t Forget About the Side Delts
Typically “arms” are thought of as triceps and biceps, but if you look at a well muscled trainee from a profile view – a big rounded set of side delts completes the “look” that most guys want. For the most part, developing a bigger stronger Overhead Press will take care of this, but you can pack on a little added mass through seated dumbbell presses, behind the neck presses, and/or lateral raises with a pair of dumbbells. Behind the neck presses and seated dumbbell presses (performed with the elbows flared out to the sides) put a little added emphasis on the side delts as compared to a standard military press where the arms are more in front of the torso. Lateral raises are essentially useless in terms of performance, they are purely used for aesthetic purposes. But if you want a better physique – 2-3 quick sets of side laterals after you press only takes a few minutes and doesn’t add that much in terms of overall stress on the body. Use strict form and use higher reps in the 10-20 range and chase a big pump in the delts.