build stronger arms

Build Bigger, Stronger Arms

Building bigger, stronger arms makes everything better. Whether your goal is massive bodybuilder arms or svelte, chiseled arms for tank top season, it takes a smart approach to get the best results.

This article will cover everything you need to know to build strong and powerful arms. It will finish with a tri-set arm workout you can use to give renewed life to your arm training.

Use Variation To Build Stronger Arms

Where many people go wrong with arm training is they focus on muscle size with little attention to strength. When you completely omit training cycles aimed at building strength in favor of hypertrophy, you end up weak, with diminishing returns. The goal of an effective arm training program is to ensure that you get stronger just as you gain muscle size. The guidelines presented here will help you make this happen.

When it comes to building stronger arms, or any part of the body for that matter, there are two main principles that should guide your program:

1. Vary training parameters to maximize strength and muscle growth

2. Vary exercises to reach the greatest number of muscle fibers

Varying Training Parameters Ensures Progressive Overload

If you’re going through the motions, doing curls and skull crushers with the same set and rep schemes, you’re leaving gains on the table. The body won't improve unless it is given a challenge. The stress imposed the body must constitute an “overload” to build stronger, bigger arms. That is, it must be greater than the load to which your body is already accustomed.

What most people don’t realize is that, in general, the body will adapt to a workout in six training sessions or fewer. Thus it is necessary to vary the routine periodically. The best way to build stronger arms is to alternate high-volume phases aimed at hypertrophy with high-intensity phases aimed at strength.

Alternate Accumulation (High Volume) And Intensification (High Intensity) Phases

If your training volume is always high, you will become overtrained metabolically. If your training intensity is always high, your nervous system will be overtaxed. A superior method is to alternate high volume and high intensity so that you take full advantage of the body’s ability to adapt to increasing loads.

Alternating phases will ensure strength gains are commensurate with mass gains. This also allows you to overcome plateaus so that you have ongoing muscle mass development in subsequent phases. Insufficient strength for a given muscle will inhibit growth.

Used Planned Variations To Train More Muscle

For a given muscle performing a particular movement there is a fixed order of recruitment of motor units. The order of recruitment remains the same at any speed of contraction. However, if the position of the muscle is changed relative to the load, the order of recruitment changes.

In practical terms, this means that hand and body position have a big impact on fiber recruitment. You’ll see these variations in action in the Arm Workout section. For example, there are at list three specific designation for where to bring the weight in lying triceps exercises because each variation trains the triceps muscles in a slightly different way: Bringing the weight to the forehead hits diverse motor units from when you bring the weight to the chin or the shoulders.

Likewise, with the biceps curl variations, you see specific designations regarding hand grip placement in order to maximize muscle recruitment. The devil is in the details and it’s important to follow these variations to build stronger arms.

Always Count Tempo

One of the most overlooked parameters for building stronger arms is tempo. Tempo is the speed with which you perform the different components of an exercise. Tempo plays a huge role in training outcome. If you ignore it, your gains will be mediocre and you put yourself at risk of injury, whereas mastering tempo prescriptions will get you fantastic results.

Tempo dictates the “time under tension” or the duration that muscles are being stimulated during a lift. For instance, performing a set of 10 repetitions of bench press with 250 lbs at a 1-second-up and 1-second-down tempo is quite different from the same weight and reps at a 1-second-up and 4-seconds-down tempo. The difference is in the time the muscles are exposed to the weight or tension. The first variation takes 20 seconds, while the second variation takes 50 seconds. That is a 30-second difference in the stimulus to the muscles and nervous system.

We use four numbers to prescribe tempo:

  • 4210
  • The first number (4) dictates the seconds it takes for the eccentric motion (the “down” motion in most exercises)
  • The second number (2) is the pause before the concentric motion
  • The third number (1) is the concentric (lifting or “up” motion of most exercises)
  • The fourth number (0) is the pause before the repetition repeats

In the case of a 4210 tempo in the bench press, it takes 4 seconds to lower the weight, there is a 2-second pause at the bottom position, and then the weight is rapidly pushed up in 1 second, and the rep starts over immediately.

Build Stronger Arms With Eccentric Tempos

A trick for building stronger arms is to design workouts that use multiple eccentric contractions, specifically when training the various curling exercises. Studies show that muscle activation of the elbow flexors (biceps) vary depending on the speed of movement.

During “fast” eccentric contractions (2 seconds lowering the weight) the biceps brachii is preferentially recruited. In contrast, during “slow” eccentric contractions (10 seconds lowering), the brachialis undergoes the most activation. Scientists theorize this is due to the muscle fiber make-up in these muscles. The biceps brachii spans two joints and has a muscle fiber orientation that allows for rapid, forceful shortening. In contrast the brachialis is a single joint muscle with muscle fibers that approach the tendon from several directions (multipennate). This slows down its contraction speed and makes it ideal for joint stabilization.

There are many ways to use longer eccentric tempos, but one that is highly effective is to use a last slow eccentric rep. For example, if you are training to improve your chin-ups with a 4020 tempo, on your last rep, after raising yourself to the bar, lower yourself as slowly as possible. That might be 10 seconds, it might be 18. Each workout try to increase the last eccentric tempo until you reach a 30-second lowering time.

Perform The Most Effective Exercises First

Anyone can see that it’s worthwhile to train the most effective exercises early in your workout when you are fresh. A practical way to determine which exercises activate the most muscle fibers is by how much weight can be used in those exercises. Therefore, dips on V-Bars will do far more for your triceps than triceps kickbacks. Triceps pushdowns will not be as effective as close grip bench presses or seated half presses in a rack. For the biceps, a one arm Scott hammer curl will recruit more fibers than a concentration curl.

Accelerate Arm Gains With Tri Sets

Now we’re ready to get into workouts. One of the most effective ways to build stronger arms is with tri-sets. Tri sets are a variation of supersets in which you perform three different exercises in a row with little to no rest between sets. Many tri-set workouts have you alternating upper/lower or agonist/antagonist tri-sets, but this arm workout gets a little crazy by having you do three exercises for the same body part in a row.

Though brutal, tri-sets are a great method for jolting muscles into new growth. They are so effective because they extend the training stimulus to a wider pool of motor units. Because you are doing three exercises in a row, they also increase the total time under tension for the associated muscle fibers.

This tri-set workout uses 10 second rest intervals. The short rest makes it possible to use significantly greater loads than if no rest is taken, thereby putting greater tension on the muscles. Hypertrophy is determined in large part by the product of time under tension and load. If you move immediately from one exercise to another, the reduced loads that must be used produce a suboptimal training effect.

Here is example of a tri-set routine aimed at building bigger, stronger arms:
Exercise Order Exercise Name Sets x Reps Tempo Rest
A1 Dips 3 x 6-8 4010 10 sec
A2 Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extensions 3 x 6-8 3010 10 sec
A3 Close-Grip Bench Press 3 x 6-8 3110 10 sec
B1 Scott Curls 3 x 5-7 5010 10 sec
B2 Standing Narrow Reverse Grip EZ Bar Curls 3 x 5-7 3210 10 sec
B3 Hammer Curls 3 x 5-7 2020 10 sec

There are many tri-set variations you can use to build stronger arms. Another option is to do the same movement for all three exercises within the tri-set but vary the grip, implement, or body angle. For example, you could do three different lying triceps exercises with the first exercise being a standard “Skull Crusher” exercise followed by a Lying EZ Bar Triceps Extension to the Shoulders, followed by an Incline Triceps Extension. When training curls, start with Standing Barbell Biceps Curls followed by Scott Curls and finish with Concentration Curls.

For a complete description of exercises, read the Best Arm Exercises. For guidance with putting muscle mass on the shoulders, read how to build 3D shoulders.

Final Words: The fantastic thing about tri-sets is that they are effective, giving you noticeable strength and size gains in the arms. To learn more about training the arms, check out our ultimate training program for arm size and strength in Winning the Arms Race. By following these programs and giving it your best effort, you’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish!


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