Diet and Nutrition

Building Bigger Triceps and Biceps

Welcome to the Gun Show

I’ve heard that 90% of guys would like bigger arms. On the same note, I heard the other 10% are liars. In all seriousness, almost any way you go about it, guys want bigger arms.

It is possibly the sole reason you first set foot in the gym. The baggy sleeves on that small T-shirt just weren’t doing it for you. What sexy lady wants to hang onto a skinny little arm? Arm training can be very simple for some of the genetically blessed gunslingers you see walking around your local gym. If you aren’t one of these (which I am not), then arm training can be a little more complex and tricky.

In this article, I’ll outline the best eight tips and tricks I have used for myself and with countless clients to add that size we all desperately seek. With the application of what you will learn below, along with some ball bustin’ intensity, you better prepare to start turning the heads of those sexy ladies.

Let’s get straight into things then…

1. Stick to the Basics

Before you jump the gun and put me in the category of, “I don’t think you need single joint arm work”, give me a second. I love my curls and extensions as much as the next guy, but there are two multi-joint exercises I feel are a must for those seeking larger arms.

  • Close-grip bench press
  • Chin ups

These should be the bread and butter of your arm workouts. Everything else should be secondary (but necessary!).

Who do you think has bigger arms? A guy who can close-grip bench 315 for reps and hits sets of 8 on chin-ups with 50 pounds around his waist or a guy who hits 30’s for tricep kickbacks for reps and hits sets of 8 on cable curls with 50 pounds? This should be a no brainer.

Why these two exercises?

From my experience, I’ve found that most people can handle the most weight with the close-grip bench press and chin-ups. When you perform these with sufficient weight, you recruit the most motor units. This in turn (with time) will make your central nervous system more efficient at maximizing the number of motor units it recruits and will cause an increase in strength. Therefore, your newfound strength will lead to new muscle with sufficient volume.

2. Get Strong

As Ronnie Coleman once said:

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody want to lift no heavy ass weights”.

One of the simplest ways to make your arms bigger is to make your arms stronger. If you go from curling 35’s to 45’s for 10 reps, then your arms will have gotten bigger. There is a correlation between getting stronger and getting bigger. It may seem elementary, but if you are still curling the same weights you were six months ago, then I don’t want to hear any bitching about your small arms…I want you to get strong!

Pick the exercises you can handle the most weight on with good form (hint: no kickbacks).

Here is what I recommend:

For Triceps: Close-grip presses (bench, incline), floor press, skull crushers, dips, overhead tricep extensions, rack lockouts.

For Biceps: Chin-ups, barbell curls, cheat curls, dumbbell curls, hammer curls, machine curls.

Now I want you to implement a very basic yet often forgotten principle: progressive overload! This means progressively placing greater-than-normal demands on the exercising musculature.

In simpler terms, if you do not give your body an increased demand, then it has no reason to grow bigger or stronger.

Here is my favorite way to progress. It doesn’t involve any fancy supersets, dropsets, etc. It does involve big gains though.

For the first week on an exercise, start with slightly less intensity than usual. Focus on hitting the bottom end of the rep range with 1 rep or so “in the tank”. Then, the next week, try to beat the number of reps from the week before, even if it’s only by one rep on one set. Continue to slowly add reps until you hit the upper rep range. Now you can add a small amount weight to the bar and start over in the lower end of the rep range.

Let’s use barbell curls, as an example, over a six-week period with 3×6-8 reps. 

Proper progression should resemble the format below. Keep in mind that many factors dictate progress, so this is just a sample.

Week 1: 95/6 – 95/6 – 95/6

Week 2: 95/7 – 95/7 – 95/6

Week 3: 95/7 – 95/7 – 95/7

Week 4: 95/8 – 95/7 – 95/7

Week 5: 95/8 – 95/8 – 95/8

Week 6: 100/6 – 100/6 – 100/6

At this point, you could switch the exercises. Then, when you come back to barbell curls in six weeks, you would start at 100 pounds and start beating your best effort again. Continue to add reps to your sets, weight to the bar, and watch your arms grow.

Arnold proves that big arms never fail to impress the ladies

3. Improve Your Grip

I found that once I began strongman training, my arms seemed to grow overnight. Was I doing more curls? No, I wasn’t. Was it more pressing? No, it was about the same. The thing that was different was the addition of heavy farmer walks once a week. I’m talking 220 pounds in each hand…heavy! At first I couldn’t go too far without my grip giving out, but each week I increased the distance traveled before I couldn’t hold on any more. My grip was getting stronger and my forearms were growing. Once the competition I was training for was over, I added back my normal amount of bicep work. Once I added the work back, I was able to handle more weight on my bicep exercises due to the increased strength of my forearms. My forearm strength had been the weak link in my bicep training. End result: stronger forearms=bigger biceps.

Here are a few great methods for increasing your grip strength:

Farmer walks: To do these, simply grab the heaviest pair of dumbbells you can pick up and walk for distance or time. Stand tall with your head up, shoulders back, and abs tight. Incorporate these on your lower body day at the very end of your workout.

Farmer holds: These are similar to the farmer walks, but you remain stationary. Hold the weight at your sides for as long as possible. Stand tall with your head up, shoulders back, and abs tight. Incorporate these on an upper body day that is non-consecutive with a lower body day.

Rope or towel chin-ups: Simply take a rope or a towel and hang it over a pull/chin-up bar. Then perform your chin-ups by gripping the rope or towel. Add these on an upper body day in place of farmer holds for a change of pace.

Ditch your lifting straps: This seems to be a no-brainer, but anytime I go into a commercial gym I see it…guys using straps. Straps may have a time and a place, but when your grip is weak you don’t need them. Don’t use them on your heavy pulling exercises. You may have to decrease a little on weight or reps at first. That is fine; your grip will strengthen and you’ll be right back in no time. If you just can’t give them up, at least compromise. Only use them on your last sets and/or heaviest sets.

4. Don’t Vary  

It kills me to see how many guys go into the gym blindly. Today is arm day so they hit some dumbbell curls, rope press downs, blah, blah, blah. Then the next week they go in and do something completely different. They are trying to confuse the muscle. My suspicions were proven right in exercise physiology class–the muscle doesn’t have a mind of its own (sorry, P90X). It IS great marketing though. Stop trying to confuse it, trick it, or whatever the hell else you are trying to do to it! Pick some basic exercise that you can handle the most weight on for biceps and triceps.

5. Eat! & Gain Weight

How many pounds do you have to gain to add an inch on your upper arm?

Is it 6 pounds?

Is it 7 pounds?

Is it 8 pounds?

Does it really freakin’ matter? No.

Unless you’re an athlete who has a weight class requirement, just gain weight all over and your arms will grow. If you weigh a buck seventy then your frame probably isn’t built to carry around 18 inch arms. Eat for growth, make arm training your specialization, and watch them grow.

6. Volume

Most of the time, I prefer intensity to volume when it comes to training, but much as with everything else, there is an exception. Training arms can be tricky. Some people may require more volume to grow while some require less. Your muscle fiber type may just dictate how much total volume you need. The best range is usually between 80 and 120 total reps weekly.

This can be split up in numerous ways. For simplicity sake, I’ll use biceps to show how this amount could be split up for a person training biceps once a week and another training them three times a week.

Ex. 1
Biceps (1 day a week):
Exercise 1: 5×5
Exercise 2: 4×10
Exercise 3: 3×12

Ex. 2
Biceps (3 days a week)
Day 1: 5×5
Day 2: 4×10
Day 3: 3×12

As you can see, the total weekly volume is the same. The first example fits best with a body part split routine while the second example would best fit a full body or upper/lower split.

If you overshoot or undershoot the total number of reps, it isn’t a big deal. These are just guidelines and don’t have to be exact. Simply experiment with different volumes and find what works best for you.

7. Wrist Control / Hand Position

When doing a traditional bicep curl, the biceps and brachialis share the workload. A little trick I like to use is keeping my wrist as straight as possible (or even slightly cocked back, away from the bicep itself) while curling. By doing so, you are putting the majority of the stress on the biceps (vs. the forearm). However, I don’t recommend doing this if you have any prior wrist injuries or problems. When curling this way, focus on bringing the weight up till you reach peak contraction of the biceps and then control the motion back down to a full stretch.

As everyone knows, the biceps are primarily responsible for elbow flexion. You also may know that the biceps have two heads: the long head and the short head. By doing curls with the same grip each time, you are consistently hitting the same bicep head (you aren’t isolating it, it’s just taking the majority of the work). By doing this, you are neglecting the other head of the bicep. A simple way to fix this is to change your grip from time to time. This ensures that you will get full development of both the short and long heads of the biceps, and will also help with prevention of overuse injuries. Mix it up between close grip, medium grip, and wide grip work when using barbells.

Another way you can vary your grip is by using a neutral or “hammer” grip with dumbbells (palms facing each other, as if the end of the dumbbell is being used to hammer a nail) as well as a reverse grip (palms facing the floor) with either barbells or dumbbells. The biceps aren’t the only elbow flexors. The brachialis and the brachioradialis are also elbow flexors. If you neglect these, you will be limiting how much your arms can grow as an underdeveloped brachialis will definitely show up in the form of a lack of “thickness” in the upper arm. Regularly include hammer curls and reverse curls to fully develop your upper arm.

8. Specialization

If you are serious about building a bigger upper arm, then you must specialize. You have to devote time and effort to reach this goal. I recommend putting all other training goals on the back burner and focus on just growing your arms. For an arms specialization phase, there are a few guidelines:.

  • Keep training to four days a week if possible and no more than five.
  • Train in multiple rep ranges during this time (strength, hypertrophy, endurance).
  • Train all other muscle groups for maintenance.
  • Train all other large muscle groups heavy (>90% 1RM) for at least one set.
  • Increase your protein and simple carbohydrates pre-peri-post workout with something such as Opticen or Maximus.

After four to six weeks, you should end an arm specialization phase. Your training should switch back to “normal” and you should slightly reduce your arm training volume. Remember, your arms probably won’t change much during the phase. It will be in the weeks after the specialization program that your arms really begin to grow!

Closing Thoughts and a Bonus Arm Workout

So there you have it…my eight best tips for building bigger triceps and biceps. With the application of the tips above, some hard work, and time, you will be on your way to building the arms you want.

Also, you better save up some money to buy all new T-shirts or you may get accused of wearing extra-mediums!

The “Unleash Your Upper Arm Potential” Workout

  • A1. Close-grip bench press: 5×4-6 
  • A2. Chin-ups (medium grip, weighted if needed): 5×4-6
  • B1. Dips (weighted if needed): 4×8-11
  • B2. Barbell curls (wide grip): 4×8-11
  • C1. Overhead tricep extensions: 3×9-15
  • C2. Hammer curls: 3×9-15

Rest Periods:

  • A1 and A2 rest: 90sec – 120sec
  • B1 and B2 rest: 90sec
  • C1 and C2 rest: 45sec-60sec

Notes:

  • Perform on a standalone day with one day of rest before and after.
  • Exercise pairings such as “A1, A2” are alternating sets. Perform a set of A1, rest for suggested time, perform A2, rest, and repeat.
  • Always warm up.
  • Select a weight you can use to complete the number of reps suggested with one or two reps “left in the tank”.
  • Shoot for the bottom of the rep range at first. Each week, try to move up in reps until you reach the top. Then increase the weight and start at the bottom again.
  • Utilize small weight increments such as 2½’s.

Written by Chase Karnes, BS, NSCA-CPT

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Building Bigger Triceps and Biceps discussion thread.

About Chase Karnes

Chase Karnes graduated from Murray State University with a degree in Exercise Science. He is a NSCA certified personal trainer and strength coach located in Western Kentucky. He is currently studying for his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (CSCS).

Through Argonauts Fitness, Chase has worked in the exercise and nutrition arena for half a decade. He has hands-on experience working with strength and physique athletes along with athletic and general populations. Chase is also a competitive athlete himself competing in NPC Bodybuilding, Powerlifting (1330 Raw Total), and NAS Strongman competitions. He has worked or consulted with clients from over 6 states.

Chase can be contacted for personal and group training, program design, nutrition consultation and speaking engagements through his website www.chasekarnes.com or Argonauts Fitness