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Do you need to train arms or not?

When you’re 16, it’s normally every session.

Let’s all cast our mind back to the first gym session and more precisely what the first session comprised of. This was mine;

  • Bicep curls 10 sets of 10
  • Hammer curls 10 sets of 10
  • Tricep extensions 10 sets of 10
  • Forearm curls 10 sets of 10
  • Cable extensions 10 sets of 10
  • Barbell curls 10 x 10 followed by 9 drop sets.

  • Could you wipe your backside the next day? I couldn’t.

    Wincing just taking a sip of water is a familiar feeling.

    The first couple of visits to the weights room is a nerve shredding experience, you survey the landscape of experienced trainers pumping hard iron. It's intimidating.

    Unfortunately our limited arsenal of exercises means typically only a few movements can be done.

    We train arms. It’s always arms. Why?

    1. The barrier to entry to an arms session is not high and pretty much most people can get the form right very quickly. Unless you try a single arm dumbbell curl with 50kg. That will end badly.

    2. It is also the first priority, especially for the men. This scintillating article by the metro highlighting that women love biceps will be the predominate reason a lot of males head straight to the dumbbells.

    But the question always remains – should we waste valuable gym time training muscles that only represent a small percentage of the entire physique?

    As confidence grows as does our repertoire of exercises, we up skill into other areas and learn more movement patterns, techniques and variations for all areas of the body.

    Feeling confident we create structured routines and advance further.

    Is direct arm training necessary?

    Well that begs the question. Do you want bigger arms

    If the answer to that is yes, then yes you should train your arms.

    How often? How many sets? How many reps?

    Well if you’re lucky with genetics like a Greek God then you can likely do a lot less than the average Joe with stubborn arms.

    So if you do aim to have biceps peaks like Arnie then apply the following principles to your arm routine;

    Specificity:

  • To get a specific outcome we need to train for that.

  • They will grow through indirect training, yes. Compound movements such as Bench Press, Pull Ups, Barbell Rows, and Shoulder Presses will bring growth and adaption.

  • But unless you’re gifted genetically in order to have arms that bust your t-shirt it means direct training is necessary.

  • So when the big dude in the gym who is pumping HGH through his eye balls is telling you that you don’t need to train arms then perhaps think twice

  • Frequency:

  • You want to start with the minimum effective dose. The key is to build in long term growth into the plan.

  • But have enough to provide a stimulus for growth

  • Don’t immediately start of wit 10 sets of 10 reps 4 times a week.

  • Over training can quickly lead to muscular fatigue which will limit growth and leave you no headroom.

  • Training biceps to a moderate volume yielded the biggest increases in muscle thickness than high or low . Heaselgrave and colleagues in 2018. (1)

  • So train them as frequently as you train everything else, nothing more, nothing less.

  • 3 muscle specific exercises, 3 to 4 sets of 8 reps is more than enough. If you are a beginner then aim for the lower end of that spectrum.

  • Variation:

  • The idea of muscle confusion is common within the bodybuilding / fitness communities

  • This often leads to 15 different exercise variations being performed to stimulate growth

  • Sufficiently learn the execution of few movements that you can become skilled at. This increases your ability to safely overload it and progress.

  • Aim to have 2-3 exercises for both the bicep and tricep.

  • Utilise varying angles to illicit growth in differing areas of the muscle.

  • Intensity:

  • This should be your intensity of effort per set

  • Training to failure every single session is taxing on the CNS

  • Training to failure every single session will also stunt growth (2)

  • Failure should only be used as a tool infrequently

  • So stop short of failing at the end of every set, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank.

  • You then leave room to progress each week and grow.

  • So as you can see there are a few components to think about if you want absolute cannons hanging off your torso.

    Let’s break it down into a simple 4 step application:

    1. Train your arms directly

    2. Train them as frequently as every other muscle group (ideally twice per week)

    3. 2-3 exercises per muscle and be consistent with these exercises. Aim to get good at performing them. Varying the angle to hit different elements of the muscle.

    4. Don’t train to failure. Leave 1 or 2 reps in the tank.

    The next time we see you we expect to see bulging arms.

    References:

    1. Heaselgrave, S.R., et al., Dose-Response of Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Males. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2018. [Epub ahead of print]: p. 1–28.
    2. Davies, T., et al., Erratum to: Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med, 2016. 46(4): p. 605–10.

    What next?

    Try the Gram Programme. This is our tried and tested method of losing fat or gaining muscle. We've distilled our combined 20 years of experience in and out of the gym to a set of simple, repeatable processes that are guaranteed to get results.

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