Muscles are first and foremost functional. They exist primarily to perform work. Looking good is secondary. To make a muscle look good, you need only train it in isolation, but to make it work efficiently in useful, everyday activities, it must work synergistically with other muscle groups.
That's why my exercises involve lots of movement that I call "body thrust." In other words, when I'm doing curls, more than just biceps are involved; everything from the trapezius all the way down to the spinalis and even my thighs assist in that thrust.
My whole torso gets pumped up from doing standing barbell curls. Every movement incorporates the entire body, so I get other body parts and ancillary muscles involved. The thrust is just enough to get the weight moving, enabling me to use a heavier weight at the most critical point of muscle involvement.
This means that when I train arms, I look for a full range of movement rater than isolation. Isolation requires burn, but it's not an exhausting movement, and I don't think it's as useful to the body or a beneficial to the cardiovascular system as my approach. An isolation movement doesn't generate as much systemic blood flow, it doesn't incorporate surrounding muscle groups, and quite frankly, it's very boring.
On the other hand, I am a firm advocate of isolation exercises for those who swear by them. I'm all for whatever you enjoy doing and whatever gets you into the gym and keeps you there and maintains your attention on the job at hand. That's what will produce results in the long run.
Before I begin my arm routine, I prepare myself mentally, (as I do for every workout). I realize how much energy I must summon for the workout, how much enthusiasm I've built up and how much time I need.
I like to keep a pump and burn by doing supersets and trisets to maintain my enthusiasm and produce momentum. I go directly from a biceps exercise to a triceps exercise before pausing. Once I begin, it's like going off the starting line of a marathon. I'm committed. I just keep moving.
I don't look so much at the amount of weight I can handle - but I always try to increase the weight so that I don't use less than I did in a previous workout. But I don't set any goals. If I don't exceed my own record, I'm not disappointed. For many people, goals engender disappointment if they don't reach them; such guilt is unnecessary.
What I look for is a good quality workout. I want a solid feeling to my workout so that I feel affirmed and encouraged as I work my way through it.
My training cycle is six days on/one off, with a three-day cycle to work my entire body, which means I train my whole body twice a week. On Mondays and Thursdays I work chest and back, Tuesdays and Fridays it's shoulder and arms, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays, leg. That gives me a layoff from my upper body so I can concentrate on my legs.
On arms day, I usually do four sets of each exercise, working at a very good pace. I begin with shoulders for about 20 sets of a variety of movements, then forearms, starting with seated wrist curls with an Olympic bar on my knees for 15 to 20 repetitions, using a rather heavy weight.
Even when I was 10 years old, I was working forearms with on of those little grippers. When I began weight training seriously, I incorporated forearms into my workout as a body part. After all, our hands and arms are always sticking out from our shirts.
These Olympic bar wrist curls are super-setted with Zottman curls. These are dumbbell curls done with supination on the up and pronation on the way down. They're one of my favorite exercises. These I do one arm at a time, beginning with a thumb-up grip, curling into a palm-up position as I bring it up.
At the very top I twist into a palm-down position for the descent, which is performed almost as a negative. At the bottom, I get a full extension and bring it to a complete stop before starting the curl with my other arm.
As I curl upward in the palm-up position, I work a lot of the biceps, but as I twist at the top into the palm-down position, I start to work the lower biceps and the brachialis; also, the shift of the weight in my hand works the wrist and the muscles in the hand, so there is a lot of good activity going on.
By doing each arm separately, full concentration is focused on each single arm movement. Years ago, a Malibu doctor used to come to Joe Weider's office to buy protein, He was a psychiatrist, and his specialty was not emotional disorders but the physiology of the brain. He made a point that stuck with me in training: Simultaneous-limbed movements require a shift of different motor reflexes from the brain, so for maximum efficiency, each should react separately.
My next combination is a biceps exercise followed by a triceps exercise, followed again by a second triceps exercise, which makes the series similar to a triset. First is a standing reverse-grip (palms down) EZ-bar curl for eight repetitions. The I quickly switch to an undergrip (palms up) and continue for another four to six reps, making this somewhat of an extended set. Again, I get a full range of motion, bringing the bar up to my shoulders and extending fully at the bottom, making sure the biceps are unlocked.
To start the curl, I lean into it slightly and give it a tug. The reverse-grip sequence feels almost like a clean and press movement. As I pull it up, I feel lots of trapezius because my back is coming into play as well as my torso, thighs hamstrings and supporting muscles. The more thrust there is to the movement, the more all of these muscles have to join in compensating for the change in the body's position.
Next I go to a lying triceps extension - French press - with an EZ-curl bar. I take the bar from a straight overhead position while lying on the bench and lower it past my forehead - not to my forehead. This way I get a fuller range of motion with less stress on my elbows, thereby reducing my chances of tendinitis or calcium deposits, plus it has a nicer rhythm; it's not as choppy a rhythm as having to stop at my forehead.
The Final Movement
Naturally, it's also safer in case you lose your grip or tire prematurely. I'll do a set of 12, then finish by bringing the bar to my chest and burning out three or four pressing repetitions. This is the final movement of the first three-exercise combination. Cable pushdowns begin the next series of three exercises, with four sets of 10 to 12 reps. Even on this exercise I use lots of body thrust, concentrating on really stressing the triceps.
The torso comes into play, making this a very practical muscle movement. Once my workout partner, Brad White and I begin, it's nonstop. We have our short workout-related conversations, plus a few grunts and groans, and we encourage each other to keep moving. The next portion of the workout is up-the-rack standing dumbbell curls for sets of 8 to 12 reps. I might start with 50s and do 12 reps, then 55s for 10, then try to get 10 again with 60s and 6 or 8 with 65s.
These are followed by overhead triceps extensions, seated with my back supported against the preacher curl pad to alleviate the compression on lower-back discs. On this exercise, I try for 12 to 15 reps.
I'm always looking for solid, heavy reps so I have a good struggle without losing the battle or the quality of the movement. I do not like assistance, preferring to get the final rep myself so I know how much I put into it. I sense the presence of assistance and don't want to get into the position of relying on it.
Every once in a while someone will think they're doing me a favor my offering to spot, but for me it blows the whole thing. It's my set; you're stealing it from me. Lots of young bodybuilders are getting into the spotting habit, and in so doing they never really find out how much courage it takes to face that last rep alone.
Working The Muscles
The point to which I work a muscle is as close to failure as possible, to where if I go any further it might result in an injury. But I like a good struggle with each set. Occasionally, I like negatives, so I will curl a weight, then slowly let it down. The same with triceps: Contract, then resist the extension of the muscle.
Triceps, I feel, take higher reps and more sets than biceps. That's a technique carried over from my Muscle Beach days. In order to maintain proper proportion, triceps should be trained at a ratio of 3:2 over biceps.
Regarding heavy-light routines, I work according to how I feel that day. Earlier in the week I usually have more power, so I have a tendency to go heavier Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and perhaps allow myself to ease up the latter three days to the point where I can really enjoy the workout and it's not cruel, excessive or dangerous. But it's still very hard.
My training is very instinctive, but I keep a good order in my workout. If I sense that I'm overtraining, I'll back off a little for one workout - this might happen twice a month - where I'll eliminate one exercise or cut back on the sets or reps.
Perceiving arms as something more than individual biceps and triceps independent of the body integrates them with your entire body's musculature. This, I feel, offers the best prospect for total arm development as well as more practical, logical muscle. By developing your arms with associated muscle groups, the momentum of increasing power is also enhanced. From that, size and density are inevitable.