In my years as a bodybuilder, coach, and gym owner, I've collected a lot of arm workouts. These are the ones I've systematically found get the best results. And by results, I mean growth. These are some of the best straight-up bodybuilding routines in history, and they're all guaranteed to make you look great sleeveless.
Variations on the multi-grip routine have been floating around for ages, but the great strength coach Charles Poliquin fine-tuned the technique and brought it back into popularity recently in his writings, including his book "Winning the Arms Race." Poliquin refers to this technique as the "multi-pathway routine."
Select three exercises, each with a different grip: pronated (palms down), neutral (palms face each other), and supinated (palms up). Generally, the weakest grip is trained first and the strongest last, but the order of the exercises may be changed for variety and balanced development. (I would recommend staying with the same sequence for the duration of each training cycle, however.)
The multi-angle routine is a similar to the multi-grip routine, except instead of varying the hand position or grip, you vary the angle of the joint. The "multi-angle" technique is similar to the Ironman/Steve Holman "Positions of Flexion" approach, although they are not always one and the same.
For example, one popular multi-angle favorite for triceps is lying EZ-bar extensions performed to the chin, forehead, and behind the head as a triset. This is multi-angular, but it does not fully work all three positions of flexion, as these are only slight variations in angle.
There are two ways to perform this routine. One way is to do all three exercises in a row with zero rest between exercises. This is intense and result-producing, but will compromise your poundages. Poliquin's solution to the problem is the simple insertion of a 10-second pause between each exercise, which allows slightly greater loads to be used.
I don't remember where I found this routine, but I think it was the brainstorm of Australian strength coach Ian King. All I can say is that Ian or whoever originally invented this biceps killer should get a medal for it! Try it and find out why. Perform 10 reps per set, 2-3 trisets, 0-10 seconds between exercises.
This is a slight variation I've successfully used on the killer combo above. All I did is flip the order of exercises two and three, substitute the dumbbell curl for a Zottman curl on exercise number one, and add a forced negative on the reverse curls using the opposite hand. The rep range is slightly lower: 6-8 reps per set with slightly heavier weight. Perform 3 trisets with no rest between exercises and no rest between switching arms.
This is a variation on Vince Gironda's famous "Balanced Arms" course. Like many bodybuilding gurus, Vince vociferously commanded, "No deviations." Well, shame on me, but after I tried all his programs exactly as he instructed, I couldn't resist experimenting.
This routine consists of three pairs of supersets performed for 6 sets of 6 reps each. No rest is permitted between exercises. Take 90 seconds rest after each superset. Vince's original course suggested doing this routine three times per week. I tested various frequencies and got the best results doing this routine once every 4-5 days, and I'd recommend no more than twice per week.
When performing the classic Vince Gironda 8 sets of 8 program, you select only one exercise per body part and you train half your body each session, approximately 5 exercises per workout, for a total of 40 sets. Perform 3-4 workouts per week, and each muscle is trained no more than twice per week.
Every rep is performed with deep concentration and intramuscular contraction; "squeeze" the muscle during every rep. Mental focus and maintenance of tempo are musts. Rest must be kept to 30 seconds or less, ultimately dropping to as low as 15 seconds between sets. On a 3021 tempo at 6 seconds per rep, each set will take only 48 seconds; by getting your rest intervals down to 20 seconds, you will finish each 8 sets of 8 reps in 9 minutes. With 5 exercises, that's 40 sets per workout in only 45 minutes!
This is decidedly aerobic and growth-hormone-inducing, and by using compound exercises (e.g., squats on leg day, rows on back day), this routine can also burn a tremendous amount of body fat. Little or no additional cardio work is necessary on this program.
This is the variation on the 8 sets of 8 routine that Vince Gironda gave to elite and genetically gifted bodybuilders like Mohammed Makkawy. This program is performed on a 3-day or 4-day split, so you can concentrate on only two body parts per session.
Tempos can be a little bit faster, like 2020 or 2010, on this higher-volume program. This allows you to complete the workout in 40-45 minutes or so. (You could also try 30-minute workouts consisting of two exercises per muscle group, 8 sets of 8 reps per exercise; experiment with the concept.)
This program was originally promoted by Vince Gironda. It was later resurrected under the name "German Volume Training" and repopularized (with some modern improvements) by Charles Poliquin. After it was originally introduced, 10x10 faded out of popularity in favor of 3 sets of 3 exercises.
This was largely due to boredom and the belief that one exercise was not enough for complete development. However, 10 sets of 10 will completely trash an entire pool of motor units from the repeated efforts on the same exercise, resulting in tremendous muscle-size gains.
Simply select one exercise per muscle group and perform 10 sets of 10 reps. It's important to use the same weight for each set. You will not train to failure or use set extension or high-intensity techniques like negatives or forced reps. This will require that you select a weight that's approximately 60 percent of your normal 10-rep max.
Rest 90 seconds between sets and maintain a constant tempo on every rep and a constant rest interval between every set. You will work two or three body parts per workout on a 3- or 4-day split. Each muscle group should be trained once every 5-6 days.
This program combines elements of two of the best bodybuilding techniques of all time: dropsets and supersets. Select two exercises for the same muscle group and perform each for 6-8 reps with no rest in between. Quickly (less than 10 seconds rest) reduce the poundage (grab a lighter set of dumbbells) and repeat the superset two more times.
That counts as one drop-superset (2 exercises X 3 supersets = 6 sets in one drop-superset). Rest 120 seconds and repeat one more time (twice at most if you're an overachiever).
A typical weight reduction is about 10-15 percent. Optional: A brief 10-second rest between supersets allows some recovery of strength so that you can keep your poundages up, and it alleviates some of the lactic-acid burn that might prevent you from doing 6 sets in a row nonstop. Perform two or three drop-supersets (the weights given are just examples).
Larry Scott was the first Mr. Olympia, and his claim to fame was the most mind-blowing set of biceps and triceps the bodybuilding world had ever seen. Larry Scott's favorite arm-building apparatus was the preacher-curl bench, which also bears his name: the Scott-curl bench.
Larry believed that triceps grow the best with supersets and biceps grow the best with trisets, and who's gonna argue with him? His favorite biceps routine was a triset performed on the preacher bench and a superset combo for triceps. Larry also frequently employed "burns," which were quick quarter-reps or partials performed after each set.
Pre-exhaustion is a technique popularized by Robert Kennedy of Muscle Mag International. Pre-exhaustion supersets are performed by selecting an isolation exercise and following it with a compound exercise, with no rest in between the two.
In the case of biceps, the natural choice for the compound exercise is the close-grip chin-up. Your volume can range from 3-5 sets, depending on your split routine and experience level.
There are many variations on multi-rep programs to be found throughout the bodybuilding literature. This one is by Don Ross from his book "Muscle Blasting," with Robert Kennedy.
Select four exercises and perform each exercise with a different repetition (RM) bracket. These exercises are not supersetted. Rest intervals between sets are 60-90 seconds. Two sets should be enough for most people, three sets max.
Note: You can easily use this same principle with only three exercises and three rep ranges or even two exercises and two rep ranges as in the 6-20 method. In either case, the heavier, lower rep sets come first and the higher rep sets last.
Another variation of the 4-rep system is to perform four sets on each exercise with each of the four sets using a different rep range. Don Ross liked the 12, 8, 6, 20 rep protocol, while Vince Gironda's famous variation on this system (which he wrote an entire course about) was 10, 8, 6, 15.
Yet another multi-rep program, the 6-12-25 system is favored by Charles Poliquin. Using the Poliquin method, you select three exercises, the first with stretch position emphasis, the second with mid-range emphasis, and the third a constant tension, peak contraction exercise. Unlike the Ross and Gironda method, these exercises are trisetted. Rest 10 seconds between exercises, and 120 seconds between sets.
I recommend repeating these routines no more than twice per week and no less than once per week. Your frequency depends on the split routine you're using. For most of these programs, I recommend a 3- or 4-day split with a two-on/one-off schedule.
If you feel you need more recovery, use a two-on/one-off, one-on/one-off, or even an every-other-day routine. Just make sure you hit your arms at least once per week.
Tempo is the speed of your repetitions. Tempo is noted in several of these routines with a 4-count prescription. For example, a 4020 tempo is performed as follows:
- Eccentric (negative/lowering the weight) 4
- Stretch/Pause between eccentric and concentric 0
- Concentric (positive/lifting the weight) 2
- Contraction/pause between concentric and eccentric 0
If tempo is not noted, then you should simply use a "controlled tempo" with the eccentric (lowering weight) slightly slower than the concentric (lifting weight).
These routines must be performed with diligent progression from one workout to the next. You must strive to add weight with every workout. Because the arms are a small body part, you may need to use "micro-loading," which simply means you patiently increase the weight every workout, but in small increments.
For example, most clubs have dumbbells with 5-pound jumps in weight. I like to use 1.25-pound "plate mates" which are magnetic mini weights you can stick on the ends of each dumbbell (they work for barbells too), allowing you to increase in small, 2.5-pound increments (effectively giving you a 22.5-pound dumbbell, etc).
Antagonist Pair Supersets
Supersets are an effective technique for arm training. An antagonistic superset for arms is the pairing of a biceps and triceps exercise with little or no rest between exercises.
However, there are several routines here that don't work well with supersets. Only follow the routines as written.
Same Muscle Group Supersets
Same-muscle-group supersets, or compound sets, are self-explanatory: Two exercises for the same muscle are performed back to back with no rest in between. They are written the same way as antagonistic supersets.
Personally, I believe same-muscle-group supersets are better than antagonistic supersets for bodybuilding purposes (arm size), while antagonistic supersets are better for strength. I recommend using both.
A triset is three exercises for the same muscle group performed one after another with little or no rest in between. Trisets are a step beyond supersets in intensity and difficulty, allowing you to perform a large volume of work in a short period of time.
Trisets are a superb method for bodybuilding—especially for arm training. Many great bodybuilders such as Larry Scott and trainers such as Vince Gironda have promoted the use of trisets and supersets almost exclusively for arm specialization. Why? Because they work!
Go Forth and Grow!
This only scratches the surface of what I have locked in my "vault of training secrets," but that's all we have time and space for today. Besides, there's enough here to keep you busy for a long, long time. In fact, I just gave you enough workouts to last you for at least the next year!
If you're tired of the same old conventional "three sets of 8-to-12" straight set routines and if you're frustrated with your progress, then put some of these 5-star programs to the test. I guarantee you are going to see some of the best arm development of your life!
For more information about gaining lean muscle mass, and to learn about an all-natural method for losing body fat without drugs, supplements or fad diets, check out my e-book, "Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle."