While it’s true that a large chunk of your upper arm growth will simply come as an automatic result of heavy chest and back training, direct arm isolation work is still important when it comes to fully maximizing your results. The following arm exercises are my favorite for building bigger biceps and triceps. You don’t necessarily need to include all of these in your arm workouts, but give them all a try and see which ones work best for you. Variation is always key in creating new muscle growth.
Rope Pushdowns (with a Twist at the Bottom)
When most lifters perform their triceps pushdowns, they’ll typically use a straight bar or rope attachment and then simply press the weight in a straight up and down motion. This is fine for an overall contraction in the triceps, but it’s not ideal if you really want to target the outer lateral head for that pronounced “horseshoe” look. Although this is an area that can be tough to target effectively, using a rope attachment and adding a “twist” into the movement is a great way to get it firing more intensely.
So, instead of just pressing the rope straight downward as is normally done on the pushdown exercise, you’ll also want to focus on forcefully pulling the rope apart and driving your arms away from each other at the bottom of each rep. In doing so you should feel a stronger contraction in the lateral head of your triceps with decreased involvement of the other two heads. The twisting rope pushdown can take a bit of practice and a good “mind-muscle connection” to get used to, but play around with it using some moderate weight during your next triceps workout and you’ll get the hang of it.
Standing Single Arm Cable Curls
The one slight disadvantage of dumbbell or barbell curls, which will always be a highly effective means of training your biceps for hypertrophy, is the inconsistent tension curve they provide. This is because curling movements are performed in a circular motion while the force of gravity is always pulling the resistance in a straight line toward the floor. As a result, the biceps are placed under a high amount of stress in the middle and top end of the curl, but increasingly lose tension as the weight is lowered down past halfway.
The standing single arm cable curl corrects this by keeping the biceps fully activated throughout the entire range of motion since the resistance will be pulling your arm not only downward but also backward at the same time. When it comes to building bigger biceps, this is definitely one of my absolute favorite movements to perform. Add this one to your arm workouts and you’ll definitely feel your biceps firing in a way that you haven’t felt on your other curling exercises.
Supinating Dumbell Curls
I have added in this movement over the past few years and it has really helped my biceps development. I was fortunate enough to get to train arms with Dorian Hamilton and he taught me the proper way to do these. Most people know that elbow flexion—curling your forearm up toward your upper arm—is the basic function of the biceps. However, the biceps also perform a second function known as “forearm supination,” which means to twist your forearm until your palm is facing upward.
To get the very most out of your biceps workouts and target this specific function, you’ll ideally want to include a supinating dumbbell curl somewhere in the mix. This is particularly important when you consider the little-known fact that the brachialis (an upper arm muscle that sits beneath the biceps) is just as, if not more, active than the biceps during pure elbow flexion movements when the palms are facing up.
To perform a supinating dumbbell curl, simply grab onto a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides with your palms facing inward. Next, curl the weight up while twisting your forearm at the same time so that your palm is facing the ceiling at the top of the rep. Lower the weight down following the same path. These can be done either seated or standing, and by curling both dumbbells at the same time or in an alternating fashion.
Single Arm Overhead Cable Extensions
I saw Rich Piana train arms with these extensions in a Youtube video. His triceps looked insane while doing these, so of course I had to give it a try and fell in love with the movement. The long head of the triceps is an area that tends to be slightly under-trained if it isn’t directly isolated, and the one-arm overhead cable extension has become my favorite way to specifically target it for optimal triceps gains.
Although this triceps exercise can also be performed using a dumbbell, the cable provides more consistent tension from top to bottom and causes much less elbow pain. In order to execute these with proper form, attach a cable to the bottom of the stand and grab onto it without using any attachments. Stand facing away from the machine and then simply extend the cable upward with your elbow until your triceps are fully contracted, lowering it back down until you feel a good, comfortable stretch.
You don’t have to keep your elbow completely tucked in, but don’t allow it to flare out excessively either. Protect your elbow joints by performing your overhead extensions using slow, smooth reps and focusing on control rather than trying to heave around a huge amount of weight. If you really want to build bigger triceps, then the long head shouldn’t be ignored. This a fantastic movement to help you target that specific area for improved upper arm gains.
My arm development has significantly improved over these last few years thanks to these four arm movements. Give them a try and see if they can work just as well for you. Train hard, but train smart. Train like an Animal.