HELP! I Have Small Arms!

At some point we all dream of 20-inch plus arms, but we’re not all blessed in the gun-show department. I’ll be honest and say arms have been an easier body part for me to grow. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to aim for Hulk status. Also, I’ve worked with several clients on the opposite end of the genetic spectrum who have pencil arms, and they made progress. Today let’s go over some tips to turn those peashooters into cannons.

Alignment and Ability

Many machines and bars just don’t align right and beat up wrists and elbows. The common culprits I see are EZ bars for curls and skull crushers. Some can get away with these, but after a few weeks, if your elbows hurt, then this is just not a sustainable lift for you. We need lifts we can stick with for months to grow the guns.

You need to get creative and move within your natural planes of motion. For curls and extensions, see how you move just standing in place. What feels natural to you? How you naturally move determines what exercise pattern is best for you. So single-arm pushdowns, single-arm curls, and single-arm overhead extensions are such great choices. I always go single arm to line up the shoulder to the elbow to the wrist. You make the pattern fit you; don’t get forced into one.

Execution Nailed

You must move only at the joint where the targeted muscle crosses. For simplicity, only move the biceps and triceps at the elbow joint. So every other joint should be locked in. Limit movement at the hips—no swinging your curls. Limit movement at the shoulder—don’t turn these push downs into presses. Also, movement at the wrist matters! When curling, some might flex the wrist towards them when the reps get hard. This creates less tension on the bicep and is a way to make the lift easier. All this movement creates tension dispersion around a lot of muscle groups. This means you may lift more weight, but the biceps or triceps aren’t necessarily receiving more tension stimulus to grow. So, lock it in and only move at the elbow.

Frequency

Arms can recover relatively quickly. You can hit them after push-and-pull days. Or even train biceps before legs. Then a third session of just an arm day if they really need to come up. For advanced guys, a two-day training setup can be in place with arms hit in their own session, fresh each time. You might hit biceps in the AM and then chest in the evening. Then on back days, you hit triceps in the AM. If time permits, have at it!

Prioritize Pressing

Two-thirds of the arm size is triceps. The progression of loading for a press is very large. You can move up a press to 50–100 lbs., relative to a triceps extension over years of training. So, overall size development can really add up in compound pressing movements. Also, skull crushers, while excellent for training the muscle in a stretched position, can be problematic for elbow health. Alternatives to skull crushers are dips, close-grip bench presses, and JM presses. These can still train the triceps lengthened, serve as the meat and potatoes for triceps’ growth, and save those elbows from skull crushers. One tip is to still do a pushdown exercise before any compound triceps work if you need a bit more warming up for the elbows.

Bicep Bias

The bicep functions in elbow flexion and supination (turning the palm outward). If you’re not fully supinated, you might bias the brachioradialis and brachialis more. I usually hear clients complaining of forearm pumps and no bicep pump. This can be what is happening. Make sure to get into full supination in your curls. Some clients I work with have limited external rotation, and therefore single-arm curls can really shine for them.

Train the Muscle at Different Lengths

The bicep can flex the elbow when your arm is at your side, in front of you, out to the side, and even overhead. Variation is important for full development. To cover all actions, have a single arm cable curl, preacher curl, and cable crossover curl.

The triceps extend the elbow at your side, in front of you, and overhead as well. To cover all actions, have a pushdown, a flat-to-incline press variation, and an overhead extension variation.

Don’t Forget the Brachialis!

I know I mentioned that if you’re not fully supinated you can bias more brachialis. Well, we also don’t want to neglect the brachialis, as this muscle gives detail to the arm and pushes the bicep and triceps apart. Any hammer curl variation is going to work well. A single-arm cable curl with a rope attachment works or even a standing dumbbell curl.

ARM TRAINING TEMPLATE:


*RIR stands for “reps in reserve,” or how many reps before you reach muscular failure. All arm sets are going to be at an RIR of 1-0. We want a locked-in form, so the set stops before you’re cheating.

*I only list work sets, not warm-up sets.


*Set volume is just an example—you may need more or less depending on recovery capacity.


In the workout, we’re going to alternate bicep and triceps work, rather than all biceps first or triceps first. This avoids favoring stimulus to one muscle group.


Also, we’ll perform this in a zigzag fashion. Do 1 set of biceps. Rest 1 minute. Do 1 set of triceps. Rest 1 minute. Repeat until the full complex is complete. Rest 3 minutes between each complex.

Zigzag Complex 1:

  • Bicep Exercise 1: Single-Arm Dumbbell Curl
    • 1 set x 20 reps 
    • 1 set x 15 reps
    • 1 set x 10 reps 
  • Triceps Exercise 1: Single Arm D Handle Push Down
    • 1 set x 20 reps
    • 1 set x 15 reps
    • 1 set x 10 reps

Zigzag Complex 2:

  • Bicep Exercise 2: Single-Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl
    • 3 sets x 10-15 reps
  • Triceps Exercise 2: Smith Machine JM Press
    • 3 sets x 8-12 reps

Zigzag Complex 3:

  • Bicep Exercise 3: Dumbbell Hammer Curl
    • 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • Triceps Exercise 3:
    • Single Arm Overhead Rope Extension
    • 3 sets x 12-15 reps

The road to shirt-ripping pythons can be a long one but stay dedicated to your mission. Take the tools I laid out and get to work. Remember to be precise with training the intended muscle and take it to that high-effort intensity level. These tips will have you growing arms in no time.

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