Trying to curl heavier and heavier weights before you’re ready rarely results in bigger arms—but it will bring on sore elbows that can make all your upper-body training miserable.
According to Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., Men’s Health’s fitness director, the secret to bigger biceps and triceps is maximizing tension in the muscles, which makes them work as hard as possible without assistance from other muscles or momentum. Heavy weight isn’t always a must.
GET THE WORKOUTS
The new arm-training program—All Out Arms—that Samuel designed for the MH All Out Studio app will blow up your arms using only light dumbbells and your own bodyweight. All of the workouts were created according to the following rules, which Samuel says everyone should follow when they set out to max out their muscles.
Rule 1: Go Lighter
You don’t need to be able to curl 100-pound dumbbells for big biceps. And just trying to get there can result in elbow tendonitis and other injuries. The same thing goes for your triceps pushdowns and extensions. Instead, get creative and find ways to make lighter weights feel more challenging.
There are lots of ways to do this. You can use shorter rest periods (60 seconds, 45 seconds, or even 30 seconds or less). You can slow down the eccentric (lowering) phase of each rep, taking, say, three seconds instead of one to lower your arm on a curl. And how about working in different ranges of motion? “For instance, curl a weight up, lower it back halfway, and then curl it up again,” says Samuel.
You can also pause your reps at different points in the range of motion, such as holding the halfway point of a curl or extension for a second or two before completing the rep (called an iso hold). “One of the moves we use in All Out Arms is starting a curl in a tall-kneeling position [both knees on the floor],” says Samuel. “Curl the weight halfway up and hold it. Then get up and come to a tall standing position. From there, go back down to kneeling, keeping the isometric contraction the whole time.”
All of the above will force your muscles to better control the weight, so you’re not relying on momentum or brute force. These methods are easier on your joints, and ensures that you use weights that you can handle.
“If you’re working out at home,” says Samuel, “and you only have dumbbells around 20 pounds, these are the tricks you should use to progress. You could train like this a long time before you needed to increase the load.”
Rule 2: Use Higher Reps
This goes hand in hand with using less weight, but training in higher rep ranges should be a rule all its own, in light of all the research that’s come out in recent years. Scientists have determined that, when it comes to muscle growth, one rep scheme is as good as another.
A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology reported that subjects who trained with 20 to 25 reps per set made just as good gains as those training with the old standby of 8 to 12 reps. The researchers concluded that “Load, when exercises are performed to volitional failure, does not dictate [muscle growth] or, for the most part, strength gains.” In other words, as long as you work hard and do as many reps as you can during the set, you should see progress no matter how much weight you use or how many reps you do.
Rule 3: Point Your Elbows Down on Biceps
In terms of exercise technique, how you do anything means everything—or at least the difference between getting a solid training effect and wasting your efforts. On pretty much any biceps curl, your upper arms should be held close to your sides and point straight down. This prevents one of the most common form cheats in all of lifting: letting the elbows drift forward as the weight is curled up, which transfers the tension from the biceps to the front of the shoulders.
Lifters also have a tendency to lean back as they curl and raise the elbows, which can cause spine injuries—usually the result of using a weight that’s too heavy. (In this case, see Rule 1 again.)
But what about preacher curls? They’re a great biceps exercise and they’re done with the arms out in front of the body.
Samuel says preachers can be hard on your elbows and biceps tendon, because you’re in such a mechanically weak position when your arm is nearly extended. He recommends spider curls instead, where you rest your chest on an incline bench and curl from there. “Your upper arms are away from your torso, so you get to work the muscles with similar mechanics as the preacher,” says Samuel, “but your arms are still perpendicular to the floor,” allowing you to work the biceps with less risk of strain.
Rule 4: Point Your Elbows Back on Triceps
The lying triceps extension, a.k.a. skullcrusher, is a timeless arm exercise, but most guys do it with their upper arms perpendicular to the floor. That’s good thinking when it comes to training biceps (see above), but on a triceps extension, it means that your wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints will all stack when the weight is locked out overhead, and when that happens, your triceps will have a chance to rest.
“You can keep tension on the triceps by angling your upper arms back a few degrees,” says Samuel, “so that when you extend your elbows completely, your triceps have to work to hold them there.”
Rule 5: Don’t Forget About Bodyweight
When you think of triceps exercises, you probably flash to images of pushdowns, extensions, kickbacks, and maybe close-grip bench presses, but it pays to remember that your own bodyweight can be used, too. This is a plus for anyone who’s looking to train more safely, or who doesn’t have access to equipment.
Close-grip pushups target your triceps, and skullcrushers can be done on a bar, bench, chair, or even a windowsill—if you’re training at home. Both moves are demonstrated in All Out Arms.
“Bodyweight exercises get your core involved,” says Samuel, “and they place more load on your triceps than most weight-training exercises can, because you’re lifting the mass of your whole body.”
For more arm-training tips, download All Out Arms on the All Out Studio app.
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