Every guy who lifts weights wants to possess impressive arms. Biceps are undoubtedly THE MOST trained body part, with triceps not being too far behind. This is totally understandable as arms are easily displayed while wearing a common t-shirt. Arm muscles are the show muscles. If someone asks you to “flex your muscle” you instinctively know to flex your arm. If we have such an impulse to train our arms, why are well developed arms so rare? Guys work arms all the time, or at least more than other body parts, yet most of them have arms that look only slightly better than average at best. What gives?
If you were to ask any experienced bodybuilder, strength coach, or experienced personal trainer what the best leg building exercises are, you would 100% get one of the following mentioned: barbell squats, leg presses or some split stance squat variation. What NONE of them would say is that leg extensions, leg curls, or any other single joint isolation exercise are the best overall muscle builders for the legs. If you have any experience with weights yourself, I would bet my house that you would agree.
Let’s break this down a bit. Heavy compound movements build bigger quads and hamstrings than isolation exercises, and we all pretty much agree on this. So why do we think the arms are any different? Barbell curls, skull crushers, dumbbell curls, tricep press downs, etc. are great arm exercises, but they are NOT the best overall arm builders. They are ISOLATION, SINGLE JOINT movements for the arms—no different than leg extensions and leg curls. Isolation exercises are great, but they simply will not build your arms like compound movements will.
I learned this lesson years ago when I hired a retired high-level gymnast to work for me as a personal trainer. This guy had MASSIVE biceps. He was maybe 5’9 at most, but his arms were a lean 18 inches around cold. And he was a lifetime natural. When I hired him, I asked him what he did to get his huge, lean arms. He laughed and told me he had NEVER done curls or tricep extensions in his routines. Then he showed me pictures of all his gymnast buddies. They all had incredible arms. That’s when it dawned on me. I had developed big muscular legs by squatting often and squatting heavy. If I (or anybody else) wanted big arms we needed to “squat” for our upper bodies and stop placing so much importance on isolation movements. Once I applied this, I saw faster gains in my arms than I had ever seen before.
The best exercises for building your arms are not classically known as arm exercises. But make no mistake, they sure are. When you bench press, or do a supinated grip pull up, or do a dip, or perform a supinated grip row, you are working your arms in ways that are superior to isolation exercises. The load is higher (you will never curl as much as you can row) and you work your arm muscles from both ends. A chin up has the bicep contract to flex the arm AND it is used to stabilize the shoulder joint in a way that a curl won’t do. Also, consider the strength gains that come from compound movements. Doing one more dip means you lifted your entire body weight for one more rep. Doing one more rep of a tricep extension is much less in total weight lifted. Is it all making sense now?
Try this for the next 2-3 months. Reduce the volume of your normal arm workout and instead replace your old isolation exercises with supinated grip pull ups, close grip bench presses, supinated grip rows, and body weight dips. Make sure to emphasize your biceps and triceps with each rep and watch what happens. You will get amazing pumps, strength gains, and muscle gains in your arms faster than you did before. Get your arms good at “squatting” and your days of skinny arms will soon be over.