I’ll just burst this bubble right off the bat here. Big arms, although socially desirable, are completely unwieldy in any pursuit except for bodybuilding.
I’m telling you now that you don’t ever have to do another biceps curl in your life if you don’t want to. I’m also telling you that you can do biceps curls as often and as long as you need to as long as they don’t impact your main goals.
Holding a rifle and maintaining a good site picture is really tiring. You want arms that can hold your rifle without adding unnecessary extra weight.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Samantha A. Barajas)
The actual purpose of arms
The purpose of your arms is to translate power from your larger and stronger muscles that are towards the center of your body.
This being the case, the way we should train arms is in a way which supports the larger muscle groups.
The tapered look is what true athleticism looks like. Take, for instance, strongman competitors, the strongest humans on Earth. Their arms are not exceptionally large in comparison to the rest of their bodies. Their arms get gradually more narrow the further they get from their core.
This is how all functional things are made. Airplanes’ wings taper out, as do the musculature of fish until they get to the fin of course. This reduces drag in the water while still giving a nice push at the end. This is the same reason the best swimmers have long thin limbs and big hands and feet.
This guy sinks just like hammers and sickles do in water and just like communism did in the USSR. (How is this even a picture in 2019?)
(Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash)
The pursuit of huge biceps
There is no pursuit that requires large arms in comparison to the rest of the body, except aesthetic pursuits like bodybuilding.
Even arm wrestling, the quintessential arm strength sport, is all about using the arm as a lever that sends power from your legs and core into your opponent’s hand.
The idea of an “arm” day is laughable to me. Here’s why.
When I was going through a particular portion of my Marine Corps Training, I found myself with a group of Marines who were in a waiting period for their next school to start.
Because Training Command was on the same base as my peers and me, they decided to use us as a “test” unit. They wanted to see what type of training Marines could endure and how it translated to their follow on schools and injury resistance in general.
Treading water is hard in a full kit. It’s even harder when your arms are fighting against you while treading.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Hernan Vidana)
Basically, it was let’s “fugg” with these guys in the name of “research.”
So I found myself doing a lot of weird “training” with a bunch of alpha males. Every day was some type of ego trip in one way or another.
A good portion of my peers at this time were quite muscular. Some of them were the type to ensure they finished every gym session with 10 sets of biceps curls.
They had big arms.
We did a lot of pool workouts in this training cycle….I’ll give you one guess which body type had to be revived the most often…
When it comes to swimming, large biceps are the opposite of those arm floaties that kids wear. Imagine how much harder it would be to tread water with rocks strapped to your upper arms.
This is the whole body approach to training arms.
(Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash)
How to train arms like a freakin’ genius
The way workouts should be setup is as follows:
- Main/Compound lifts- squat, bench, deadlift
- Ancillary lifts- rows, Romanian deadlifts, lat pull-down, DB presses
- Accessory lifts- biceps, triceps, calves
The compound lifts are giving the majority of our muscular stimulation and truly teaching the body how to move as a unit in an anatomically correct way.
The ancillary lifts give our main muscle groups another look (from a different angle, rep range, etc.). They directly contribute to strength gains in the main lifts and also contribute to making the body a cohesive unit of power development.
The accessory lifts are there to bring up body parts that may be limiting the main movements or that the trainee may want to give some extra stimulation. Other common accessory muscle groups are the forearms, obliques, or neck.
Because isolated arm exercises are primarily accessory lifts, they should receive the lowest amount of priority in the gym. This means if you are strapped for time you skip these. DON’T skip squatting or deadlifting and jump to these because you prefer them.
You can get those curls in….after you hit the big ticket items.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Donald Holbert)
The biceps are a pulling muscle. You get all the biceps stimulation you need from rows, lat pull-downs, and pull-ups. The triceps are a pushing muscle. You get all the triceps stimulation you need from pressing, benching, and push-ups.
The above being the case, I fully respect the allure of the arm pump and the feel of a tight t-shirt. That’s why I don’t avoid them altogether when writing a training plan. They are for your mind, not for your body.
It is important to work out for both the mind and the body. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing or if you don’t see/feel results, you are significantly less likely to continue training.