I’ve got big arms. Like, seriously big arms. That’s me in the photo above. Not freaky on-stage pro-bodybuilder arms, but compared to guys walking down the street, or even your average gym-goer, my arms are big. And for a guy my age (45), I’m off the charts.
Genetics play a role, of course, same as almost everything else in life. Trainers and fitness models who pretend it’s all hard work and clean living are either kidding themselves, or intentionally deceiving clients and customers.
But it’s not like I was born with these arms.
I’ve been lifting systematically since I was 28. I’d say it took at least a decade to get to the point where strangers on the street would stop and point at my arms. Since then I’ve become a certified strength coach, opened my own gym in New York, and have represented the United States in international Olympic weightlifting competitions.
As you’d expect, I perform a lot of isolated arm movements. But more importantly, I do a ton of compound upper-body movements—rows, presses, dips, chinups. If you’ve ever observed the guys who walk into the gym and start off with concentration curls, you’ve surely noticed that they’re never the guys with the biggest arms. When the guys who’re seriously jacked train their upper bodies, they devote most of their time and energy to basic, heavy, multi-joint lifts. They know their arms aren’t going to grow out of proportion to the bigger, stronger muscles in their back, chest, and shoulders.
Why? Allow me to digress for a moment: A lot of experts these days subscribe to the philosophy that size and strength are separate phenomena—that strength doesn’t serve size and size doesn’t serve strength. They say that to optimize either—to get really big or truly strong—you should never train for both.
I disagree. A bigger muscle can produce more force. A stronger muscle allows you to work with more weight, which, in turn, builds a bigger muscle.
The key is to hit a balance between training for strength and training for size. I’m not saying that physique athletes who focus exclusively on size by doing high-repetition, high-volume workouts are necessarily wrong, or that powerlifters who do most of their work with heavy weights and low reps should spend more time doing dumbbell curls and cable extensions.
But just about every well-developed guy I’ve ever met has trained for both strength and size. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a successful bodybuilder who didn’t spend some time under the bar working toward a one-rep max in the bench press, or a successful strongman who hasn’t done his share of curls.
I combine these two training styles by alternating a month of high-rep muscle-building work with a month of low-rep strength work. I also work in months of “hybrid training,” where I hit on both styles in the same workout.
It’s also crucial to include squats, deadlifts, and leg presses in your training. If you wonder why I mention that in an article about arm building, just Google “skipped leg day.” The guy whose upper body looks like an “after” picture while his legs look like the “before” is even more of a cautionary example than the one who uses heavier weights for curls than he does for presses or rows.
I’m joking, kind of. The real reason is that life is a total-body activity. Humans are built for activities like running, climbing, kicking, and throwing. All involve the coordinated transfer of force from arms to legs or legs to arms, with your core muscles in between. That’s why foundational strength movements like squats and deadlifts contribute to bigger arms while isolated arm exercises don’t do anything to help your lower body.
Picture two lifters who’re physically similar—roughly the same height, weight, and age. One focuses on strength without any direct arm work. The other does direct arm work without any squats or deadlifts. Chances are the first guy can curl more than the second one, despite never practicing the exercise. But there’s no way the second guy can deadlift as much as the first one.
Put simply: Strength matters. If all else is equal, the stronger athlete will be better than the weaker one, and the stronger lifter will have a better chance to get bigger than the weaker one (if he isn’t bigger already).
By Dan Trink