Of all the muscles in the human body, the ones in our arms are some of the most popular to work out. That’s why plenty of new and experienced fitness enthusiasts focus much more on pursuing optimal arm muscle growth. It’s understandable, considering how the arms are both the easiest muscles to show off and the easiest for other people to notice. So, how best to train them?
Training your arms for optimal muscle growth starts with applying the same general principles of building other muscles in your body. You’ll need to train consistently with increasingly heavier weights, dial in your nutrition, and allow for plenty of rest. Most importantly, you must train more than just your biceps. To get big arms, you’ll need to train your triceps and surrounding muscles equally.
In this guide, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about training your arms for optimal muscle growth. We’ll begin with understanding the muscles in the arm. Then, we’ll explore the crucial aspects of training, nutrition, and recovery.
Let’s get started.
One of the most common mistakes that everyone is occasionally guilty of is treating the arms like one big muscle. Plenty of gym-goers spend far too much time in the gym doing endless amounts of bicep curls only to wonder why their arms aren’t growing fast enough.
Firstly, we must understand that our arms are much more complex than that. Besides the biceps, the arm muscles also include the triceps, brachialis, coracobrachialis, and forearm flexors and extensors.
Paying equal attention to each of those muscles isn’t just crucial for building bigger arms. It’s also crucial for building more muscular arms that can help you train more effectively. That’s what optimal muscle growth is all about: building muscles that look good and also function well.
Let’s take a closer look at each one muscle closely.
Let’s start with the biceps. These are by far the most aesthetically essential muscles in your body. Plus, let’s be honest, building big biceps is probably why most of us developed an interest in strengthening our arms in the first place.
Well, did you know that the biceps are actually two muscles in one? That’s right! You have the short head of the biceps and the long head. Both parts start from somewhere near the shoulder joint and meet near the forearm.
Besides showing them off, the biceps do have unique functions. They:
At some point, you might wonder how to train the short head of the bicep or the long head. Don’t worry. You don’t need to get that granular just yet. Keep on reading to get the big picture first.
The second most popular arm muscle is undoubtedly the triceps. Unlike your biceps (‘bi’ means two), the triceps (‘tri’ means three) has three heads instead. This muscle is located at the back of your upper arms.
Your triceps play the critical role of helping your arm to extend at the elbow joint. Think of it this way: your biceps help you curl your arm and bring your hand towards your face. The triceps, on the other hand, help you move that arm back away from your face.
Quite often, the triceps are underestimated in their importance when building big arms. Remember: the size of your arm doesn’t just include the front upper arm (i.e. the biceps), but also the back (i.e. the triceps). That’s why training both of these muscles are equally important for optimal muscle growth.
In some ways, you can think of the brachialis as the bicep’s ‘unsung hero’. Even though you can’t really see the brachialis, it contributes to the bicep’s height and shape. That’s because it’s located underneath the biceps and connects to one of the bones in your forearm.
Functionally, the brachialis is a flexor. It helps prevent the elbow joint from hyperextending, which protects you from injury, especially in sports.
Last but not least, we have the coracobrachialis. It’s the smallest muscle of them all, and it’s also located inside the bicep near the shorter head (remember: the bicep has two heads).
Functionally, this muscle is activated when you try to push your upper arms downwards. That’s why exercises like dips are so crucial to optimal arm muscle growth!
Of course, the arm isn’t just about the larger muscles in the upper arm. Your forearm also has several flexors on the inner side of the forearm and extensors on the outer side.
These muscles can grow larger but certainly not as large as those in your upper arms. The strength of your forearm muscles is critical, mainly to perform the exercises you need to optimize your arm muscle growth overall.
If your goal is to optimize arm muscle growth, you must ensure that all arm muscles are given equal attention. Training your biceps is an excellent place to start, but you will not get very far by focusing only on that.
Instead, you’ll also need to work on your triceps to stimulate muscle growth on the back of your upper arms. And even though the brachialis and coracobrachialis are ‘hidden’ away, they also contribute to your arm muscles both in strength and aesthetics.
Now that you understand which arm muscles to train and why it’s essential to give them equal attention, let’s talk about training those muscles for optimal growth.
Now that you understand what muscles your arm has and their individual functions, it’s time to talk about the ‘bread and butter’ of muscle growth: training. First, we’ll cover some of the common training mistakes that hinder muscle growth in your arms. Then, we’ll dive into some strategies, essential exercise and look at how important gym equipment really is.
Here are the three most common training mistakes that hinder muscle growth in your arms:
Neglecting Certain Muscles: The previous section of this arm building guide focused on the different muscles in your arms and their functions. There’s a reason for that. You see, people often focus too much on biceps when they’re trying to build bigger arms.
Training your biceps is excellent, but not when you fail to train your triceps, brachialis and coracobrachialis, and your forearm muscles.
You will not get the results you want unless you train all of your arm muscles together.
Overtraining: One of the top rules of building muscle is to avoid overtraining. For one thing, that can lead to injury. Injuring your arms doesn’t just mean you can’t train your arm muscles. But it also means that you won’t be able to do any other exercises that involve your arms, like working your chest or your back.
Remember: optimal muscle building is all about gradual progress. Training until or beyond muscle failure is not worth the risk.
Only Doing Curls And Extensions: Curls and extensions are fantastic exercises to develop your arms. However, only doing these two exercises will hinder your progress physically and psychologically.
Physically, because you’re not fully training all of your arm muscles across their entire range of motion. Mentally, because you risk getting bored and giving up altogether.
When you look online for the best arm training strategies, you’re likely to find a million and one opinions on how many bicep sets per week you should do. We don’t want to add to that information overload, so we’ll stick to the basics.
Here are some top training strategies for optimal arm muscle growth.
Engage All Your Arm Muscles When You Train: This might seem obvious now that we’ve pointed it out two times already. Still, it’s worth repeating once more. To optimize muscle growth in your arms, you must engage all of the muscles there.
So, by all means, do your curls and extensions. But mix it up with other compound exercises, too, like chin-ups, pushups, bench presses, and all the classical gym exercises. All of them contribute to your goals of having bigger, more muscular arms.
Add More Weight (Gradually): Remember this saying: “Strong is big, and big is strong”. Some of your friends in the gym or online might tell you that you have to train one way for strength and another way for size or mass.
If you want to optimize your arm muscle growth, keep things simple. Lift heavy so that your arm muscles will become stronger, and they’ll also increase in mass. Regardless of your rep and set numbers, you can’t lose by going heavy!
Track Your Progress: Progress tracking isn’t just for people who are trying to lose weight. You must keep track of your progress in terms of both arm strength and arm muscle size. There are two critical reasons for this.
Firstly, it’s about making sure that you’re heading in the right direction. Your training, nutrition, and your recovery are all reflected in your progress. If there isn’t enough progress, then you’ll have to re-evaluate what you’re doing.
Second, it’s also about morale. It’s human nature to want to see results. When you have measurements and numbers to prove that you’re making progress, you’ll be motivated to keep going.
Rest And Recover: Here’s another critical aspect to remember: your muscles don’t grow in the gym; they grow outside of it. So, always give your arms plenty of time to rest and recover. That rest time is precisely when they repair themselves to become bigger and stronger.
Spend enough time on Youtube and at the gym, and you’ll learn countless ways to exercise your arm muscles. Still, it’s always good to stick to the basics.
Each of these exercises below will engage all of your arm muscles simultaneously. However, each one is also much better at emphasizing one muscle over the others.
There is no shortage of conflicting advice about how many bicep sets per week is optimal. But as you’ve seen throughout this guide, we like to stick to the basics.
A good set and rep range is to do 5x5s. That means doing five sets of five reps each, using as much weight as you can manage for those five reps.
As part of your overall strength training plan, having arm days 2-3 times a week is more than enough.
Remember: your other workouts (like bench presses for your chest or rows for your back) will also indirectly train your arms. To avoid overtraining your arms, keep ‘arm days’ to only 2-3 times per week.
Believe it or not, you don’t need to go to the gym to enjoy optimal arm muscle growth. You can do it right at home, with nothing more than the weight on your body.
That’s right! Some of the most common bodyweight exercises like pushups, pull-ups or chin-ups, and dips are ideal for helping you build bigger and stronger arms. Plus, they have an added benefit.
Bodyweight exercises are, in some ways, superior to lifting free weights in the gym because you’re building more functional strength. Lifting weights is fantastic, but the range of motion is limited. When you’re pushing or lifting the weight of your body, you’re also forced to keep yourself balanced, therefore activating many smaller muscles to help you do so.
The growth of your arm muscles mostly happens outside of the gym. Besides rest and recovery (which we’ll explore later), your nutrition is also a critical factor. Let’s look at some common mistakes and strategies you should be aware of.
Here are the top three nutritional mistakes that people make when trying to build bigger and stronger arms.
Not Eating Enough: If you were trying to lose weight, you’d have to be in what’s known as a caloric deficit (i.e. eating fewer calories than you burn). However, you need to do the opposite when you’re trying to build bigger and stronger muscles, including those in your arm.
Quite often, people feel guilty about eating at a caloric surplus when they’re trying to build muscle. Not eating enough can hinder your muscle growth.
Not Eating Clean: Some people also embrace eating at a caloric surplus, but they’re doing it by eating the worst foods possible. Yes, you need to get more calories in. But getting those calories from things like fast food, processed goods, and things like ice cream and pizza will not give you the results you’re looking for.
The science is very clear on this: eating proper nutrients is critical to building bigger and stronger muscles, including those in your arms.
Focusing Too Much On Supplements: Supplements are meant to be an addition to your nutrition, not the core of it. Unfortunately, many people who want to get bigger arms tend to rely too much on supplements like whey protein powder, BCAAs, creatine, and so much more.
Instead, you should focus your attention on fine-tuning your nutrition before you even consider adding supplements to the mix.
Caloric Surplus: To gain muscle in your arms, you’ll need to eat at a caloric surplus. First, figure out what your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is. Then, aim to consume 300-500 more calories on top of that.
When you eat at a caloric surplus, you’ll provide your body with what it needs to encourage muscle growth in your arms.
Stay Hydrated: Staying hydrated at all times is crucial. Water helps to ensure that nutrients travel to where they’re needed, and it also helps your muscles flush out their waste. Overall, staying hydrated also helps you perform better in the gym, so your arm workouts are more beneficial.
Fine Tune Your Macronutrients: Let’s talk about macronutrients for a second. You might already know that there are three main macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and protein. To optimize your arm muscle growth, you’ll still need all three in your diet. However, you’ll need to tweak their portions.
Of course, it’s best to get your carbs from healthy sources like oatmeal and whole-grain bread.
Rest and recovery is probably the least exciting part of optimizing muscle growth for your arms. However, you could argue that it’s the most critical aspect of the entire equation. Let’s look at the typical rest and recovery mistakes and strategies you can use to speed up muscle growth.
Here are three of the most typical rest and recovery mistakes that hinder your arm muscle growth.
Ice Baths: This might be shocking news to you, but ice baths after workouts are NOT a good idea when you’re trying to build muscle. A number of scientific studies have shown that taking an ice bath after working out will decrease muscle strength and growth.
Sure, ice baths are helpful for people training for endurance. However, they can be counterproductive if you’re trying to build bigger and stronger arms.
Doing Back-to-back Arm Days: The muscles in your arms need sufficient at least 24-48 hours to recover between workouts. Unfortunately, some people love arm workouts so much that they have back-to-back arm days in their training schedule.
Overtraining this way can reduce your overall progress because your arm muscles don’t have enough time to rebuild bigger and stronger.
Drinking Alcohol: There’s a reason why top bodybuilders avoid alcohol like the plague. Alcohol causes your body to break down protein instead of producing more of it. And as you already know, protein forms the building blocks of your muscles.
Simply put, drinking alcohol will prevent your arm muscles from getting the protein they need to grow.
Active Recovery: There are two ways you can help your arm muscles recover after training: active and passive training. Passive training is straightforward: all you have to do is avoid exercising the same muscle and get plenty of sleep.
Active recovery, however, means to exercise but at a much lower intensity than normal. After a day of working out your arms, you can recover actively by taking a swim and moving your arms in a low-intensity way.
Doing that will help keep blood flowing to those muscles with the nutrients that they need to recover. This will speed up your overall recovery.
Massages: After working out your arms, your muscles will likely be sore. You can help get rid of that soreness by getting a massage. That massage will get rid of the tension in your muscles, allowing you to relax and sleep much better later.
Better sleep means more efficient recovery for your arm muscles.
Cardio: Don’t neglect your cardio! Performing cardio is excellent for overall recovery because it keeps oxygenated blood flowing everywhere it’s needed, including your recovering arm muscles.
Besides that, some kinds of cardio will also act as forms of active recovery for your arms. As mentioned earlier, swimming is a fantastic form of active recovery for your arms.
Yes, stretching will help you build bigger and stronger arms in both direct and indirect ways.
Firstly, stretching will lengthen your arm muscles which maximize its range of motion. A better range of motion means your arm workouts will be much more efficient.
Besides that, stretching also helps to increase blood circulation to those muscles. As we’ve seen several times before, blood will bring nutrients to the muscles while also removing waste like lactic acid.
When it comes to training your arms for optimal muscle growth, here’s the most important thing to understand: you’ll get the best results by taking a comprehensive approach. You can’t outwork a bad diet, which is why good nutrition is just as important as your training.
Besides that, muscle-building happens outside of the gym. Not only does that mean nutrition, but rest and recovery are also critical to the entire process of building bigger and stronger arms.
Growing big arm muscles takes a lot of time and commitment. If you’ve been training consistently and eating well, you should be able to start seeing results after a few weeks.
Post-workout soreness is normal, and there are several ways to reduce it. You can perform active recovery by engaging the same muscles at a much lower intensity. Or, you can stretch and massage the affected muscles.
These methods will help you reduce the muscle soreness you’re experiencing.
Supplements can be helpful, but they’re not a requirement to grow big biceps. Instead, you should focus on training consistently and fine-tuning your nutrition. Eat a caloric surplus and increase your protein intake to support your muscle growth.
Stick to the basics by doing five sets of five reps each. Once you’re comfortable doing that, you can consider changing your training volume (sets and reps) to whatever you feel is best for you.
Training to failure means performing as many reps as possible until you can’t do any more. Doing this once in a while can support your arm muscle growth. However, doing it too often is catabolic, i.e. it will break your muscles down instead of helping them grow bigger and stronger.