“Muscle confusion” is more of a marketing concept than a principle of serious training. Many trainees seem to have adopted the opposite approach by remaining on the same program for far too long. Their program likely worked well for them initially. Then they notice they haven’t experienced any notable gains in muscular size or strength in months, or even years.
Yet they continue to persist in banging away at the same exercises. They’ll use the same number of sets and reps, often in the same order. And yet somehow, they expect a miraculous burst of progress. Optimism is a wonderful thing, but this is closer to a delusion. Ignoring reality is never the way to maximize one’s results
This is especially true when it comes to training so many people’s favorite body part – arms! People tend to fall into a routine of using the same exercises for the same number of sets and reps, with little meaningful variation. Theres no attempt at any kind of periodized approach. Plus, there’s little understanding of how the various exercises function together.
FAST TWITCH & SLOW TWITCH MUSCLE
I have worked with many NHL hockey players over the years. I have noticed that all the “enforcers” have both fast-twitch biceps and triceps. In contrast, all the guys who score lots of goals have fast-twitch triceps and slow-twitch biceps. There is a reason for this. Slow-twitch muscles have greater endurance. This allows for extended periods of fine motor control. This is crucial for activities such as stick handling and shooting. Contrast this with having a greater percentage of fast-twitch fibers. This is an advantage when it comes to brief, explosive efforts, such as dominating opposing players in the corners or in front of the net. It should be noted that the triceps are more universally fast-twitch dominant. In biceps, there is more variation in fiber-type composition.
This example demonstrates why training programs should take each individual’s personal characteristics into consideration. This is true with both exercise selection, volume, and intensity of the workload. Specific muscles that are either fast-twitch or slow-twitch dominant will respond differently to level of volume and intensity. Understanding what you are dealing with will make your training programs much more effective.
Another consideration is the mechanical nature and strength curve of different exercises. Take for example upper-body exercises such as the close-grip bench press and dips. These begin in the strongest position and with the muscles at their resting length. As the resistance is lowered through the eccentric phase in such exercises, the working muscles and tendons lengthen. They collect elastic energy, which is then used to assist the muscles in lifting the weight back to the starting position during the concentric phase. This is known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle.
There are movements that do not begin in the advantageous starting position. These may include triceps kickbacks or push-downs. They begin with the working muscles in a lengthened position. Thus, they have no means to collect elastic energy to assist in the completion of the movement.
I’ve noticed something about exercise selection and arm development. The vast majority of men with underdeveloped arms perform little or no direct work for the brachialis. Most guys with big arms give this muscle the specific attention it requires. The brachialis tends to be fast-twitch dominant, so low to moderate repetitions should be used when training it. For this reason, the reverse curl might be the most under-rated and under-utilized arm exercise. If your arm development has hit a serious plateau, add reverse curls to the start of all your biceps workouts. Any type of curl performed position will hit the brachialis effectively. Either with the palms facing down or with the hands in a semi-supinated (neutral or parallel grip).
Trainees need to pay attention to both the fiber type that predominates in each muscle. The biceps are commonly slow-twitch and benefit most from sets of 8-12 reps. While the triceps are usually fast-twitch. This means that sets of 4-6 reps are optimal. The significance of each exercise in their training program shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Eventually, even those following the principles I have outlined above are going to hit a plateau in their results. Let’s say you have been busting your butt in the gym doing the “right stuff”. At this point you will have to do something dramatic to break through your plateau and reach a new level of development. The purpose of the following 5 methods is to increase your arm strength. So when you return to your regular routine, you will be able to use heavier weights. This will increase your potential for muscular growth. Only use one of these methods per session. Cycle back to your regular routine after completing anywhere from two to six arm workouts.
Here are the 5 Best Arm Blasting Techniques:
1) The Descending Singles Method
Begin with your 1RM weight and perform a single, perfect rep. Lower the weight by 2% to 5%, rest 10 seconds, and complete another single, perfect rep. Repeat this process until you have completed 5-7 reps in total, then rest for at least four minutes and perform another series. Then repeat this entire process again for a total of three series of 5-7 singles.
Attempt to add more weight to the bar each workout, even if it is just 2.5 pounds. Many barbell collars weigh 1.25 pounds each and 1.25 pound plates or Platemates make small progressions easy. This method can be used for both the biceps and the triceps.
2) The Extended Eccentrics Method
Select a weight you can only curl for 4 reps. After completing the 4th rep, stop and increase the weight by about 20%. Have your training partner assist you in lifting the weight through the concentric phase. Note that this is not a forced rep – your partner should do most of the lifting.
You should then slowly lower the weight without any assistance, taking 8 seconds to move through the eccentric phase. Then repeat both of these steps. After resting for 4-5 minutes, repeat the entire process again. You should complete three sets in this manner.
3) Contrast Training
Do 5 reps with the most weight you can manage with good form. This should be a true max effort set. Increase this weight by approximately 15% and rest 3-4 minutes, then curl the bar as high as you can without cheating, which will likely be about 30 degrees. Do a static hold in that position for 8 seconds, then lower the bar and repeat, although you might only be able to lift the bar 20 degrees this time. Do another 8 second static hold before lowering the bar.
Add between 2% and 5% to your previous 5RM and rest 3-4 minutes, then perform a set of 5 full reps. This will be possible because the 8 second static holds will cause post-tetanic facilitation, which causes a temporary increase in strength of about 2%-5%. Once again, increase this new weight by approximately 15% and rest 3-4 minutes, then perform two more reps with 8 second static holds.
Reload the bar with your new 5RM, rest 3-4 minutes, and perform a final 5 full reps. This method works best for training the biceps.
4) The Post-Tetanic Facilitation Method
Place the safety rods in a power rack at a height that will only allow you to curl a bar 4-5 inches. Curl the bar up to the rods and exert a maximum isometric effort against them for 8 seconds, then have your training partner “slam” the bar with their fists. The purpose of this is to cause the biceps to stretch rapidly under a sudden, dynamic load, which will cause the highest threshold muscle fibers to contract in order to protect the biceps from injury. More muscle fiber recruitment leads to more muscle growth.
Load the bar with 2% to 5% more than what you would typically use for curls with a full range of motion. Post-tetanic facilitation will enable you to successfully lift this heavier weight.
After a 3-4 minute rest, perform a second set with the isometric effort and “slam”. Then rest another 3-4 minutes and perform another set of full curls with the same weight you used previously.
This method is suitable only for training the biceps, not the triceps. Also, note that the power rack rods are set so you can only lift the weight 4-5 inches at most. If your training partner were to slam the bar when it is around the mid-point of the curl this could result in an injury to your biceps.
5) Strength Curve Supersets
In anatomical terms, the origin of a muscle is the section attached to the bone that is fixed during a movement, while the insertion is the section attached to the bone that moves when the muscle is contracted. Supersetting two movements that each target one of these sections results in a comprehensive and particularly exhausting workout for the muscle being worked.
For example, for the biceps perform 4-6 reps of close-grip chin-ups (hands supinated) or close-grip supinated pull-downs (if necessary), then rest about 10 seconds and perform 8-10 reps of incline dumbbell curls.
Complete five of these supersets, taking about two minutes rest between sets. If you put in the expected effort, your biceps will be very sore for several days.
The reason this combination is so effective is because each exercise has different strength curve and therefore targets a different portion of the muscle – the biceps have to work hardest during the top portion of the chin-ups and this works the area closer to the origin most effectively, while the incline dumbbell curls are hardest during the initial phase, which hits the area closer to the insertion.
A similar superset for the triceps based on the same principle could include weighted dips followed by overhead triceps extensions with either a rope or EZ-Curl bar. Perform 5 reps of weighted dips followed by 10-12 reps of triceps extensions, resting no more than 10 seconds between each exercise. After resting for 2 minutes, repeat the superset. Complete a total of 5 supersets and be prepared for significant soreness over the coming days. Consider yourself warned.
In summary, if your arms have reached a plateau in development there are two solutions that have been proven effective. The first is to complete a short training cycle that is focused on increasing the strength of your upper arms, which will allow you to use heavier weights when you go back to your regular training routine. Increased resistance for the same rep range will result in increased development. The second option is to use methods such as supersets that create more mechanical stress on the muscles.
Now you understand what it takes to reach new levels of arm development, but knowledge is useless without putting it into practice. Put your best effort into these workouts and you will not be disappointed in the results.
NOW – GO ARM YOURSELF!
About the Author
Charles R Poliquin is recognized as one of the World’s most accomplished strength coaches who attributes his success to the quest for the “magical training program”. His drive to find the Holy Grail of strength training began as a child when he heard his calling in the library instead of the church. Charles’ quest has lead him to produce hundreds of medals, wins and personal bests for many elite athletes in over 17 different sports including athletes from summer and winter Olympics, the NHL, and NFL. He is known worldwide for producing faster and stronger athletes.
As the creator of Poliquin Performance Center, Charles spent years teaching coaches worldwide a better way of getting results with their clients. Now as Strength Sensei he shares his acquired knowledge and wisdom with the emerging leaders in the strength and conditioning field. Now after decades of disciplined research and training he has refined his craft so he can educate the dedicated few who want to maximize their learning so they can bring their results back to their athletes
Charles now dedicates his time to educate strength coaches from around the world so they can produce world class athletes.
To view more of Charles’s articles on training methodology, nutrition, and supplementation, visit www.strengthsensei.com .