The Definitive Guide on How to Build Big Arms

If you're lifting then you probably want to look like you're lifting. And for many gym-goers, looking good includes owning a pair of arms that will put the seams on your sleeves to the test. Aesthetically, big arms are imposing and signal to others that you're actually hoisting iron. Functionally, bigger and stronger arms help you bench press, overhead press, and row with heavier weights; they are not just the end; they are a means to another end (much power).

Paul Aiken/Shutterstock

And while most people think that close-grip bench presses and standing curls are enough to target the smaller arm muscles, there's a science to building your arms. But there are four basics you need to take care of in order to fully understand how to build bigger arms.

Arm training tenants

  • muscle mechanics: That is, how your muscles move your joints. To fully develop your biceps and triceps, you need to know how they move so you can choose the right exercises for the job.
  • training volume: Volume – that is, how many total reps you do – has a dose-response relationship with hypertrophy. More training volume equals more muscle (provided you don't exceed your recovery capacity).
  • progression: The best progression model to use if you've never used one before is double progression. Simply put, double progression means that you only increase the weight within your lifts when you hit the top of a certain rep range across all your target sets.
  • training frequency: A comprehensive meta-analysis concluded that twice a week is better than once a week for maximizing growth, while frequencies of three or more may or may not be better. (1) Because biceps and triceps are two of the smaller muscle groups you can train, they recover faster. Training your arms three times a week is not uncommon. And when you get to the point in volume terms where you're pumping out 15-20 sets per session, it may make more sense to break those sets into 2-3 separate 8-set sessions.

muscle mechanics

It's important to understand arm biomechanics before understanding how best to train. So we need to quickly cover their basic anatomy first.

Anatomy diagram of the biceps musclestihii/Shutterstock

The biceps

The upper arm consists of three muscles in the anterior compartment. However, we only need to focus on two of these muscles:

  • biceps
  • brachialis
  • Coracobrachialis


The bicep consists of two heads: a long head commonly referred to as the "outer" and a short head known as the "inner." Both muscle heads originate from the shoulder blade and attach to the radius bone of the forearm. The biceps cross both the elbow and shoulder and can flex both the elbow (also called a curl) and shoulder (also called a front raise).


The stronger of the elbow flexors is the brachialis. It originates from the humerus bone of the upper arm and attaches to the ulna bone of the forearm. The brachialis is not involved in shoulder movement; it just bends the elbow.

The triceps

Anatomy diagram of the triceps muscleBy CFCF – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

In the posterior compartment of the upper arm is a major muscle: the triceps brachii. The triceps muscle has three heads:

  • long head
  • medial head
  • lateral head

The long head is the thicker or denser muscle seen in poses like double front biceps. The lateral head or "horseshoe" muscle is what you see most visibly in the lateral triceps pose, and the medial head is a deeper muscle that isn't as prominent on the surface as the other two.

The primary function of the triceps is elbow flexion. All three heads cross the elbow joint and attach to the ulnar bone of the forearm. The lateral and medial heads both originate at the humeral bone of the upper arm, with the long head crossing the shoulder joint and arising at the scapula.

More considerations

Both the biceps and triceps are involved in pulling and pushing movements. As such, it's not uncommon to hear that back and chest exercises are enough to stimulate the bis and tris. And there are several studies that have shown that pull-ups and rows induce high levels of bicep activation and that horizontal pressing engages the triceps (2)(3)(4). However, Pull and push exercises alone may not be enough maximize Development of biceps and triceps.

When you rely on indirect motion exercises to activate the arms, the biceps and triceps only get some of the tension. However, your arms will get hit when you train your chest and back, and it's important to keep that in mind when training. If you train your back hard twice a week, you probably don't need 2-3 dedicated bicep workouts.

Instead, it's probably wise to focus more sets on medium (8-12) and high (12-20) rep ranges for recovery purposes and to avoid redundancies. Since the triceps are also engaged during heavy vertical or horizontal pressing movements, it may be advisable to focus more of your sets on moderate (8-12) and high (12-20) rep ranges for recovery purposes.

Ok, now that you have a better understanding of these arm training basics, let's get back to a big topic in arm training: exercise variance. You might think that simple curls and stretches are enough to stimulate the muscles, but arm training has more nuance. Your arm muscles move through different areas throughout the range of motion.

In order to stimulate our muscles throughout their contractile range, we need to challenge them at these three points:

  • middle class: Barbell curls, close-grip bench press
  • Stretched (stretched position): Incline curls, French press
  • Shortened (contracted position): High Cable Curl, Cable Pushdown

"Well then, I'll just make sure I'm lifting with full range of motion (ROM) with every movement," you say. Now, hold on. Lifting with only full range of motion is a great movement (so kudos), but you still need to choose movements that engage the muscle the most in each of the three areas listed above. The goal is meaningful arm training not completing a move with a full ROM, instead being challenged throughout the ROM.

Put everything together

Ok, so where do you go from here? You have probably already looked at the charts below and realized that there is still a lot to do. Don't freak out yet. If you take a closer look, you'll see that most of the following moves are only done for two sets of high reps. The goal of the program below isn't to decimate your biceps; it's dividing a moderate amount of work (10 sets for each muscle group) into all three ranges of motion.

training explained

There is nothing complicated about this routine. First you choose a primary movement for your biceps and one for your triceps. These exercises preferably target the lengthening or shortening area, as these are the areas that most people ignore. You'll perform the main exercise for four sets of six to eight heavy reps at a 3-0-1-0 tempo (lowering phase-pause below, raising phase-pause above).

After that, you'll blast your arms with a circuit of three moves known as a triset, each of which targets the middle, lengthen, and shortened areas. The trisets are marked with the same letters ("A" and "B"). Think of this as a template for your sets, reps, and exercise choices. If you want to lock out the following moves for others, that's fine, but make sure you hit every ROM.

exercise sequence Sets & Reps tempo Relax target area
A1) EZ-Bar French Press 4×6-8 3010 60 seconds Extended
A2) Incline DB Curl 4×6-8 3010 60-90 seconds Extended
B1) Tricep Pushdown 2 x 10-12 2011 15 seconds Shortened
B2) DB Skull Crusher 2 x 12-14 2010 15 seconds middle class
B3) Cable overhead cable extension 2 x 15 2110 60 seconds Extended
C1) DB Spider Curl 2 x 10-12 2011 15 seconds Shortened
C2) Standing EZ Bar Curl 2 x 12-14 2010 15 seconds middle class
C3) DB Preacher Curl 2 x 15 2110 60 seconds Extended

Be mindful of the tempo of each exercise, especially the triset sequence, as you'll notice a pause in the shortened position exercises (hard contraction) and a pause in the extended position (full stretch). Taking these into account will get your arms pumped like you've never seen them before.

While you could certainly do this thrice a week, focus on quality over quantity first. In doing so, you focus on the quality of work done as part of the training twice a week for six weeks before taking it to the next level by completing it three times a week.

Another aspect of moving forward with this plan is to change the primary exercises from an extended to a contracted focus and do the same with the triset exercises. After at least 2-3 rotations of that, you can then begin to reintroduce the middle exercises as the primary focus while the others take a back seat. It should look like this:

exercise sequence Sets & Reps tempo Relax target area
A1) Push triceps down 4×6-8 3010 60 seconds Shortened
A2) Ez Bar Spider Curl 4×6-8 3010 60-90 seconds Shortened
B1) Extension of the triceps overhead on the cable pulley 2 x 10-12 2110 15 seconds Extended
B2) DB Skull Crusher 2 x 12-14 2010 15 seconds middle class
B3) Triceps extension on the one-arm rope 2 x 15 2011 60 seconds Shortened
C1) DB Incline Curl 2 x 10-12 2110 15 seconds Extended
C2) Standing EZ Bar Curl 2 x 12-14 2010 15 seconds middle class
C3) High cable curvature 2 x 15 2011 60 seconds Shortened

Nutritional Considerations

To maximize your muscle growth you must eat within a calorie surplus then you cannot expect to gain any significant amount of muscle mass. Against this background, some recommendations regarding your food intake:

  • Eat 5-10% above your maintenance needs (calorie excess).
  • Eat four to five times a day. That can be three meals plus two shakes or four meals plus one shake. Make sure it fits your lifestyle and daily routine, but keep your protein feeding times regular.
  • For your macros, aim to eat 35% protein/35% carbs/and 30% fat. Let's say you eat 3,000 calories a day, that's 262.5 grams of protein, 262.5 grams of carbohydrates, and 100 grams of fat.
  • Excessive supplementation is not necessary to grow. Your standard multivitamin, fish oil, and probiotics provide a great base of support.


  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sport Med. 2016;46(11):1689-1697. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8.
  2. Youdas JW, Amundson CL, Cicero KS, Hahn JJ, Harezlak DT, Hollman JH. Surface electromyographic patterns of activation and movement of the elbow joint during a pull-up, pull-up, or perfect rotation pull-up exercise. J-Starke Cond Res. 2010;24(12):3404-3414. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181f1598c.
  3. Snarr RL, Esco MR. Comparison of electromyographic activity when performing an inverted row with and without a suspension device. J Exercise Physiol. 2013;16(6):12-22.
  4. Barnett C, Kippers V, Turner P. Effects of bench press exercise variations on EMG activity of 5 deltoid muscles. 1995:222-227.

Featured image: Paul Aiken/Shutterstock

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