This isn’t going to be your typical arm training article. I am not going to go into a long-winded introduction about the need to develop more size on your arms. If you are a male bodybuilder it goes without saying you want bigger arms, no matter if they are 15 inches or 20 inches. You wouldn’t be reading this article otherwise. This article will not give you training routines pulled from my imagination or abstractly thought up. These will be routines that I used and got my arms to their all-time biggest size. These routines work if you don’t mind pain, ache, and burn in the biceps and triceps – with a rock-hard pump.
There are many good ways to develop larger biceps and triceps. A time-proven way is to use the heavy-light training principle. Do a basic compound movement for low reps and heavy weights to work and thicken the white “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. Then follow that with supersets or trisets to pump the muscle to the max. This will develop the capillaries and the red “slow-twitch” muscle fibers. This is what John Parrillo calls “cardiovascular density.” If you have reached a sticking point with straight sets, then this method is excellent.
I first became interested in training my biceps and triceps with trisets after sending away for Larry Scott’s training courses back in 1972. Larry was a two-time Mr. Olympia champion and was famous for his near 20 inch guns. Larry said the secret to building larger arms was to train them at high intensity for short intervals. Larry said to get the greatest amount of pump in the least amount of time and the fewest number of sets. He called this training “racing the pump.” It was also called “quality training.”
Larry’s routine for biceps was dumbbell preacher curl for 6 reps plus 4 burns (partial reps). This was followed immediately by barbell preacher curl for 6 reps plus 4 burns. Finally, immediately do EZ-bar reverse curls for 6 reps and 4 burns, for five trisets. Larry said to try to achieve the greatest amount of pump with the least amount of sets.
Larry’s routine was painful and difficult to do. It was too extreme for me and too advanced. I just couldn’t do barbell preacher curls after just having done dumbbell preacher curls, and five trisets was more than I could do. I modified Larry’s routine and came up with the following routine: barbell preacher curl for 6 to 8 reps, followed immediately by barbell curls for 6 to 8 reps, plus a couple of cheat reps, followed by EZ-bar reverse curls for 6 to 8 reps plus a couple of cheat reps.
I did this triset three or four times, depending on my energy levels on any given day (most days it was just three trisets). I took no rest between exercises and only one minute rest between trisets. Even my own triset was painful and difficult to do. The burn and ache in my biceps was extreme. By the time I got to the EZ-bar reverse curls the bar was falling out of my hands.
But it worked. It blew my arms up to their all-time biggest size. I never actually measured them, but I can say that when I went to sleep at night I could put the fingers of my right hand on the biceps and triceps of my left, and my fingers could not reach the top of my biceps. Pumped, they were probably 17 to 17 ½ inches, which doesn’t sound like much with all the talk of 22 and 23 inch arms of professional bodybuilders. But for a guy who started with 12 inch upper arms as a beginner, it was a dramatic improvement. I estimate this routine added 1 ½ to 2 inches to my arms in only four months.
Two-thirds of your upper arm size is triceps. I used trisets on them too. But triceps were trained in heavy-light format. I began with decline triceps extensions using an EZ-curl bar for sets of 12, 10, 8, and 6 reps. I pyramided up in weight each set, resting about 60 to 90 seconds between sets. Reg Park, three-time NABBA Mr. Universe, favored decline extensions overlying triceps extensions. I think it is a superior way of doing triceps extensions. This is because it is easier to keep the elbows pointed at the ceiling throughout the set. Also, the range of motion is much greater.
Decline triceps extensions were followed by close-grip bench presses using the descending rep principle. I loaded up the bar with a lot of 10-pound plates. I did sets of 15, 12, 10, 8, and 6 reps, decreasing the weight each set, so my first set was my heaviest. I trained alone at that time and I rested only as long between sets as it took to strip a pair of 10-pound plates from the bar. Then I would begin my next set until all five sets were done. One trick to work the triceps harder and to increase contraction is to feel as though you are pushing the bar slightly toward the feet by two or three inches. Mohamed Makkawy taught me this when I wrote his Variable Angle Training courses for him in 1984.
Next came a triset of either French presses with a single dumbbell or seated triceps extensions with an EZ-curl bar. This was followed by triceps pushdowns, followed by triceps dips-between-benches. I sometimes did a single drop on the pushdowns (always on the last triset for sure). And I always did a drop set on the triceps dips-between-benches. Usually, I would begin with a 45-pound plate across my lap, do as many reps as I could until failure, then dump the 45-pound plate to the floor and rep out till failure again. This gave my triceps a rock-hard pump.
Mohamed Makkawy told me on triceps dips not to just push up and down, but to push and lean back at the top to make the triceps contract. Then, slowly lower back down. It does make a difference. Try it and you’ll feel the triceps contracting harder.
I found three trisets were all I needed to work my triceps to the max. That is, after the decline triceps extensions and the close-grip bench presses. Because I rested only a minute between trisets I found I could train both biceps and triceps in less than an hour.
• Barbell preacher curls: 3-4 x 6-8 reps
• Barbell curls: 3-4 x 6-8 reps, plus a couple of cheat reps.
• EZ-bar reverse curls: 3-4 x 6-8 plus a couple of cheat reps.
• Decline triceps extensions: 1 x 12, 10, 8, 6
• Close-grip bench presses: Descending reps: 1 x 15, 12, 10, 8, 6
• Seated EZ-bar extensions or French presses: 3 x 6-8
• Triceps pushdowns:3 x 6-8
• Triceps dips-between-benches: 3 x ’til failure, then drop set
While trisets are a great way to work the muscles hard, some people are bothered psychologically. This is because they have to use lighter weights when performing trisets. It makes no difference to the muscle (your biceps can’t tell if you are curling 100 pounds or 75 pounds). And the muscle probably works harder when you use lighter weights when doing trisets. I have been harping on this point for years. Don’t lift the weight, work the muscle! Use the “Blood Volume Theory” because muscles that pump the best always grow the best too. While muscles that pump poorly, or refuse to pump at all, grow poorly, if the grow at all.
I have to admit that there are several drawbacks to trisets, besides not being able to use heavy weights (although Larry Scott could. He would use 85-pound dumbbells on the dumbbell preacher curls, and 135 pounds on the barbell preacher curls, then 135 pounds on the EZ-bar reverse curls for five trisets!). It may seem as if you go stale on trisets after a while because they are taxing and grueling to perform. After a while, both the mind and the body start to rebel. The more you use high-intensity training principles, the less total sets you should do.
It’s like what happens to bodybuilders who try to do forced reps and negatives on every set. They overtrain and fail to make good gains because they are in a constant overtrained state. Even Dorian Yates, infamous for his intense workouts, said he could perform forced reps and negatives for only three weeks. Then he would fail to recover and feel overtrained. For the next six weeks, he would train just to failure, which is plenty intense enough.
Vince Gironda, the famed “Iron Guru” was against forced reps and said they put the body into shock. Vince said the most a bodybuilder can train with maximum intensity was only three weeks. He suggested all bodybuilders train on a 21/7 day schedule. That meant training for three weeks and then for one-week training at much less intensity. Or even taking the entire fourth week off—or do a week of “Active rest.”
Active rest is a technique the Bulgarians developed for their world-class weightlifters. During the week of active rest you decrease the number of sets done (50 to 60 percent). And you drop the amount of weight used by at least half. Then do low-intensity sets for the working muscle. This way, you maintain muscle tone in the muscle and avoid extreme muscle soreness.
There is a fine line between training intensely and training too intensely. Bob Kennedy once said to me, “Sometimes gains must be coaxed, not forced.” Eight-time Mr. Olympia champ Lee Haney said, “You should train to stimulate your muscles, not annihilate them.” Both four-time NABBA Mr. Universe champ Bill Peal and 1945 AAU Mr. America Clancy Ross, said if you cannot train a muscle properly with 15 sets, you are not concentrating properly.
It is worth noting that both Bill Pearl and Lou Ferrigno did not believe in training past failure or even to absolute failure. Neither did three-time Mr. Olympia champ Sergio Oliva. All three men believed you should stop one or even two reps before failure. They did not think training past failure was too hard on the muscle (although it can be). They felt it was too hard on the nervous system and the recovery systems of the body. All three men believed it was the volume of training they did (about 20 to 24 sets per muscle), and not overtaxing the nervous and recovery systems of the body that made their muscles grow.
Don’t think they trained easy. Bill Pearl could so seated dumbbell curls with 100-pound dumbbells for five sets of 6 reps. He could bench press 480 pounds and squat with 600 pounds. Sergio could do behind-the-neck presses with over 300 pounds for 20 reps, and squat 550 pounds for four reps. He could bench press 225 pounds for 50 reps. Ferrigno could also lift some pretty heavy weights.
Unfortunately, many amateur and recreational bodybuilders think every set is a battle and every workout is a war. They think they have to train past failure using forced reps and negatives on every set. They ignore their body’s warning systems that they are overtraining, hence they fail to make the gains they should.
A rather ingenious way of getting all the benefits of compound supersetting is to do two exercises. One for the biceps then followed up with an exercise for the triceps. For example, you might triset preacher curls, barbell curls, and hammer curls. Then do dips, or lying or decline triceps extensions.
Why do the antagonistic movement? Because it helps the muscle worked by compound supersets or trisets to recover better. Doing a triceps exercise after either supersetting two biceps exercises relieves the pressure on the biceps. It also lessens fatigue, and you feel fresher and stronger when you begin your next set.
Whenever you do a biceps exercise you also work the triceps to a lesser degree. And when you do a triceps exercise, you work biceps to a lesser degree, so you lessen fatigue in the muscle worked by compound supersets or trisets. It’s why you recover better after a long run by walking around a while rather than just flopping to the ground. Many bodybuilders are skeptical of this.
But believe it or not, I can do more wide-grip chins if I precede each set with a set of bench presses, than if I did consecutive sets of chins on their own.
After doing bench presses my body feels light and my arms feel stronger, and I can get at least two or three extra reps of chins each set. In the same way you will feel less fatigue in the muscle by doing an antagonistic movement as part of your set, and you will be able to use heavier weights. The muscle feels refreshed after the antagonistic movement.
I should add that this only works for bodybuilders who are at least intermediate or advanced. Beginners will not feel stronger because, well, they are beginners. They should not even be doing supersets or trisets yet. They need to build strength and muscle and to learn how to do exercises correctly before they can reap the benefits of supersets. Especially of the compound nature.
These routines are best utilized by bodybuilders training on one major muscle group a day routine. Splitting the body five ways and training either five times a week and resting on weekends, or either training two days on-one day off. Or evenone-day-on one-day-off. I have been using a one-day-on one-day-off routine for over six months now and I feel I am recovering and growing better.
• Day 1: chest
• Day 2: lats and lower back
• Day 3: Delts and traps
• Day 4: Arms
• Day 5: Legs
• Days 6 and 7: rest
No matter how you choose to split your routine, take as little rest as possible between exercises and only 60 to 90 seconds between trisets. This ensures a fast tempo to your workout and also guarantees a burn in the muscle with a deep ache and a maximum pump. You can adjust the number of trisets or giant sets you do depending on your level of experience. Those more advanced may want to do as many as five trisets (as Larry Scott did) while the less advanced might do only two or three trisets. If in doubt, do fewer trisets, not more.
A good way to know how many trisets to do is by monitoring your pump. Larry Scott, Vince Gironda, and John Parrillo agree that when you lose your pump, you’ve done too many sets. Say you’ve done three trisets and your arms are pumped like balloons. Then you do a fourth triset or giant set and your pump decreases. This is a sign that you have used up all the glycogen in the muscle and it is time to stop. Further training is detrimental to recovery and growth as well.
Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. No guesswork or wondering how much to do. Let your pump determine how many sets you should do. Keep in mind that your ability to perform a certain number of sets not only depends on how much glycogen you have in the muscle, but also your state of nutrition.
Other factors may be how well you ate and how many grams of protein and carbs you consumed, how well you slept the night before, how stressful your day was, and many different factors. Some days you will feel stronger and have more energy and enthusiasm for your training. Not every day will be the same. You should feel as though your biceps are going to burst through the skin. Anything less means you are slacking off and not training at the greatest intensity.
The key is your nutrition. The harder you train, the better your nutrition must be if you are to recover from your workouts and to grow—John Parrillo told me that. The biggest mistake a bodybuilder can make is to underestimate the importance of proper nutrition. I’ve talked to some professional bodybuilders who have told me it is better to miss a workout than to miss a meal. Both Larry Scott and Vince Gironda went on record saying bodybuilding muscle was 80 percent diet and nutrition. They were not saying you could make 80 percent more gains by not training and following a perfect diet. What they were saying is if you train and follow the perfect training routine, but your diet and nutrition is poor you’ll make 80 percent less gains!
Another key factor in gaining size on your arms is your bodyweight. It is generally accepted that for every one inch gained on the arms you need to increase your muscle mass by 10 to 15 pounds. Don’t think you can stay the same bodyweight for years and you will develop 18 or 20 inch arms. No way, Jose! Most professional bodybuilders have gained anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds of muscle from the time they first began training.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had to gain 90 pounds of bodyweight to take his arms from 15 inches when he was 15 to almost 20 inches when he was 19.
The skinnier you are, and the faster your metabolism is, you might need 6000 to 8000 calories a day and 250 to 300 grams of protein a day to gain weight. If you find gaining even one pound of bodyweight a difficult task, you don’t have to worry about adding body fat by eating calorie dense foods. Restricting fats for an ectomorph only restricts growth and gains in bodyweight.
My friend Roger Stewart, a former top competitor in the NPC, once told me he only gained muscular bodyweight when he ate two pounds of red meat a day and either a gallon of cream or a gallon of ice cream (along with other foods). He told me, “Greg, if I ate like a typical bodybuilder—egg whites, tuna in water, chicken breasts, baked potato, rice, and raw or steamed vegetables—I would blow away in the wind because I would be so skinny.”
So if you are an ectomorph and you are trying to gain weight on egg whites and chicken breasts and rice and potatoes, you are doomed to fail. If you are an endomorph, fat and chubby, then you need those foods. But skinny guys who eat like professional bodybuilders in pre-contest diets are only holding back gains.
The body adapts to any kind of training. So I recommend you change exercises whenever you feel you have gone stale and the muscle is no longer responding the way it had been. It’s also a good way to prevent boredom and to shock the muscle into new growth. There are so many good exercises for both the biceps and triceps so it is not difficult to substitute one exercise for another. Strength authority Charles Poliquin says the body can adapt to any training routine in as little as six workouts. On the other hand, Lee Priest says many people change routines and exercises before they’ve given them a chance to work.
If you’ve reached a plateau on arm size, and you feel your biceps and triceps are no longer growing as fast as you’d like, give this triset routine a try. It is just the ticket to get those arms growing again. And, remember, the babes love big arms on a man. That should give you motivation when your arms are burning and aching like crazy doing trisets.
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.