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build big arms: man curling dumbbell

The Do’s And Don’ts For Building Big Arms

Building muscle mass comes with a slew of benefits, from revving your metabolism, to protecting yourself from injury, to strengthening your bones. And, of course, some of the perks are straight-up aesthetic. 

If you crave a hardcore arm pump and would dub “busting out of t-shirts” as one of your primary training goals, we hear you. We also know that it takes a bit of strategy to keep your arms growing. Here, trainers break down some of the biggest do’s and don’ts to keep in mind if you want your gym time to translate to massive arms.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Jenny Liebl, C.P.T., is an elite trainer and an ISSA senior content developer. Rachel MacPherson, C.P.T., is a trainer and a pain-free performance specialist at Garage Gym Reviews. Kim Yawitz, R.D., is registered dietitian and owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, Mo. Ryan Horton, is a C.S.C.S. trainer who spent two decades as a collegiate sports performance coach (most recently as the Director of Sports Science at Georgia Tech) and the owner of Horton Barbell. Sergio Pedemnote, C.P.T., is a celebrity trainer and CEO of Your House Fitness.

Do: Lift to Near failure

Whether you’re training your arms, legs, or pinky toes, what matters most is not necessarily the rep range you lift in but whether you lift to within two or three repetitions of failure, says  Jenny Liebl, C.P.T., an elite trainer with the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). This means you should only be able to eek out a couple more reps when you finish a set. If you leave more than that in the tank, you’re likely not challenging your muscles enough to force them to grow.

That said, as long as you hit this threshold, you can play around with your weight, rep range, and number of sets as you like, Liebl says. “You most likely don’t want to lift heavy every time you train, so sometimes using a lighter weight and more reps makes sense, too,” she explains. On one training day, you might use heavy weights for your biceps curls and only get six reps for three sets. On another, you might grab a lighter weight that you can do 20 reps with for three sets.

Do: Emphasize Compound Movements

When you’re focusing on growing your arms, your first thoughts may be to curls and triceps pushdowns, says Ryan Horton, C.S.C.S., a trainer who spent two decades as a collegiate sports performance coach and the owner of Horton Barbell

While those exercises will help build muscle and have their place, if you truly want to add mass to your arms, you need to emphasize compound movements in your program, Horton says. Compound movements work multiple muscle groupsthink squats, deadlifts, and bent-over rows—whereas isolation movements only focus on one muscle group. 

Read More: How To Preserve Muscle When Your Gym Routine Is Disrupted

Because exercises like the bench press and bent-over row allow you to move a lot more weight than isolation exercises, you ultimately put on more mass over time. “Don’t be fooled that those exercises are just chest or back moves; the arms are putting in a ton of work as well,” Horton says. Bottom line: Keep incorporating these foundational moves and trust that they will grow your arms!

Don’t: Expect Growth From A Single Arm Day

A common mistake people make is not working the arm muscles frequently enough to see significant gains, says trainer Sergio Pedemnote, C.P.T., CEO of Your House Fitness. It’s a misconception that you can work on arms just once a week and expect growth. 

His advice: Target the arm muscles at least two to three times a week (preferably three) on nonconsecutive days so the muscle fibers have time to recover. Of course, some of this work can be tacked on to chest- or back-focused workouts to ensure you get all of those sessions in, but having a day that’s dedicated solely to your arms is also a good idea. 

Do: Focus on Your Shoulders

To build big arms that look proportionate, full, and strong, you need to focus on working all the muscles of your arms, including your shoulders, says certified trainer Rachel MacPherson, C.P.T., a pain-free performance specialist with Garage Gym Reviews. FYI: The shoulder muscles include not only the deltoids (which create that nice round cap at the top of the arms) but the trapezius muscles (which form a large triangle at the back of your shoulder), too. The bigger your shoulder muscles, the broader you become.

And in case you’re tempted to skip the shrugs and other trap work, consider this: “Large shoulders also look much better when you develop your trap muscles,” MacPherson says. 

Her go-to exercises for all-around shoulder size include upright rows, front raises, and face pulls. (Here are some more trainer-loved shoulder moves if you need the extra inspiration.) Give them at least as much attention as the other muscles in your arms and your shoulders will be looking bigger and badder in no time.

Don’t: Skimp On Your Triceps

A lot of times, lifters who want bigger arms go straight for the curls. And it makes sense; when you look in the mirror head-on, the biceps are what you see! Don’t forget, though, that the triceps are actually much bigger than the biceps so they need (and deserve!) lots of attention, MacPherson says.

“A lot of people focus on the biceps because those are the muscles that you are taught to flex when you’re showing off your arms,” she says. But your triceps actually take up about two-thirds of your upper arms and are crucial for having arms that look big and balanced from 360 degrees.

Read More: 6 Strength Training Tweaks To Ease And Prevent Back Pain

On arm training days, include at least one movement that works the long head of the triceps and one that works the short head. 

The long head is the portion of your tricep that sits on the inner part of your arm (it’s also the largest part of the tricep), she explains. Exercises like JM presses, close-grip bench presses, overhead triceps extensions, skull crushers, and kickbacks are particularly effective for this part of the triceps. 

Meanwhile, pushdowns and dips really hit the lateral head (which some also call the short head) hard. “It sits on the outside of the upper arm and has a curved appearance that can make your arms look more muscular,” explains MacPherson.

Do: Get Enough Protein

As with any muscle, if you want to build bigger arms, you need to get enough calories and, in particular, plenty of protein, says dietitian Kim Yawitz, R.D., owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, MO. 

A good starting point is 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily, she says. “You may find it difficult to gain muscle mass eating less than that, but protein intakes much higher than that can also make it more difficult to get enough calories for muscle growth,” she says. (That’s because protein is so darn satiating!)

Here are nine easy ways to get more protein onto your plate and into your muscles, plus some of the latest protein snacks and bars to stash in your gym bag.

Don’t: Do Arms Every Day

It might be tempting to do arms all the time when you’re trying to pack on mass (what’s an extra set of curls here and some lateral raises there, right?), but you need to give them ample rest if you want to see sizeable gains. 

“Building muscle is like painting a fence,” Horton says. “If you put on a coat of paint and then come back while it’s still wet and try to paint it again, then you’ll just end up smearing paint everywhere.” Work your arms hard in the weight room, then let them recover by giving them proper rest and nutrition before you hit the weight room hard again, he suggests.

One sure sign that your all-day-every-day arms approach is too much? Achy or injured elbows, which are prone to connective tissue issues when worked too much, Liebl notes. Stagnant performance will also let you know when more recovery time is needed.

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