Next to “six pack abs,” the one muscle group that almost every man and woman wants the most is arms. So, instead of boring you with a ton of arm training physiology and long words like capillarization and coracobrachialis (yawn), and instead of giving you a single arm routine (gets old too fast), I’m going to skip the science and theory and go straight to the good stuff!
In this article, I am simply going to give you a master list - an “anthology” - of the most result-producing arm routines in bodybuilding history! Here's how I compiled this list: I went back into my old training journals looking for “5 star workouts.” What's a 5 star workout? Glad you asked: It's simply part of my “workout rating system.” I rate the productivity and intensity of all my workouts on a scale from 1 to 10 and log it in my training journal. After a training cycle of at least 4-6 workouts, I also rate the routine itself on a scale from 1 to 5 (My ultimate goal being to have “10” workouts using “5-star” routines!)
If a new routine ranks a 1 or 2, it gets tossed into the garbage immediately. If it ranks a 3 or 4 it goes back onto the “drawing board” and I rework it to see if it can be modified and boosted to a 5. If the second variation doesn't get a 5, goodbye, it's dumped into the trash bin too. If it ranks a 5, then the program goes into my book of “5 star workouts” and I come back to it many times over the years when I need arm specialization. For a routine to make it into my 5 star workout book, it has to be a tested and proven growth producer.
I can't take credit for inventing most of these routines – they were inspired by or borrowed from some of the best trainers and bodybuilders in history, and I will give the credit where it's due.
Most of these programs will surely make your arms as strong as they are going to look, but make no mistake – this is a collection of BODYBUILDING routines. If you’re hung up exclusively on “functionality,” you can just skip this info (and go back to your medicine balls, bungee cords and wobble boards). If, on the other hand, you want a set of biceps and triceps that make you LOOK GOOD sleeveless, then this is going to be the most exciting training article you have ever read!
Now, a few important details before you start…
I recommend repeating these routines no more than twice per week and no less than once per week. Your frequency depends on the split routine you’re using. For most of these programs, I recommend a three or four day split with a 2 on 1 off schedule. If you feel you need more recovery, use a 2 on 1 off, 1 on 1 off or even an every other day routine, just make sure you hit your arms at least once per week.
Tempo is the speed of your repetitions. Tempo is noted in several of these routines with a 4 count prescription. For example, a 4020 tempo is performed as follows:
Eccentric (negative/lowering the weight) 4
Stretch/Pause between eccentric and concentric 0
Concentric (positive/lifting the weight) 2
Contraction/pause between concentric and eccentric 0
If tempo is not noted, then you should simply use a “controlled tempo” with the eccentric (lowering weight) slightly slower than the concentric (lifting weight).
These routines must be performed with diligent progression from one workout to the next. You must add weight with every workout. Because the arms are a small body part, you may need to use “micro-loading,” which simply means you patiently increase the weight EVERY WORKOUT, but in very small increments. For example, most clubs have dumbbells with 5-pound jumps in weight. I like to use 1 ¼ lb. “plate mates” which are magnetic mini weights you can stick on the ends of each dumbbell (they work for barbells too), allowing you to increase in small, 2.5 pound increments (effectively giving you a 22.5 pound dumbbell, etc).
Antagonist pair supersets
Supersets are an extremely effective technique for arm training. An antagonistic superset for arms is the pairing of a bicep and tricep exercise with little or no rest between exercises.
Antagonistic supersets are noted with A1 and A2, with A1 being the first exercise, and A2 being the second exercise with no rest in between (if the two exercises were performed in straight set fashion, they would be noted as A1 and B1; three exercises A1, B1, C1, etc)
Same muscle group supersets
Same muscle group supersets are self-explanatory: Two exercises for the same muscle are performed back to back with no rest in between. They are written the same way as antagonistic supersets. For example, A1 is first bicep exercise in superset, A2 is second bicep exercise in superset (no rest between A1 and A2, then regular rest interval after A2 before repeating superset).
Personally, I believe same muscle group supersets are better than antagonistic supersets for bodybuilding purposes (arm size), while antagonistic supersets are better for strength. I recommend using both.
A tri set is three exercises for the same muscle group performed one after another with little or no rest in between. Tri sets are a step beyond supersets in intensity and difficulty, allowing you to perform a very large volume of work in a very short period of time. Tri-sets are a superb method for bodybuilding –especially for arm training. Many great bodybuilders such as Larry Scott and trainers such as Vince Gironda have promoted the use of tri sets and supersets almost exclusively for arm specialization. Why? Because they WORK! (Tri sets are noted as A1, A2, A3).
Ok, enough preliminaries, let's dive into the best arm routines of all time:
Multi Grip Tri-set Routine
Variations on the multi grip routine have been floating around for ages, but strength coach Charles Poliquin fine tuned the technique and brought it back into popularity recently in his prolific writings including, “Winning the Arms Race.” (Poliquin refers to this technique as the multi pathway routine).
Select three exercises, each with a different grip: pronated (palms down), neutral (palms face each other) and supinated (palms up). Generally, the weakest grip is trained first and the strongest last, but the order of the exercises may be changed for variety and balanced development. (I would recommend staying with the same sequence for the duration of each training cycle, however)
A1 EZ bar Reverse Curl 3 sets X 6-8 reps
A2 Hammer Curl 3 sets X 6-8 reps
A3 EZ barbell Curl 3 sets X 6-8 reps
B1 Tricep Pushdown reverse grip (palms up) 3 sets X 6-8 reps
B2 Tricep pushdown with rope (palms face each other) 3 sets X 6-8 reps
B3 Tricep pushdown regular grip (palms down) 3 sets X 6-8 reps
Multi Angle tri-set Routine
The multi angle routine is a similar to the multi grip routine except instead of varying the hand position/grip, you vary the angle of the joint. The “multi angle” technique is very similar to the IRONMAN/Steve Holman “Positions of flexion” approach, although they are not always one in the same.
For example, one popular multi-angle favorite for triceps is lying EZ bar extensions performed to the chin, forehead, and behind the head as a tri set. This is multi-angular, but it does not fully work all three positions of flexion, as these are only slight variations in angle.
There are two ways to perform this routine. One way is to do all three exercises in a row with zero rest between exercises. This is very intense and result producing, but will compromise your poundages. Poliquin's solution to the problem is the simple insertion of a 10 second pause between each exercise, which allows greater loads to be used.
A1 Incline dumbbell curl (stretch) 3 sets X 6-8 reps
A2 Seated dumbbell curl (midrange) 3 sets X 6-8 reps
A3 90 degree dumbbell preacher curl (contracted) 3 sets X 6-8 reps
B1 Seated EZ bar tricep extension 3 sets X 6-8 reps
B2 EZ bar tricep extension to forehead 3 sets X 6-8 reps
B3 Decline bench EZ bar tricep extension 3 sets X 6-8 reps
Unilateral Multi Grip Bicep Routine
I don't remember where I found this routine, but I think it was the brainstorm of Australian strength coach Ian King. All I can say is that Ian or whoever originally invented this bicep killer should get a medal for it! Try it and find out why. Perform 10 reps per set, 2 –3 tri sets 0-10 seconds between exercises.
A1 One arm zottman Dumbbell Preacher Curl 3 sets X 10 reps
A2 One arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl 3 sets X 10 reps
A3 One Arm Dumbbell Hammer Preacher Curl 3 sets X 10 reps
Note: If you’ve never heard of the Zottman curl, it's simply a dumbbell curl with a pronated eccentric and supinated concentric (palm up on the way up, palm down on the way down)
Unilateral Multi Grip Bicep Routine #2
This is a slight variation I’ve successfully used on the killer combo above. All I did is to flip the order of exercises 2 & 3, substitute reverse dumbbell curl for Zottman curl on exercise number one, and add a forced negative on the reverse curls using the opposite hand. The rep range is slightly lower; 6-8 reps per set with a little bit heavier weight. 3 tri sets, 0 sec rest between exercises, 0 seconds rest between switching arms.
A1 One arm reverse dumbbell Preacher Curl with neg. resistance 3 sets X 6-8 reps
A2 One arm Hammer Preacher Curl 3 sets X 6-8 reps
A3 One Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl 3 sets X 6-8 reps
Gironda's 6 X 6 balanced arms Routine
This is a variation on Vince Gironda's famous “Balanced Arms” course. Like many bodybuilding gurus, Vince vociferously commanded, “No deviations.” Well, shame on me, but after I tried all his programs exactly as he instructed, I never could resist experimenting.
This routine consists of 3 pairs of supersets performed for 6 sets of 6 reps each. No rest is permitted between exercises. Take 90 seconds rest after each superset. Vince's original course suggested doing this routine three times per week. I tested various frequencies and got best results doing this routine once every 4-5 days and I’d recommend no more than twice per week.
A1 Straight Bar Preacher curl 6 sets X 6 reps
A2 Body drag curl 6 sets X 6 reps
B1 Rope extension behind head (lunge position, using high pulley) 6 sets X 6 reps
B2 EZ Bar Pullover and Press 6 sets X 6 reps
C1 Barbell Wrist Curl (roll to fingertips) 6 sets X 6 reps
C2 barbell reverse drag curl 6 sets X 6 reps
Volume training: 8 sets of 8 – basic
When performing the classic Vince Gironda 8 sets of 8 program, you select only ONE exercise per body part and you train half your body each session (approximately 5 exercises per workout) for a total of 40 sets. Perform 3-4 workouts per week, each muscle is trained no more than twice per week.
Every rep is performed with deep concentration and intra-muscular contraction (“squeeze” the muscle during every rep. Mental focus and maintenance of tempo are musts. Rest must be kept to 30 seconds or less, ultimately dropping to as low as 15 seconds between sets. On a 3021 tempo (At 6 seconds per rep, each set will take only 48 seconds; by getting your rest intervals down to 20 seconds, you will finish each 8 sets of 8 reps in 9 minutes. With 5 exercises, that's 40 sets per workout in only 45 minutes!
This is decidedly aerobic and growth hormone-inducing, and by using compound exercises (i.e. squats on leg day, rows on back day, etc), this routine can also burn a tremendous amount of body fat. Little or no additional cardio work is necessary on this program.
A1 Thumb Under Dumbbell Curl (palms up/non supinating) 8 sets X 8 reps X 3021 tempo
B1 Close Grip EZ Bar Bench Press 8 sets X 8 reps X 3020 tempo
Volume training: 8 sets of 8 – advanced
This is the variation on the 8 sets of 8 routine that Vince Gironda gave to elite and genetically gifted bodybuilders like Mohammed Makkawy. This program is performed on a 3 or 4 day split so you can concentrate on only two body parts per session. Tempos can be a little bit faster (2020 or 2010) on this higher volume program. This allows you to complete the workout in 40 - 45 minutes or so (you could also try 30 minute workouts consisting of two exercises per muscle group, 8 sets of 8 reps per exercise; experiment with the concept)
A1 Barbell Drag Curl 8 sets X 8 reps
B1 Incline Dumbbell curl 8 sets X 8 reps
C1 Hammer curl 8 sets X 8 reps
D1 Close Grip bench Press 8 sets X 8 reps
E1 Flat bench lying 2 dumbbell tricep extension 8 sets X 8 reps
F1 Parallel bar tricep dips 8 sets X 8 reps
Volume Training: 10 sets of 10
This program was originally promoted by Vince Gironda. It was later resurrected under the name “German Volume Training” and re-popularized (with some modern improvements) by Charles Poliquin. After it was originally introduced, 10 X 10 faded out of popularity in favor of 3 sets of 3 exercises. This was largely due to boredom and the belief that one exercise was not enough for complete development. However, 10 sets of 10 will completely “trash” an entire pool of motor units from the repeated efforts on the same exercise, resulting in tremendous muscle size gains.
Simply select one exercise per muscle group and perform 10 sets of 10 reps. It's very important to use the same weight for each set. You will not train to failure or use set extension or high intensity techniques (like negatives or forced reps). This will require that you select a weight that's approximately 60% of your normal 10 rep max. Rest 90 seconds between sets and maintain a constant tempo on every rep and a constant rest interval between every set. You will work two or at most, three body parts per workout on a three or four day split routine. Each muscle group should be trained once every 5 to 6 days.
A1 Incline Dumbbell Curls 10 sets X 10 reps
A2 Seated EZ Bar tricep extension (French press) 10 sets X 10 reps
This program combines elements of two of the best bodybuilding techniques of all time; drop sets and supersets. Select two exercises for the same muscle group and perform each for 6-8 reps with no rest in between. Quickly (less than 10 seconds rest) reduce the poundage (grab lighter set of dumbbells) and then repeat the superset two more times. That counts as ONE drop-superset (2 exercises X 3 supersets=6 sets in one drop superset). Rest 120 seconds and repeat one more time (twice at most if you’re an “over-achiever”).
A typical weight reduction is about 10-15%. Optional: A brief 10 second rest between supersets allows some recovery of strength so that you can keep your poundages up and it alleviates some of the lactic acid burn that might prevent you from doing 6 sets in a row non stop. Perform two or at most three drop supersets (the weights given are just examples)
A1 Standing hammer curl 2-3 sets X 6-8 reps 40 lbs
A2 Standing palms up Dumbbell Curl 2-3 sets X 6-8 reps 40 lbs
Rest 0-10 sec
A3 standing hammer curl 2-3 sets X 6-8 reps 35 lbs
A4 Standing palms up Dumbbell Curl 2-3 sets X 6-8 reps X 35 lbs
Rest 0-10 sec
A5 standing hammer curl 2-3 sets X 6-8 reps 30 lbs
A6 Standing palms up Dumbbell Curl 2-3 sets X 6-8 reps X 30 lbs
Rest 120 seconds, then repeat 1-2 more times
Larry Scott's favorite arm routine
Larry Scott was the first Mr. Olympia and his claim to fame was the most mind blowing set of biceps and triceps the bodybuilding world had ever seen up until the time Scott appeared on the scene. Larry Scott's favorite arm building apparatus was the preacher curl bench, which also bears his name (the Scott curl bench).
Larry believed that triceps grow the best with supersets and biceps grow the best with tri-sets (and who's gonna argue with him?) His favorite bicep routine was a tri-set performed on the preacher bench and a superset combo for triceps. Larry also frequently employed “burns”, which were quick quarter reps (partials) performed after each set.
A1 Dumbbell preacher curl, loose form 3-4 sets X 6 reps + 4-5 burns
A2 Straight Bar preacher curl, strict form 3-4 sets X 6 reps + 4-5 burns
A3 EZ bar reverse curl, loose form 3-4 sets X 6 reps + 4-5 burns
B1 Close Grip Bench Press with EZ Bar 4-5 sets X 6 reps + 4-5 burns B2 Kneeling twin pedestal tricep rope extension• 4-5 sets X 6 reps + 4-5 burns
•The twin pedestal bench is a special bench for the kneeling rope tricep extension. It is simply two pads for the elbows with a space for your head in between. It was originally built by Vince Gironda and Scott later began manufacturing his own version. If you don't have the apparatus for this exercise, you can simply do a rope extension facing away from the weight stack from a high pulley in a lunge position.
Pre exhaustion is a technique popularized Robert Kennedy of Muscle Mag International. Pre-exhaustion supersets are performed by selecting an isolation exercise and following it with a compound exercise, with no rest in between the two. In the case of biceps, the natural choice for the compound exercise is the close grip chin up. Your volume can range from three to five sets, depending on your split routine and experience level.
A1 Barbell curl 3-5 set X 8-12 reps
A2 Close grip pull up 3-5 sets X AMRAP
B1 Kneeling V-Bar low pulley cable extension 3-5 sets X 8-12 reps
B2 Close grip bench press 3-5 sets X 8-12 reps
Don Ross 4 rep System #1
There are many variations on multi rep programs to be found throughout the bodybuilding literature. This one is by Don Ross from his book “Muscle blasting” with Robert Kennedy.
Select 4 exercises and perform each exercise with a different repetition (RM) bracket. These exercises are not supersetted. Rest intervals between sets are 60-90 seconds. Two sets should be enough for most people, three sets max.
A1 Incline Dumbbell Curl 2-3 sets X 6 reps
B1 Hammer Curl 2-3 sets X 8 reps
C1 Preacher curl 2- 3 sets X 12
D1 Overhead Pulley curl 2-3 sets X 20 reps
A1 Close Grip Bench Press 2-3 set X 6 reps
B1 Decline Bench 2 Dumbbell Extension 2-3 sets X 8 reps
C1 Dumbbell kickbacks 2- 3 sets X 12
D1 Tricep Rope pressdown 2-3 sets X 20 reps
Note: You can easily use this same principle with only three exercises and three rep ranges or even two exercises and two rep ranges as in the 6-20 method. In either case, the heavier, lower rep sets come first and the higher rep sets last.
Gironda 4 rep system
Another variation of the 4 rep system is to perform four sets on each exercise with each of the four sets using a different rep range. Don Ross liked the 12, 8, 6, 20 rep protocol, while Vince Gironda's famous variation on this system (which he wrote an entire course about) was 10, 8, 6, 15.
A1 Incline Dumbbell Curl 4 sets X 10, 8, 6, 15 reps
B1 Barbell curl 4 sets X 10, 8, 6, 15 reps
A1 Close Grip Bench Press 4 sets X 10, 8, 6, 15 reps
B1 Decline Bench 2 Dumbbell Extension 4 sets X 10, 8, 6, 15 reps
Poliquin's 3 rep tri-set system: 6-12-25
Yet another multi rep program, the 6-12-25 system is favored by Charles Poliquin. Using the Poliquin method, you select three exercises, the first with stretch position emphasis, the second with mid range emphasis, and the third a constant tension, peak contraction exercise. Unlike the Ross and Gironda method, these exercises are tri-setted.
A1 Incline dumbbell curl 2-3 sets X 6 reps
10 seconds rest
A2 Barbell Curls 2-3 sets X 12 reps
10 seconds rest
A3 Overhead Cable curl 2-3 sets X 25 reps
120 seconds rest, repeat 2-3 tri sets
B1 Kneeling V-Bar low pulley cable extension 2-3 sets X 6 reps
B2 Lying Tricep extension to forehead 2-3 sets X 12 reps
B3 2 dumbbell kickbacks 2-3 sets X 25 reps
120 seconds rest, repeat 2-3 tri sets
That's all... For now
This only scratches the surface of what I have locked in my “vault of training secrets,” but that's all we have time and space for today. Besides, there's enough here to keep you busy for a long, long time! In fact, I just gave you enough workouts to last you for at least the next year! If you’re tired of the same old conventional “three sets of 8 – 12” straight set routines and if you’re frustrated with your progress, then put some of these 5 star programs to the test… I GUARANTEE you are going to see some of the best arm development of your life!