With the official start of summer right around the corner it’s time to start focusing on the show muscles a bit more. This post, if you can make it through the science to the end, will be your how to guide. So without further ado — I’m well aware that my readers are intelligent and well versed in strength training topics. So I figure that there is a very good chance you already know the triceps make up the majority of your arm and attribute the most to overall arm size. Since you know that let’s talk about which exercises are best for tricep development.
Bret Contreras, a world renowned strength coach, did a few experiments with electromyography, or EMG, to determine the levels of muscle activation during different exercises.
Disclaimer: 1.) There is a lot of controversy about the validity of EMG testing. I am a supporter of EMG experimentation and believe it is an excellent tool to determine exercise effectiveness on muscle activation. You can read more about this topic here. 2.) Everyone is different, and most exercises work differently for each individual. This article is a generalization, but I feel for most people, this strategy will yield the best results.
Back to business — Here are the top exercises for muscle activation in the triceps according to Bret’s experiment:
- 120lb rope extension – 135
- 140lb cable extension – 132
- 95lb skull crusher – 116
- 115lb weighted dip – 124
- bodyweight dip – 73.9
- 275lb bench press – 73.5
So, according to this list, tricep extensions and skull crushers are the best exercises for tricep development and arm growth.
Well hold on just one second…
Although arm size IS largely influenced by the size of a person’s triceps, there are several other factors that I want to cover. Namely the deltoids, biceps, and forearms.
Shoulders can be deceiving, not only do they play an important role in overall arm size, they can also give the illusion of having bigger arms without adding any actual size around the upper arm. Take Dwight Howard for example.
How to train:
Bret Contreras did another experiment on muscle activation for shoulder exercises. Here are a few of the results below:
Anterior Deltoid (front of the shoulder) EMG results:
- 70lb DB Overhead Press – 432
- 155lb Overhead Press – 315
- 225lb bench press – 201
- Lateral raise – 202
- Bodyweight push up – 175
- Dip – 39
You can see for muscle activation in the shoulders overhead pressing takes the cake, followed by horizontal pressing, and then isolation movements. One thing that stood out to me was the small difference between the 225lb bench press and a body weight push up. This could be a case like I mentioned earlier about EMG not being the best indicator of an exercises effectiveness for muscle development in an area. I would never suggest that someone ditch a heavy bench press for bodyweight push ups if their goals were size and strength.
Biceps are the holy grail of arm training. Ask any kid to flex, and they’ll pop a pose like Rosie up there.
How to train:
The bicep and tricep work synergistically during both elbow flexion and extension. So both muscles are heavily activated when under heavy loads provided by compound movements.
A good example of this would be doing a pull up vs a hammer curl where the movement of the elbow joint is very similar. Although the movement about the joint is similar, the load and muscle activation varies greatly between the two exercises. Example: I bet you’ve never had sore triceps from doing hammer curls, but your triceps on the other hand, were likely a little tender when starting out with pull ups.
So you’re probably beginning to realize that pressing and elbow extension movements are going to be the answer for increasing arm size, but what does that mean for the biceps? The answer lies in the eccentric, or negative portion of these movements. For example, in the dip your bicep takes a large amount of the load during the eccentric, or negative portion of the lift. The same goes for the bench press and other press variations. The load placed on the biceps by these heavy eccentrics is by far enough stimulation to cause muscle fiber growth in the biceps. So are pressing exercises the best for bicep development? No, but if we are talking the biggest bang for your buck in regards to total arm development, pressing takes the cake.
Forgetting about the forearms is the most common mistake I see in those aiming for bigger arms. For most people, depending on geography, the forearms are the muscle that is visible for 3/4 of the year in clothes.
How to train:
The forearms respond best to grip intensive exercises. Holding heavy weights, using thick handles or grips, and similar to the biceps, heavy eccentric loading.
- Barbell bench press
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
- Weighted Dip
- Tricep extensions with Fat Gripz or awkward handles
- And what the hell — Hammer Curls
There are a few things to consider with exercise selection for arm growth. You can’t choose an exercise based solely on EMG. Just because a muscle is stimulated doesn’t mean there is enough load or tension (weight) to cause muscle growth. That’s why most of the exercises above are compound movements that can place large amounts of tension on the muscles. Save your isolation exercises like tricep extensions and curls for the end of your workouts.
All of these exercises are the best in their class at simultaneously stimulating all four of the muscle groups associated with arm growth.
- grip strength (forearms)
- stabilization (deltoids)
- Heavy eccentric loading (triceps and biceps)
- Allow high amounts of tension to be places on the muscles (all)
Finally, don’t forget about your nutrition! You can check this out for more tips on muscle building nutrition.