I’ve got big arms. Like, seriously big arms. That’s me in the photo above. Not freaky on-stage pro-bodybuilder arms, but compared to guys walking down the street, or even your average gym-goer, my arms are big. And for a guy my age (45), I’m off the charts.
Genetics play a role, of course, same as almost everything else in life. Trainers and fitness models who pretend it’s all hard work and clean living are either kidding themselves, or intentionally deceiving clients and customers.
But genetics cut both ways. My arms are also long, which makes them less likely to seem big. And yet they do seem big—so big that most people don’t notice how long they are.
The Road to Ripped
How did I do it? I’ve been lifting systematically since I was 28. I’d say it took at least a decade to get to the point where strangers on the street would stop and point at my arms. Since then I’ve become a certified strength coach, opened my own gym in New York, and have represented the United States in international Olympic weightlifting competitions.
I don’t share all this to brag, but rather to point out that I’ve tried it all and learned a lot along the way. I distilled my experience into a 12-week training guide called Badass Arms from Men’s Health—it uses my proven techniques to get you the fastest, most noticeable gains. But here’s the cheatsheet on my muscle-building strategy.
As you’d expect, I perform a lot of isolated arm movements. But more importantly, I do a ton of compound upper-body movements—rows, presses, dips, chinups. If you’ve ever observed the guys who walk into the gym and start off with concentration curls, you’ve surely noticed that they’re never the guys with the biggest arms.
A bigger muscle can produce more force.
When the guys who’re seriously jacked train their upper bodies, they devote most of their time and energy to basic, heavy, multi-joint lifts. They know their arms aren’t going to grow out of proportion to the bigger, stronger muscles in their back, chest, and shoulders.
Why? Allow me to digress for a moment: A lot of experts these days subscribe to the philosophy that size and strength are separate phenomena—that strength doesn’t serve size and size doesn’t serve strength. They say that to optimize either—to get really big or truly strong—you should never train for both.
I disagree. A bigger muscle can produce more force. A stronger muscle allows you to work with more weight, which, in turn, builds a bigger muscle.
How to Train for Both Strength and Size
The key is to hit a balance between training for strength and training for size. I’m not saying that physique athletes who focus exclusively on size by doing high-repetition, high-volume workouts are necessarily wrong, or that powerlifters who do most of their work with heavy weights and low reps should spend more time doing dumbbell curls and cable extensions. Advanced lifters know what works for them, just as I know what works for me.
I also know what works for my clients who have goals like yours—specifically to build bigger arms, but generally to look more like someone who lifts than you do now. But just about every well-developed guy I’ve ever met has trained for both strength and size. Many also trained for other goals, like performance in a sport. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a successful bodybuilder who didn’t spend some time under the bar working toward a one-rep max in the bench press, or a successful strongman who hasn’t done his share of curls.
I combine these two training styles by alternating a month of high-rep muscle-building work with a month of low-rep strength work. I also work in months of “hybrid training,” where I hit on both styles in the same workout. You can mimic this strategy on your own, or try Men’s Health Badass Arms for a three-month workout plan that uses this exact setup. (The program also incorporates my favorite cutting-edge exercises and advanced bodybuilding techniques to accelerate gains.)
Put simply: Strength matters.
It’s also crucial to include squats, deadlifts, and leg presses in your training. If you wonder why I mention that in an article about arm building, just Google “skipped leg day.” The guy whose upper body looks like an “after” picture while his legs look like the “before” is even more of a cautionary example than the one who uses heavier weights for curls than he does for presses or rows.
I’m joking, kind of. The real reason is that life is a total-body activity. Humans are built for activities like running, climbing, kicking, and throwing. All involve the coordinated transfer of force from arms to legs or legs to arms, with your core muscles in between. That’s why foundational strength movements like squats and deadlifts contribute to bigger arms while isolated arm exercises don’t do anything to help your lower body.
Picture two lifters who’re physically similar—roughly the same height, weight, and age. One focuses on strength without any direct arm work. The other does direct arm work without any squats or deadlifts. Chances are the first guy can curl more than the second one, despite never practicing the exercise. But there’s no way the second guy can deadlift as much as the first one.
Put simply: Strength matters. If all else is equal, the stronger athlete will be better than the weaker one, and the stronger lifter will have a better chance to get bigger than the weaker one (if he isn’t bigger already).
Who Should Take On This Type of Program
Ready to get started? Great—but hold on for just a little longer. Before you dive into any program, you should double check to see if it’s right for you. We’re focused mostly on the Badass Arms program here, but these types of standards should apply to any type of plan you’re looking to follow.
Age and Health
For instance, some programs just aren’t right for lifters who have significant health issues or movement limitations. Age shouldn’t be an issue, except perhaps for the youngest or oldest lifters. In my experience, teenage lifters do best with programs that focus on learning and developing a base of strength in fundamental exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, chinups, and rows, along with conditioning work for any sport they’re in. For lifters over 50, high-volume programs like this one present a bigger risk to the shoulders, elbows, knees, and lower back. Don’t get me wrong; I respect the ambition to build muscle at any age. I just want to emphasize that there are better and worse ways to do it in different stages of your lifting career.
Experience and Abilities
The Badass Arms program, for example, is not for beginners. I’m not going to hit you with any specific strength standards, like the “you must be this tall” sign in front of the coolest water-slide in the amusement park. I wrote it with the assumption that you’ve been lifting for at least a year and that you’ve developed a base of strength in all the major exercises that I’ve mentioned already, especially squats and deadlifts. If you can’t do those, or pull your chin over that bar now, you need to focus on building abase of strength before you’re ready for a specialized program like this one.
Does this sound like something you can handle now that you know more? Get started with hybrid training today with Badass Arms for the biggest, baddest arms of your life.
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