Olympic weightlifters rely heavily on leg, back and pressing strength, with accessory movements being integrated to bring up weak muscle groups, improve any asymmetries and imbalances, and enhance a lifer’s injury resilience.
Arm training, especially the triceps, biceps, and forearms, is often addressed through the addition of rows, pull ups, pressing and other multi-joint accessory exercises. In some instances however, a lifter or coach may have a need for additional triceps or biceps/forearms training to improve overall strength, enhance joint/tendon health, or simply to improve upper body muscle mass.
In this article, we will discuss:
- The Importance of Arm Training
- How to Integrate Arm Training Into Your Program
- Sets, Reps, and Loading Recommendations
- 11 Arm Exercises (6 Triceps and 5 Biceps/Forearms) You Should Try
Why Train Arms (Triceps and Biceps)?
Before we dive in, it important to note that general upper body training that incorporates pressing, rowing, and other pulling movements can be enough for some lifters (in terms of arm development). That said, many lifters, especially those who may lack general upper body strength and/or are in need of more isolated accessory programming can benefit from the inclusion of more arm based exercises within their program.
As you can see from the listing below, many of these exercise are variations of current movements often found in an olympic weightlifting program (overhead press vs narrow grip overhead press, for example), while others are solely an isolated movement to specifically target the triceps, biceps, or forearm muscles.
Increasing arm strength is not just about looks, but can have an impact on a lifters (1) overhead stability (2) pulling and pressing general strength, (3) help to support tendons, ligaments and joints. In the next section, we will discuss how to add arm training into your current program and what sets, reps, and loading should be done to not overdo it.
How to Add Arm Training Into Your Program?
Adding arm training into your current program is fairly simple and straightforward, as you do not need a great amount of volume or frequency to get the benefit of arm training (assuming you need/want it). Like most accessory work, doing TOO much however, can impede your weightlifting performance (such as doing a lot of triceps work a day before heavy snatches) if not planned accordingly. I suggest you choose one to two exercise for the biceps and triceps per week, and start by adding them towards the end of the workout on days that are not followed by triceps and/or arm dependent heavy lifts. You can even do them before a rest day at the end of your workout to better assess how your body will respond.
Sets, Reps, and Loading Recommendations
Generally speaking, arm training should be done towards the end of sessions to not impede the performance of the main strength and power lifts. Some of the arm exercises below are multi-joint, meaning they target the triceps/biceps and another large muscle group (such as chest, shoulders, or back). Other movements, like overhead extensions, are single-joint and target only the arms. Multi-joint exercises can be attacked with more load, volume, and even programmed for more strength-hypertrophy work if strength is the issue; while single-joint movements should focus on muscle contractions and moderate volume and moderate loading. Below are the general recommendation I have come up with for programming arm training into your current routine.
- Single-Joint Exercise, with Muscle Hypertrophy Emphasis: 2-3 Sets of 10-12 repetitions with a moderate load and constant tension
- Multi-Joint Exercise, with Strength Emphasis: 3-5 sets of 3-6 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load
- Multi-Joint Exercise, with Muscle Hypertrophy Emphasis: 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions with a moderate load and constant tension
6 Tricep Exercises for Olympic Weightlifters
Below are six (6) triceps exercises that weightlifters can integrate into their current accessory training program to build triceps strength, improve lockout and overhead performance, and enhance muscle hypertrophy for improved injury resilience.
Dips are one of the most popular triceps accessory exercise to build stronger triceps and arm size. This exercise has the added benefit of targeting the pecs and anterior shoulders, which can be helpful for lifters looking to gain body mass and size. This movement can be done in most gym settings with minimal equipment, but can also be done with heavier loads for strength and hypertrophy. It is important, however, to balance the volume of this exercise with other pressing movements such as benching, push ups, jerks, etc to not overload the shoulder joints excessively over a longer training cycle.
Close Grip Bench
Bench pressing is a good upper body mass and strength builder for the pressing muscles (chest, triceps, and anterior shoulders). The close grip variation is done to specially target the triceps and the lockout strength that can benefit many overhead athletes. In addition, by performing close grip bench press vs regular grip width benching, the lifter can limit the amount of strain on the AC joint (shoulder) which can be beneficial as weightlifting tends to have high amounts of shoulder nagging injuries due to the large amount of overhead training it demands.
Narrow Grip Overhead Press
The narrow grip overhead press is a similar grip adjustment made to eat close grip bench press. By taking a slightly narrower grip (which can vary based on an athletes mobility and body frame), the overhead pressing and lockout of the movement will be tougher on the triceps, which can be helpful for gaining triceps strength and muscle mass. In previous strength cycles, I have done close grip overhead pressing in lighter sets of standard overhead pressing to target the triceps yet not have to devote more pressing into the program.
Overhead Triceps Extensions
Overhead triceps extensions, or even lying variations, called skull crushers, can be done to target the triceps (single-joint exercise). This exercise is good to improve elbow extension and enhance muscle hypertrophy to help aid the connective tissues and elbow joint from the added force of heavy loads overhead. This movement can be done standing, seated, or lying down; using barbells, dumbbells, cables, or specialty bars to best suit the angles, mobility, and comfort of the lifter.
Triceps pushdowns are another single-joint exercise that can be easily integrated into an accessory program to increase elbow extension strength and increase muscle hypertrophy of the triceps. This can be done using cables and/or resistance bands, often with higher repetition-focus sets that work to keep constant tension on the triceps. You can also do these on an angle and make them triceps kickbacks, which can be a good way to full limit anterior shoulder usage in the press.
Weighted Push Ups
Push ups are another multi-joint upper body accessory exercise that is used widely across most strength and fitness programs to build general upper body pressing strength and mass. As a lifter progresses, they can start to add weight to this movement to further enhance the strength development. Lifters looking to increase triceps size and strength especially can add weight and place their hands on a plate to change the angle of the pressing movement (incline weighted push up) to further increase the intensity on the triceps.
5 Biceps Exercises for Olympic Weightlifters
Below are five (5) biceps exercises that weightlifters can integrate into their current accessory training program to build biceps and grip strength, support grip and pulling performance, and enhance muscle hypertrophy for improved injury resilience.
Chin ups are a multi-joint exercise that targets the biceps, forearms, and back muscles. The chin up can be added into assessory programs similarly to pull ups, with the addition of weight to increase upper body pulling strength. This movement can be done in most gym settings making it a good choice for most lifters looking to integrate more arm and upper body pulling strength accessory work into their current program.
Reverse curls can be done with barbells or dumbbells, offering athletes a forearm strengthening exercise to support pulling movements and wrist health. Reverse curls can help to increase a lifter’s forearms strength, which can increase wrist stability and injury resilience. In addition to stability and injury resilience for the wrist, the forearm can improve a lifter’s ability to keep the barbell close as they finish the pull in the snatch and clean and may help to assume a tighter receiving position during the turnover phases of the lift.
Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Hammer curls are often done with dumbbells and are a good bicep curl variation to target the forearms and arm muscles in a slightly different way that barbell curls, etc. By performing the hammer curl variation, you can target both the forearms and arms at once and improve general grip strength. The usage of dumbbells allow a lifter to manipulate angles to best suit their comfort (if they have wrist pain, etc) levels to better individual this movement.
The preacher curl is a single-joint isolation exercise that is a good option for lifters looking to target the biceps without the added volume to the shoulders. This can be a good option for individuals who are coming back from a bicep injury (check with your doctor first) and can also be used with dumbbells or reverse curl variations to further individualize this isolated bicep curl approach.
Wrist rollers and curls are two exercise that can be done to increase wrist flexion and extension strength, increase grip performance, and help to bulletproof wrist the wrists. These can be done by using dumbbells or barbells for wrist curls (both in flexion and extension), while wrist rollers can be done with a wrist roller or a PVC pipe with a band and weight attached so that you can roll the pipe in your hands and wrap the band around as the weight gets pulled up.