You’re a powerlifter. Do you need direct arm work?
Well, the short answer is yes.
The long answer is absolutely yes!
There are lots of gurus who claim that direct arm work is overrated, and that your guns will get plenty of strength and size gains from presses and rows, as long as your overall routine is sound. And that’s true — to a certain point.
Your arms will grow from those movements alone, but if that’s all you do, they’ll still look disproportionately small unless you have fantastic genetics for big arms. And they’ll probably be disproportionately weak, too, which means that your bench press lockout might be a struggle.
That said, if you are doing a lot of presses and rows (and you should be), then you don’t need a whole lot of direct arm work to get the size and strength that you probably want. In fact, a little bit of arm work can go a long way, if you program it carefully and perform the movements properly.
How to Add Direct Arm Work to Your Training
When you first start adding arm work to your program, it’s important to start slow. Arm work can put a lot of stress on the elbows — smaller joints that tend to be pretty vulnerable to tendinitis or other injuries. So, I strongly suggest you follow these two rules:
- Avoid training bicep or tricep isolation movements like curls and extensions with very heavy weights. Instead, stick to lighter weights and higher reps.
- Avoid marathon sessions for the arms. Shorter, more frequent training will allow you to get plenty of arm work without overloading them all at once.
Following these recommendations is beneficial for more than just avoiding injury. Lighter reps and higher reps are a great way to get a sick pump, and when it comes to arm size, the pump is pretty important (at least in my experience). Plus, it’ll help you to get some great Instagram shots.
Programming shorter, more frequent arm training sessions will allow you to incorporate direct arm work without detracting from your squat, bench press, and deadlift training as much as longer sessions might.
How Much and What Type of Direct Arm Work to Include
Okay, so how much is too much? It’s a little bit harder to give a blanket rule for this one, because everyone will be a little bit different, and even then, it’ll depend heavily on how much compound work you’re doing for your back, chest, and shoulders. But, for most people, I think 4-6 working sets of bicep isolation and 6-8 working sets of tricep isolation (all for high reps of at least 10-12, if not more) should suffice.
As far as the type of movements you use, it’s important to consider your goals and weaknesses. Bodybuilders will need to focus on overall size and shape, which often means a focus on the long head of the triceps and a lot of brachialis work with movements like skullcrushers and hammer curls. Powerlifters will want to find triceps exercises that improve the bench press, and biceps exercises that help to keep the forearms strong and healthy. My favorites are Tate presses and reverse-grip thick bar curls.
In my experience, though, the exact movements you choose don’t matter so much as long as you’re able to load them progressively. Even with lighter training and isolation exercises, you must train progressively if you want to make progress in the long term. Progressive training doesn’t necessarily mean using more weight: for example, you can use the same weight and crank out more reps; or you can cut down on your rest between sets from workout to workout. But for that to work, you’ll need to use exercises that you can train hard (so probably avoid dumbbell kickbacks) without causing any pain or overuse injuries.
Some movements you can choose from:
- Overhead dumbbell extensions
- Rolling dumbbell extensions
- Reverse-grip cable pushdowns
- Tate presses
- Cross-body hammer curls
- Barbell curls
- Reverse-grip thick bar curls
- Spider curls (barbell or dumbbell)
- Machine curls
A Sample Arm-Training Workout for Powerlifters
Unlike my sample lat routine, this isn’t exactly what I’m doing for my meet prep – but it’s darn close. I think this routine can be used by almost anyone, but I’d also caution you to not change it up too much. It’s very tempting to just add more, more, more, but when it comes to arm training, oftentimes, less is more… to a certain point!
Day 1 (after heavy bench)
- Reverse-grip pushdown with band: focus on only the bottom end of the range of motion on this one, and make sure to keep your elbows turned out. Don’t go to failure on this one; treat it more as a warmup or pre-exhaust. 20 reps, superset with…
- Hammer curl: 10-12 reps, superset with…
- Rolling dumbbell extension: 10-12 reps. Rest three minutes after this one.
Repeat for four total total supersets.
Day 2 (after light bench)
- Reverse-grip curl with band: again, use this one as a warmup or pre-exhaust. 20 reps, superset with…
- Concentration curl with a thick-handled dumbbell. 10-12 reps. Rest two minutes.
Repeat this for two total supersets. Then do:
- Tate press: 12-15 reps for 3 sets, resting two minutes between sets.
- Overhead cable extension: three sets of 20, 15, and 12 reps, resting one minute between sets.
That routine will not only add some decent size to your upper arms, but it’ll help keep your elbows feeling happy and strong. Good luck, and train hard!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.