the great arm challenge
When I was preparing for an Olympia contest, I trained my arms daily–biceps one day, triceps the next. I worked biceps and chest together, then triceps and lats. This was the “push-pull” concept. In this way, I'd overload neither the arm flexors nor the extensors. When I wasn't grinding toward a contest, I would generally work each arm muscle three times a week. During this non-contest period, I'd reduce each exercise by one set, but I would never reduce the amount of weight.
Before I go any further, let me repeat something about a rep performance method I've mentioned in the past. It's a way to "think" your muscle into more intense effort. After you've done 6-8 fairly strict reps, rather than relaxing your style to get extra reps, intensify it by concentrating on speeding up the movement a little during the final few reps.
In actuality, the movement hardly speeds up at all, but it seems easier to complete reps by concentrating on this effect. Your brain has fired a volley of impulses to the muscle being worked, to recruit more fibers to do the more work. You will be surprised how this pumps your arms quickly.
I should mention here that to build my arms, I used the high intensity method in which I'd work one muscle group completely to failure before going on to another. In this way I could keep the muscle area under tension and flushed with blood. I'd start biceps work with seated one-arm concentration curls–the first set with a 75-pound dumbbell for 10-12 reps.
I’d do four sets, increasing the weight each set and do a finishing set with a 100-pound dumbbell. On the final few reps of the heavier sets, I’d assist with my free hand by lightly pushing up on my forearm (a self-applied forced rep method). I would then speed into the motion slightly, but would be careful to control the upward pressure in order to provide controlled acceleration.
Immediately following a two-minute break, I would perform one-arm standing cable curls. With my free arm, I’d grip an upright post for support. I could then exert full power in curling without losing my balance. In fact, I liked to add one balance-free exercise to each bodypart routine for maximum stimulation. I did four sets of 10-12 reps, starting with 70 pounds and finishing with 90–no cheating and no forced reps. Again, I sped up on the final reps.
Since I wanted every calorie I burned to be productive, I eliminated the usual warm-ups. I started with the concentration curls because they were less stressful on the joints than the subsequent biceps movements, and therefore provided a substantial warm-up themselves. This procedure had worked well for me so far. I would surely have had to do the regular warm-ups if I didn't use the progressive system.
For the third biceps exercise, I did the standing barbell curl with a grip a little less than shoulder width–four sets of 10-12 reps, starting with 135 pounds and finishing with 200 lb. On the latter I used the forced rep method by having my partner assist only in the final reps with a slight boost in the center of the barbell. During the off-season I would eliminate this tough final set.
The fourth and final biceps exercise was the alternate dumbbell curl. I would start each with my palm toward the thigh, and as I curl, I rotate my hand until it's fully supinated at the top of the movement. I’d start with 45 pounds, 10-12 reps, and in progressive jumps finish with 75 pounds. The weight is considerably less than I’d used for barbell curls. Sometimes I would alternate the two last movements as a pumping giant set.
I must say that hard training for me became a way of life, with exhibitions, appearances and frequent contests. The term "off season" hardly applied to me. My routine remained unchanged for the most part, except when I reduced the number of sets per exercise from four to three. My diet remained stringent. I’d use the expression, "No more cheesecake," as a constant reminder.
When it came to triceps, I’d start with lying triceps extensions, done with a heavy EZ barbell, unassisted. Pushing from the bridge of my nose, I’d start with 125 pounds, 10-12 reps, and finish with 155. Sometimes I'd call for assistance when I forced out the final three reps of the last set. For maximum benefit, I would hold my arms close to the body at all times, elbows up. When you do this exercise, don't let the bar swing toward the back of the head. You can feel this one in the entire inner triceps area.
Next, was the one-arm dumbbell overhead triceps extension. This movement definitely works the outer head, the most visible area of the triceps. To see your stability, stand in front of the mirror and hold onto an upright post with your free arm. I’d start with a 45-pound dumbbell, 10-12 reps, and finish with 75. For the final three reps of the last set I’d look for assistance.
Here’s some advice–don't start your triceps work with this exercise. The movement is done under a great initial stretch at the bottom of the movement, and if the muscle is not sufficiently warmed up, you could end up with strained ligaments. If done subsequent to other triceps exercises, however, no warm-up is needed.
On the final forced reps it's possible to assist yourself by using your free arm, pushing up against the forearm. I also find a certain stability in reaching across my body with my free arm to grip my chest. The more rigid you can make your body, the more directly the exercise is going to affect the triceps.
The third triceps exercise I’d do is the bent over dumbbell kickbacks, one arm at a time. I’d keep my torso bent, parallel to the floor. I would extend my forearm back parallel to the floor. Of all the triceps exercises, this one peaks the triceps muscle fully. It builds the "horseshoe effect," an expression coined by old-time bodybuilders to describe the arch like curve in the fully contracted muscle.
I started with 45 pounds, 10-12 reps, and advanced in five-pound jumps–finishing with 60 lb. I never used assistance, even during the last few reps of each set. I’d hold the arm in the fully extended position for a few seconds squeezing out maximum contraction.
I used to move fast through an arm routine, working up a good sweat–though I might rest as long as a minute between sets. I worked with enough intensity to boost my heartbeat and respiration rate, a sure sign of a high oxygen uptake and a great muscle pump.
I’d finish my triceps work with the seated triceps extension, using a barbell. I would grip the inner angle areas of the EZ curl bar which would put my hands fairly close together.
I’d keep my upper arms as close to my head as possible. From the extended position overhead, I’d lower my forearms to the point where they’d rest on my biceps slightly. Being seated had a stabilizing effect on the body. I’d start with 135 pounds for 10-12 reps, finishing with 165. Again, I’d get assistance for the last three reps of the final set. This exercise works the entire triceps and is a good overall mass builder.
During extended breaks between appearances and shows, I used to drop a set from each triceps exercise, (going from four to three). I used the same amount of weight and work the muscle three times a week.
For the forearms I often started with the seated wrist curl, palms up. I would sit on a high bench that put my knees lower than my buttocks. In this position, with my forearms resting on my thighs, I’d be able to curl my wrists, getting the full resistance of the weight at the top. I didn’t count reps on forearm work, and usually did 12-15 reps each set. I’d do four sets–135, 145, 155 and 200. I would definitely need assistance on my last set and the heavy load would give my forearms the extra stimulation to build those desired bottle shapes.
Next, reverse curls, done standing with the elbows at your sides. This movement also works the brachialis muscle, the top part of the forearms, and also the wrist extensors. I would do four sets, 10-12 reps of 100, 115, 125 and 135 pounds. This exercise really cleared up a chronic brachialis pain that hampered my arm work for years.
The above was what my arm training program looked like a few weeks before the 1982 Mr. Olympia contest held in London. I was bearing down extremely hard. I used to change my routine every few months if my arms didn’t respond as expected. Over the years, I’ve learned many things about how to build arms in a way that could benefit a lifter at any level.