Barbell Medicine - From Bench to Bedside

In this segment of the How-To Do GPP series, we tackle direct arm training, or “arm work”. In the context of GPP, we train the biceps and triceps, primarily, for general strength and hypertrophy. The purpose of “arm work” during GPP sessions is to apply some additional volume and stress to the arms. Given that competition and supplemental exercises take higher priority, and that we are likely performing a high volume of bench presses, overhead presses, and rows in routine training, it doesn’t make sense for most trainees to use a ton of recovery resources by turning the “arm work” component of GPP into a full-on bodybuilding-style arm session. 

Exercise selection for GPP purposes can be informed by a few criteria. These are not rigid rules, but are nonetheless useful: the exercises (A) should directly target the muscle groups we intend to train, e.g., biceps and triceps brachii; (B) should have a relatively large range of motion including both a concentric and eccentric phase; and (C) should not be especially fatiguing when performed at higher volumes.

Exercise Selection

Arm work usually consists of direct or “isolation” training for the biceps and triceps musculature. The biceps brachii, composed of a short head and long head, are a bi-articular muscle group, meaning they cross two joints, in this case, the elbow and the shoulder. The biceps act to flex the elbows, supinate the hand, and contribute, a little, to shoulder flexion.

Although they are worked indirectly during various pulling movements (rows, chin ups, and pull ups, for example), applying additional direct training stress to these muscles is a good option for those wanting to strengthen them for performance, rehab, or aesthetic purposes. Standard barbell curls and dumbbell curls of all varieties (alternating DB curls, preacher curls, hammer curls, etc.) are some of our standard choices and tend to be fairly accessible options for most trainees. 

Direct biceps training does not need to be more complicated than this, really, but variety can help break up the monotony of training and is warranted in cases where a very specific training stress need be applied (e.g., preacher curls at tempo for someone rehabbing biceps tendinopathy). Using various machines or cables for curls are also good options if you have access to this equipment. Using an axle or “fat bar” for curls, various grippers (e.g., Captains of Crush), wrist rollers, etc., can also be useful, especially for those interested in strongman competition, as various events in the sport can challenge elbow flexors and grip. This isn’t the sort of highly specific grip work you’d do to hang on to a 1RM deadlift or to rock climb, but GPP is not designed to be specific in this way. Remember, we’re aiming to increase our breadth of movement here, not fall back on what we do in routine training.

 The triceps brachii are composed of three parts: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head. All three heads work to extend the elbow, but each has a different pattern of producing force at different degrees of shoulder elevation. We likely need a variety of exercises to target the triceps effectively, including some overhead work, as the medial head is preferentially activated at 90 degrees and above of shoulder flexion. Some of our preferred exercises here are cable press downs with various attachments (rope, straight bar, or V bar), lying triceps extensions with an EZ curl bar or a single dumbbell palmed in both hands, overhead triceps extensions (with dumbbells, EZ curl bar, or a straight bar), and the old school powerlifter’s favorite — the JM press, a hybrid of the skull crusher and close-grip bench press.

Sets and Reps

We usually prescribe either multiple sets (3–6 sets) of 10–20 reps @ RPE 7–9, or an AMRAP-style prescription. Higher-rep protocols at high RPEs are an effective and time-efficient way to work on arm hypertrophy. While multiple sets of 10–20 reps @ RPE 7+ would be highly fatiguing for most trainees in the context of larger/compound lifts, for isolation-type arm exercises this does not generate the same caliber of central or even peripheral fatigue. With an AMRAP protocol, we usually ask the trainee to limit all sets within the AMRAP to RPE 6–7 tops, so as to allow the accrual of multiple high-rep sets without acute muscular fatigue becoming the limiting factor for volume during the AMRAP. Arm work can usually be completed using “supersets”, where the exercises are performed back-to-back with little to no rest in between. This is an excellent time-saving strategy when you are in a pinch and needing to get GPP out of the way.

Programming Example

Exercise Prescription: 10-min arm work AMRAP (superset 1 biceps and 1 triceps exercise, performing As Many Reps As Possible in 10 min).

Here, the trainee decides on dumbbell curls and a cable triceps press downs with a rope as the biceps and triceps exercises, respectively. The lifter sets a 10-minute timer and begins the AMRAP:

Alternating Dumbbell Curls: 20 lb DB x 15 reps (each arm) @ RPE 6

Triceps Press Downs w/ Rope: 60 lbs x 20 reps @ RPE 6

— 30 seconds rest —

Alternating Dumbbell Curls: 25 lb DB x 15 reps (each arm) @ RPE 7

Triceps Press Downs w/ Rope: 80 lbs x 15 reps @ RPE 7

— 30 seconds rest —

The lifter will stick with the heavier set of weights for the remainder of the AMRAP, although the number of reps may drop as the AMRAP proceeds. Repeat until the 10 minutes are up.

Arm work can be an enjoyable and low-stress component of your GPP training. It is unlikely that your athletic development is being held back by a lack of arm work, but building some extra muscle mass is always “functional” from both a strength and health perspective. If you have the time and resources to spare, don’t skimp on this aspect of your GPP training!

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