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Arm Training For Strength Athletes


Article written by Matt Mills

At Lift Big Eat Big, it’s been all about getting a bigger butt, back and legs, so why not bigger arms? When it comes to Strongman, Powerlifting, and Crossfit, direct arm training isn’t something that is in everyone’s program. Now let’s be honest here, when we were younger, most of us all wanted a big set of guns to impress your crush with, and I’m here to tell you there is nothing wrong with that.  Also, having strong biceps and triceps is extremely important for strength sports.  One of the most common injuries in Strongman is bicep tears, where the tendon is literally ripped off of the bone.  I’m going to outline an arm specialization program that will not only strengthen your arms to prevent injury but also increase your pressing and grip strength.

If your arms are really lacking in size and strength, I would suggest training them on their own separate day.  The good thing is training arms is not very taxing at all, so when I do this I count it as a rest day.  Now, if you are banging out 300lb cheat curls then that is a different story. What I am suggesting you do is train in a high rep range of anywhere from 10-15 reps.  I hope everyone is ready for this because I’m going to use a body builder term here: when doing direct arm work you want to only train for the pump.  Arms do not respond well to low repetitions and heavy weight, maxing out on a curl is just asking for an injury.  Higher reps also strengthen the tendons, which will prevent both bicep and tricep tears that are so common in Strongman and Powerlifting.  


The argument when it comes to strength sports is that arms are worked plenty during the compound lifts like chins, rows, presses, and dips, which is of course very true.  However if you want to increase the size of your arms you have to include direct arm work! I’m sure we have all heard if you gain 10lbs you will also gain an inch on your arms, but it’s not that easy.  Gaining weight does not necessarily mean you will be busting out of your sleeves. 


The argument when it comes to strength sports is that arms are worked plenty during the compound lifts like chins, rows, presses, and dips, which is of course very true.  However if you want to increase the size of your arms you have to include direct arm work! I’m sure we have all heard if you gain 10lbs you will also gain an inch on your arms, but it’s not that easy.  Gaining weight does not necessarily mean you will be busting out of your sleeves. 
 
When I was strictly Powerlifting I took all direct bicep work out of my program thinking it wouldn’t help me at all.  Direct tricep work of course is a staple in powerlifting for lockout strength of the bench press.  My biceps were noticeable smaller in just a few months even while doing weighted chins and heavy row variations.  Once I started Strongman, I was hooked immediately but I couldn’t believe how sore my biceps were from just training a few of the events.  Any Strongman competitor understands how much the biceps come in on movements like tire flips, stones, and front carry variations.  These are all of the events where bicep tears are so common, and sideline competitors for months before they are ready to come back.  Having stronger and bigger arms will only help these events. Here is the training program I use to not only increase the size of my arms but to also improve my events and prevent injuries.


As a warm up, I like to start my arm training with some simple alternating dumbbell curls, I keep the reps high and do 4 sets of 15 reps each arm.  One thing I always do through my arm training is superset biceps and triceps just to keep moving and keep the rest time to a minimum.  My favorite warm up for my triceps are band pressdowns.  In our sport we do a lot of overhead pressing and the elbows take a real beating. If I go right to some heavy skull crushers it feels like my elbow is going to explode.  Again 4 sets of 15 reps, holding the bottom of each extension for 2 seconds. 



After you have performed all 4 sets on each exercise you should be fully warmed up.  I now will generally move on to some basic barbell curls, but this is arm training for Strongman so I make it fat grip barbell curls.  You can do these with an axle or 2 inch thick bar that most of you have access to but the straight bar bothers people’s wrists so if that is you, invest in a pair of Fat Gripz and put them on a E-Z bar and do you curls that way.   Most of my arm training as you will see involves a lot of grip training and for strongman having a strong grip is extremely important.  Try not to cheat on these curls unless it is the last rep or two you want to get out.  I’m not big into cheat curls because you should already be doing your heavy lifts on other training days.  Again I do 4 sets here and drop my reps down to 12.  I superset this exercise with some version of the skull crusher, sometimes this will be with dumbbells and sometimes with a bar.  If I choose the bar then it will be a Swiss bar with parallel grips.  If you have some pain in the elbows and do not have access to a Swiss bar then just stick with dumbbells here.  4 sets of 12.  

One thing people avoid in their arm training is reverse curls but this is a necessity in balancing out your arms, and no I’m not just talking about aesthetics here.   Elbow problems are very common in our sports and if you just stick with supinating (palms up) curls then this is what will happen.  So we are going to stick with the fat grip barbell curl but now do it pronated (palms down).   You will have to lower your weight but here you are going to do only 3 sets of 10-12 reps.   Generally grip will give out here pretty quick which what we are trying to strengthen too.   For triceps I like to go to the cable stack and do some heavy pressdowns, again taking your fat gripz or, if you are lucky enough to have a v bar that is already a fat grip, then use it.  I keep the pressdowns higher reps and again hold the bottom for 2 seconds for 3 sets of 12-15 reps, keep these strict and lower the weight if you have to lean forward too much.  




The next two exercise are some of my favorites.  First you will need a kettelbell and about a 5 foot long rope.  Loop the rope through the kettlebell and you will perform your curls this way.   Start with a neutral grip on the rope and as you curl up, supinate your palms as hard as you can and squeeze the top for a second before lowering.  3 sets of 12 is all you need here.  For triceps you will need a pair of cable handles and chains.  Ideally if you have access to what’s called a mace bell and you will be able to do a drop set here as you will see in the video.  If you don’t have a macebell to use then stick with the cable handles and perform skull crushers of at least 15 reps and shoot for 20 doing 3 sets.  For the drop set you will do roughly 10 reps on the first bell, 6 reps on the middle bell, and maybe another 5 or 6 on the last bell.  The chains are great for taking stress off the elbows and being able to work through a full range of motion while over loading the top of the movement. 




For the final pair of exercises we will be using kettelbells again and heading back to the cable stack.  You will need some fairly light kettlebells here because it’s that difficult to do.  Take your pair of kettlebells and let them hang straight at your sides with your palms facing out in anatomical position.  Squeeze the handles as hard as you possibly can and curl the kettlebells up without letting the bell slip through your grip.  You should be able to get about 8 reps here and once your grip gives out let the bells slip through and bang out as many reps as you can which really should not be any more then 6-8, if you can do more then up the weight.   Pair this with rope pressdowns on the cable stack.  If you were unable to do the drop set with chains then do it here.  Just 3 drop sets will be plenty and get 8-10 reps with each drop and again 3 sets.  

 

For most of you who don’t do any direct arm work, this will be too much volume to start with so as a beginner start with only the first 3 supersets then as you feel you are ready add the next pair and so on but you will need at least 4 weeks before you raise the volume.  Now, I understand that because of time constraints you only have a certain amount of time to train per week and arm training is going to get kicked to the back burner.  But these supersets should take no more than 10 to 12 minutes tops if you keep the rest to a minimum.  I rest no more than 30 seconds between sets and always go from the curl exercise to the triceps immediately.   The compound movements and event training are far more important but a quick couple sets of arms goes perfect at the end of an overhead pressing day or a bench day.  
Matt Mills has a bachelors and masters from Uconn in exercise science, and is a certified strength & conditioning coach through the NSCA. He is certified kettlebell instructor through Art of Strength. He is an ASC Pro Strongman, and has competed in Powerlifting, Crossfit, and Strongman competitions. He is the owner of Lightning Fitness, and holds the National Log Press record with 220lbs for 14 reps in a minute.

8 thoughts on “Arm Training For Strength Athletes

  1. Would you also recommend this to CrossFitters? I can relate to the elbow pain from thrusters or anything over head.

  2. absolutely, grip is still very important in crossfit and if elbow pain is a real issue then add in lots of bandpressdowns.

  3. Awesome, Thank you sir!!

  4. I was wondering if Matt could give us an insight of his current training routine.

  5. At the moment I’m taking a break from strongman events because in the 4 years I’ve been competing for I never have. I’m doing a combination of powerlifting with higher rep bodybuilding movements as accessory work. I will get back into events in a few week when I start training for the Arnold at the end of February. I would be happy to write another article on how to program for strongman to give everyone a better idea of how I train.

  6. Will the LBEB crew be at the Arnold with a booth/swag?

  7. I’ll be there competing!

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