If there’s one area that aspiring bodybuilders and avid gym-goers love to train its arms. But, before you head straight for those biceps curls, it’s important to remember that the triceps actually make up two thirds of your upper arm
We’ll break down which muscles you should be targeting, and provide the 6 best bicep and triceps exercises to really pack on mass and size.
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What are the biceps?
The upper arm is made up of two major muscle groups — the biceps and triceps. The bicep is the smaller of the two muscles, but often receives more attention in the gym.
Big biceps were made popular by the likes of bodybuilding icons Larry Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1960s and ’70s.
How to build bicep mass
To build the mass of your biceps, you need a combination of compound and isolation movements, using heavy weights for the best number of quality reps (before your form and technique start to decrease).
It’s important to choose the right exercises, that target all parts of the biceps when looking to build muscle mass.
Bicep mass builder 1: Close grip chin-ups
Now we know what you’re thinking, chin-ups are a back exercise, right? Well yes, but it’s a compound exercise that works your biceps too.
A close grip chin-up allows for a high amount of load (weight) to be used as well as a large range of motion. This uses a high amount of muscle fibres which, in turn, means more muscle growth.
How to do the close grip chin-up
1. Stand at a chin-up bar and take grip of the bar at shoulder-width apart (or narrower), with your palms facing you.
2. Start by hanging from the bar with arms fully outstretched in what’s known as a ‘dead hang’.
3. Pull your body up until your chest touches the bar, mentally focusing on activating your biceps as much as possible. Squeeze at the top for a second and lower your body back down. Remember to come back to a dead hang.
4. Anywhere from 6 to 12 reps is a good amount for building bicep mass. As for the number of sets, 3 to 4 sets would be a good amount to get in once or twice a week.
If bodyweight is too easy for you, you can always use a weight belt to make the exercise more challenging.
Bicep mass builder 2: Dumbbell hammer curls
Hammer curls are similar to bicep dumbbell curls with a slight twist. Instead of the palms facing upwards, they’re turned inwards to face each other. This brings the powerful forearm muscles into play, allowing you to lift more weight.
How to do a dumbbell hammer curl
1. Pick up your dumbbells in each hand, keeping your elbows close to the body. The palms of your hands should be facing your torso — this will be the starting position.
2. Curl the dumbbells up towards the shoulders until the bicep is fully contracted. Hold the contracted position for a few seconds as you squeeze the biceps. Avoid letting your elbows come up as this takes the stress off the biceps.
3. Slowly begin to the lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position. Repeat for the chosen number of reps.
4. You can do the exercise one arm at a time or both arms together. Both arms together is generally harder as you cannot lean from side to side.
5. Your ideal rep range for this exercise will be 8 to 12 reps to put on mass. About 3 to 4 working sets should be a good amount.
Bicep mass builder 3: The preacher curl
The preacher curl exercise was made famous by Larry Scott, former Mr Olympia, which he used to develop his 20-inch arms. In some circles, the exercise is known as the Scott curl.
It is an effective exercise to isolate the biceps and reduce the amount the hips can contribute. It also locks the elbows into a fixed position which can give a great stretch to the bicep.
The exercise is most commonly done with an e-z bar, although a straight bar, dumbbell, or cable can also be used.
How to do the preacher curl
1. Place a bench in front of a cable machine, and attached an e-z bar, straight bar, or a single handle to the low pulley.
2. Stand behind the bench with your elbow and upper arms firmly at the top of the pad. Grab the bar or cable and fully extend your arms on top of the bench pad. This will be your starting position.
3. Curl the weight up towards your shoulders and squeeze the biceps at the top of the movement. Hold for a second at the top before lowering the weight back down.
4. Repeat the movement by curling the weight back up, ensuring your shoulders are pulled back to engage the biceps. Make sure you lower the weight to a full extension of the arms — this is where the stretch happens.
5. It is a good idea when starting out with this exercise to use a light weight. It can be deceptively hard when done properly.
What are the triceps?
If you are wanting to increase arm mass, then it is definitely worth including tricep exercises into your workouts. Triceps make up almost two thirds of your arm size, so dedicating some effort here will make all the difference to arm size.
The triceps muscles consist of 3 heads - the long head, the medial head and the lateral head. This group of muscles originates near the scapular and attaches at the back of the arm near the elbow joint.
How to build tricep mass
When the muscles are fully developed and lean they display an impressive striated feathering look. Just like the biceps, to truly maximise triceps growth you will need a combination of compound and isolation exercises.
Triceps mass builder 1: Dumbbell overhead extensions
Many exercises like press-ups or close-grip bench presses work the triceps as a secondary muscle, but the dumbbell overhead extension puts them firmly in the spotlight.
You can do the triceps extension standing, sitting or lying down, and either flat, incline or decline.
Just don’t overdo the weight, because it’s vital to achieve a full range of movement to work the triceps. Struggling with a dumbbell that’s too heavy can impact your form and could potentially cause injury.
How to do the dumbbell overhead extension
1. Grab a dumbbell and sit on the end of a flat bench. Brace your core throughout the whole exercise.
2. Hold one end of the weight with both hands, then press it above your head until your arms are straight — this will be your starting position.
3. Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows to lower the weight behind your head until your forearms are parallel to the floor. Pause for a few seconds, then straighten your arms back to the starting position
4. Repeat for the chosen amount of reps.
Triceps mass builder 2: Tricep dip
Tricep dips are one of the most effective exercises for activating the triceps muscles — the lateral head, the medial head, and the long head.
It’s the perfect bodyweight exercise for building mass on the arms, that can be done on the bench or using a dip machine. But, just because it’s a simple bodyweight exercise doesn’t mean it’s easy.
How to do a tricep dip
1. Sit on a flat bench, with your hands on the edge next to hips. Lift your hips off the bench, and walk your feet forward a few inches, so the hips are in front of the bench. This will be the starting position.
2. Start the move by bending your elbows to lower your body, until the elbows form a 90-degree angle. To keep your triceps under tension for longer, lower your body as slowly as you can.
3. Pause at the bottom, before pressing back up powerfully, straightening the aims to return to the starting position.
4.Repeat for the chosen amount of reps.
Triceps mass builder 3:Tricep pushdown
Tricep pushdowns, sometimes called pulldowns, are one of the best exercises for developing mass in the triceps, strengthening the three muscles responsible for extending and straightening your arms.
How to do a tricep pushdown
1. Attach a straight bar, angled bar, or rope to a high pulley, and grab with an overhand grip.
2. Standing upright with the body straight, bring the upper arms close to your body. Your forearms should be pointing towards the pulley as you hold the bar. This is your starting position.
3. Using your triceps, push the bar down until it touches the front of your thighs and the arms are fully extended. The upper arms should always remain next to your body with the only movement coming from your forearms.
4. Hold for a few seconds in the contracted, before slowly bringing the bar up to the starting position.
5. Repeat for the chosen number of reps.
Take home message
If you want to build muscle mass on your arms you will need to dedicate a considerable amount of your training time to grow them. A mixture of compound and isolation exercises is a good idea to target all areas of the muscle. Incorporate some of the bicep and tricep exercises for mass into your arm workouts to help grow your arms.
Focus on good form, the full range of motion and adding as much weight as possible over time. Before you know it, you will be shopping for new t-shirts.
Grant is a sports nutritionist and certified strength coach. He has multiple postgraduate diplomas in nutrition and strength coaching as well as a Master’s degree in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, with a specific focus on protein. Grant has worked in the fitness industry for well over a decade and has helped coach professional athletes and sports teams, as well as the average gym-goer looking to get in the best shape possible. He now spends most of his working time teaching fitness professionals and coaching people remotely.
He’s a big believer in practising what he preaches and has been involved in resistance training and martial arts for over 20 years. In his spare time, Grant enjoys being with his wife and daughter as well as the family dogs and catching up on the latest Netflix series.