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Fully Armed

Go ahead and look around at your colleagues. What"s one of the first things you notice? I'll bet you answer their physical appearance, whether or not they're in shape. If they are fit looking what stands out more than anything else is their arms. Muscularity, size, definition... a toned pair of arms speaks volumes. Moreover, it doesn't matter if a man or a woman is sporting a decent set of guns; they're an impressive sight. So how do we get to that point? How do we develop an imposing looking set of arms?

Let's begin with the basics. Big arms mean big triceps; it's that simple. Everyone is hung up on the size of one's bicep, but it's the triceps muscle, with its three components: the pronator teres, brachialis, and brachii (long, medial and lateral heads), that comprises fully two-thirds of your arm size and strength. Don't get me wrong: a huge, peaked bicep is truly amazing, but the triceps muscle is the main ingredient. When women fail to exercise their arms, neglecting the triceps muscle, it becomes saggy and hangs loose. The resulting flapping skin is often referred to as bat wings. Not very attractive.

As a personal trainer, I'm often asked about the best way to get big arms. The quick answer is hard work, and lifting heavy weights. Sounds simple, doesn't it? That's because it is. Muscles grow when they're challenged. If you're going to the gym and always doing the same exercises, with the same number of reps and sets, using the same amount of weight, your body adjusts to the workload. An analogy that I like to cite is the construction worker. He's out every day digging, lifting, operating a jack hammer - all tasks that involve strength and energy. The problem is that he's doing the same movements every day, therefore, his muscles have adapted to the type of work he's doing. They're working efficiently but not growing.

The key is to challenge your muscles. Every two or three months, change your routine; add different exercises, add more weight, increase or decrease reps and sets. Change. That may involve working to exhaustion every once in awhile, meaning you rep out until you can no longer finish a repetition. Alternatively, it may mean that you use a spotter to help you increase the weight to be able to finish the set with two or three additional reps. Change.

Bear in mind that when you challenge your muscles, you overload them to the point of needing to rest them. The tendency is to work out every day, which is fine, except when you're working the same muscles. Either take a day of rest, or switch it up so that you're working upper body one day, lower body the next. Over-training is one of the biggest reasons people get injured and abandon their training program.

So what are the key exercises needed to build big arms? I'm glad you asked. As with most things, it's the basics that are... well, basic. I'm a proponent of two mass building exercises: close grip bench presses and dips. Done correctly, these two will get you on your way to building big arms.

I enlisted the help of a friend and fellow personal trainer, Brandon Childs, to demonstrate the movements. Brandon's a former LEO who knows the importance of size and strength in police work. Let's get started.

The close grip bench press, when performed properly, builds thick triceps. To build mass, use heavy weights and low reps. Use a spotter, but if one's not available, use the Smith Machine. Here are the basics:

  • Use about half the weight you use on your normal set of heavy bench presses. Remember we want the triceps to do the work, not the chest.
  • Keep your grip about 12 inches apart, but this can be modified depending on your size. If you use too narrow of a grip, you'll place stress on your elbows and wrists. Take the bar off the rack (see photo 1 close grip start)
  • Slowly bring the bar down to a point just below your chest, focusing on keeping your elbows as close to your body as possible (see photo 2 close grip finish)
  • Press the weight back up to full extension, but don't lock your elbows; focus on not flaring them during the exercise. That's one repetition.

The key is slow, deliberate movements; avoid bouncing the bar off your chest. Three to five sets of five to eight reps with heavy weight will suffice.

The second basic triceps exercise is the dip. Most gyms will have a set of freestanding dip bars or a set attached to a chin up station. Regardless, here are the basics:

  • Begin by placing your hands on the dip bars facing inward. Keep your body upright and concentrate on maintaining your elbows in tight. (See photo 1 dip start).
  • Lower yourself but not to the point of stretching your chest area. Keep your body upright; do not lean over otherwise you're working your lower chest rather than your triceps. (See photo 2 dip finish).
  • Now push yourself back up to the starting position. That's one repetition.

Try to do three to five sets of ten repetitions. When they become easy, try adding weight to your dips and doing fewer reps. You may experiment with either keeping your legs straight or bent with your feet crossed. It doesn't really matter as long as you maintain an upright posture.

That's it - simple and to the point. There are many other triceps exercises, some of which may be your favorite. But if you want to have a set of guns hanging by your side; if you want to look good in uniform or out, close grip benches and dips will get you down the road to big arms. Remember, size matters; to get it use heavy weights and lower reps.

Stay safe, brothers and sisters!