Over the weekend I sat down and reviewed over 4 years worth of my programs. There were over 50 mesocycles from 2013-2017 that I had either written for myself or had programmed by a coach. The purpose was to reflect on my time in the trenches as an athlete on a mission for mastery in physique. I wanted to better understand what I have been doing, what worked, what didn’t and identify areas and ways to improve moving into 2018.
I collated a lot of data, observed some interesting trends, and analysed my protocols with a fine tooth comb and thought it would make for a great article to demonstrate the benefits of reflection, trial and error.
I’ve always had relatively small arms and despite my constant efforts in building bigger pythons, they never seemed to grow.
So, this year, in preparation for the stage in 2018, it was time to engage in Project ABTMH (Arms Bigger Than My Head) and I dedicated the better part of 10 months to addressing this. In this article I will share with you a comparison of my previous arm protocols and the changes I made in 2017 that led to some serious python growth. Whilst individualisation is an important consideration when discussing program design, many of the lessons I learned in my quest for ABTMH will apply to many of you and I’m sure will help you in your own hypertrophy efforts.
Background & Context
Before we delve into the specific’s surrounding program design for arm hypertrophy, it’s important to give you some context and background as to my own training/diet history to help better understand how I made such rapid gains in my arms.
Biceps & Triceps Training Overview
2014-2015 ( A Fluffy Off Season)
After competing in bodybuilding in 2013, I spent the following two years focusing purely on hypertrophy style training, eating at a calorie surplus and prioritised improving my back and arms specifically. I was making some considerable gains, for sure. Here is an overview of my arm training during that inconsistent off season:
The training approach adopted from 14-15 wasn’t too shabby. I did make some decent gains, albeit mostly fat gain due to rebounding quite hard from my contest prep season in 2013. Despite the sound program, admittedly I struggled to be consistent with my training due to a lack of motivation and feeling very much lost in my training and what I was trying to achieve.
2015-2016 (Wanna Be Powerlifter)
After 2 years of a lack lustre bodybuilding off season, I began my quest for strength and started powerlifting as a means to better understand training as well as shift my focus from ‘physique’ to performance. What comes with competitive powerlifting is obviously the goal of improving one quality – strength, specifically in three lifts.
Not arm hypertrophy.
However, this break from the high volumes accompanied with bodybuilding programs wasn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, it is what I attribute a lot of the rapid progress I made this year to. Taking a break from higher rep ranges can lead to re-sensitisation of the strength-endurance stimulus associated with hypertrophy work in the 10-20 rep range. For sure, my arms definitely took a back slide after 2 years of focusing purely on getting some big arse numbers in the squat, bench and deadlift, however I quickly gained back any muscle lost in my arms during this period, and then some.
My arm training during the powerlifting stint looked like this:
The Mistakes in My Previous Arm Training Protocols.
Now, from the surface, my arm training from 2014-2016 does in fact seem like a pretty sound way to train arms. There was monitoring of performance, overload, I have pretty good technique and I trained hard. That’s enough, right?
Well, to accomplish my goal of having arms bigger than my head, it clearly wasn’t…
However, this year really changed the game in terms of how I approach arm training and the results I achieved in 10 months blew my previous ‘methodologies’ out of the park.
Here is a list of the main reasons and mistakes made in both my own as well as many other individuals arm training programs:
❌Blasting the arms with a ridiculous amount of volume either weekly or within a single session.
❌ Changing exercise selection too frequently.
❌ Training the arms directly with too low a frequency and inadequate volume.
❌ Hitting failure in every set of every exercise.
❌ Prioritising progression in the form of adding weight.
❌ Copying the arm routines of ‘some’ IFBB pros.
❌ Using poor technique and allowing momentum and inertia to assist each rep.
❌ Selecting exercises that fail to train the biceps and triceps through all of their anatomical functions.
Optimal Program Design – What Helped Me Grow
What led me to change the way I approached arm training was both frustration at my lack of growth as well as becoming more literate with the research on hypertrophy. As a result, I’ve seen some decent progress in both my own and my clients arm hypertrophy by prioritising the following:
✅ Splitting weekly volume across 3-4 sessions.
✅ Keeping exercise selection consistent for 8-12 weeks before making variations.
✅ Using an RPE of 8-9 on ‘most’ sets and nearing failure only toward the end of a program.
✅Prioritising overload in reps and sets. Only increasing weight once a rep range has been maxed out.
✅ Performing 80-90% of reps with near perfect form.
✅ Individualising exercise selection, volume, frequency and intensity based on preference, recovery, progress and making adjustments in response to the protocol.
✅ Timeless form.
✅ Exercise selection that maximises all of the functions of the triceps and biceps.
2016-2017 ( The Year of ABTMH)
This years arm program was much more in alignment with the aforementioned variables for optimal program design for arm hypertrophy.
This is what my training looked like from the beginning of 2017 until now (November 2017):
The most noticeable change was obviously the volume.
Many of you reading this will think, no sh** more volume = more gains you peanut.
However, not only was the volume increased, but it was spread across a greater frequency of 4-5x per week, which is indeed quite high.
Not to mention that there was far more indirect arm training via my main lifts such as close grip pressing, dips, supinated pull ups and row variations.
Another big factor in the huge growth spurt my arms had this year was the shift from the standard 8-12 rep range towards the higher rep ranges of 15-20+.
Finally, a big player in my gains was the emphasis on overload via volume (reps and sets), before load. Dropping the ego and focusing on just adding a rep each week worked wonders and there is a lot to be said for this model of progression for smaller muscle groups such as the arms.
There were definitely many variables that changed and could have contributed to the significant improvements I made this year. However, the two primary variables that I feel were responsible for my progress were increasing volume (weekly number of sets) and spreading that across a higher frequency throughout the week. Below you can see the trend in volume and frequency over the last 4 years and how markedly both increased this year…
Another crucial piece to my arm training puzzle was that all the frustration and lack of progress forced me to do my homework on bicep and tricep anatomy. I ensured I was well versed in understanding not only the theoretical underpinnings of the different actions of the biceps and triceps, but also how to practically translate this into program design to best to select exercises that trained each muscle through all of their anatomical functions.
What this meant was that I no longer stuck to plain old curls and push downs, but introduced different angles. I trained the bicep through all three of its functions – elbow flexion, supination and shoulder flexion. Similarly, training the triceps not just in shoulder extension (think tricep pushdown) but so too in shoulder flexion (think overhead dumbbell extensions).
A final note on nutrition
Whilst many of you will look to the above for guidance and hopefully see value in the considerations outlined for arm hypertrophy as it relates to program design, what was equally as important for my growth this year was the fact that I was hypercaloric (at a calorie surplus) throughout this 10 months phase. Aiming for a rate of weight gain at approximately 0.5-1% of body weight per month (3-4kg gained in 10 months) as well as prioritising protein intake with ~2-2.2g of protein per day. This augmented the stimulus and adaptations made via training and is equally as important as program design for maximising hypertrophic adaptations.
I hope you guys found value in this article and have an improved understanding of program design as it relates to arm hypertrophy. Remember, maximising any adaptation requires your training to be specific to that goal and the variables within your training should reflect this. Patience, persistence and progression is crucial in the hypertrophy game, so I implore you all to review your current methods, assess whats working, what is not and make logical and educated adjustments to how you approach your training.