When I got bitten by the bodybuilding bug I wanted the same thing every young boy with more testosterone than brains wanted. Giant arms! Big guns! Muscles that would turn heads and grant me all sorts of privileges and superpowers. There was one question I cared about, and that was how to increase bicep size–specifically, my own skinny, scrawny biceps.
Sometimes I miss that kid. He had big dreams. I liked him, but I’m glad he’s gone, at least as far as training realistically.
What happened? The same thing that happens to most guys. Too many curls. Too much bench press. Too little progress. I picked up some definition but no real size. So I quit for a few years, discouraged.
When I got back into weight training in my late 20s I began lifting consistently for the first time, and with different goals–I just wanted to get strong and feel good. I had heard that looking good was a nice side effect of getting stronger, but had no experience with it myself. I was a well-meaning weakling, but a weakling.
I focused on the biggest movements I could, because they felt like I was giving me the biggest increases in overall strength. I did a lot of deadlifts, eventually working up to a max of 540 (I weighed 250 at the time, so don’t let your mind be blown by that little number). I finally started squatting, but I’m not going to tell you my total yet because I’m 6’8″ and my squat is still pretty sad, although it’s comin’ along.
Lots of weighted pullups, dips, and military presses. Little by little I noticed that I was getting bigger. Usually because someone would say so, which was the nicest possible way to find out about it.
And the bigger and stronger I got, the more questions I got about my routine. “I have just focused on strength,” I said. “But what about your arm routine?”
“I don’t have one.” Sometimes they’d believe me, but usually they acted like I was holding out on them. For the record, my arms aren’t huge–they’re nearly 17″ at the time of this writing, but that is with almost zero direct arm training, so I’m happy with it.
Mark Rippetoe and Marty Gallagher
The questions reminded me of a quote from Mark Rippetoe. I’m paraphrasing, but he responded to a question once–can’t remember what the question was–with “Get your deadlift up to 500 pounds and you’ll have your own opinions.” I believe that 100%. My response to these questions was a variation: Get stronger and you’ll have your own opinions.
In other words, pick a big movement, get after it, watch the numbers go up, and see what happens to your arms.
Another quote from Marty Gallagher, from his very entertaining book The Purposeful Primitive:
“Who cares about defining a 14″ arm?” I love that.
So, if you’ve ever been in my shoes and you’re starting to wonder if the amount of biceps curls you’ve been doing can ever yield the arms you want, I would suggest trying something else–just get stronger in every big movement you can. You pretty much have to get bigger. Everywhere.
I put on over 30 pounds of pretty high-quality muscle by working my deadlift and squat, along with a whole lot of double kettlebell long cycle. It didn’t happen right away, but I strung together a few months of very good training and eating and there it was. Hardgainer no more.
I have no reason to think it won’t work the same for anyone else. Get strong, enjoy the process, and I suspect your arms will grow.