Is Direct Arm Work Necessary for Sculpted Arms?

Today we’re going to step a bit away from the athletic performance side of things and touch a toe into the aesthetic department (or vanity, depending on who you ask).

A question that I’m continually asked, by females and males alike, is whether or not direct arm work is necessary to obtain a set of defined arms (for females) or bigger gunz (for males).

Before I continue, allow me to provide the Cliff Notes version of my answer: Direct arm work (or isolation exercises) will not be the difference maker in one’s quest for tickets to the gun show. But it can have a time and place. 

Moving on….When it comes to direct arm training, people tend to fall into two camps:

#1. ”You don’t need any direct arm work to develop a head-turning set of arms. All you need to do is squat and deadlift, and your biceps will grow.”

#2. “You need to do copious volumes of direct arm training. One full day dedicated to biceps, another entire day for triceps, baby.”

The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. While I’d love to say that #1 is true across the board (I personally find direct arm training quite boring), I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you all you need to do is squat to make your arms grow. This will hopefully be the case in heaven, but I’m afraid a bit more is needed for us earth-dwelling folk.

For the majority, a healthy dose of pulling and pressing heavy, vertically and horizontally,  coupled with a sound nutrition regimen, is going to be all that is required during the first couple years of training to watch your arms develop. After you’re consistent (three days on, thirty days off doesn’t count), then I’d venture to say that a few sets of curls and pressdowns here and there won’t hurt things.

After all, you’re biceps are going to be involved in any “pulling” exercise (rows, pullups, pulldowns), and your triceps are going to be involved in any “pressing” exercise (pushups, bench press, military press, etc.).

Using a quick example, and at the risk of sounding extremely pompous and foolhardy, I’ve decided to use myself as a personal testimony to the value of foregoing direct arm training in favor of sticking to compound movements (presses, pulls, squats, deadlifts, and loaded carries). For over three years now, I have performed zero dedicated isolation arm work during my training sessions. Zip. Zilch. Nadda.

Below is a picture I snapped just yesterday.

But before we get to that, you didn’t think I could remain serious during a picture of myself flexing, did you? No. I tried, to be honest, but I couldn’t take myself seriously giving an arm pose for the camera; you can peruse the innumerable Facebook profile pictures and Bodybuilding.com forums of the boy population to see some of those.

So I decided to spice it up a bit. Ladies and gentlemen, meet my Animagus form, Mr. Bananas. I only partially transformed to illustrate my point:

Now, before all the internet warriors jump in from the confines of their basement computers, let me be the first to admit that I don’t consider my arms at all impressive. Are there countless individuals out there with bigger arms than me? Of course. Could my arms be “bigger” or “more defined” if I did include direct arm training into my programming? Probably.

My point that I haven’t obsessed over direct arm training for well over a few years, but instead focused on simply training consistently: Pushing things around, pulling things around, carrying heavy objects to and fro on a daily basis, and eating accordingly in order to fuel these activities.  And what do you know, my arms have still grown somewhat.

Which brings me to my central points:

Mindset, Priorities and Consistency

1. Mindset

You can walk in to any gym and immediately notice those who have a winning mindset vs. a losing mentality. Those with winning mindsets are training with conviction and purpose, attacking everything from their warm-ups to their working sets like they mean it.

Take those who train with conviction and have lazer-like focus during their ENTIRE time in the gym (no matter if they’re doing something as simple as a band pullapart vs. something as complex as a clean+jerk), and compare them with those who lollygag through some curls to pump up before hitting the bars on Friday night, and I don’t think I need to explain myself any further.

It’s common knowledge that mindset is key with regards to relationships, handling finances, and one’s profession; how you go about achieving results in the gym is no different.

2. Priorities

If one only has thirty minutes a day to dedicate to keeping themselves healthy, then obviously he or she should prioritize something like squats, deadlifts, or pullups before bicep curling, correct? You’d think this would be obvious, yes, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many adults I’ve witnessed rushing into a commercial gym, clearly pressed for time, only to curl away in the mirror for twenty minutes before walking back out the door!

Look, I do recognize that I am biased, as I primarily work the athletic population, and the amount of direct arm work I give them is usually somewhere between 0-5% of their total training volume. (Keep in mind I’m NOT saying that athletes don’t need to be doing direct arm work at all because it isn’t “specific to their sport”; go ahead and slit the biceps tendon of a NFL running back and tell him to hold on tightly to the ball as he rushes upfield….)

But even if you’re just someone who wants to look better: In the end, your choice of including or omitting isolation work for the arms isn’t going to make or break your results. Whether you are male or female, prioritize the compound movements, and then treat direct arm work, if you get to it, as bonus material.

3. Consistency

Regarding consistency, you’ll rarely notice any progress if you’re spotty with your training sessions. The bodybuilders and gym rats who possess the largest and most defined arms did not arrive where they did because they’ve got the “perfect” or “secret” arm routine (or even steroids for that matter), but because they’ve been consistent day in and day out.

But what about…..

What about guys with longer arms that never seem to grow no matter what they do? A few sets of curls or tricep extensions at the end of your session could quite possibly help, but also note that there’s a MUCH larger picture at hand (Hint: You need to eat more).

What about females that approach me, seeking to tone the backs of their arms? Sure, I may give them a few tricep pressdowns at the end of their session for the “feel” effect, but the results they end up obtaining primarily stem from their efforts in kitchen, and us helping them to focus on (and master) their rows, chinups, and pushups.

As an aside, I do recognize that genetics can play a big role here. For the males out there with long arms, or those of you that may be “skinny-fat ectomorphs,” I usually give this recommendation: If you’re going to do direct arm work, keep it to ten minutes or less at the end of your session. If and only if you have giving everything you have to the compound movements.

Heck, toss in a 60-second chinup, follow it up with 2 sets of 10-15 reps of EZ curls, and call it a day.

Anything over that won’t necessary be doing you any good.

Closing Thoughts

1. When it comes to whether or not you should include direct arm training for better arm development, my answer is typically, “Ehhh, sure. But it’s not going to be the deciding factor in your results (or lack thereof).”

2. Mindset, priorities, and consistency are the deciding factors for #1.

3. Remember: Everything you do has the potential to take away from the bang-for-your-buck exercises performed during the beginning of the training session. Your body only has a limited capacity to recover. Let the compound lifts – along with winning on the nutrition side of things – be the primary driving forces behind your tickets to the gun show.

4. Some of my reservations regarding direct arm training lie in the fact that I work with a very broad range of athletes and clientele. A lot of direct tricep work can utterly destroy “old man elbows,” and too much direct bicep work for overhead athletes can wreck havoc on the shoulder. Also, I only have a limited time to work with those who train at SAPT (usually less time than that of your average gym rat) so I have to funnel out the things that don’t provide the greatest return for investment. Direct arm training usually falls under that umbrella.

5. Yes, I’m an unregistered Animagus. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.

6. I apologize to those of you non-nerds who didn’t understand #5.