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Help me fix my Popeye arms
May 17, 2008 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Standard adult male body, but I have skinny upper arms. Suggestions for a workout to add some mass, specifically from elbows up?

I'm generally OK with my physique as it is - everything's the size and shape it should be for a mid-30's male, if a little soft from a sedentary lifestyle - except for these "Popeye arms" of mine (somehow, my forearms seem bigger than my biceps, etc. - it's like I got the upper arms from someone else's smaller body).

I'm going to start a regular cardio & toning routine to tighten things up and get some more energy, but I'd like to target this area for build-up, without getting too crazy about bodybuilding.

I figure if I could shift the couple extra inches from my waistline to my upper arms, I'd be happy.
How to do?
posted by penciltopper to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Arm curls develop the biceps. Military press develops the triceps and deltoid.
posted by Class Goat at 2:44 PM on May 17, 2008


Heavy closed-grip bench pressing will add mass to your triceps as it adds strength. Alternate ideas: Weighted dips, barbell or dumbbell tricep extensions.
Heavy bent-over or dumbell rows will add mass to your biceps. Alternate ideas: Close-grip chinups or pullups, hammer curls.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:47 PM on May 17, 2008


Best trick I've found is to buy a set of 5 lbs hand weights and keep them near someplace you regularly sit down to work -- for me, that's my desktop computer. I'll randomly pick them up and start doing curls.
posted by SpecialK at 2:50 PM on May 17, 2008


As always, the first recommendation here is that you should really look into a trainer first, even if it's just for one session. They can work with you on form and safety and can give you nuggets of beginner information that will serve you incredibly well later on.

Assuming a trainer isn't an option, I was going to go into a long explanation and description of arm exercises, but then I found this website. I flipped through a couple of their listed exercises and it's great. Even has little "video" demonstrations. Could definitely be some information overload, though, so how about narrowing it down a little:

Curls
Bench press
Incline press
Triceps press

Start with two or three sets of 10 reps, and start at a weight that you can do relatively easily. Always have a spotter with you, though, for the bench and incline presses. Start slow, be safe, work your way up.
posted by Osrinith at 2:53 PM on May 17, 2008


2/3 of the mass of your upper arms are actually triceps, not biceps. Do some dips - but really you should just focus on general workouts rather than just target one area obsessively.
posted by spatula at 2:59 PM on May 17, 2008


Just to explain: muscles usually come in pairs, associated with a joint. One is called a flexor, the other the extensor. When it comes to your elbow, the flexor is the biceps, the extensor is the triceps.

An exercise in which where you have to exert force to flex your elbow will help develop the biceps. An exercise where you have to exert force to extend your elbow will develop the triceps.

Chin-ups will develop the biceps, but they mainly work the lats, the big muscle on the side of your chest just below your shoulder. Pushups will develop the triceps, but they mainly work the pecs.

Arm curls (either with a machine or with free weights) focus directly on the biceps, so that's part of what you should be doing.

The military press should be done with a machine. (Using a barbell is a bit dangerous.) It works the triceps and the deltoid about equally, so combined with arm curls, those two exercises will develop the main three muscles which shape the upper arm.
posted by Class Goat at 3:00 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Several above have suggested bench press for your triceps. That does work, but it doesn't develop the deltoid, and it does develop the pecs, which you may or may not want.
posted by Class Goat at 3:01 PM on May 17, 2008


That does work, but it doesn't develop the deltoid, and it does develop the pecs, which you may or may not want.

Close-grip bench press shifts the emphasis to the triceps. Incline bench press shifts it to the deltoids. The strongest bench pressers (not coincidentally, guys with HUGE arms) do way more close-grip and tricep work than wider-grip bench or pec work. Some people are (reflexively or otherwise) anti-bench press because it has been so over-emphasized for other reasons, so to each his own I guess. Similarly, close-grip chinups shift a lot of the work to the biceps. The reason compound exercises are preferable to isolation exercises for both strength and mass-building is that they enable a person to use much heavier weights and provoke a much stronger "muscle repair response" (to gloss over the chemistry involved). This isn't to point out that isolation exercises aren't worthwhile, but that (for instance) curls alone won't get you that far.

I'm also very skeptical of the idea that military press ought to be done in a machine. If a person is worried about dropping a weight on themselves, they can use dumbbells. If range of motion is an issue, pressing the barbell to the upper chest (just below the collarbones) can address that. Developing a bad movement pattern based on a range of motion artifically constrained by a machine will introduce more shoulder problems than it avoids.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:25 PM on May 17, 2008


Military press with a machine? Holy shit, that's what I BLAME for shoulder injury. The excessive hand spacing and unnatural path forced by the handles always stressed my shoulders in ways they protested about loudly afterwards.

Personally I now do dumbbell military presses, one arm at a time, and my shoulders feel much the better for it.

Back to the arms - don't get too excited. There is a genetic aspect to this - if you have short muscles and long tendons, your biceps will never look terribly big. Eg, if I flex my arm to 90 degrees at the elbow, there is almost two inches of sinew before the bump of the biceps muscle starts. Exercising has made the muscle thicker, but no combination of food, exercise or drugs is going to make it longer, and so monster biceps are an unattainable goal. This may not be true for you, but just realise that most people are not perfectly proportioned by nature, and a philosophical attitude may do more for your self-esteem than exercise can.

Upper arms are actually super-easy to target. There are plenty of isolation exercises, and every gross upper body movement works them too. If you are eating well and lifting heavy weights and they still aren't big, there's no magic will make them so. Unless you sent $125 to my post office box and I will mail my AMAZING SECRETS OF GIGO-MONGOUS FREAK ARMS, guaranteed to work FOR EVERYONE except the personally inadequate.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:59 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


...there's no magic will make them so.

Actually, there is. But it's against the law, and it's also a really stupid thing to do. And it has lots of negative health consequences.

I prefer a machine to a barbell for military press for safety reasons, but I have no objections at all to using dumbells for that. So I'll retract my recommendation of the machine.
posted by Class Goat at 5:44 PM on May 17, 2008


If you have dumbells, you can combine the two motions of curl and military press into a single exercise. Start with your arm straight down, and raise the dumbell to your shoulder, which is a curl. Then raise it all the way above your head, which is a military press. Alternate arms.

The usual advice is that a lot of reps with a smaller weight gives you muscle toning but not very much buildup. Fewer reps with more weight causes more bulking.
posted by Class Goat at 5:51 PM on May 17, 2008


If you have dumbells, you can combine the two motions of curl and military press into a single exercise. Start with your arm straight down, and raise the dumbell to your shoulder, which is a curl. Then raise it all the way above your head, which is a military press. Alternate arms.

If the weight a person curls makes for a challenging military press, they have a serious muscle imbalance.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:17 PM on May 17, 2008


If you're after general toning as well as larger arms, I have to recommend chin-ups. A hands close together with palms facing you will give a great arm workout, and you can vary your grip to hit all kinds of other muscle groups. As a general rule, you should be able to do a set of 15 chin-ups.
posted by jozzas at 6:51 PM on May 17, 2008


If you're after general toning as well as larger arms, I have to recommend chin-ups. A hands close together with palms facing you will give a great arm workout, and you can vary your grip to hit all kinds of other muscle groups. As a general rule, you should be able to do a set of 15 chin-ups.

Unfortunately, this advice includes two common errors. First, there is no such thing as "toning" - you can increase the size of your muscles and cut fat and that's it. People that look "cut" have well-developed muscles and relatively little body fat.

Second, holding up an arbitrary standard like "15 chin-ups" doesn't do anyone any good. Strength and endurance are always relative, in the sense that you can increase them by lifting weights etc. and decrease them by doing nothing. Moreover, people have all sorts of issues that could prevent an otherwise strong person from hitting any one of these benchmarks. It would be better to say "As a general rule, you should be able to do more chin-ups than you did last month, provided you haven't acquired any new injuries and you're not overtrained and exhausted and your diet and personal habits haven't gone to shit. If you've hit a plateau and other factors remain favorable, you need to change reps/sets/exercises."
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:27 PM on May 17, 2008


You need to hit your biceps and triceps. Triceps are 2/3 of your upper arm, so that is the key here. You need to work all 3 heads of the triceps and then hit the both the biceps brachii and the brachialis muscles.

Muscle and Fitness always has good arm routines.

Do the workout below twice a week, as part of a regular fitness routine. Do 3 sets in the 8-10 range.

Triceps
Skull Crushers
Triceps Extension
Triceps Rope Pushdown
Reverse One Arm Pushdown

Biceps
E-Z Bar Curl
(after your 3rd set with the E-Z bar, drop the weight and do a set of 21s)
Dumbbell Preacher Curl
Dumbbell Incline Curl
posted by charlesv at 7:51 PM on May 17, 2008


Lots of good suggestions, but I'd also suggest that you not neglect the rest of your body (ie don't just spot-train your upper arms). Any bodybuilder will tell you that the best way to build mass is to do heavy compound movements - squats, deadlifts, pullups, etc. Studies have shown that these movements release growth hormone which will help all of your muscles grow.
posted by btkuhn at 9:29 PM on May 17, 2008


Agree with btkuhn- I knew a guy built like you describe and he worked out the wrong way, and ended up with knobby looking shoulders. He focused on one set of muscles and ignored the rest and ended up looking silly.
posted by gjc at 9:14 AM on May 18, 2008


Any bodybuilder will tell you that the best way to build mass is to do heavy compound movements - squats, deadlifts, pullups, etc.

Amen. The key to making gains is to do isolation and compound exercises, and not to favor one part of body of any other.
posted by ob at 1:10 PM on May 18, 2008


Forget the "I need to make my arms bigger." The one thing you that is tried and true that will put muscle mass on you is Deadlifts. One exercise. Go for it. Oh yeah, and eat more protein.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:45 PM on May 18, 2008


btkuhn and ob got it. "Biceps are built in the squat rack" is true (that doesn't mean doing curls in the squat rack).
posted by AceRock at 7:25 PM on May 18, 2008


Even pros occasionally focus on lagging body parts. Do deadlifts, squats, etc. to build get big. But don't be afraid to occasionally focus on certain body parts if they need the attention.

And of course, eat big. Big biceps are made of chicken and eggs and tuna and protein shakes.
posted by charlesv at 3:08 PM on May 19, 2008


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