Many refer to the development of arm strength and size as “building guns”, a mid fourteenth century reference that defined a gun as "an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles". More recently, in baseball terms in 1929, it is described as “a player’s arm is his gun or his wing. A good gun means that the possessor has a strong arm”.
In fitness terminology, Arm Training refers to the development of a large upper arm through biceps and triceps training. But, is isolation training of these upper arm muscles the most effective method of developing a truly “functional gun”, or should all arm training consist of functional compound exercises? Is isolation training at all necessary if you are including appropriate pulling and pressing movements within your training programme? Well, like most arguments, there are both pros and cons to be explained:
Cons of Isolation Training:
1. Not Foundation Movement Patterns.
Exercises like the French Press, Supine Triceps Extension, Kickbacks, Seated Hammer Curls and Reverse Curls do not fall under one of the nine foundation movement patterns (squat, lift, press, pull, smash, rotation, gait/locomotion, moving/carrying load or fighting). Although elbow extension and flexion form part of the press and pull patterns respectively, and thus these exercises would be classified as supplementary exercises suitable when individuals cannot perform the complex movement pattern, or to supplement exercises that work the full pattern. Modern concepts of functional training would suggest that training should be focused on using exercises that will have the greatest carryover to the individuals daily activities, occupation or sport (the principle of specificity) - and exercises that mimic the primal movements should facilitate this.
2. Decreased Radiation Effect.
It is well known that strength training only the upper body can cause improvements in squat strength. On the flip side, including squats within your arm training programme will facilitate greater increases in arm strength and size than just the arm training alone. So, how can squatting help to increase arm size when there is little to no overload on the arms? Well, the answer is called the Radiation Effect, and is the same reason why rehabilitation specialists will advise training the non-injured leg whilst the fractured leg is still in plaster. There are both neural and hormonal changes during training, and the larger the exercise the greater the Radiation Effect. Exercises like the Deadlift, Squat, Cleans and Snatches will facilitate strength and growth changes across the whole body that will also benefit lesser-trained or non-trained areas like the upper arm. Isolated training on the biceps and triceps, with exercises such as previously mentioned, will not facilitate this type of Radiation Effect, or at least not to the same degree, because the muscle mass and neural overload are much, much less than these larger exercises.
3. Limitations for Arm Development.
Many individuals striving for increased arm size will continue to focus on isolation style biceps and triceps exercises, even when their gains have plateaued. The reason for this is the body’s innate ability to maintain balance in relation to muscular development. Have you ever seen a guy with 20 inch arms and a tiny back and legs? No. The reason is for every extra inch you may want to put on your arms, you need to add an additional 15-20 pounds of muscle in total to your lean body mass. Small traps, a tiny back, and skinny legs may all be the reason for your small arms - yet another reason to engage in exercises like the high pull, squat and deadlift to build these ‘weak’ areas up.
Pros of Isolation Training
1. Increased Neural Drive.
Basic principles of training 101 - increased overload = increased potential for adaptation. If I ask you which exercise will allow you lift more weight (with correct technique), which would you say - standing hammer curl or seated hammer curl? The answer is the seated curl because of what we call Increase Neural Drive. This means that less energy is ‘wasted’ on the stabilisers and fixators because the seated is now doing some of the work of these muscles. This means that more neural energy is available for use by the agonists (in this case the elbow flexors), and thus a slightly heavy weight (and more overload) can be lifted. So, now we have somewhat of a conflict. Functional theory suggests that whole body movements will have a greater carryover, but stable isolation exercises will allow for a greater overload, and thus more adaptation.
2. Increased Volume on specific areas.
Pull ups (particularly weight pull ups) are great for improving biceps strength. But what if you can’t perform a pull up, due to a weak grip or weak elbow flexors? Eccentric-only pull ups will help develop your strength, but performing additional grip and biceps work to ‘supplement’ that exercise. As such, isolation exercises like a hanging reverse crunch, hammer curls and reverse curls may not seem that functional, but these supplementary exercises can still have a functional carryover if programmed and applied properly. Use of these types of supplementary exercise should be to build up weak areas so that you can perform functional movements (like the pull up), or to help you achieve a greater overload on a particular area. For example, if your session consists of 2-4 large, compound, functional exercises to work your back, is there anything wrong with performing 1-3 additional more isolation exercises to completely fatigue the elbow flexors? You cannot perform more compound exercises (or sets) because they are too neurologically fatiguing, but you can perform more of the less demanding isolation exercises.
In relation to developing not only strong upper arms, but also functional arms, I recommend the following:
1. Perform exercises that work the primary upper body movement patterns (press and pull), through all vectors. For example, the Press Pattern - Press Upwards (overhead press), Press Downwards (dips), Press Forwards (close grip supine dumbbell press). These should be the basis for your arm development.
2. Supplement these exercises with suitable varied isolation exercises such as reverse curls, hammer curls, spider curls etc, that will work the different muscles or motor units of the elbow flexors or extensors.
3. These supplementary exercises should not replace the compound, functional movements, and as such performing in stable positions (seated, supine) for greater neural drive is not a problem.
4. Perform large, functional exercises, such as squats, deadlifts or the olympic lifts in order to achieve the Radiation Effect, which will enhance the adaptations from any arm training you do perform.
Work on common weak areas for arm development - the grip and traps are two of these - another good reason for performing high pulls, the olympic lifts, farmers walks and fat bar exercises.
Written by Allan Collins
Allan Collins is Director of Education for Jordan Fitness, and is the author of 3 books and 80 courses. He is a strength a conditioning coach and a functional training expert and has been in the fitness industry for 18 years and a tutor for the last 10 years.