Look at Dwayne Johnson’s arms and one thing becomes obvious: “He has some very special genetics working in his favour,” says Dr Brad Schoenfeld, a former natural bodybuilding champion and author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan.
But even if tree-trunk sized arms aren’t written into your DNA, you can still optimise what is.
“Just so we’re clear, that doesn’t mean performing endless sets of curls,” says Schoenfeld. “Hammering away at one exercise won’t give you arms that pop – you have to work the full spectrum of muscle fibres throughout your arm in multiple ways from multiple angles.”
Here's how to do it . . .
Build Critical Mass
“You can’t sculpt what you don’t have, so don’t even worry about doing isolation moves at first,” says Tyler English, author of The Natural Bodybuilding Bible.
Focus instead on bulking up all over with big, compound moves like the deadlift and chin-up.
“Every guy wants the ‘lobster claw’ of a well-defined triceps, but few are willing to do the work to get it,” says English. “Once you have the mass, then you can worry about chiselling it.”
Feel the Stretch
“By slightly stretching a muscle before you contract it – as happens during an incline curl where your arm is behind you, for example – you’ll maximise the stress on the muscle and increases its ability to produce force,” says Schoenfeld.
The result: you’ll be able to lift more and grow faster.
Grab two dumbbells and lie on a bench set to 45°, letting weights hang at arm's length toward the floor, palms forward. Curl the weights as close to your shoulders as you can. Pause, and then lower them back to the starting position. Do three sets of 8-10 reps.
Shift Hand Positions
Instead of always holding the dumbbells in their centres when you curl, occasionally use an “offset” grip with your thumbs or pinkies pressed up against the sides of the handles.
As you lift the dumbbells, your biceps will have to work extra hard to prevent the weights from rotating one way or the other. The harder they work, the more they grow, says English.
Don’t Forget Your Triceps
They account for more than two thirds of your upper arms’ mass.
“As its name implies, the triceps is actually composed of three parts, known as heads,” says English. “The close-grip bench press hits them all.”
Lie on a flat bench holding a barbell above your chest with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Keeping your elbows tucked, lower the bar to your sternum, and then press it back up to the starting position. Do three sets of 6-8 reps.
Underneath your biceps lies another muscle called the brachialis. “Building it pushes your biceps up, making it look larger,” says Schoenfeld. “But to target the brachialis, you have to make the biceps less active.”
Do that by performing a reverse curl instead of a traditional one. Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at arms length next to your sides, palms facing back.
Without moving your upper arms, curl the dumbbells as close to your shoulders as you can. Pause, and then lower the weights back to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 reps.
Work Your Shoulders
“They’re the forgotten element of head-turning arms,” says English. “When your shoulders look big, your arms look big. It’s that simple.”
His favourite shoulder exercise: the overhead press.
Stand holding a pair of dumbbells just outside of your shoulders with your elbows bent and your palms facing inward. Set your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Press the weights directly above your shoulders, pause, and then lower them back to the starting position. Do three sets of 8-10 reps.
Go Big, Then Small
“Most guys don’t realise that their biceps and triceps are involved in almost every lift they do – even lower body moves like the deadlift,” says English.
As a general rule, when you push (think: bench press) you work your triceps; when you pull (think: chin-up) you work your biceps.
“That’s why if you do isolation moves, you should save them for the end of the workout,” says English. “If you do them first, you’ll sabotage your performance in the bigger, compound lifts.”
Don’t Overdo It
Only target your arm muscles once or twice a week for the same reason.
“They’re getting worked in other exercises,” says Schoenfeld.
And like every other muscle in your body, they need ample recovery time in order to grow. “If you’re doing total body workouts, there’s no reason to work your biceps and triceps directly more than a couple of times a week,” says Schoenfeld.