I’ve read several articles in which some self-proclaimed fitness “guru” insists that you must choose between bodyweight and weight lifting exercises in setting up your strength or muscle building program. The usual argument claims that bodyweight exercises are absolutely better than weight lifting techniques without any consideration of your specific training objective.
In reality, it’s a false debate because if your goal is to build big, muscular arms you should use both bodyweight exercises and weight lifting movements to do so.
Specifically, if your goal is to maximize the size and strength of your biceps and triceps, you need a program based primarily on isolation bodybuilding techniques that are supplemented with compound exercises. These compound exercises should include both weight lifting movements (which I’ve discussed in other articles) and bodyweight exercises. While the isolation training will stimulate maximum growth in your biceps and triceps, there’s no question that the following bodyweight exercises can enhance the amount and rate of that growth and ensure balanced development of your entire upper body.
1. Triceps Pushups
Triceps pushups are the only isolation exercise in this group and designed to minimize chest and shoulder involvement with targeted resistance on your triceps. For proper performance, simply take a standard pushup position with your hands and arms extended and shoulder-width apart. Then slide your hands closer together until your thumbs nearly touch each other. This is the starting position. Slowly lower your arms underneath you and then push yourself back up to the starting position as you would with regular pushups. Make sure that you keep your back straight and your head up for maximum resistance on your triceps.
If your bodyweight doesn’t provide sufficient resistance, have a training partner gently place barbell plates on your back as needed to keep your rep range within 6-10 reps per set. A sample pyramid sequence could consist of 3 sets of 10, 8 and 6 reps with gradually increased poundage in each set.
2. Seated Triceps Dips
Seated triceps dips are another terrific triceps builder. To do this exercise, sit on a workout bench or chair with your legs together and extended on the floor in front of you. Your arms should be fully extended and shoulder-width apart behind you. Slide your body slightly forward to suspend yourself so that your arms are bearing your bodyweight between the bench and the floor. With your arms extended and your hands nearly touching behind you, slowly lower yourself as though to sit on the floor and then push yourself back up by extending your arms and returning to the starting position. This exercise, when performed properly, will add tremendous power, shape and definition to your triceps.
Again, if your bodyweight doesn’t provide enough resistance, keep your legs together and extend them to another chair or workout bench in front of you so that they’re parallel to the floor. Then have a training partner gently place barbell plates on your thighs as needed to keep your rep range within 6-10 reps per set. A sample pyramid sequence could consist of 3 sets of 10, 8 and 6 reps with gradually increased weight in each set.
3. Parallel Bar Dips
Parallel Bar Dips are great for shaping and building mass in the long and medial heads of the triceps. Grasp the handles of a parallel dip apparatus and hold your body suspended between them. For substantial training emphasis on your triceps, hold your torso as erect as possible (leaning forward puts primary resistance on your chest). Inhale as you lower yourself as far down as you can comfortably descend and then exhale as you push yourself back up to the starting position. This exercise is a great bodyweight triceps builder as long as you watch your technique and keep your torso straight throughout the movement.
For an overload effect or to pyramid your work sets, use a harness to hang a barbell plate or dumbbell from your waist for added resistance. Most commercial gyms and some health clubs have these harnesses, so if you need one, ask for it. Make sure to keep your rep range within 6-10 reps per set. A sample overload sequence could include 3 sets of 10, 8 and 6 reps with gradually increased weight in each set.
4. Chin Ups
Chin Ups are excellent for building strength and muscle mass in your biceps. This exercise also thickens the latissimus dorsi (“lats”) and rhomboid muscles on the sides and upper-middle portion of your back. Simply grasp the Chin Up bar with an underhand grip and your arms shoulder-width apart. Inhale as you pull your body upward until your chin nearly touches the bar. Exhale as you lower your body to return to the starting position.
For variation and balanced biceps development, you can alternately do this exercise with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width to place more emphasis on the short head or inner portion of your biceps.
Use a weighted harness if you need to increase your resistance beyond your bodyweight. Make sure to stay within the 6-10 rep range with gradually increased weight in each set.
5. Pull Ups
Pull Ups are another excellent bodyweight exercise for adding power and muscle density to your biceps. Like Chin Ups, this exercise also works your lats and and rhomboids. Pull Ups also put significant resistance on the trapezius muscles in your shoulders when you squeeze your scapulae together at the top of the movement. Simply grasp the Pull Up bar with an overhand grip and your arms spread comfortably but wide apart. Inhale as you pull your body upward until your eyes are slightly higher than the bar. Exhale as you lower your body to return to the starting position.
For variation you can pull your body upward with your chin facing the bar or with your head facing downward as you pull yourself up with the bar behind your neck. When performing this movement with your chin facing the bar, primary training emphasis in on your biceps and lower lats. But when you pull yourself up with the bar behind your neck, focused resistance is placed on your biceps and upper lats. Either approach will add strength and muscle tone to your upper arms.
As with your Chin Ups, use a weighted harness when doing Pull Ups if you need to increase the training resistance beyond your bodyweight. And always make sure you stay within 6-10 reps per set with gradually increased weight in each set.
As you can see, bodyweight exercises and bodybuilding techniques go hand-in-hand when it comes to building big, muscular arms. If anybody tries to tell you something different, tell them to go do some weighted Chin Ups and Dumbbell Preacher Curls.
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