Arm Training With Maximal Weights

by Charles Poliquin

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: a large percentage of professional bodybuilders are about as weak as a one-armed, octogenarian stamp collector with severe arthritis. If some of these pro bodybuilders had a bench-press contest with supermodel Kate Moss, Kate would win, emaciated chest and all. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to train arms with a whole slew of pros, and it never fails to chop their immense egos down a few notches. Why? Because simply, I can generally handle more weight than they can, using stricter form, even though they're usually up to 70 or 80 pounds heavier than I am.

Why am I so much stronger? The secret to my superior relative strength comes from the regular use of maximal weights.

Most bodybuilders stick religiously to a 6 to 12 rep range when training arms. In most cases, 6 to 12 reps is the best range for building up the arms, but like anything else, it only works for a while. I'm utterly convinced that one of the reasons bodybuilders fail to achieve their growth potential is that they're simply too weak for their cross-sectional muscle area.

When you look at a hypertrophied thigh of a weight lifter or power lifter, it's most often a case of "what you see is what you get." Yet, in many bodybuilders—particularly in those that use massive doses of anabolics and growth hormone—their size rarely reflects their strength.

Believe it or not, I've seen at least three Mr. Olympia contestants that couldn't even bench press 315 pounds for six reps, and that was in the off-season, when they're supposed to be their biggest and strongest. One of them even asked me to open up a peanut-butter jar for him. Okay, I'm kidding again about the peanut-butter jar, but my point is, there are plenty of strongman contest competitors with massive arms who are every bit as strong as they look.

What's the difference? Drugs, you may ask? No. Many strength athletes also use anabolics, but the main difference is in their choice of training methods. As a general rule, strongman competitors train using few exercises, done for multiple sets of low reps with long rest intervals between sets.

I recently used one of these IFBB pros as a guinea pig to test my theory. Milos Sarcev, a very popular and widely known professional bodybuilder was in the midst of serious muscle plateau. When I convinced him to start using heavier loads in his workouts, his physique skyrocketed. As a result, being narrowly edged out of first place, he almost won the prestigious Night of the Champions competition. Maybe he took solace in the fact that he knew he could easily beat the winner in an arm-wrestling contest.

Why Use Maximal Weights?
As I've said time and time again, the nervous system is the forgotten component of bodybuilding, and training with maximal weights targets this area by improving the link between the central nervous system and the muscular system. This is what German exercise physiologists refer to as intra-muscular training. By using this method, the trainee will learn to access a greater percentage of motor units in a given cross-section of muscle tissue.

Neuromuscular Basis for Maximal Weights Training (Poliquin, 1988)

The remainder of this article will explain how to increase your arm strength dramatically by using a progression of varied set and rep patterns. The end result will be bigger arms that are as strong as they look.

Here, in a nutshell, are the set and rep patterns for a 12-week arm strength training cycle:

Sets Reps
Weeks 1-3 5 5
Weeks 4-6 6 2-4
Weeks 7-9 2 6-8 to absolute failure
Weeks 10-12 5 5/4/3/2/1

Weeks 1-3: The 5x5 Training Method
This method is one of the more classical methods of developing size and strength. It was popularized way back in the fifties and sixties by British bodybuilder Reg Park (who happened to be a hero of Arnold Schwarzeneggar's), but it's still highly effective.

The method experienced somewhat of a revival in the late seventies when strength coach Bill Starr published his classic book, "Only the Strongest Shall Survive." Starr used the method often and believed it to be a staple in developing strength.

Below, in table form, is a sample 5x5 program using 200-pound close-grip bench presses. The goal is to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions with 200 pounds, but if you're like most people, your first workout will fall short a few reps in the last sets (column B).

You should only increase the load if you can do a full 5 sets of 5 reps. If, however, you weren't able to do at least 14 total working repetitions, your chosen load was too high, as seen in column C.

Correct Warmup
Typical First Workout
Weight Too Heavy
45x5 200x5 200x4
95x5 200x4 200x3
135x5 200x3 200x2
185x5 200x3 200x2
200x3 200x2

If you count up the reps in column C, you'll find that this particular trainee was only able to do 13 total working reps. Two hundred pounds is too much weight in this instance, and the trainee should have used perhaps 5 pounds less.

If, however, the trainee was able to do 5 sets of 5 reps, in either the first workout or subsequent workouts, he or she should increase the weight by 5 or 10 pounds. The key is to keep adding small increments of weight until the 3-week training period is over.

Here's a sample arm workout using the 5x5 method:

Weeks 4-6: The Patient Lifter's 6x4 Method
This method requires that you start off with a weight that you can handle comfortably for 6 sets of 2 reps. Depending on how neurologically efficient you are, the weight will be anywhere from 80 to 87% of your 1-rep maximum. The goal is to be able to eventually use the same weight to do 6 sets of 4 reps. Why is it called the "Patient Lifter's" method? Because you don't get to increase the load until you can do all 6 sets for 4 reps, using a weight that you could initially only do for 6 sets of 2 reps. You'll either get stronger or bore yourself to death by using the same weight over and over.

Don't worry, though. You'll get stronger quickly and graduate to a higher weight. The system works by the law of repeated efforts. You'll force the nervous system to accept the new load as being "normal." Be sure to take at least 4-5 minutes in-between sets, though, to allow full recovery of the nervous system. However, you can still pair exercises for the agonist and antagonists together during the 4-5 minute resting period to maximize the return on your training time. In other words, if you do a set of 2 (or 4) reps for biceps, you can do a set of 2 (or 4) reps for triceps while you're waiting for the 4-5 minutes to tick away.

Here's a sample routine for weeks 4 through 6:

Weeks 7-9: 2x6-8 Reps to Absolute Failure Method
Fans of Mike Mentzer (I know there are a couple of you out there) will recognize the similarities between this type of training and Mike's Heavy Duty training. Why do I recommend a Heavy Duty type protocol? Well, because it works...for the brief time it takes you to adapt to it, which is usually about 3 weeks.

If you've followed the program religiously to this point, you'll have been doing between 20 and 24 sets for arms, per workout. By this time in the 12-week program, your arms will be ready to train at a lower intensity (in terms of percentage of maximum) and use a method where the time-under-tension, per set, is lengthened.

Before we talk about the rhyme and reason behind this 3-week training phase, let's first go over the three types of muscular failure. The first type is concentric failure. It simply means you can't lift the weight again. Then, there's static failure: your muscles are so wiped out that you can't even hold the weight statically at any point in the range of motion. And lastly, there's eccentric failure. This is the point where you can't control the weight as you lower it, regardless of what tempo you're using.

When you reach failure on all three types of contractions, you've reached "absolute failure." Here's how a typical set would progress: After warming up, you choose a weight that allows you to do between 6 and 8 reps before reaching concentric failure. At that point, a training partner gives you just enough assistance to complete the next rep, but you lower the weight in a controlled fashion without any assistance. After doing 2 or 3 of these assisted reps, your muscles should be so fatigued that you can't even control the eccentric descent. This is absolute failure.

Of course, this may be problematic if you don't have a training partner. You can, however, use single-arm movements like the one-arm French press or dumbbell concentration curls that allow you to perform forced reps with your free arm.

The only other thing you have to remember is to increase the weight on the next workout once you reach 8 reps.

Sample routine for weeks 7-9 using the 2 sets of 6-8 reps to absolute failure method:

Weeks 10-12: The 5/4/3/2/1 Method
This method is a favorite of sports medicine expert Dr. Mauro DiPasquale, who used to be a World Powerlifting Champion. It's also a favorite of mine because it teaches me to count backward. You simply start off with your 5 RM and add 2-3% more weight every set, doing one less rep each set until you reach your 1RM. One added benefit of this method is that it teaches your muscles and nervous system how to express their true, 1-rep maximum. In other words, most people can't go from doing habitual sets of 8 reps to doing a true, 1 RM until you've "taught" yourself how to recruit higher-threshold fibers.

Here's what a typical work-set progression would look like for a close-grip bench press, assuming your 1RM for the movement is about 300 pounds:

Sample routine of weeks 10-12 using the 5/4/3/2/1 method:

General Tips for Training With Maximal Weights

Although training with maximal weights is fairly straightforward, there are various things to keep in mind so that you can make the most of this 12-week period:

  1. If possible, train in groups of two or three athletes. This will make it easier to load and unload plates, as well as serve as a natural "clock." In other words, when lifter B and lifter C finish their sets, it's time for you to do your next set. Training partners also serve to motivate you and help cut down the risk of injury.
  2. Increase the weight or load by 1-3% when you achieve your rep goals. Most gyms don't carry a lot of small disks, but you can buy Eleiko Olympic disks of 0.5 kilograms and 0.25 kilograms from Sports Strength (1-800-285-9634). Another alternative is to buy PlateMates. They're magnetized weights that fit on the end of a bar. They sell both 1 1/4 pound weights and 5/8 pound weights. They're a great thing to have anyhow, as they also attach to dumbbells for making intermediate jumps in weight. I recommend you buy the donut-shaped ones, as they also fit on hexagon dumbbells. Their number is 1-800-877-3322.
  3. Record all sets, reps, and rest intervals for purposes of motivation, monitoring, and program evaluation. Invest a few bucks in a training diary and keep meticulous records. The more high-tech approach is to use an Apple Newton, of course, like one of my clients. Unfortunately, this method has inherent disadvantages. For some reason, training partners "inadvertently" drop weights on them to see how far the computer chips fly.
  4. Try to pair agonists and antagonists together. This helps with muscle recovery. The ability of a muscle to produce full motor-unit activation may be enhanced when preceded immediately by a contraction of the muscle's antagonist. It's also effective to alternate agonist/antagonist exercises to increase motor unit activation, as long as you allow for enough rest in-between sets.
  5. Don't overdo it. Keep the workouts under 1 hour, as working out longer will deplete androgen levels.
  6. Make sure that you're motivated before you begin to work out.
  7. Keep in mind that, contrary to popular bodybuilding methodology, maximal weight training imposes lower energy requirements per time unit. To put it simply, you won't burn as many calories and your caloric requirements will be less during this training period.

In closing, let me say that maximal weight training isn't for everyone. People who are only interested in having arms that aren't the least bit functional should avoid them like the plague and work out with Kate Moss.

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