FAQs: Working Your Arms and Chest
Our experts answer all your questions on building up your arms and chest

February 9, 2015

ripped man doing a bicep curl

1. What’s the best way for me to build bigger forearms?

Ignore them and focus on your back instead. When you perform pulling exercises, like pull-ups and rows, your back (and biceps) helps with the heavy lifting, forcing your forearms to handle more weight than they would with isolation exercises. “Pulling up your entire body requires shifting significantly more weight than the 10kg you’ll use on a wrist curl,” says health and performance coach Nick Tumminello. He recommends doing three sets of eight to 10 reps of pulling exercise you find most challenging. For most guys, this will be chin-ups or pull-ups. (If you struggle to do chin-ups, use a bench to help you up, and train your forearms by hanging in the up position.) In fact, any time you use a dumbbell or barbell, first wrap a hand towel around the grip. Doing this will force your forearms, wrists, and fingers to work harder, so you’ll end up activating more muscles and adding size faster.

2. What’s the best way to increase my bench press?

Just before you lift the bar off the rack, squeeze the metal as if you were trying to crush it in your bare hands. “You will ‘lock up’ proximally, meaning the centre of your body will reflexively activate to give you more trunk stability,” says strength and conditioning coach Eric Cressey. This, in turn, will enable you to lift more weight. Maintain your clench throughout the whole set.

3. Does it make a difference whether I use dumbbells, barbells or machines when I exercise?

The numbers on the weight plates may be the same, but your body can tell the difference. “When you use dumbbells, you have to lift and balance two objects – so your smaller stabilizing muscles have to work harder,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Hartman. Machines are at the other end of the stability spectrum. When you use, say, a chest press, it keeps the weight steady for you, which makes it possible for you to activate more of your larger muscles and lift many more kilograms than you would be able to with free weights – and therefore bulk up faster. But don’t let those bigger numbers seduce you; if you train using only machines, your smaller stabilizers will be neglected, and that can lead to injuries. Instead sculpt your muscles by using all three options. You don’t have to hit all three every session, but if you do, always progress from least to most stable, says Hartman. For instance, if it’s a chest day go from the dumbbell bench press to the barbell bench press, and finish with the machine chest press.

4. How can I build cut triceps like the guys on your cover have?

The key to looking cover-cut isn’t Photoshop – it’s fat blasting. “Your muscles can never be defined if they’re covered in a layer of blubber,” says Mike Robertson, co owner of IFAST gym in the US. “Focus on reducing your body fat to around 10%.” Then grow your tris with the close-grip barbell bench press. “You can use a heavy weight, which provides a lot of stimulus to the muscle,” Robertson says. “And using the close grip targets your triceps.”

5. What’s the best exercise to build biceps?

You want a move that allows you to lift the heaviest weight you can and still do at least 6 reps. For most guys, the best exercise is something called a chest-up. It’s like a chin-up, but you actually raise your chest to the bar. Aim to do 3 sets of 6 chest-ups twice a week.

6. Are there benefits to using kettlebells instead of dumbbells?

Think of these cannonball-shaped weights as explosive weapons to add to your strength-training arsenal. “A kettlebell’s thick offset handle makes it easier for you to perform full-body exercises, like swings and squats, than with dumbbells,” says Dan John, a competitor in Olympic weightlifting and a strength-training coach. “The design also allows you to change hand positioning midway through a move so you can perform hybrid lifts, like the snatch and the clean and press.” The result: you’ll burn fat and pack on muscle faster, John advises either integrating kettlebell exercises into your current routine or dedicating one training day a week to them. Experienced lifters should start out with a 16 or 24kg weight, depending on their size, and beginners with 12 or 16kg, again depending on their size and strength.

7. My forearms hurt during bicep curls. How can I stop the pain while still working on my arms?

When men curl too much weight (and most men do), they end up flexing their wrists to assist with the movement, says strength coach Alwyn Cosgrove. This, in turn, places tremendous stress on your forearms, causing the muscles to contract under loads that are way too heavy. “It creates discomfort and severely limits your performance,” he says. The prescription? Don’t do any more curls until you can perform at least five pull-ups. These will strengthen your biceps muscles by forcing them to handle heavier loads than you curl. And while you’re pumping your biceps by doing pull-ups, you can still do hammer curls. This variation of the standard dumbbell curl takes the stress off your wrists because your palms face each other. Hammer curls strengthen the brachioradialis, which is often the weakest muscle in your arm. Keep in kind, however, that hammer curls target less arm muscle overall, so after you’ve built up your forearms, continue with traditional barbell or dumbbell curls.

8. My dominant arm is stronger than my other arm. What’s the best way to balance them out?

Your body is hard-wired to balance muscle power quickly and efficiently, so the fix is relatively simple. First step: drop the barbell, says strength and conditioning coach Alwyn Cosgrove. “When you use a barbell your ‘good’ arm always moves more of the weight.” Preform dumbbell exercises instead – curls, rows, shoulder presses and bench presses – one arm at a time. Choose a weight that you’re able to lift eight times with your weaker arm and do as many repetitions as you can. Then, using the same weight, duplicate the reps with your dominant arm, even if you know you can lift more. Not only will you be putting more strain on the side that needs it, but you’ll also trigger a physiological phenomenon that makes exercising your stronger arm actually build muscle in the weak arm.

9. I slouch. Are there exercises that will straighten my shoulders?

Yes – and you’d better act now. Slouching can restrict upper-body nerve functioning by up to 60 percent, causing pain in your back, neck and head, according to studies. Physiotherapist Bill Hartman suggests that you correct this problem by adding split-stance rotation and single-arm face pull to your workouts. Heavy slouchers should do five to seven sets a week but once you are standing tall go down to two or three sets weekly for maintenance.

Split-stance Rotation: Go down on one knee, holding a broom or golf club across your shoulders with your hands shoulder-width apart. Rotate your upper back towards your raised knees by turning your shoulders as far as you can (limit your core movement), then pause for a two count. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Single-arm Face Pull: With your left hand, grab a rope handle attached to a high-pulley cable. Stand an arm’s length away from the station. Pull your shoulder blades backwards and down. Then, bending from your elbow, pull the handle alongside your head until it passes your left ear. Return to starting position.

10. Is it okay to put my feet up on the bench while I bench-press?

Yes and no. If you have back problems, go ahead and put your feet up, says certified strength and conditioning specialist, Joseph Warpeha. “As the weight on the bar gets heavier, the natural reaction is to arch the lower back excessively. This can cause pain in people with lower back problems,” he says. “Putting your feet up changes the lift’s mechanics and eliminates that instinct. “ But you wont be able to lift as much, because you’ll be taking your lower-body stabilizers – the hips, legs and feet – out of the equation. Instead, you’ll be relying on your upper-body stabilizers to help raise the bar. “If your goal is to increase your bench-strength or develop a bigger upper body, placing your feet on the bench may hinder your progress,” says Warpeha. But if your primary goal is gaining functional strength for athletics changing the position of your feet definitely can help.

11. My pecs flatten out in the middle of my chest. How do I get that full-chest look?

There are no magic exercises that target the inner part of the pectoral muscles. But you can still develop a better-looking chest by improving the flexibility of your pecs and latissimus dorsi – the fan-shaped muscles of your back. “Too much pec and lat work – such as bench presses and lat pull downs – can cause these muscles to shorten, pulling your shoulders forward and in towards each other,” says personal trainer Mike Mejia. This can make the outer chest appear more developed than the muscle fibres closer to the midline of your body.

Stretch your chest and back, and add the reverse push-up to your workout – it strengthens the muscles that pull back your shoulder blades, which in turn will help improve the appearance of your inner pecs.

12. I’ve been curling the same weight for weeks now. How can I step it up a notch?

Shake up your workout with a technique called offset training, in which you curl a dumbbell with one hand and a lighter one with the other. You choose a weight that allows you to perform at most 80 repetitions with one hand, and a dumbbell that’s about seven to ten kg lighter for the other hand. You’ll hotwire your brain-to-muscle connection – the key to fast strength gains.

Here’s how it works: just before you curl a dumbbell, your brain estimates the number of muscle fibres that need to fire and recruits them for duty. But when you’re using the offset technique, your brain has to send two different signals simultaneously, which forces it to work harder to communicate with your muscles.

The result: the pathways between your brain and your muscles become more efficient, since they have to learn to deliver more messages at the same time. So when you switch back to matching weights, you should actually be able to lift more. If you work out three days a week, swap in an offset dumbbell routine on one of those days.