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Arm Training for Popeye and other Stubborn Types

By Wesley James

No part of my body has been as difficult to develop as my upper arms. I have relatively thin wrists and thick forearms but these "blessings" only made me look like Popeye. At their best, I'd never gotten my arms past 17 ½ inches, pumped. Typically, they ran between 15 ½ and 16 inches. It seemed I would never have arms with any size. Worse yet, my arms had very little shape and no appreciable bicep peak. This condition persisted for more than thirty years. Nevertheless, every arm workout day, I bombed and blasted. I pulled, pushed, pumped and pressed. My arms became relatively strong-- strict curls with 105 pounds, for reps; strict French Presses (overhead) for 20 reps with 85 pounds. For fifteen years, I tried every exercise imaginable. I tried negatives, cheats, rest-pause and super-slow. Perry Rader, who was always a kind and caring man, suggested 3 Sets of 8 Reps every hour for a full day. I tried it but to no avail.

By now you may be wondering why you should care about my spindly arms. You may figure you'll read Manfred Hoebel's book and even if you don't end up with 25 inch guns like Hoebel, you'll be happy with 20 inchers. Frankly, I'm as impressed with Hoebel's arms as you are but he's the last person one should take advice from. You don't develop arms like his without superior genetics for arm size. With the best approach he might have developed 26 inch arms. With the worst approach maybe 23 inchers. That's not the problem most of us face. So, from a once spindly-armed man, who has added two inches to each arm in about six months, I present the Component System of training. This system should work for other body parts as well but I've only tried it for arms thus far.

The Component System

Their are a number of "components" that must come together to lay the ground-work for muscles to grow. Most of the time, for most people, almost any form of training will provide enough of each of these components to yield some growth. Cumulatively, over time, growth accrues to an acceptable degree. Occasionally, a muscle or group of muscles are recalcitrant. That's when each component must be analyzed, understood and optimized for growth to occur. That is the approach this system takes. Learning the system will teach you a great deal about how your body grows muscle. That knowledge can help all your efforts.

At least 4 factors/components must be in place for muscle to grow:

Growth, for our purposes, refers to increasing the number (see Hyperplasia) and/or cross-sectional thickness of muscle fibers. When all the Components are in place, the body can do nothing except grow. Whether that growth comes as an increase in number or thickness of muscle fibers may not be controllable. Growth, however, is inevitable.


The most critical component from most perspectives is Demand. If the muscles are not being burdened beyond the level to which they have previously been, they will not grow. Even with all other factors in place, no growth will occur without the stimulus of Demand. Let's see how we can assure that this component is satisfied.

Sets and Reps

There's little new to be said here for the informed bodybuilder. Since the 1920's we have known that one set, performed to momentary failure is the way to assure growth stimulus. There is debate about the mechanism that is triggered but not the fact. What remains, even among advocates of failure training, is debate over the optimal rep scheme. In general, the answer is somewhere between 3 and 12 reps. The range for any given individual may be 3-5, 5-8 or 8-12 reps. Certainly no more than 15 reps, ever. Even Arthur Jones, one of the most vocal advocates of the 8-12 rep range, has come to accept individual variation. I believe that generally each individual must discover which scheme works best for them, This may differ for each body part. It may also vary from time to time in your training cycle. It may also vary at different times within your life. Nevertheless, in this case, the answer is more definite. Since the body's need for stimulation of capillary growth will be met via other means and the stimulus for neurogenesis will be separately supplied, those needs need not be considered in choosing our rep scheme. Finally, as our goal here is muscle size, not strength, not endurance, 5-8 reps will be best for nearly everyone.


If you have access to one of the new arm curl machines from Strive®, one set, 5-8 reps to failure, is all you'll need or can use for Biceps. Strive may have an equally good machine for Triceps but I haven't had the opportunity to try it. In any event, most of us don't have access to Strive equipment. For us, additional exercises will be required to guarantee that all the Demand element is fulfilled.


Steve Holman, a leading advocate of the Position of Flexion (POF) school of training, has focused on a key factor. While it is true that once you've reached failure in a muscle you'll trigger growth, you will only trigger growth in those fibers that have failed. Muscles typically have different fiber recruitment profiles which depend on subtle changes in exercise performance. This was long suspected by scientist and believed by bodybuilders but it has now been proven by the pioneering work of Tesch and Larsson via MRI scans. If you want to increase overall size in a muscle, you must recruit as many fibers as possible. If you're training for shape, triggering the failure of selected groups of fibers may be more effective. We have much more to learn about exercise choice and execution before we will be able to do this effectively. Since our goal here is size our choices are straight forward

For our purposes, what we need is maximum fiber recruitment. The best way we have of accomplishing that is to train to failure in each of the POF positions: stretched, mid-range and contracted. The best exercise for the stretched position is the well known Preacher or Scott Curl. The best exercise for the mid-range position is the Cross-Body Dumbbell Curl. There are others that are nearly as good but none quite as good. The toughest POF to work is the contracted position. Poul Anderson, the great Super-Heavyweight Olympic lifter invented/ discovered what may be the best exercise, the inverted arm curl. He performed it hanging from a chinning bar. I have photos of him doing them. For most of us, this exercise is too dangerous and impractical. The best alternative is Supine Curls using an Overhead Pulley.

The Scott Curl is well known enough not to require explanation here. The same is true of the Cross-Body Curl. My only advice on the Cross-Body Curl is to be sure to supinate fully on every rep. The Supine Curl requires a little explanation. Lay on your back, on a flat bench, in front of an Overhead Pulley. Your head should be closest to the weight stack. Use a standard cable handle. Extend one arm straight upward. Your arm should be perpendicular to your body. Grasp the handle. Without allowing your elbow to move away from the weight stack, bend your arm. Your hand should move toward the rear of your shoulder. Contract fully at the end of the movement. Because you're using a Pulley there will be resistance at the end of the movement. It is that resistance that allows the Bicep to contract under load. Try it, it is quite effective once you get the feel of it. Be warned, you may not be able to handle much weight.

To recap, you will perform a total of three sets, each to failure. One set of each exercise. There should be no break between the sets. Allow just enough time for your breathing to normalize. You don't want oxygen debt to become the limiting factor. The mid-range position is usually stronger than the contracted position but the stretched position allows recruitment of muscle fibers that can not be recruited in either other position. Therefore, the exercises should be performed in Supine Curl, Cross-Body Curl, Preacher Curl order. You should perform this routine only once per week and not on the same day as the Tricep routine I'm about to describe.


The Tricep as a group also has three POF positions that must be hit. The three exercises you will use are French Presses, Dips and Kickbacks, in that order. In the first two movements, use all the weight you can handle, consistent with strict form. Get a full stretch at the beginning of each French Press. Keep your head up and your feet back when you're doing your Dips. For the Kickbacks, use a lighter weight. The weight must be light enough to allow a complete lockout in the fully extended position. Remember, you perform one set of each exercise, 5-8 reps, to momentary failure. Again, allow no more rest between sets then you require for your breathing to normalize.

Capillary Stimulation

Now you know what you'll be doing to assure that your muscles receive the demand to grow signal but what I've described thus far is just another workout. What makes this System different begins with this section. As those of you who've read some of my other articles know, the blood and nerve supply to the muscles must be adequate or your muscle may increase in strength but they will not increase in size. The demand for an increase in capillary support is best provided by the regime I mentioned earlier, suggested by Perry Radar. For one day, every hour for eight consecutive hours you will perform 3 sets, 12 reps per set. For Biceps, the best movement is Scott Curls but Cross-Body Curls will suffice if you don't have the necessary equipment for Scott Curls at home. For Triceps, the best movement is Kickbacks. The regime should be performed every hour, on the hour so you should set an alarm as a reminder. First perform a set of Curls then a set of Kickbacks, without rest between them. You can then rest one minute. Repeat this sequence till you've completed the three sets of each. You'll need to keep the weight fairly light. The first two hours the work will seem easy but the sets get tougher as the day goes on. If you're wrong about the amount of weight you can handle, reduce it but the sets must be performed quickly but strictly, no cheating. The goal of these sets is to pump the muscle to the maximum and to keep it pumped for eight hours. This will convince your body that it needs to build new capillaries to fill the demand you've placed upon it. You should repeat this pump-day twice in six weeks.

Neurogenic Stimulation

This portion of the System takes us into uncharted territory. The bodybuilding community has paid very little attention to the need to stimulate the generation of new nerve supply. Nerve generation is a very slow process and while it is probably the single most common limiting growth factor it is the most difficult to convince the body there is a need. This is probably because the burden the body takes on to fill the need, once it is recognized, is greatest. Building new nerve tissue is much more resource demanding then building capillaries or muscle. Here's the process.

You will perform two sets of one exercise in the mid-range position, for each muscle group. Each of the two sets must be performed in a different but precise style. The first set must be performed in super-slow style. Take a very light weight. Ten or fifteen pounds is probably enough. Certainly no more than twenty pounds. Each of the first ten reps should be performed for thirty seconds up and thirty seconds down. The movement should be smooth not move-stop- move. It will take experimentation to get these movements right. Stay with it. Use Concentration Curls for your Biceps and Prone Tricep Extensions (sometimes known as nose-breakers) for your Triceps. After the ten rep set, immediately, without putting the weight down, perform a set of twelve ballistic, but controlled reps of the same movements. This routine should be performed once a week for each of two weeks, then skip a week and repeat.

Exercise Summary

I've now described three routines. Each has its place in the cycle. The chart that follows shows the frequency and regularity of the routines. Overall, the system is used six weeks on, three weeks off.

N=Neurogenic Workout D=Demand Workout C=Capillary Workout


One might conclude that given all the demand signals discussed in the previous section, the body would accommodate the clear intention those signals indicate. For most individuals, as I've said, any demand would be sufficient signal. We are dealing, in this case, with a truly stubborn body part. Every Conditioning element may have to be near perfect. You should, therefore, during this training period, get eight hours of sleep every night. To assist you in getting the necessary sleep you may wish to use a sleep aid. I can personally recommend Melatonin. Taken as I will describe it can go a long way toward insuring that you get eight good hours of sleep each night. I won't suggest that you use L-Tryptophan. It can be obtained from some European suppliers, through Life Extension sources, and it is effective when properly used. It even has the additional benefit of raising night-time secretion of Growth Hormone. It does have two drawbacks: it is somewhat difficult to obtain compared to Melatonin and the timing of its use is considerably more complex. Moreover, it can fail to work if it is not accompanied by a number of other nutrients. I suggest you use Melatonin if sleeping is a problem. Start by calculating back eight hours from the time you need to wake up for school, work or whatever your daily activities. Add fifteen minutes. That's the time when you should take 3mg of Melatonin. If you've eaten within two hours of that time, add another fifteen minutes, thirty minutes total. After you've taken the Melatonin, go to bed and turn out all the lights you can see. You will shortly find your eyes closing and sleep gently coming on. Within fifteen minutes you should be asleep. You will wake up clear-headed but you should move into a well lighted area as soon as possible after you are out of bed. Obviously, if you have no trouble sleeping, Melatonin is not necessary. Use it only if you need it.


I'm certainly not the first to suggest that nutrition is a major component in permitting and promoting muscle growth, to say nothing of health in general. The requisite nutritional support for muscle growth is the subject of this section. You've probably read at some time in your bodybuilding reading that muscle is mostly protein. This is true to the tune of about 65% but it doesn't acknowledge the full picture. The protein that makes up muscle is about 70% Glutamine. The other major component is water, about 30% in a well hydrated muscle. It follows that protein generally, Glutamine specifically and water in ample quantity must all be available.

Being a logical person you might conclude that all you need do is supplement you protein intake, add some extra Glutamine and drink a couple of glasses of liquids each day and it would be sufficient. For a few people it would. For most there are problems with this plan. First, how much protein is enough? Second, how much extra Glutamine will you need? Finally, what volume of fluids does the body require?

The answer to the first question is largely formulaic. It is not easy, it would require regular blood and urine testing, to determine the amount of protein your body can and does use. It isn't really necessary that we know exactly. We can safely say that if your protein intake is equal to 2 Grams of high quality protein per pound of body weight you'll surely have enough. For most purposes, it would be excessive. To stay at this level of protein consistently would be taxing to the kidneys but for six weeks at a time, which is how this system is used, it should not harm anyone with normal kidney function. Any commercial brand of high quality protein supplement will work. I like Met-Rx or Myoplex Plus but these are largely personal preferences. There are other fine products out there. Twin Labs doesn't make a bad product. Designer Protein is good, my wife loves it. These are only a few examples, I don't care which one you buy. Buy whichever product taste good enough that you'll use it as required.

Your Glutamine needs are another problem. Very little of the Glutamine you ingest actually gets through to your blood stream. The biggest consumer of ingested Glutamine is the intestinal tract. It uses it to fuel peristaltic action. None of the Glutamine supplement products on the market will tell you that almost all the lab research that supports the use of Glutamine as an anabolic/ergogenic supplement are performed with a form of Glutamine they don't sell, Alanyl-Glutamine. Alanyl-Glutamine is a Di-Peptide form of Alanine and Glutamine. In this form the intestines don't recognize it as useable for its purposes. Once through the intestinal wall, Alanyl-Glutamine readily breaks down into its constituent parts making the Glutamine available for use in muscle building. Pharmaceutical grade Alanyl-Glutamine is available from the protein manufacturers that supply the supplement industry. Why no company has elected to market it is beyond me. If you're devoted, track down a supplier that can sell you Alanyl-Glutamine. If you can get it you'll need about 4 Grams three times a day. It is best taken with other protein supplements or at least other food.

Most of you won't be able to get your hands on the good stuff. Fortunately, there is another way to fill your Glutamine needs. L-Glutamine is fairly cheap in tablet form. Its only slightly more expensive in capsule form. The solution is to trick your intestines with timing. With each of your meals take 3 Grams of Glutamine. The mechanical action of moving from your stomach to your intestines will take about thirty minutes. It may take a bit more or less depending on the amount of food you've eaten and whether you're using tablets or capsules. In any event, about thirty minutes later, take 2 more Grams of Glutamine. This timing allows the first load of Glutamine to be used as fuel for your intestines. The second load then gets through to the blood stream for other uses, like building muscle. Two Grams of Glutamine in a single dose is a nearly ideal amount for a single dose. Some of the first load will get through the intestines and some of the second load won't but between the two loads you should be able to get 2 Grams through to your blood stream. Taken three times a day as described, in addition to the Glutamine you'll get from food and you'll have enough.

When I mentioned water earlier, I meant water. I didn't mean soda or juice or coffee or tea. Its not that any of these, in moderation, is necessarily bad. They are simply not water. Often the substrates dissolved in fluids other than water often remain dissolved and prevent those fluids from being used as water at the time it is needed. For that reason, you'll need to drink 2 gallons of water a day. That's 16 glasses of water. If you're not accustomed to drinking that much water, you'll find it difficult at first. After about a week of drinking the required amount of water you'll get acclimated to it. More important for us, you'll find that your muscles look and feel fuller all the time. Your skin will become clearer and more radiant and in another week or so you'll find your definition improving as well. I won't say any more about the benefits of water here. I have an article that fully explores the subject planned for a future issue. All you need to know for now is, drink 128 ounces of water each and every day.


As you can probably tell by now, I view forcing recalcitrant muscles to grow to be an all out assault. If you'd had as much trouble with a body part as I have with my arms, you'd understand why. Most of you reading this won't require that every component: Demand, Condition and Support to be timed precisely correctly. Few of you will have muscles as resistant to growth as mine. Nevertheless, for the few who do, I'll review the timing so you can get it right if the need arises.

The chart accompanying the Exercise Summary section shows the first four weeks of the six week training cycle. Owing to the need for the body to recuperate from this level of stress, a three week layoff should be taken between cycles. You can train during this three week period but you should not train heavily. You should train the rest of your body on Monday, Wednesday and Friday during the six week arm cycle also. You should not train any other body part to failure. You're basically trying to keep the rest of your body in shape during the arm cycle. The one exception is you legs. You should train your legs with heavy squats during the arm cycle. I find a variation of Rest-Pause training to be best for me but 3 sets of 8 with all the weight you can handle will adequately stimulate your body to release growth hormone. If you're over thirty-five, you probably won't be able to produce a growth hormone release from any amount of exercise but you will prime the pump for an increased night-time release. Surprisingly, you may well find the rest of your body growing muscle in spite of the reduced intensity of your training. It may not happen but there is a good chance it will. You'll need to eat six times a day. This isn't easy if you're working a 9-5 job but with the use of supplements like Met-Rx, Rx-Fuel or the like you can fill in the three meals you might otherwise have trouble fitting into your schedule.

Take the Glutamine supplements as described and add one more supplement that I haven't mentioned till now. I won't go into a lot of detail about the how's and whys, You can read my article of the subject elsewhere in this journal. Take 50mg of Lipoic Acid three times a day. That's a total of 150mg per day. On the three days surrounding your Neurogenic workouts, the day before, the day and the day after take 200mg by adding 50mg at your last meal before bedtime. Beyond that, eat a sound, balanced diet and take a good multi-vitamin. I prefer Solgar's VM-75 but many other formulations are nearly as good. Your multi-vitamin should be taken with your last meal before bedtime.


I'm so convinced this system works that I could almost guarantee it. I can't give you your money back, you didn't give me any money. I do know that if it doesn't work for you, you're doing something wrong. The body can not fail to respond to this type of coordinated effort. Use it and you'll be proud of the results.

Copyright © 1996 Physique Tools and Wesley James

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