Is Direct Arm Training Actually Functional?
We’ve all heard it before, smug functional training zealots preaching against the programming of direct arm training due to having no functional carryover into athletic, strength or power performances.
It’s time to stop being scared away from direct arm training from the guys who don’t even look like they lift, and start appreciating the fact that targeted arm work can not only produce “functional” carryover into optimizing human performance, but also be a protective mechanism against some common derailing injuries.
From improving strength and enhancing sports performance, to keeping those chronically pissed off shoulders healthy, here are the five most important reasons to start investing some training time to directly target the biceps, triceps and forearms, including some of the most effective exercises to achieve each specific goal.
#5 Stronger Arms Will Lead To Stronger Compound Lifts
While incorporating direct triceps work into power centric training programs is generally more widely accepted as a means to optimize strength performances, direct biceps work still lags behind, and maybe understandably so depending on your sport and training focus.
While there are a few notable reasons for the exclusion of direct biceps work from programming for field and court sport athletes, I believe one of the most limiting factors is the seemingly limited functional transference into the big three lifts when looked at through the force and motor unit recruitment scope.
The mindset of optimizing the big three works perfectly for the implementation of more targeted pressing work for the triceps to improve lockout, but many forget that the biceps and triceps play a pivotal roll in the stabilization and positioning of the gleno-humeral joint in the setup and initiation in the bench, deadlift and the squat.
Initiating a co-contraction of the prime stabilizers of the shoulders including the pectoralis group, latissimus, upper back and rotator cuff complex is made easier by the inclusion of strong and resilient positioning aid from the long heads of the biceps and triceps.
Hell, I consider the biceps and triceps to play a huge role in nearly every strength movement, as they are indeed part of the total body kinematic chain that must work as a functional unit to keep making notable progress in terms of barbell performances, but also to maintain and improve gross mechanics and movement of the human body no matter what the activity.
The more synergistic joint torque that can be produced through an extremity up into the proximal joints of the hips, and in this case the shoulder complexes, the stronger this unit will be able to function due to the reduction of neural locking of tissues and joints in the chain, but also creating a more optimal position throughout the chain itself. By learning to utilize another group of muscles including their force and positional proprioceptive abilities into any movement, that movement will have the ability to be optimized, period.
So yes, we know that training the triceps with pressing emphasis movements and direct work can translate into better lockouts on the bench and press, thus better strength numbers in general, but can the same be said for the biceps?
The biceps play a key role again in the positioning and stability of the shoulder joint before the initiation of movement, but are also key prime movers in the vertical and horizontal pull variations, especially finishing off the top end of the range of motion. With the popularization of box style programming that places a heavy emphasis on the vertical pull up, not training the biceps directly is absolutely a limiting factor in strength and muscular endurance.
From a movement deceleration standpoint, as soon as the vertical pull starts incorporating rhythmic compensations from the hips, core and lower extremities, the stress of the eccentric component of the movement goes through the roof, placing vulnerability on the shoulder complex as a unit if the biceps cannot handle the force transference. One of the easiest ways to not only add strength but also protective functionality to this is by the implementation of rhythm and tempo dependent biceps work. But I will cover more on that in the next few sections.
Finally, both direct biceps and triceps training enhances the kinetic chain to function in heavy compound movement patterns by allowing an athlete to tap into the mind-muscle connection, and explore the relationship between tension and strength. Given this type of neurological training stimuli, the increased synergistic inter-muscular and intra-muscular coordination has the ability to be improved, hence leading to the potential for stronger performances under the bar.
#4 Direct Arm Training Can Improve Shoulder and Elbow Joint Stability
When it comes to direct arm training, the naysayers tend to conveniently overlook the foundational principles of biomechanics and movement anatomy that pertain to the local structures of the upper extremity.
The biceps and triceps groups are comprised of multiple muscles on each side of the upper arm, but are highlighted proximally up near the true gleno-humeral shoulder joint with long heads that course the shoulder joint. Both the biceps and triceps long heads function as dual joint muscles, with the long head of the biceps playing a dynamic role in the flexion of the elbow while the long head of the triceps acts as an extensor of the elbow joint, but also aiding flexion (biceps) and extension (triceps) of the shoulder joint.
Though these long head tendons play minor rolls in dynamic movement at the shoulder joint, these structures hold true value in the stability component of the gleno-humeral joint, which is a commonly problematic joint in the lifting community. Additional force, position and positional torque output from these long headed structures, especially when acting in a co-contracted synergy, can enhance not only the enhance the achievement of a fully centrated shoulder joint, but also the maintenance of this all important centralized position while the shoulder is challenged with dynamic movement.
Down into the distal insertions of the biceps and triceps, both groups anatomically merge together as one tendinous unit before inserting across the elbow joint. The common biceps tendon leads to the bicipital aponeurosis, which is a strong and dense fascial sheath that covers the majority of the anterior surface area of the elbow joint, traveling deep down into the forearm in a broadened area of attachment. In a similar fashion, the three distinct heads of the triceps all converge onto the common triceps tendon, which ultimately crosses the elbow joint, and inserts onto the olecranon process of the ulna, otherwise known as the point of the elbow.
So why are these origins and insertions in the triceps and biceps group so important to upper extremity static and dynamic stability? When targeted with strategic ranges of motion in direct biceps and triceps work that involve slight shoulder joint position manipulation on top of concentrating on the quality and control of the elbow movement, the long heads of the biceps can act as hugely important additional stabilizers to one of the most injurious joints in the human body.
On top of positional improvement at the shoulder, utilizing more concentrated set and rep schemes that tap into a local pump effect via increased metabolic stresses, the distal biceps and triceps tendinous attachments can also strengthen and become more resilient, especially when challenged with near maximal loads in big compound movements.
The stability of joints during dynamic actions involves a combination of mechanical strength and neurological coordination. This holds true throughout every joint in the body, so why would we overlook these key adaptations only when it pertains to the biceps and triceps with direct arm training?
#3 Arm Training Enhances The Linkage of The Kinetic Chain
I’ve always believed that in training (and life in general) our brains are far smarter than our bodies. And this absolutely holds true when viewing human movement and it’s potential from both biomechanical and neuromuscular perspective.
While direct arm training of the biceps, triceps and forearms can absolutely aid in the improvement of mechanical stability at the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints inclusively, we must not forget that achieving a position is only as functional as how we maintain said position when it’s challenged through different challenges placed upon the body.
Believing in only the mechanical or neurological model of training exclusively is extremely short sighted. And throughout the course of my career I’ve found that there must be a strategic interplay between these two polarizing movement models in order to truly optimize pain-free performance. And this absolutely holds true for more isolated direct arm training as it does for more complex compound movement patterns as well.
Simply put, the first step in optimizing a movement or exercise is owning the position and setting up for biomechanical success. There’s no faking physics. But from there, mastering a motor skill needs to become highly dependent on rewiring the neuromuscular response to the movement or position. And this happens by tapping into the law of irradiation.
Irradiation in the movement systems can be simply described as the way in which the body generates tension and torque output from the extremities ground or tool contacts in order to neurologically link and synergize the alterations of joint positions throughout the entire kinematic chain functioning as an integrated unit.
A great example of this is utilizing maximal grip making a fist as hard as you can and watching the way in which your fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder and upper quadrant in general finds their strongest and most stable positions in order to transfer that tension from the hand all the way up back into more centralized positions in the pillar and core.
Again, our brains are far smarter than our muscles, and trying to place these individual joints in these optimal positions would not only become highly arduous, but ineffective as well. We must use every factor we have at our disposal to help link up this kinematic chain, and that includes the biceps and triceps via direct arm training.
One of the main reasons why the “squeeze the bar” cue used to help stabilize the posterior chain stabilizing muscles like the upper back and lats doesn’t work for many athletes and lifters is that they lack linkage through the forearms, biceps, and triceps group due to a lack of mind-muscle-motor control and connections. If you have no relationship with the actions and abilities to activate the musculature of the arms, it’s going to be very difficult for your neuromuscular system to potentiate these linkages naturally.
By training the arms directly using strategic intent of training effect, we can learn how to integrate the biceps and triceps into the upper extremity dominant kinetic chain in order to display and transfer higher amounts of tension out of the hand contacts, whether they are placed on the ground, on a loaded implement or during a sport specific action. With connection comes better graded control. But we must take the first step and learn how to more optimally add the biceps and triceps into this neurological movement phenomenon by actually training them with strong activation, a heavy pump based training effect and for strength and resiliency.
#2 Stronger Arms Are Linked To A Strong Grip and Better Full Body Strength Capacity
While the biceps and triceps comprise the biggest and most superficial musculature of the arms, these two muscle groups actually aren’t the only ones that function to move and stabilize the arms. While there are many deeper intrinsic stabilizers of the shoulders, elbows and wrists, two main muscles that are often times neglected in training are the brachialis and brachioradialis.
The bracialis is located deep to the biceps brachii, and has a role in aiding the elbow into flexion, while the brachioradialis is the main muscular player of the forearm group that plays dynamic and stabilizing roles at both the wrist and elbow joints. The interesting thing about both of these muscles is that they are placed in the strongest biomechanical position to create primary tension when the hands are placed in a neutral (palm facing back towards midline of body) position, taking emphasis away from the bigger, stronger biceps brachii.
Where this becomes extremely interesting is the fact that neurological linkages via the irradiation effect (reviewed above) naturally position the shoulders, arms and hands into a more neutral position while it finds it’s most stable position to transfer force from. That means when the hands and arms work at full capacity, the likely shoulder position in both training and sport specific actions is likely to be placed in a neutral position, hence placing the brachioradialis and brachialis in primer positions to act as integral stabilizers when we truly need them to function at optimal levels.
Training the brachialis and brachioradialis directly can potentate the strength and positional acuity of the wrist and hand in order to display full grip strength when challenged with load. This is the reason why training these two less sexy arm muscles out of the neutral or slightly pronated hand position with elbow flexion based actions is highly advantageous to building grip strength. The stronger we can get the brachialis and brachioradialis, the more likely we will be to actually display close to full capacity of grip strength.
I realize not many athletes or people in general truly give a shit about maximal force production at the hands via grip strength testing. But enhancing grip strength has also been correlated to increasing the motor control and neural capabilities for the body as a whole to become stronger on a relative strength scale. Simply put, the stronger the grip, the more likely one will be to display authentic strength in their more major foundational movement patterns under loading.
So by increasing grip strength potential by training the arms directly with a brachialis and brachioradialis bias with a neutral grip position, we can actually position the body for long term success in increasing it’s overall relative strength. That’s pretty powerful when you break it down. Who says that meaningful direct arm training programmed with an intelligent and calculated approach isn’t functional?
#1 Direct Arm Training Can Produce A Protective Mechanism From Injury
As mentioned in the previous sections, the biceps and triceps group have the ability to play a notable roll in enhancing the kinetic chain, positioning and stabilizing the gleno-humeral and elbow joints, while also adding force production to some key strength movements. These are all warranted reasons to include direct arm training in programming, but the most polarizing reason is this; strategically programmed and well executed direct arm training can produce a protective mechanism from injuries at the shoulder and elbows joints.
If powerlifting is your sport, or even if it is your training focus as is popular with many these days, it’s safe to say that your greatest fear in the gym is a torn biceps tendon, as that’s the type of injury that makes it damn hard to train through while seeing any notable progress from your work. Sure you can train through lower back pain, or around a muscle tweak or strain here or there, but as soon as an injury becomes mechanical in nature, progress halts to a screeching stop.
The biceps are notorious for gruesome injuries secondary to heavy mixed grip deadlifts, aching pain in the ass type injuries from crunching the biceps tendon during bench press, and straining discomfort on the tendon during a back squat. What do the presentations of these biceps injuries all have in common? It’s not usually the muscle belly that is involved, it’s the tendons that are injured and leave you debilitated.
A misconception that I commonly see is the notion that a tendon cannot be strengthened due to limited vascularity and local blood flow to these structures. While the regenerative capabilities and trainability of tendons are just fractions of what they are for muscles, that doesn’t mean we can’t train the tendons to become more resilient to stress in big compound movements.
Tendons are highly adaptable to increased time under tension and repeated loading. Accentuating eccentrics and utilizing metabolic stress directed set and rep schemes are the types of training methodologies that produce tendon resiliency, reducing the likelihood of local injuries as a whole.
Interestingly enough, the biceps and triceps groups also respond quite favorably to these same training variables of high metabolic stress, increased set and rep schemes and longer duration total time under tension for muscle growth. If a slow tempo, light load and high rep arm session doesn’t sound familiar, you’re not alone.
Most lifters and athletes with strength and hypertrophy focused goals that choose to hit the arms directly are doing it in an ass backwards way to maximize growth potential, strengthen tendons and teno-ossious junctions, and adding notable transferable strength capacities to their large compound movements.
And yes, by training the arms heavy with sloppy form, supra-maximal loading and the use of compensation patterns, these people are increasing the likelihood of injuries. This is the kind of stuff that gives direct arm training a bad rep.
But if you want to add poundage to your big lifts, enhance stability of the shoulder and elbow joints, and stay healthy and resilient in the process, it’s time to start incorporating some direct arm training.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.