To get big arms, you need more than just biceps curls.

Can you bulk your biceps using compound exercises?

So you want 16-inch arms, right? But when you search for help on the ‘net, you keep reading about how biceps curls are overrated. Lots of writers claim that the best compound exercises will promote muscle growth throughout your entire body — and even add muscle to your biceps.

The problem is, you can’t quite figure out how it works. After all, most basic compound exercises only work the arms indirectly. How can they be as good as direct arm exercises like biceps curls or triceps extensions?

All the parts of your body work together

As I’ve stated elsewhere on this site, your body is not a collection of unrelated parts. It’s a mistake to think of it as such.

It’s intuitive to say, “I want bigger biceps so I’m going to isolate the biceps with biceps curls.” But this reasoning is short-sighted.

Working a single muscle can lead to strength imbalances. Unless your muscles are correctly proportioned, you risk injury and you’ll have a difficult time getting as big and strong as you could be.

Strength imbalances lead to injury

Picture two athletes: a bodybuilder and a sprinter. The bodybuilder has larger muscles than the sprinter, but his muscles aren’t ideally balanced for high-speed running. Although most bodybuilders can run fast, there’s a good chance they’ll pull a muscle or blow out a joint if they try to run absolute full speed. Their strength imbalances make it difficult for them to run flat-out without injury.

Here’s another example. Picture a guy who has been bench pressing for years. He has large pecs, shoulders, and triceps, and he looks very strong and capable. But ask him to load 50 bags of cement mix onto the back of a pickup truck and see what happens: his lower back will give out if his grip doesn’t fail first. He doesn’t have true full-body strength.

Strength imbalances hold back your progress

Here are several common reasons why skinny guys want to get bigger and more muscular:

  • To perform better during sports or games.
  • To have an easier time of it during physically-demanding activities like manual labor
  • To look stronger and more intimidating
  • To compete in strength events like weightlifting, strongman, or bodybuilding

No matter your reasons for bulking up, strength imbalances sabotage your progress:

The guy who is into sports is limited by whichever part of his body is the weakest. If all he does is work the arms, his core, lower back, or legs will give out under stress.

The workman needs full-body strength too. Nobody ever failed to load bags of cement into a truck because their biceps were weak. But a weak, untrained back will get you every time.

Skinny guys who want to look tougher can add an inch or two to their arms by doing biceps curls and other arm isolation exercises. But they don’t really look intimidating if the back, shoulders, and chest are flat and unmuscled. Truly impressive upper-body size starts with the torso. Without slabs of muscle on the torso, your pumped-up arms just make you look weird.

Finally, if you plan to compete in any strength sport, you have to lay a solid foundation of strength with compound exercises. Any long-time lifter will tell you that you won’t really be able to get large arms unless you add 30 pounds of muscle to the rest of your body. And you’ll never do that with biceps curls or triceps isolation movements. It’s hard to come up with a good, solid explanation for this phenomenon, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Your arms will never grow bigger than 15 inches or so unless you also bulk up your back, shoulders, and chest.

So what’s the bottom line? Avoid strength imbalances. And how do you do that? By full-body workouts using compound movements instead of isolation exercises.

A few good compound exercises for the arms

The best compound exercise for your biceps

The weighted pull-up is an effective compound exercise for the back and biceps.

Weighted pull-ups help bulk up your back and biceps.

Let’s look at a typical compound exercise that targets the upper-body: the weighted pull-up.

Weighted pull-ups are primarily an upper-back exercise because they put heavy stress on the latissimus dorsi muscles.

Since the lats are the largest muscles in your torso, it stands to reason that as you try to bulk up, the lats will be the focus of your upper-body workouts.

But weighted pull-ups do more than just work your lats. They also put stress on your biceps (especially with a narrow grip or a palms-facing-you chinning-grip).

You can’t fully work your lats unless your biceps are strong enough. If your biceps are weak, they hold back progress in virtually all of your pulling movements. Consequently, the compound exercise demands the most of the body part that’s the weakest. This is why, with a half-dozen compound movements, your body will get stronger as a whole, instead of stronger in just one part.

The best compound exercise for your triceps

Triceps dips work the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

Triceps dips work the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

How about a good compound exercise for the triceps? The bench press is just such an exercise, but let’s dare to be different and talk about dips.

Dips work the chest, the shoulders, and the triceps. If any of those body parts is disproportionately weak, it will have to get stronger before you make progress. Dips find the weak link among your pushing muscles and strengthen it up.

What’s that you say? You’re a skinny guy and dips are easy for you; you can do thousands of them without breaking a sweat? Don’t let that fool you. Just add weight; weighted dips are one of the best, and most natural, upper-body bulking exercises you can do. Give them a try sometime when you’re ready to get stronger without resorting to non-functional movements like triceps kickbacks or similar isolation exercises.

Give compound exercises a fair try

So there you have it, two simple compound exercises that add mass to the upper arms. Best of all, there’s no equipment required: do chin-ups on a tree-branch and dips between two kitchen chairs. To increase the intensity, just hold a weight between your knees or use a dip belt. (Check out the selection of dip belts at Amazon.com: Dip Belts.)

Don’t be afraid to do away with the bicep curls and triceps kickbacks for a while. Do compound exercises and give your body a real, functional, effective workout that’ll bulk you up without creating any weak spots. You have the rest of your life to do curls; so put the direct arm work on the back burner for a few months while you test out some compound exercises.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Kentie August 10, 2010 at 4:14 am

I have been working out for about 3 years now and during that time focused mostly on compound exercises. But my arms still were on the smaller/weaker side. And though I can dead lift 320 Lbs, I can’t do squat on pull ups.

I just started doing some isolated arm exercises, just 6 sets for both bis and tris once a week and and I’ve seen strength improvement. I can do some pull ups now, I am better at the chest press, etc.

When I started, I took to heart the advice that compound exercise were the most beneficial, and I still believe that. But now I can see a few isolation moves can really help out week areas.

As a side note, my strength gains may be also attributed to my current routine. For the past 2 weeks, I’ve been doing full body workouts 3 times a week.

Kentie

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Thomas August 18, 2010 at 3:33 am

Have you been keeping track of your body weight? Pullup performance is very sensitive to changes in bodyweight.

I don’t have a problem with arm isolation moves — everyone wants good-looking arms and these exercises definitely pump you up — I just want beginners to think about the reasons why so many people recommend the big compound moves.

There is a definite place for isolation moves in a routine, once you reach a certain point. All experienced, strength-oriented powerlifters use isolation moves at times. The hard part is learning when isolation exercises help, and when they just wear you out without helping.

Thanks for the input!

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The Crusher July 2, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Want to Beef up the Bi’s! Torture them to failure with Heavy weight and then descending sets, until you can’t touch your nose with your finger. Do one Compound exercise after exhaustion, Close grip chins, have a friend help you up and control going down. Then you are done!!
If High Intensity isn’t your thing. Try 4×6 reps three exercises with as Heavy a weight as you can lift in good form.
I like to alternate.
If you are young and relatively small muscles I would stick to the second type until you get some muscle size then switch to the High Intensity from time to time.
I have been lifting forever, and have made mistakes by following so called expert scientific advice. Like HIT workouts, which if you are an intense guy like me can really drain your adrenal glands and spike Cortisol levels thus killing results.
Good luck!

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Mike August 18, 2010 at 8:14 am

Thank you. This is good healthy sensible advice. It makes sense to train the larger muscle groups and build up the body as a whole. I’ve heard doctors complaining that some bodybuilders are literally pulling themselves apart by pumping up isolated muscles and not using muscle groups as they should be used in natural exercise activities.

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Jake January 1, 2011 at 11:02 pm

hey i got a question. im a 15 year old guy and im looking to bulk up my whole body.i do workout 3 to 4 times a week and i do full body workouts but i see know results at all.is there a workout that would work better for me?the stuff do now is of course bench, squat, curls, tricep extensions, and many more just basic exercises that are told to work very well. well i have been them for about a year now. ive been increasing my weight and eating well. 300grams of protein a day i just dont know what else to do.so im wondering if there is a bulking program that you know of that would work for me?

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Johnjohn January 6, 2011 at 10:05 am

Not entirely sure if you should be trying so hard! Your 15 and with everything your throwing at your body in terms of nutrients and protein considering your program (which is fine) it’s probably going straight through you! Stick with the aforementioned compound exercises and keep varying your program every week or two until your body is shocked into damage/repair, which is what you want!

Also, I have LOTS of “being a skinny teen” experience so don’t get too hung up on it just push through and it’ll come eventually! I started at age 15 as well and didn’t break the 100kg bench press until I was 18!

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Lyle Lengyel January 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Wow. 300 grams of protein per day is wayyyy too much. Protein should be responsible for no more than 25% of your daily caloric intake. Fat – 25% as well. Carbohydrates should be responsible for 50% or more of your daily calories. You need carbs to fuel your workout and recover. High glycemic index carbohydrates are best for post-workout recovery, when insulin sensitivity is at its highest. Insulin produced by your body as a response to increased blood sugar is responsible for a lot of increased protein synthesis that is a major part of exercise recovery. You should eat a 3:1 carbohydrate:protein ratio meal an hour or more before working out, focusing on more complex carbs and slow digesting proteins to break down slowly and fuel your workout. A 4:1 carbohydrate:protein recovery meal, focusing on simple carbs (read: sugar) and fast digesting protein (whey) should be consumed after working out to boost muscle protein synthesis and recovery.

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Dre February 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Questions…Im 35 and I just started working out, I’ve been reading alot about this thing thats its sounds like alot to do. I am 5’9, 157lbs, Im not really trying to bulk. I just want that lean, cut look that fits my frame, thats all. Im eating 5-6 small meals as well as protein shakes and carbs after my workout. Just wanna know if Im doing the right thing and will I see results from it. Im trying to reach this goal by the summer. Thanks for anyone who can help

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Thomas February 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Hi.

As long as you keep accurate records of your nutrition, your body stats, and your workouts, you’ll definitely see results. But it can take hard-won experience to know how to alter and adjust those things to get the results you want. And that takes time.

On this site, I try to give people some of the knowledge they need to create their own workout programs (especially with an emphasis on helping young kids build muscle as a base for athletics). But what you won’t find here is a full-scale one size fits all program for leaning out and getting ready for the beach.

If you’re really in a rush to get results, maybe try a tested and proven system like p90x or something like that? It gets a lot of hype, but it’s the real deal for staying fit. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who wants to build significantly larger muscles, but for your purposes, it’s ideal. Of course, if you’re completely out of shape, it’ll be way too much for you, but you sound like you’re already working out regularly so you’ll do OK.

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rahul May 4, 2011 at 11:11 am

i am doing pushup fr d past 3 yrs…i jst gained little weight bt with awsome cuts in the body…ltr on i stopped gaining weight i figured d reason as i am lifting d same weight nd i need to do some weighted push up….and i tried to do pushup by adding 10 kgs of weight in my bag and lifted nd increased little weight n my body too nw d prob is i am used to dat also bt hw to do add more weights on my back cos d bag cant sustain more weight….any efficient method u guys have to do weighted pushup without involoving any costly equipments nor any1 s help?

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shahid November 21, 2011 at 7:49 am

dude, if you want next level of pushup try one hand pushup with weight and vertical pushups

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Michael August 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I am a 15 year old boy and play in goal for a football (soccer) team and I’m looking to bulk up so I can save more powerful shots. At the moment I am doing bicep curls, tricep extensions, weighted sit ups (behind my head and legs in air) and a few other exercises (I dont know their technical names) With 4 Kg weights at 20 reps and 2 times a day every day. At the moment (a few weeks into this routine) I’m not feeling or seeing any major difference in my body (except when doing the exercises, then it burns). Yet I have read up that I should have rest days. Is this the key to getting more powerful and better?? Any advice would be useful. I’m also thinking of doing the compound exercises listed above. Should I also do some squats to strengthen my legs up so I dont have any strength imbalances?? Just looking for help and guidance.

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Thomas August 16, 2011 at 2:44 am

Hi Michael:

As I always say, “You can’t get add 5 Kg of muscle mass unless you increase your body weight by at least 5 Kg.”

What I mean is: gaining muscle begins with your diet/nutrition. If you’re not gaining weight while on a resistance-training program, you’re just wearing yourself out without any hope of success. (Of course, if you’re significantly overfat, you can get stronger while losing weight, but this is a special case).

So, it starts with gaining weight. For under-muscled males, virtually any resistance training will increase muscle mass if you have a surplus of calories. Even body-weight exercises — squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, etc. — are very effective in the beginning stages.

I hope you have a coach or trainer you can talk with about these subjects. Good luck!

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brandon September 11, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Question… im a 21 year old guy thats trying to bulk up a bit so my wife isnt constantly talking about… what if your arms were that big… just constantly talking about all these celebs and whatnot. Anyway… ive read up on the topic a little.

ive been having 6-7 small meals a day, taking multivitamins, fish oil, and ive been drinking gnc’s amplified mass xxx everymorning except on workout days…50g of protein and 138g of carbohydrates… on workout days i take it directly after my workout

whenever i workout i tend to keep cardio to a minimum, of about 5-6 minutes, but keep it intense for the whole 5-6. while i dont have any money for fancy equiptment i do have dumbells and a pullup bar. i do bicep curls at 40lbs in each arm… 10 reps, 11 reps, 12 reps, then 11 reps two more times… i have no prob with my upper body but my arms are going nowhere… i struggle a bit and find myself not being able to complete my last rep of 11 but make it to 9… will i ever see a difference?
would be much appreciated for advice

thanks Brandon

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jerry September 14, 2011 at 9:24 am

Brandon: if your trying to put on size you should be lifting heavy and short. For example instead of 40 go to 45 or 50 and at 7 reps. But don’t for get your triceps. The triceps are the bigger muscle in your arm. So to see more mass your triceps need to be worked as well. And your arms will only get so far if you don’t work your shoulders and chest it has to all build as one. Hope it helps just remember for mass heavy and short and to get ripped light and long.

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Philip September 15, 2011 at 5:46 am

Hey, nice post as i have been doing compound excerises this year on and off.. when you first start doing them the next day you will feel completly owned. deadlifts make the lower back stiff and sqauts kill the thighs.. the question is.. shuld i warm up before diong these excerises? cause these kind of compound excerises can cause injurys if you dont warm up, how would you suggest warming up? im 73kgs and i ant to get to 80kgs.. but its hard to go to the gym when im doing a labour job during the day and training brazillian jiu jitsu at night..
My forearms are unbelivably skinny but my triceps and bicep are not to bad as i am low body fat. i am strong for my weight as i can deadlift 100kg when i first started doing deadlifts.. ( very sore next day) so how would you suggest building my forearms and calvs directly with compound excerises? should i stay away from the curls? i dont think my intake is any good?

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jerry September 20, 2011 at 6:18 pm

What I do for warm up is good stretch and ill use something a little lighter and do one set of ten. To make sure my muscles are loose and get the right form them go in to the normal work out. And stretch as muck as you can you don’t want to get muscle bound hope it helps

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jerry September 20, 2011 at 6:31 pm

What I do is I do 10 reps with something lighter and stretch as much as you can it will help with the soreness. protein will help as well and you will have to make time to eat without food need to eat about every 3 hours and get good rest

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inmuenchen September 17, 2011 at 4:11 am

also, heavy, compound excercies cause the release of a lot of hormones. this has significant secondary effects re muscle growth of arms, etc…

moral of the story: lift heavy-ass weights.

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Luke September 23, 2011 at 2:59 am

I am 14 I weigh 70kg and I’m 6ft exactly without shoes, I’m lucky To not be a skinny person but I’m also not the broadest, being quiet “stretched” out it’s hard to put on weight even though I eat alot more than others. I’ve been curling for roughly 1year now (current weight of 20lbs) rrps of 15 and my arms and shoulders have grown little. Any help?

Thanks. Luke.

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Vic Mercado October 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Hello ! I’m Vic 38 yrs old 156 lbs , I started working out and doing compound exercises for 3-4 months now before having a hard time doing squat w/ 66 lbs of weight now i can squat 200 lbs using 5×5 workout , can deadlift 210 lbs , bench press 175 lbs , bent over rows 200 ,standing calf raise 300 lbs every workout i make sure that i can add atleast 5 lbs or add some reps on every workout any additionals tips to get bigger ? … they said that to get bigger muscles you need to stronger ………….. thanks !!!

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Thomas October 6, 2011 at 6:32 pm

You sound like you’re doing fine! Just make sure to avoid injuries by stretching and working on your joint mobility. Good luck!

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Vic Mercado October 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm

hi , what do you mean by ” working on your joint mobility ” going to full range of motion ? and sir regarding squat I dont go all the way down just parallel , what is best ? and any recommendation regarding the best amino acids in the market …. thanks you so much again

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Thomas October 8, 2011 at 12:41 am

Joint Mobility is one of those trendy terms that is probably overused on the ‘web. There really is no hard and fast definition. It’s a concept. But because the word flexibility isn’t really sufficient to explain what’s important to weight lifters, many folks like to talk about “flexibility and joint mobility”.

On the other hand, flexibility is easy to define. Flexibility refers to the length of your muscles. A flexible muscle is longer than an inflexible one. Flexibility is static — i.e. it doesn’t require you to exert muscle force to hold a position.

Joint Mobility differs from flexibility in that it depends on your strength and because there is usually some movement involved. Also, it may involve several muscle groups.

So, think of flexibility as a prerequisite to full joint mobility.

PS – I don’t recommend amino acid supplements, though I don’t see anything wrong with them if you are sure you are not malnourished.

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amith October 26, 2011 at 8:39 pm

I recently started to do compound lifts recently (rows, overhead lifts, squats, dead lifts and bench press). I noticed that my biceps got a lot bigger in two months even though I didn’t focus on them. But I didn’t notice any growth at all in my triceps. Is it cause my biceps were weaker than my triceps? Great article by the way.

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Frank P November 1, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Ultimately I think that the size your arms can grow to is more limited to how big your legs are. Suggesting the body does want to maintain equilibrium. But…you could also apply this to back etc or more importantly the posterior chain, which features the hamstrings anyway. Think Poliquin used to wax on about this concept a bit, but it’s physiologically sound I suppose.

As for ultimately bulking the arms, if one avoids direct movements like curls they could still incorporate reverse and hammer curls which recruit the brachialis more than supinated curls. Thus any hyper trophy of the brachs you incur has the effect of pushing the biceps outwards making the arm larger as well as the enlargement of the muscle itself.

Great site btw.

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Tyciol January 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm

It feels hard to get a full stretch in the elbow in dips without hyper-extending the shoulder joint, and that stress on the front delt/chest feels kind of uncomfortable.

Would it be okay to, after training and prioritizing dips and push ups at first, to do triceps isolation movements after? That way the triceps are pre-fatigued and you mostly use it to work the muscle at full-RoM.

Especially the overhead kind since I heard the long head of the triceps doesn’t work very hard in dips since the shoulder is extended, which shortens it.

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richard January 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm

My body is fine, except for my hips. I’m toned everywhere else, I’m even on a diet, but my fat hips remain. Is there a compound excercise that can get rid of that well?

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Thomas February 10, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Put a padlock on your refrigerator. And run around the block 10 times. :)

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Alex March 7, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Took this article to heart. Dropped all isolation exercises out of my routine and for the past 3 months focused soley on the big 7 compound exercises. It was the best decision I’ve made since I started lifting. Your body does truly work as a single unit.

Thanks Thomas for the great advice!

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Peter Connolly March 17, 2012 at 6:18 am

Hi,
I agree with you on the compound exercises but I also use the isolation exercises combined in my work out and I find changing my work out routines also helps to gain size plus always pushing to lift heavier weights and eating properly and getting enough sleep really helps I’ve been working out since I was fourteen I’m now forty five, good luck.

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jerry June 13, 2012 at 8:50 am

Sorry man but you realize that is not!!!! how you measure your arm size why does everyone do it like that hahah it is supposed to be relaxed my arm is 18 inches when it is flexed as well that doesnt make it an 18inch arm. just look up how to do measurements for bodybuilding guys

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mettle solomon November 30, 2012 at 8:18 am

Am20yrs working out for bigger arms since 3months but i have not seen any vast change so please what training do u recommend for yr guy

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Holden April 20, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I have been working out for a year now I’m 5 9 and 168 pounds. I play linebacker for varsity but I struggle to gain good weight. Have any suggestions to help?

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neeraj November 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Que….i am 18 years old 179cm ànd weigh 57kg….i am trying tobulk up my size and have started my workouts……should i go for compound exersice 6 days a week or conceñtrate to isolated moves also?

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joe law November 12, 2013 at 5:31 am

Hi I’m Joe I am 20 years old approximately 69kg and 5ft 7 inches I’ve been training in the gym for a while been on and of in the past 1 year but been consistent in the last 10 months I’ve seen improvements in strength and overall muscle development but I want to bulk up become big I’m 69kg and i look like I’m 45kg. I’m packing alot of lean muscle but my arms and legs don’t seem to be responding to training as fast as my chest abs or back does. Getting frustrated at this point it’s as if I’ve hit a glass ceiling

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