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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