Arm workouts are usually paired with other large muscle days. Triceps will usually be worked on chest and shoulders (aka push) day, with the biceps becoming part of back (aka pull) day. Some people prefer doing a combined shoulders and arms day as well. Usually there is a reliance on the first phase of the workout, in order to make sure the arms are activated for when it is their turn.
What might happen in this case, though, is a lack of activation for the arm muscles when you eventually get to them. An example of this would be falling into the trap of only using the back muscles to do a chin-up, which is meant for the biceps. Or a triceps dip using the chest as the primary mover.
Unless one is doing isolated exercises, like a triceps kickback, a lot of the arm exercises will certainly use a range of muscles. But the key is in making sure you activate them so that the purpose of the exercise is met. I have written about warming-up and activating the legs, the back and the chest in this series for Lounge, and it’s now the turn of the arms.
It might be surprising how many of these moves are stretches but there is a science behind that. The arms remain flexed or slightly bent at the elbow as our natural posture. We don’t walk around with outstretched arms. So to activate these muscles, it is necessary to stretch them out to reinforce a full range of motion when you do something as simple as a curl.
Wrist walks: We type, we scroll, we type again and we scroll again. In fact we repeat these motions a lot through the day, especially with the gadgets surrounding us. And the wrists don’t get much help from isolated exercises. At the gym, with all the gripping, they work even more. Our wrists basically have a thankless job.
So, before most workouts, but especially before working the arms, do a wrist walk to bring them to life. Not only will they become stronger, they will also feel fitter. You will be able to grip better and smash that last rep out. Here’s Tom Merrick with the simplest wrist activation exercise:
Pronated biceps stretch: YouTube sensation Jeff Cavaliere shows a biceps stretch on his AthleanX channel which uses some really cool anatomical theory. After getting into the pronated stretch position as shown in the video, he suggests contracting the triceps to help the biceps turn on. “Via the principle of reciprocal inhibition, you can neurologically turn off the muscle by contracting the muscle on the opposite side of the joint. In this case, that is the triceps. This activation of the triceps will allow the biceps to be more relaxed and therefore more susceptible to the stretch you are trying to place upon them,” he writes in the video description.
Triceps activation with band or stick: You will need something to grip for this exercise, where you bend one arm behind you, over the shoulder, and the other around your hip and concurrently pull in opposite sides, depending on what you are using. Ideally, gyms will have a PVC pipe or a heavy resistance band that does not stretch too easily. Based on the principle of leverage, YouTube channel StickMobility says that “this move stretches and strengthens your triceps, lats, scapular muscles, and shoulders. It works on internal rotation as well as providing a deep stretch through the lat and lateral line by adding side bend. Shoulder mobility is also improved by opening up and activating your triceps with this great move.”
Floor triceps dips: Before the kickbacks, bench triceps dips and the dip machine dips, it is important to dip on the floor. Slightly easier than the other versions, the floor triceps dip will activate your triceps and set you up for tougher exercises. It is also quite good for core control and to learn technique.
You can also change the angle of where your fingers are facing to see how it changes the way your muscles respond. Floor dips are also safer for the shoulders compared to bench dips and could become part of your triceps routine as well.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.