The volume of training, that is, how much you should train a particular muscle group, is a vital part of any fitness routine. There is a thin line between how much is enough and how much is too much, especially when it comes to the ‘vanity’ muscles, like chest or arms. The larger muscles like the chest and back and shoulders can take more loads because of their size (and the number of smaller muscles that make them up), but when it comes to the arms, less might be more. It is the quality in the reps that will eventually matter.
Some training methods, including functional training, might tell you that it is enough to perform compound movements to develop arm strength, because the biceps and triceps kick into action while performing them. However, it is also acceptable that people might want to focus on just arm strength and size depending on their goals. But for those who completely avoid isolating the arms because they are feeling their biceps burn, for example, in a bent-over row, it is probably because you are overloading the row or doing it incorrectly in the first place. The row must be felt in the back, and not your arms.
But now we come to the big question: how often should one work their arms? The first step in decoding this is in knowing your level of fitness. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or at an advanced fitness level. But it might not be the only thing to consider. Some people might be able to lift a lot in their compound movements and suffer when it comes to smaller muscles like the biceps. So there is no categorical answer to the question. But experienced coaches have broken down certain numbers to help you understand the load required.
A Barbend article titled How Often Should You Train Your Arms? has a guide which might be a good starting point. It suggests that if you have been working out for less than a year, then 8-12 total sets of biceps and triceps combined, done twice a week, are enough. If you have been training regularly for more than a year, then it suggests doing 10-14 of these sets two to three times a week. While these can be adjusted, the article is quite clear on one fact. “Many lifters will experience hindered growth and/or overuse injury training the triceps and biceps directly with more than 18 sets per week.”
There is also a tendency among beginners to try advanced variations with arm exercises without really acing the basic movements. A verywellfit.com article cites an important research, and goes a step further in trying to help you design your arms workouts. This is a detailed outline and easy to understand: “Work your biceps up to three non-consecutive days per week. This means at least one rest day between bicep workouts. If lifting heavier weights (enough so that you can only complete six to eight repetitions), rest at least two days between bicep workouts. If your goal is endurance and lean muscle, stick with one to three sets of 12 to 16 reps with at least one day of rest in between,” it says.
If you’re interested in a deeper dive into how arm workouts should be designed and integrated into your routine, then there are a few key areas to concentrate on. The first is a full range of motion. The second is pausing for a second at the peak muscle concentration. An example of the latter would be to pause at the top of a bicep curl and add an extra squeeze; and similarly do this at the bottom of a tricep push-down. In other words, remember to flex the muscle at the end of every rep to get more out of a rep.
The last one is the most important—engage the right muscles. The moment you feel that your other muscles are assisting the arms, it is time to either decrease the load, or take a quick break before restarting the set. These are the things that will help you decide your arm workout routine as well. If fulfilled, you will see the results and be able to decide the frequency of working the biceps and triceps.
The final question is that of plateauing when it comes to working out the arms. There might be a point beyond which you do not see growth. A livestrong.com article, titled How Often Should You Work Out Your Biceps? suggests progressive overload as your friend when this happens. “Increasing your workouts to 10 to 15 minutes and increasing the frequency of workouts can push you past the strength plateau. Other ways to increase strength include increasing the number of repetitions, increasing the weight by about 5 to 10 percent, and cross-training with other activities like swimming or running.”
This last part is very important. While curling bars is a great way to promote size and strength, it is equally important to maintain the functional ability of the arms with other activities and even exercises like chin-ups and tricep dips.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.