From the archives:A
ll too often, particularly among newbies, I hear, “Damn your arms are big!” They follow up their awe-infused brown nosing with, “What do you do?” My answer, though cryptic, is almost always the same: heavy shrugs.
Of course, they think I’m being an asshole and making fun of them, but in reality, I’m being serious. What newbies (and 99% of experienced lifters) don’t understand is that you’re not in the gym to train your muscles; you’re in the gym to train your neuromuscular system. Take for example someone’s first few weeks in the gym ever. Their strength skyrockets, bursting through barrier upon barrier. The more sets and reps, the faster they accelerate achievement. And then, the brakes go on. Your muscles haven’t stopped growing or adapting. The truth is, it takes those two or three weeks for your muscles to even have a chance of growing. The whole time, possibly the entire first month, you did nothing but bring your nervous system inline with the strength potential of your under-utilized muscle mass.
But the nervous system does more than help you drive iron upward against gravity with each powerful contraction; it also stops you from exerting more effort than the weakest link in your system can handle. Say, for example, that your chest is extremely strong, and tight. Your nervous system will prevent you from ever fully drawing your shoulder blades together with any real force because doing so could injure your strong, yet tight pecs (or even front delts). Your pecs may be strong, but the weak link is their flexibility. This is called reciprocal (or antagonistic) inhibition.
You may be pondering, “Okay, great, the nervous system helps me move heavy shit and keeps me from hurting myself, so what the hell does this have to do with shrugs and developing big biceps?” The answer is simple. You need load to work the biceps, but if your traps are weak (or shoulders), the maximum amount of force you can produce during a curling motion is limited by the weakness of your traps! Little traps means little arms. Your traps have to be at least strong enough to handle the force of accelerating the loads necessary for curling massive weight. Look around the gym: the guys with the biggest biceps will always have mounded up, neck-engulfing traps—every time, no exceptions.
So go to the gym, grab a bar with three wheels per side, hold tight, and start pulling until you can get 10 clean reps. Once you get there, we’ll talk about how your arms have gotten so damn big.