December 20, 2023 3 min read

By Shane Robert

I recently had one of the members of my gym ask me for advice on how to get “shirt-splitting” guns. Triceps specifically. He deduced, rightly to his credit, that the triceps are the most essential muscle for his goal since they make up 70% of upper arm mass. Or, as he put it, “the guys with the best arms always have huge triceps.”

I asked him to take me through his training. 

He proceeded to take me through his routine which consisted of 10 or so variations of extensions, kickbacks, pressdowns, supersets, drop sets, forced reps, and so on. Despite the many exercises and intensifiers in this program, there was not one single mention of some heavy pressing, benching or dipping. I soon learned that this young man did no benching, and specifically no close grip benching, had never tried a dip in his life, and never even thought to do an overhead press. This was a huge oversight on his part and likely a major reason he wasn’t making progress toward his goal.

Pavel Tsatsouline, of kettlebell fame, once stated that, in Russian gyms, trainees are not allowed to do any triceps movement until they can close grip bench press 225 for 10 reps. Though I’m sure this is hyperbole like much of Pavel’s stuff, I wholeheartedly agree with the idea. For the aspiring sleeve ripper above, what would be a better use of time: the training program as listed above or working to close-grip bench at least the equivalent of his body weight for 10 easy reps? The latter will take FAR less time than his current training and yield much greater results. 

Don’t misunderstand this to mean that I am against any of the exercises listed above, or the concept of “isolating” a muscle. I have no problem with that when used appropriately. However, those kinds of things need to be earned, a concept that is perfectly illustrated by the story from Pavel. I know that it is very popular on social media right now to talk about hypertrophy and how stable exercises that isolate muscles are superior. Once again, I don’t disagree, in theory, but I see that the message gets picked up by the wrong population. If you are an advanced lifter with years of experience and are close to your maximum muscular potential, you will see a lot of benefit from adopting that advice. If, on the other hand, you’re a beginner or early intermediate, it is a great way to not make progress.

The difference between the two groups is simple – a beginner or early intermediate doesn’t have the strength and neurological efficiency to challenge the muscle with isolation exercises in a way that will force it to grow. Sure, there will be some growth if the training is progressive and close to failure, but it will quickly max out. The recovery cost of so many exercises is far greater than the cost incurred by 1-3 high-impact movements*, never mind the time cost. 

Many lifting illuminati, from Mark Berry to Arnold to the above-referenced Pavel, have preached the importance of high-impact movements. They were wise enough to see that getting as strong as possible with compound, multi-joint exercises, led to the greatest physiques (not to mention the most useful). You have to look no further than powerlifters and strongmen, who heavily emphasize heavy compound movements, to see that this is true. How strong is strong enough? You can take a look at my Strength Standards post to get an idea.

With the new year around the corner, there will be an influx of fitness aspirants. After a year, if they stick around that long, look and see who has made the most progress – the people like the lad described above, or those who got progressively stronger on high-impact movements. I know where I’d put my money.   

*For reference, I’d rather see him do close grip benches for 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps, lying triceps behind the head for 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps, and dips for 2-3 sets of max reps. Much less time. Much more impact.

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