How Do You Know if You Have Big Arms?

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There is a saying in most gyms that, for men at least, “the day you first pick up a weight is the day you become forever small.”

Like many sayings there seems to be some truth in it. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that every man who starts to lift weights is doing it because at some level he wants bigger muscles. Oh sure, he might start with the idea of getting stronger for sports or maybe it’s because he is getting picked on for being too skinny (or too fat) or because he thinks it will help him get noticed by girls or any of a dozen more reasons. But, at the basic motivation level, he wants to be able to roll up his shirt sleeve and have something to flex. Or better yet, something to flex that will stretch his shirt sleeves without rolling them up.

This isn’t an issue just for American men. If my most popular blog post – When is a Man’s Arm Considered Big? – is any indication this is a concern for men all over the world. I’ve had hits from every continent (except Antarctica) and most every country. Some even from real people!

Go to social media or your favorite search engine and you’ll find that building bigger arms is a popular subject for literally thousands of Instagrammers, YouTubers, Facebookers, and I suspect Tik Tokkers too. Even men with extraordinarily big arms will talk about how they want to add just a little more “size to the bis” with the usual goal being a muscular 20 inches (or a little over 50 cm). Which, frankly, is unrealistic for most men and difficult to achieve even with vitamin-S (steroids).

Me as a “fat” teen. Photo from my high school yearbook.

“But wait,” you say, “don’t guys who are jacked know that they are jacked?” No, they don’t always know. Obviously a few do and they are eager to capitalize on this (again go to social media – you’ll find plenty of them willing to sell you a training program). But for most of us “average Joes” it’s a constant battle to gain a little more size and shape. Because no matter how developed we become there’s always the same skinny/fat guy looking back at us in the mirror.

Many people joke that bodybuilders and weightlifters – but never crossfitters for some reason (zing!) – suffer from body dysmorphia. I’m not going to go that far as true dysmorphia is a serious mental health disorder that can lead to significant issues. But I do think that as a group the bodybuilding community may suffer from what I’ll call a physical “misperception.” It’s no secret that in a way we are all two different people. We are the person who the world sees and also the person who we see inside our head. Moreover this inner perception of ourselves is often formed when we are young and difficult to change. If you were skinny as a kid, your self-image is one of a skinny kid. I myself always thought I was fat as a kid but pictures from my youth clearly indicate that this was never the case!

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From my own personal experience regardless of how big or small my arms have been over the years – from stick thin (thanks to my Crohn’s disease) to flat and fat (thanks poor diet) – in the mirror I always see the same somewhat shapeless, flabby arm. Even when presented with external evidence to the contrary.

For example, here are a few comments I have gotten about my arms over the years:

  • “Wow, you have big triceps,” from an EMT helping to remove my sweatshirt in the Emergency Room (long story told here).
  • “You have big triceps,” a friend making casual conversation at a party after asking if I had been working out.
  • “You must workout,” from a phlebotomist about to take my blood.
  • “Don’t go breaking my blood pressure cuff with those muscles,” a medical technician during a pre-exam. Yes, in case you noticed, many of the comments I get about my arm development come from medical professionals.
  • “At some point your arms just kind of blew up like…(making a motion that indicates the size of a basketball),” a friend who was commenting on my weight room progress.
  • “You think your arms are small because you can’t see your triceps,” from a training partner.
  • “Looks like someone brought the big guns out tonight,” a crew member taking my ticket while I was boarding a boat for a dinner cruise (I was wearing a short sleeve shirt with admittedly tight sleeves).
  • “Oh come on, make a muscle,” a female friend at a party. I put this one here because all the other above comments were from men – so much about bigger muscles attracting women (sorry guys).

Interestingly enough, I got many of these comments when my arms were not at their biggest. Why? Because a fat arm doesn’t necessarily look big. Especially if it matches the rest of the body. Without definition and a visible “peak” to the bicep or “horseshoe” to the tricep the assumption is that there is no muscle underneath. A man with 18″ (46 cm) arms, which are big in anyone’s books, at 35% bodyfat may therefore look smaller than the man with a 16″ (41 cm) arms at 15% bodyfat. In this case size does not actually matter. The perception of size does.

So, if a big arm can look small and a small arm can look big – how do you know if you have big arms?

Simple, other people will tell you.

Now, go hit the gym. It’s arm day!

Photo by Cesar Galeu00e3o on Pexels.com

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

The Secret to Building Big Arms Which No One Else is Willing to Share Is…

If there’s one thing that I think we can be sure of is that most guys who start lifting are interested in building big arms. In fact, based on ads and “click bait” on social media you might presume that most lifters are obsessed with arm size (I’m one of them).

Add an inch to your arms in 24 hours! The secret to bigger biceps! This routine is guaranteed to add inches to your arms! The pitches go on and on and with good reason and have been going on for as long as I’ve been aware. It can be argued that Joe Weider built an entire industry with ads for bigger biceps in the back of comic books.

Heck, the number one most viewed blog post I’ve written is When Is a Man’s Arm Considered Big? (followed closely by How Much Can the Average Man Bench? But we’ll investigate that another time).

So in my mind there is no doubt that men in particular want to have pumped up “guns.” They want to be asked to “make a muscle” for the admiring kids or be asked the ever popular “let me feel your arm” by an attractive young lady when hanging out and are just waiting for that subtle brush of their arm and the soft cooing from a potential romantic encounter.

Even though, more often than not, the comments come from fellow gym rats. However, “brah, how’d you build them pipes?” and “nice veins dude” comments are not unwelcome (just don’t interrupt during the set please).

Chances are if you’ve read this far you are one of the many men in search of the perfect exercise to build peaks high enough to get snow on them and triceps so full and well defined you can shoe a horse with them.

So what’s the secret? What’s the one thing I can do today to have bigger arms tomorrow?

To find out, I decided to take a completely unscientific survey of men I know who happen to have what I consider to be great arms. This group included gymnasts, rugby players, recreational lifters, and competitive bodybuilders. I asked a simple question: what is your favorite arm exercise and why?

And do you know what I found that these men all said was their favorite exercise? The one thing they did to build their enviable arms?

NO, JUST TELL ME ALREADY!

In no particular order the secret move they did was:

  • Barbell Curls
  • Hammer Curls
  • Spider Curls
  • Bent over DB Curls
  • Every other kind of curl
  • Tricep Extensions
  • Tricep Push-Downs
  • Pullups
  • Chinups
  • Every other kind of up
  • And on, and on, and on (okay, not that far on. I don’t know that many guys with jacked arms).

Many of the responders had very logical reasons why their move was a favorite. For example: Olympic gymnast, and all round nice guy, Jake Dalton said, “my favorite arm exercise is bent over db curls with drop sets. I like it because it is a difficult challenge and it also creates a lot of blood flow and it is also very specific to that muscle. It’s specifically bicep and that’s what I like about it.”

Jake Dalton

A friend and colleague of mine, Bodie Bankey (on Instagram @bbankey58 ), who is a competitive bodybuilder (and huge and also an all round nice guy) has a very specific routine that covers all the muscle angles because he has found that his arms seem to respond best to very controlled form and a mix of rep ranges.

Bodie Bankey in competition shape

So you can’t argue with the results these guys have gotten despite having different favorite exercises.

if there is noT one move OR ROUTINE to get big arms, How do I get my twigs to grow into logs?

There are only three real things all the guys I surveyed had in common: 1) a commitment to working out; 2) consistency in their work outs; and last but not least, 3) patience. In my opinion, all three of these things are of equal importance. Commitment to working out should be obvious. But what isn’t obvious is that the type of workout may not be critical between strict weight training and bodyweight exercises.

For instance Jake Dalton (did I mention that he is a former Olympian? Really, you should give him a follow on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/jdflipkid/videos ) who has extremely well developed arms, even for a gymnast, didn’t specifically train his arms for size and strength. They are the product primarily of bodyweight exercises, done from a young age, and favorable genetics.

Bodie Bankey, like most bodybuilders, on the other hand trains specifically with weights for size and strength. Unlike Jake he didn’t start training for his sport specifically until late in his teens and though he clearly has a propensity for building muscle it took him years to attain his current size and strength. Read that again – years.

So to sum up, if you want big arms there are no shortcuts. You need to pick up a weight, curl and press it using good form, measure your results to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, and have patience. Biceps, like Rome, aren’t built in a day or even a month. But give it a year or so and your arms will get bigger. So get ready for the comments and treat yourself to that new wardrobe.

So what’s your favorite arm exercise?

NOTE: results vary. Not everyone has the potential to grow 20 inch arms with freaky peaked biceps with or without chemical assistance. But that’s a subject for another blog entry (like this one).

Opinions in this blog are my own. I don’t have an editor and don’t know how to use commas. So if you find a mistake feel free to let me know. If you choose to follow any advice in this blog please be aware that I am not a medical professional or a professional health care/exercise science/therapist of any kind. Always consult a doctor before beginning a program of vigorous exercise.

#oldguyslifttoo – Consarn It!

Those of you who follow me on other social media (yeah, both of you) may have noticed that I usually tag any remotely fitness related post first with #oldguyslifttoo. Though it clearly hasn’t caught on I’m trying to make a point with that hashtag.

It doesn’t take much observation to realize that in our culture and society fitness and athletic activities are the province of the young. In mo and t pro sports you’re finished before 40. A quick look through Instagram and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of posts, pictures, selfies, swolfies, and not so random flexing poses of young men (and a few women) in front of bathroom mirrors. Each who seems fully dedicated to their particular workout, diet and intent on spreading their knowledge and enthusiasm to the world. Or at least get a date. Maybe both, I’m not sure, and I’m not criticizing this in the least. If it motivates anyone towards physical fitness I’m for it. Heck, if I had the abs and biceps of some of these guys I’d be right there in front of my mirror with my phone snapping a picture too.

But, you don’t see so much from older people. Go to a gym, again filled with folks under 40. Now I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons for this. The usual being other priorities. Career, family, etc. But, these reasons don’t explain all the middle-age men and women out there who have just stopped moving. The kids are out of the house, but instead of using the time gained from no longer running mom’s transit service they have doubled down on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and the like. Then complain that they hurt all the time or don’t have energy.

It’s time to change this folks. The benefits of daily exercise are well documented. Both men and women at any age can increase strength and improve quality of life with a moderate program of walking and weightlifting. Barring an underlying medical condition (and hey, I’m pooping into a plastic bag as I type this so I know about underlying conditions) you can stall father time. You may never have 20 inch arms or buns of steel again but you can keep your bones strong and muscles firm well into old age.

Which, for all you teens out there, doesn’t start at 30.

So, I’m proud to be an old guy who lifts, too. I hope you’ll join me.

And whoknows, maybe senior citizen swolfies will catch on too!

Onward!

Dave

Fitness Quest: August 2015

Well, my quest for fitness is still ongoing – as I suppose it should be for the rest of my life when I think about it – and the good news is that I’m starting to notice some progress. I’ve entered into a pact of sorts with my sister and niece and we are all working on the Couch 2 5K program. Not doing it strictly by the book but I’m surprising myself each week that I’m going a little farther and faster each time. In addition I’m also walking during lunch at work and am up to 2 miles. The heat makes it a little difficult as I do get a little sweaty now so I’m taking a fresh shirt with me to use while walking so I don’t make the rest of the office suffer from my presence when I get back. Again, I’m seeing progress in my speed and distance.

Not seeing much progress on the weight loss though which is frustrating as according to MyFitnessPal I’m staying under my calorie goals each day, plus all the extra cardio. However, I’ve noticed that my “macros” are still off and I’m not getting enough protein and worse still I seem to be substituting the protein with fat. I’m going to have to do a better job on my meal prep I think, especially for dinner.

I’m also a little surprised at the number of fitness apps I’m using now: MyFitnessPal, MapMyRun, MapMyWalk, and my Jawbone UP2. Plus, I’ve put together a small group of like minded Facebook friends (which I really appreciate and enjoy), have a fitness board or two on Pinterest and still check out Bodybuilding.com on occasion. I think I have actually crossed the line from dabbling in fitness to starting to live a fitter lifestyle. Now if I could only get the biceps to grow again. I mean, a low heart rate is great and all, but you can’t flex your heart (or at least you shouldn’t)!

I wonder if it’s too late in life to have abs?

Onward!

P.S. the Humira seems to still be doing the trick for my Crohn’s. I’ve only had one significant flare up in the past couple months. It lasted for a while but was never to the point that I was incapacitated more than one morning.

Fitness Quest: The Road Less Traveled

It should not come as a shock to anyone who’s ever known or paid attention to me (or has read this blog) that I’ve had a long time interest in health, fitness, bodybuilding, etc. This interest goes back quite a ways to my first flirtations with the gym and working out in high school, through a more serious attempt during college, up to the current day. Yet, during all this time, even when I was at my strongest and curling more than 100 pounds and benching almost 1.5 times my body weight (when I weighed close to 240) I don’t think there was ever a time you would have called me muscular. Sure, I had big arms and a big chest but I also had (have?) a big butt and big gut to go along with them. In my quest for size and strength I only gave lip service to fat loss. So even though I could bench more than 300 pounds (which is why I’m glad I write down my workouts – it’s hard to believe that I was once capable of this) I couldn’t run around the block without the risk of heart attack. Though my arms taped at just over 17.5 inches in circumference when flexed (4.5 inches more than the “average” man’s) my biceps lacked peak – though my tris were pretty well defined – in short, I was big but not built. I wanted to look like a bodybuilder but I looked more like a Bluto (from the Popeye comic strip).

Over the years I’ve tried a variety of workouts with varying consistency. I always blamed my lack of consistency, genetics and even my Crohn’s for my lack of progress. Well, people with Crohn’s much worse than mine have made better progress (see my earlier blogs on Peter K. Vaughn and Peter Nielsen for examples) and I know men who have made dramatic changes in their physiques in the course of a few months.

Well, today in the grocery store I finally had a revelation. My problem has been in front of my for all these years. Why do I not look the way I want? Because I eat the way I want!

I’ve been told this over the decades by at least two personal trainers (maybe three), a nutritionist, friends, family and God only knows how many books on exercise, weightlifting, diet, and nutrition.

So, what am I going to do about this? Well, I’ve already started.

Now that I have my caloric intake under control I need to improve the quality of what goes into my mouth. I loaded up on fresh (or as fresh as we get now days) veggies and fruits. I avoided the sugary treats, and I have enough to last the week. I chose Greek yogurt over regular because it has fewer calories and more protein (need some dairy after all). Tomorrow I plan my meals out so that I’m not caught in a situation where I “have” to go through the drive-thru and I’m taking another look at my supplement plan. Currently, I’m not taking anything except iron and calcium that my doctor prescribed. I’m thinking of adding back in a multi-vitamin and fish oil. Possibly some glucosamine as well for joint health.

I currently feel  better than I have in years so I’m determined not to squander this feeling. I may never lift 350 pounds again (or maybe I will, who knows) but I bet I still have time to see my abs. At least two of them…

Onward!

Fitness Quest: Looking Into the New Year

Well, back to work today and back to the normal routine. . At first I was worried I didn’t get done everything I wanted to get done during my holiday, but I did get to spend quality time with family, establish some new healthy habits (another 10,000+ steps today – a six day streak) and cleared my head about a few things. So I guess all in all not a bad holiday break.

Looking forward into the New Year I have quite a bit to keep working on. My diet needs to be cleaner, leaner and more “natural” and by that I mean I need to prepare more of my own food and eat out less. It’s just healthier in general and I think with Crohn’s the closer you can get to natural foods the better anyway. A friend sent me an article on one woman’s experience of going Vegan with Crohn’s and it worked well for her. I don’t see myself going that far, or even vegetarian, but I do see more leafy greens, veggies in general, and raw fruits in my diet.

I’ve started working more on cardio fitness for many reasons. One, I’d like to live well into old age. Two, it’s easier to finish 5Ks when you are not gasping for breath.

I’ll be hitting the weights again. I’m not getting any younger and my body seems to remind me of that each day in new and interesting ways. Plus, I kind of like the feeling of my sleeves being just a little snug…

Creatively, so much to finish. Ditto concerning my professional life as well. All in all, another typical year but this time with an atypical outcome!

Onward!

Body Illusions

I’ve always had a problem, unrelated to my Crohn’s and other health related issues, in that I tend to measure my successes against other people. I suppose we all do this to some degree, but it can really be a problem/bother when working on physical changes. Not so much with weight loss, I don’t really get worried if someone else loses weight faster than I do (even when competing with them a la “Biggest Loser”). But with things less under my control. Like “why don’t my biceps look like that guy’s” or “why can’t I bench as much as him?” and other things like that.

For example: there’s this guy I know who from my earliest memories of meeting him gave me a big case of bicep envy. Of course, over time memory does embellish things, but back in college on the rare occasions I would see him flex I remember being struck by how high and peaked his biceps were – to the point that you could even see the split in the peak. His arms weren’t especially large at the time, about 16 inches or so, but to an even skinnier me they seemed huge. Over the years I worked on my biceps until eventually my arms were just as large as his were back then. But, to my surprise, my arms didn’t look like his at all. I knew that I had muscle as I had gained strength and my arms were hard to the touch, but instead of high “peaks” my biceps retained a flatter “football” shape. Back to the weight room…

Some time later we began to work out together. Doing a heavy bench routine that we both responded well to – though to be fair he responded much better to than I did. By this time however, though I was still envious of his gains (his arms swelled from about 16 inches to well over 18 inches in just a few months – mine from just under 16 to about 17) I was also truly happy for him and his gains (though he never really gave the impression of caring about gains in size the way I did/do). But I noticed something else. Once again, my arms never got the peak I so desired but the peak that he had in his youth was not nearly as evident either. When he flexed I could see that his biceps were still decidedly more peaked than mine, just not as much as before. What happened? Science tells us that you can’t change the shape of the muscle, so why weren’t his now much larger arms (and solid) more dramatic as they were before? That’s when it occurred to me. It’s an illusion.

What caused his arm growth wasn’t this time so much a change in his biceps but instead that his triceps grew to match. As a result, the biceps did not stand out as much because they were balanced by the larger muscle underneath. This is part of my issue as well since my triceps actually to a degree overshadowed my biceps (something my friend had to point out to me).

These body illusions occur in other ways, too. I know another young man who when you meet him you realize that he is fit. You know, wide shoulders and thin waist, the classic “V” shape. But he’s not very large so fully dressed you don’t think of him as being overly muscular. It wasn’t until he posted a “selfie” on Instagram one day (which apparently is a thing you are supposed to do nowadays) that I realized he was very muscular – complete with six pack – and looked huge. I know he’s not “huge” but a lack of body fat actually adds to the illusion of size when there isn’t anything else for a point of reference (like another person).

I once play Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and if you’ve read the book you know that Lenny was a big hulking brute of a man. I’m not so much of a hulk. I was going to be aided in creating the stage illusion of size by wearing some thick books (I was already the tallest in the cast except for one guy), but I went to a personal trainer friend of mine and asked what do I do to add size quickly? He suggested just focusing on the back and shoulders as those muscles will give the greatest illusion of size.

Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. The big lesson is don’t compare yourself to others. That way leads to disappointment especially when you don’t understand that some of what you admire or envy in another person is an illusion.  Instead compare yourself with yourself with your training and fitness goals as there are fewer illusions involved (except for the self-deception many of us have when looking in a mirror – but that’s another topic).

Also, I’ve been talking about physical illusions. There are other illusions too. For example: like many Crohn’s sufferers, I try to give the illusion that I’m not in some sort of pain or discomfort every day. I have a feeling that this is true of many other people with other conditions physical and mental. So maybe when approaching someone else we all should keep in mind that the person we see on the outside is just an illusion. We can’t know what’s going on inside – they may be in just as much pain as we are and perhaps should be treated as such.

Onward!

When Is a Man’s Arm Considered Big?

Over the years I’ve often wondered how do my overall measurements compare to the average guy – specifically my arms (I know how my weight compares). As I probably  stated before, I’ve always wanted to get my arms to 18″ (flexed, cold) and always seem to fall just short of my goal. Yeah, sometimes life just works out that way.

Now 18″ sure seems a reasonable size when you read about pro bodybuilders with 20, 21, or even 22″ arms. Granted, the pros are more than likely exaggerating their size to maintain a certain mystique, maintain their ego, and even to “psyche” out the competition.  Also, their size is very likely beyond the normal, non-chemically enhanced person. There are also experts, such as Ellington Darden – one of my favorite workout “gurus” of the eighties, who say that because of improper measuring almost all arm sizes are exaggerated (especially with a cloth tape which can add a quarter of an inch to the circumference because of the width of the tape itself).

Anyway,  finding out the stats on the average male arm was tougher than I thought! There are several articles and discussions on the web and they mostly point back to the same one or two sources – Men’s Health magazine among them – and the answer seems to be that an American man of 5’9.5″ at a body weight of 175 has arms which are 13″ in circumference. What I can’t find is if that’s a flexed or unflexed measurement. My guess is unflexed since 13″ seems a bit on the small side to me for a flexed arm of a fully grown man, but I could be wrong.

Now granted I’m a little taller and a lot heavier than the so-called “average” man I’ve referred to above, but in any case my arms are significantly larger than 13″ even unflexed (about 14.75″ unflexed – 16 flexed as of this morning). I, of course, don’t think my arms look that big, but I imagine that’s common among those of us who workout to get both bigger and stronger, and hanging around gyms and guys who workout does mean that I tend to be around people who are, on average, larger than average. Heck, my former training partner’s arms taped at around 18″ and I’ve compared myself to him for years – even when his arms where “only” about 16″ and mine where in that average neighborhood of 13″ (was I really that “small” once?).

My own personal obsession with big arms, and bodybuilding in general,  was probably strengthened when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s and my weight dropped to below 140 lbs and my arms shrank to 11″ (flexed! – I was literally skin and bones at that point).

However, all the above are just statistics. I think ultimately, a man’s arm is considered big simply when it looks big. I know men who are relatively short (below 5’10”) and have arms that appear massive (Google any male gymnastic team). But in reality, they don’t tape over 16″. Likewise, there are tall men (6′ or more) who appear thin, but their arms tape at over 17″ (think basketball players). Perspective plays a big role in appearance. That along with bodyfat percentage and muscle shape (see examples below). 

Keep lifting, watch your diet so that your bodyfat stays low and ignore the tape. You’ll be surprised at how big your arms look. 

Oh, and wear shirts one size too small. That’s the fastest way to get big arms. 

But I’m curious as to what other people think. When do you think an arm is “big?” And I, of course, mean in a solid, muscular way.

Onward!

NOTE: In September 2018 I researched average arm size again and found that 13″ still appears to be the standard for a 20 – 29 year old man. However, this number moves closer to 14″ in middle age (50+) presumably due to an increase in body fat however, not an increase in muscle mass. The 13″ arm is also based on a man of average height (in the USA about 5’9″. No doubt taller men may have naturally larger arms and there’s always that one guy out there who never trains but has the arms of a Mountain Gorilla anyway).

Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton. Noted for the size of his biceps – but at a height of 5’5″ his arms likely do not tape over 16″ (couldn’t find anything on Google). However, proportionately to his physique his build is impressive. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The impressive arm of Peter K. Vaughn (@peter.kv on Instagram – check out his website ). On it’s own it appears big, but check the tape. At 16″ it’s not big by most traditional bodybuilding standards. However, excellent definition and muscle shape – particularly the peak of the bicep – contribute to the appearance of appearing larger than it is.
Here’s my arm at about the same size as Peter’s. It doesn’t appear as big due to my much higher bodyfat percentage at the and the relatively flat shape of my biceps. My forearm looks good though. For reference Peter and I are just about the same height (5’10” and 5’11” respectively).
Here’s my friend Ty Clifton, who is 6’3″ with a long, lean overall physique. On the left his arm measures 18″ and on the right 17.5″. Notice that the smaller arm looks larger due to the increased definition. Because of his height his arm needs to be larger than any of the others I’ve used as an example to appear to be big – which they are! (Photo courtesy of Ty Clifton on Instagram @bigcherryfit).