How many times have you heard that if you want bigger arms, you need to chain yourself to a squat rack?
Or that squatting is responsible for the release of anabolic hormones like growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and testosterone that’ll pack pounds of muscle all over your body?
In theory, it sounds plausible.
Squat heavy weights regularly = stimulate anabolic hormones = increase overall muscle mass!
By the tone so far you can probably tell where we’re heading with this.
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Busting the Hormone Myth
To begin with, let’s dispel the hormone myth. Which up until recently was thought of as the reason as to why squatting possessed the ability to build bigger arms.
A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology examined whether exercise-induced elevations of endogenous hormones enhanced muscle strength and hypertrophy with training (West, et al., 2010).
They took 12 male subjects and had them train under two different conditions: ‘low hormone’ (LH) and ‘high hormone’ (HH).
In the low hormone condition, subjects trained one arm with isolated bicep curl exercises to maintain hormone profiles, while in the high hormone condition, the other arm was used to perform the same curls, but with a high volume of leg work after to trigger (a significant) release of endogenous hormones. The latter was the ‘test’ condition.
After 15 weeks of progressive training, there was no elevation in GH, IGF-1 or testosterone after the LH protocol but significant increases in these hormones immediately, and up to 30 minutes after the HH protocol.
What were the results?
Despite the differences in hormone availability, there was no difference in strength or muscle hypertrophy between the arms.
Muscle cross-sectional area increased by 12% in the LH condition, and 10% in the HH condition, but these differences were not significant.
What does this mean?
While the study did not directly test a ‘squat only’ versus a ‘curl only’ group, we can deduce from the results that systemic hormone release from leg exercise doesn’t increase muscle growth in the arms.
Instead, it proves that to build size in a muscle, we need to stimulate that muscle.
In this case, performing squats in the hope hormonal release will add size to your biceps is a waste of time.
If you choose to squat, squat with the intent of building your legs, not your arms.
If you want to build your arms, you must train your upper body!
Are hormones important at all?
When you’re trying to build muscle or lose fat, you want to make sure your hormonal profile is functioning optimally.
Instead of relying on the acute, temporary increase of endogenous hormones from squats, focus on maximising hormone production all the time.
To do so, make sure you do the following:
- Sleep 7-9 hours a night
- Manage your stress levels
- Minimise alcohol consumption
- Eat a diet with healthy fats
- Train and recover optimally
- Optimise body composition
The combination of the above will be what makes the difference in your hormone production to trigger muscle growth.
The Real Squat Connection
While the link between squats and bigger arms may not be hormonal, there is a less obvious connection.
Generally speaking, those who squat heavy and regularly are usually more muscular and larger than trainees who skip it.
Why? People who are obsessed with mastering and training the basic moves like squats as hard as possible are probably training their arms intensely too.
The people who are obsessed with only training arms every day are probably the same people who spend most of their time looking for favourable lighting to snap selfies of their 12-inch biceps!
The 10lb Rule
Okay, so we know we don’t need to train legs to necessarily get bigger arms.
But one of the most common reasons people don’t gain size in their arms is because they’re underweight.
Have you ever seen a 60kg guy with 17-inch arms? Probably not.
A general rule of thumb is for every 10-15lb of overall lean bodyweight you gain; your arms will grow an inch.
A lack of arm size is often just a lack of overall growth. And so getting strong on compound lifts like the military press, deadlift, chin-up and the squat will help contribute to more overall muscle mass, which will help drive overall body weight up, and so make your arms bigger.
Should Everyone Curl for Bigger Arms?
The most important factor to consider when prescribing direct arm work is your training age.
If you’re a complete beginner, direct arm work probably isn’t necessary. At the most, one biceps and triceps isolation exercise per week will be enough.
The real focus at this stage should be on getting stronger and more competent on the basic compound (upper body) lifts.
As you begin to build your foundation, you can start to devote more time to direct biceps and triceps work.
This is typically how we train our male personal training clients. In the early phases, there will be little, if any, arm work. As we progress through the weeks, we’ll add more and more in.
By performing more direct arm work as you develop, you’ll get the following benefits:
- You’ll build more muscle in the arms. Remember, local stimulation is key for muscle growth.
- Some won’t get much arm development from time spent doing basic compound moves. For these people, direct arm work is important in ensuring complete, balanced development.
- You’ll get stronger. By performing direct arm work, you’ll eliminate any weak links in the chain and help drive your compound lifts up.
Building bigger arms is a combination of genetics, training experience, nutrition and perhaps most importantly, the effort and consistency you apply to your training.
Ditching your arm training in the hope your squatting will take care of it would be naïve. Training arms is like any other muscle, and providing a specific stimulus by applying the principles of progressive overload is critical.
West, D., Burd, N., Tang, J., Moore, D., Staples, A., Holwerda, A., et al. (2010). Elevations in ostensibly anabolic hormones with resistance exercise enhance neither training-induced muscle hypertrophy nor strength of the elbow flexors. Journal of Applied Physiology , 60-7.