Powerlifters love to talk about training the squat, bench press, and deadlift because those are the competition movements. However, powerlifters make the mistake of neglecting other exercises, including training their biceps and triceps.
So, should powerlifters spend any time training their arms? Yes, powerlifters need to have strong arms because it will increase stability under heavier loads, help break through sticking points, and maximize gripping capabilities. Training arms will also contribute to a well-rounded physique, which is important for those who seek both strength and aesthetic gains.
In this article, I’ll discuss the benefits of training arms for powerlifting, some tips for how to structure arm training, and specific workouts that powerlifters should add to their program. First though, I want to talk about why powerlifters don’t prioritize arm training.
Read our full guide to the 10 Best Bench Press Accessories.
Why Do Powerlifters NOT Prioritize Arm Training
For powerlifters, training arms is considered less important because of two strength-training principles. I’m going to discuss those principles here, but later I tell why powerlifters should still train arms anyways.
Principle #1: Economy of training
This principle states that since we only have a set number of hours to spend in the gym each week, we must prioritize those hours from the most important tasks to the least important tasks.
The goal of powerlifting is to increase your 1 rep max in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Therefore, powerlifters need to structure their training time focused on protocols and exercises that will make more of an impact on their goals.
In other words, no time spent in the gym should be wasted. And unfortunately, for those powerlifters who only have 2-3 days to work out during the week, training arms usually takes the back burner over the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Principle #2: Specificity
The principle of specificity states that a training stimulus should be as specific as possible toward the end goal.
The goal of powerlifting is to increase your 1 rep max in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. For example, if you want to get stronger at powerlifting squats, then you should squat to competition depth, not do partial squats or leg press.
The same principle applies when it comes to training arms. Since training arms is lower on the spectrum of specific exercise for powerlifting, many lifters neglect them or don’t see a value in doing them. Simply put, powerlifters don’t like to do anything ‘extra’ that doesn’t contribute to their goal.
With these two principles in mind, there are still several good reasons why powerlifters should at least spend some time training their arms. Let’s cover those now!
Benefits of Training Arms For Powerlifting
There are four benefits of training arms for powerlifting:
1. Builds strength in the lock-out of the bench press
In my article on the muscles used in the bench press, I explained that the triceps are primarily responsible for extending the elbow in the lock-out of the bench press. With weak triceps, you will fail in the top-end range of motion every time.
And no lifter should be failing inches from locking the weight out!
Tricep strength is so important in the bench press that 10-time World Powerlifting Champion, Jennifer Thompson, said that she programs an entire workout focused on the top-end portion of the bench press. I’ll cover some of her go-to tricep exercises later.
You can also check out my article on the 16 Best Tricep Exercises To Increase Bench Press Strength.
2. Increase gripping strength for deadlifts
Muscles in the hand, biceps, and forearms assist with gripping the barbell during deadlifts.
Once you’ve developed grip issues on the deadlift, it takes a long time to overcome this weakness. So I like to take a proactive versus reactive approach to grip and arm training.
You can simultaneously train the hands, biceps, and forearms through specific curling variations, which is one reason why I don’t advocate for hand or forearm-specific training, but rather a well-rounded bicep routine. I’ll explain a few of my go-to exercises later.
3. Helps overall control of the barbell
The biceps and triceps have a role in stabilizing the barbell and ensuring that it stays within the right range of motion throughout the movement. In other words, helping to increase the efficiency of the overall exercise.
For example, in the bench press, you want to be able to decelerate the barbell as it gets closer to the chest so that you don’t end up crashing into your sternum. The smaller muscle groups of the back, shoulders, and arms, have a role in this deceleration process.
Another example is in the squat where you want to keep the barbell glued to your upper back so that there’s no risk of the weight shifting up or down while squatting (or worse, falling off your back altogether). Keeping the load centered on the back, in part, is due to actively engaging your bicep muscles to pull the barbell into position.
I discuss more on how smaller muscle groups, like the arms, contribute to greater barbell control in my article on 9 Squat Cues To Improve Technique.
4. Gives the body and mind a break from heavy lifting
Powerlifters spend a majority of their training performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift, which are done at higher relative loads.
While this is effective in gaining strength, it would be short-sighted to think that you can train at these high intensities year-round. At some point, you need to take somewhat of a scheduled break to let the body rest and recovery.
As such, setting up training blocks that focus on a broad set of exercises outside of the powerlifting movements, such as arms, back, and shoulders, will allow you to de-load and maintain your overall tendon and joint health.
Notwithstanding, implementing arm training can be enjoyable and less mentally taxing than building up to max loads each workout. In turn, this can increase your enjoyment for training overall.
Tips For Training Arms For Powerlifting
There are four factors that you need to consider when training arms for powerlifting
When training arms for powerlifting there are more or less specific ways to do so. Here are some examples:
|High Specificity||Medium Specificity||Low Specificity|
|Triceps||Close Grip Bench Press||Dumbbell Floor Press||Overhead Rope Tricep Extension|
|Biceps||Wide Grip Pull-Up||Reverse Grip Barbell Curl||Dumbell Hammer Curl|
These exercises are ones that mimic the intended range of motion that is required for the powerlifting movement.
They are deemed to have a high transfer effect to the powerlifting movements. In some cases, you can prioritize them either first or second in the exercise order. They are also movements that can be incorporated year-round.
These exercises can be programmed at some point throughout the week after the main work of the day.
There is still some strength transfer to the powerlifting movements, but the purpose is more to build muscle by targeting the individual muscle group. You can choose to do these year-round or take periodic breaks from them.
These exercises are the most direct way to target individual muscle groups.
But, they have little strength transfer to the powerlifting movements. As such, you would do them during less important training cycles (in the offseason) in order to give the body a chance to recover from heavy loading and to build up your tendon and ligament strength.
Unlike the powerlifting movements, where you want to be applying the maximum amount of force at all times, training your arms require you to purposely slow down the movement and focus on the muscular contraction.
You would never think about ‘squeezing’ your muscles while performing a heavy 1 rep squat, but when you’re doing a curling variation, you want to be drawing your attention to the individual muscle being used, and actively ‘squeeze it’ as you’re going through the range of motion.
The biceps and triceps are trained significantly throughout other movements in the gym, with the triceps having a central role in the bench press, and the biceps having a role in most upper body pulling exercises.
As such, if you’re already training the bench press 2-3 times per week (as most powerlifters would), then I would have a relatively lower frequency for tricep training (1X per week).
For bicep training, you could have a slightly higher frequency (1-2X/week), as they’re not as widely used in the powerlifting movements.
Sets & Reps
You want to keep your reps high, in between the 8-15 rep range, and the sets anywhere from 2-6 depending on how much time you have to dedicate.
A good general rule of thumb is keeping the “high specificity” arm exercises on the lower-end of the rep spectrum, and the “low specificity” arm exercises on the higher-end of the rep spectrum.
One of the reasons why you are training arms is to give your body a chance to recover from the joint and tissue stress from heavy powerlifting movements. You don’t want to compound that stress from going heavy on your curls and extensions.
This is especially important when you train arms because going too hard can lead to tendinitis or other types of ailments. So make sure you keep a moderate weight, and focus on the contraction of the muscle and good technique more than the weight itself.
Best Arm Exercises For Powerlifters
These are the arm exercises that any powerlifter should do in their training program. You wouldn’t want to do all of them in a single workout, but each block of training you could select one or two to implement and work through some progressions over multiple weeks.
- Medium Grip Supine Chin-Up (palms facing you)
- Reverse Grip Barbell Bicep Curl
- EZ Bar Bicep Curl
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl
- Cable Rope Bicep Curl
- Plate Pinch Bicep Curl
- Medium Grip 2-Board Bench Press
- Narrow Grip Bench Press
- EZ Bar Chin Crusher
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Floor Press
- Straight Bar Cable Tricep Pressdown
- Narrow Grip Medicine Ball Push-Up
Putting It Together: Sample Powerlifting Arm Workout
When you program an arm work, you have two options:
- You can have a dedicated day for all your accessory movements. For example, having your powerlifting days where you squat bench press, and deadlift, and then having a separate day to do all of your shoulder, back, and arm work.
- You can do a few of your accessory movements, like your arm work, following your powerlifting workouts. In this option, the number of exercises would be limited.
The following is an example of a ‘bicep-focused’ and ‘tricep-focused’ powerlifting workout, where you’ll do some powerlifting movement, followed by your accessory movements:
Bicep-Focused Powerlifting Workout
- Deadlift: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70-75% of 1RM
- Medium Grip Supine Chin-Up: 4 sets of 8 reps @ RPE 8
- Reverse Grip Barbell Curl: 3 sets of 10 reps @ RPE 8
- Dumbell Hammer Curl: 3 sets of 15 reps @ RPE 8
Tricep-Focused Powerlifting Workout
- Narrow Grip Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 60-65%
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Floor Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps @ RPE 8
- Straight Bar Cable Tricep Pressdown: 3 sets of 10 reps @ RPE 8
- Narrow Grip Medicine Ball Push-Ups: 3 sets of as many reps as possible
The benefits of training arms for powerlifting are that you can develop strength in certain ranges of motion that otherwise wouldn’t be targetted, increase gripping strength, improve control of the barbell, and give the body and mind a break from heavy lifting.
If you are going to implement arms into your training program, make sure to select a combination of high and low specificity exercises and focus more on ‘squeezing’ the muscle rather than applying maximum force.