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Arms Bigger Than Your Legs?

By NCSF 1 comment

It’s a common occurrence - you want to perform compound exercises in the squat rack and someone is performing curls. Whereas Monday seems to be a national chest day in most gyms – everyday is seemingly the ideal time to perform more curls. This likely explains the trend toward minimalist tank tops and cover-up sweat pants. While leg training is a popular activity for women, men tend to spend much more time on their upper physique leading to the so-called “chicken legs”. Certainly pants can quickly cover up the deficiency, but what many upper body enthusiasts fail to realize is the lower body is the key to total body improvements.

Training the musculature of the lower body enhances the potential of the upper body in both size and strength when performed in a more comprehensive program. This paradoxical situation arises from the fact that arm training places demands on small muscle groups (e.g., biceps and triceps) and does not place the entire body under enough external stress to increase overall muscle development. Anabolic hormones, such as testosterone and GH, can increase protein synthesis in muscle cells and are associated with both recruitment of mass and resistive stress. However, only specific training programs can provoke critical boosts in testosterone and GH levels. Furthermore, androgens (substances such as testosterone that promote masculinization) need explicit receptors that allow them to signal muscle growth; and these have been shown to become more active following certain types of exercise. Essentially, exercise can increase hormone production and receptor activity, which when combined, promotes increased muscle growth.

The simple problem facing the upper-body training enthusiast is that not all lifts elicit the same hormonal/adaptive response. Research has constantly shown that transient increases in GH and testosterone only occur during and after a strength training session that includes large muscle recruitment via several compound exercises using multiple sets, heavy loading, and short rest periods. In other words, one must employ squats, deadlifts and related compound exercises to promote a maximized anabolic hormone release into circulation. This should precede bicep and wrist curls (followed by a protein shake) if the intent is total mass and strength improvements in the upper and lower body.

This well-known strategy was recently tested (again) by having study participants perform intense leg exercises immediately prior to training one of their biceps two times a week for 11 weeks. The subjects trained a total of four times per week; the other two sessions simply included training the other (contralateral) bicep without prior leg training. By randomizing one arm of the people studied to work as a study “control” and the other as experimental, both conditions had the same nutritional and genetic environment.

Only the arm that was trained after leg exercises demonstrated cross-sectional area improvements. Even though both arms improved as it relates to measures of strength (measured via a maximal bicep curl), the arm that was trained following the leg training segments had superior relative improvement. Simply stated, even if you are content with having large biceps regardless of leg development, you will still be better off performing leg exercises, thereby increasing levels of testosterone and GH, prior doing your bicep curls for optimal overall improvements. This of course speaks strictly to vanity. Clearly, health and performance training require total body emphasis and promotes immensely greater physiological improvements.

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Jacob McDonald
Great article. I just got certified through you guys and have not regreted it for one second. I always explain the importance of full body workouts to my clients (E.i Deadlift, squat, overhead Squat) but this article made it crystal clear. Thank you very much, i will put this to use in my next session for sure.