You’ve seen pictures of gymnasts with huge arms.
You’ve also heard that those arms were built without any direct arm work – curls, pressdowns and so on.
Now you’re wondering if you should be doing the same thing. If you want bigger arms, is training like a gymnast the best way to do it?
Why Gymnasts Have Big Biceps
Much of the training performed by gymnasts involves working with their own bodyweight, rather than lifting barbells and dumbbells.
And many of the bodyweight movements performed by gymnasts work their arms very hard.
“Their amazing biceps development isn’t the result of any kind of curling movement at all, but primarily due to the straight arm leverage work which they do on the still rings,” says former competitive gymnast Christopher Sommer.
“The straight-arm work is enormously difficult and puts tremendous strain on the biceps resulting in incredible growth. By straight-arm work I’m primarily referring to the classic strength positions on the still rings (iron cross, planche, maltese, etc.) and the connecting movements between them.”
Even during a movement like the double-leg circle on the pommel horse, where the elbows are straight the whole time, the biceps and triceps are working continuously to stabilize and support the body .
However, none of this means that you can expect the same results simply by doing the same exercises.
At the highest level, training to be a gymnast is a full time job. Olympic sliver medalist Louis Smith, for example trains six days per week for around six hours a day. That’s a lot of training – 30-40 hours per week over a period of many years.
The sheer volume of indirect arm work will deliver a hefty dose of stimulation to both the biceps and triceps. They’re under constant tension for long periods of time almost every day. There’s no way you can match that with just a few hours of training per week.
Gymnasts have egos just like everyone else. Knowing that people are going to be sending their pictures all over the Internet, some may throw in a little extra arm work on the side just to look good.
There’s also the possibility that they would have even bigger arms (or at least reached their current level of arm development a lot more quickly) if they had done some direct arm training.
Something else to consider is the fact that the pictures you see are of gymnasts who are competing in the top international tournaments.
This means they’ve accumulated thousands of hours of training over many years. It also means they were probably first in line when the muscular and athletic genes were being handed out. Guys with a less “trainable” set of genetics would have been weeded out a long time ago.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at top Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton training at the University of Oklahoma Gymnastics facility.
Being able to do this kind of thing means dedicating much of your life to mastering a small number of movements. It also means picking the right parents.
Individual genetic variations have a big impact on both the speed at which you gain muscle, as well as the maximum amount of muscle mass you can add to your frame.
In one study, a group of 66 people were put on a four-month training plan that involved training their legs three days each week . At the end of the study, the researchers analysed the training logs of each subject. They found no difference in training intensity, training volume, or adherence to the program.
Despite this, there were wide differences in muscle growth from person to person.
“At the end of the training the subjects fell rather neatly into three groups,” says David Epstein in his book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “Those whose thigh muscle fibers grew 50 percent in size; those whose fibers grew 25 percent; and those who had no increase in muscle size at all.
“Even before the strength workouts began,” Epstein adds, “the subjects who would ultimately make up the extreme muscle growth group had the most satellite cells in their quadriceps, waiting to be activated and build the muscle. Their default body settings were better primed to profit from weight lifting.”
This is not a unique or novel finding, and many other studies report exactly the same thing.
In other words, there are genetic factors outside your control that affect how fast you can gain muscle, as well as the maximum amount of muscle you can expect to gain naturally.
Some people respond extremely well to strength training. Some will get “good but not great” results. Others will respond a lot more slowly.
There is also a form of “survivorship bias” going on in that the pictures you see are only of gymnasts with unusually big arms.
What exactly do I mean by that?
“Survivorship bias refers to our tendency to focus on the winners in a particular area and try to learn from them while completely forgetting about the losers who are employing the same strategy,” explains entrepreneur James Clear.
“There might be thousands of athletes who train in a very similar way to LeBron James, but never made it to the NBA. The problem is nobody hears about the thousands of athletes who never made it to the top.
“We only hear from the people who survive. We mistakenly overvalue the strategies, tactics, and advice of one survivor while ignoring the fact that the same strategies, tactics, and advice didn’t work for most people.”
It’s like all those “train like a sprinter to look like a sprinter” pictures that show up on Facebook from time to time. What you don’t see are the sprinters who aren’t built like a brick s**thouse. Christophe Lemaitre – the first white man to run 100 meters in under 10 seconds – is a good example.
Remember, there are lots of gymnasts out there who DON’T have massive biceps and triceps. But you’re not going to see them, mainly because nobody is interested in sharing their pictures.
As a result, you come away with a skewed impression of the effectiveness of gymnastics training for arm size.
When you see pictures of gymnasts with huge arms, keep in mind that not all gymnasts are built that way.
The ones that do are genetically gifted, train more in a day than most people do in a week, and have been doing so for many years.
Someone with average genetics who trains for 3-4 hours a week is highly unlikely to see the same results simply by doing the same exercises.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.