Despite our advances in exercise knowledge, technology, and equipment, some of our iron ancestors still achieved feats of strength that haven’t been replicated today. That’s a testament to the way they trained before the age of the internet, and largely, before advanced scientific research.
It makes sense, then, to take what we can from their training and see what works for us. That’s applicable to any training scenario, but today, we’re talking about an old-time strongman arm training technique.
Adding Novelty To Your Arm Training Program
If your arms just aren’t growing anymore or you’re bored with the same 5 arm exercises you’ve been doing for months, then it’s time to change up your arm training.
Our bodies are organisms that are constantly adapting to their environment. That’s why you can’t bicep curl the same 45 lbs for 3 sets of 10 every week and consistently make progress. At some point, your body adapts to the stress being placed on it.
While you could continue to gradually increase the load, or reps, or sets of the same exercises (all forms of progressive overload), there’s something to be said about exercise novelty.
While volume and intensity are components of training load, Vladimir Issurin in his book Block Periodization 2: Fundamental Concepts and Training Design states that exercise novelty is the third component of training load. This means by changing exercises for the targeted muscle group, you can provide a unique stressor to the muscle while the body has to adapt to a new stimulus.
Today, I’ll share this simple arm workout, a 4 exercise giant set.
What’s a Giant Set?
A giant set is like a superset, but four exercises. So, I guess it’s a super-super-superset. But we’ll just call it a giant set. Like a superset, you don’t rest in between exercises.
Why Use This Arm Workout?
Have you ever seen the typical gym-goer or physique athlete that has great upper arm development, but tiny forearms that don’t match? This is often a consequence of using a majority of machine exercises and straps.
Machine exercises and especially straps minimize the contribution needed from the grip meaning the stress placed on the forearms isn’t as demanding as when you need to grab a handle with your hands.
However, this routine is designed to overcome this problem and develop the arm musculature as a whole. Not just the biceps and triceps, but also to add some mass for some meaty forearms while strengthening your grip.
Increase Bicep and Forearm Activation With Towels
Yep, just your simple hand towel works perfectly. If you want to level things up and don’t mind ruining some of your wife’s nice towels (don’t do this, buy some cheap ones), then you can use bath towels since they’re thicker and will challenge your grip even further .
We’ll use towels and not just the regular dumbbell and barbell because gripping the towel enhances the activation of your forearms when performing the arm exercises compared to a regular bar.
While there is no direct research on this, we can take a look at the research using a thicker bar. Using a thicker bar has been shown to double handgrip strength  compared to using a regular bar and increase forearm muscle activation .
By using a towel, we can increase the effort of the grip and forearms to potentially elicit similar outcomes in muscle activation and grip strength. Once you’ve tried using a towel, you will feel the challenge it places on your hands and forearms compared to regular bars.
But even in vain of research, going back to our discussion of doing things because it works, just because we don’t have research verifying the benefits of an implement like a towel, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
Secondly, towels are dirt cheap. there’s no need to invest in a thick bar or other pieces of fancy equipment. This simple fabric can be a game-changer to your training routine. Not to mention, the pump you will get from this routine is tremendous.
Arm Workout Notes
Rest Periods: No rest between exercises, 1-3 minutes between sets.
Frequency: Twice per week
Equipment: Barbell, Dumbbell, Cable Machine, Two Hand Towels.
The Oldtime Strongman Arm Workout
A1) Towel Barbell Curl 3-4 x 8-12
A2) DB Towel Hammer Curl 3-4 x 8-12
A3) Towel Cable Tricep Extension 3-4 x 10-12
A4) Close Grip Pushup 3-4 x 10-15
Here is a video demonstration of the routine.
How To Setup Each Exercise
For the Barbell Curl, wrap each towel where you would usually place your hands to perform curls. Grip the towels like you would a hammer grip. At the top of the movement, try to rotate your wrists out (supinate). You won’t get all the way but you just want to emphasize that movement.
For the Dumbbell Curl, you will only need one towel. You will place this around the handle so the DB is hanging. Bend over around 45° and keep your elbows in place. Same thing at the top, try turn your wrists out.
If you get too relaxed with the arms with the DB moving down towards the floor, it may fall out so be careful of your feet and how you perform the exercise. If it’s too swingy, you may run into that problem. Control the whole movement.
For the Cable Tricep Extension, wrap one towel around a handle and perform extensions like you usually would with a rope.
The close grip pushups are self-explanatory. If you want to level this up, you can place your feet on a box to create a decline, or put on a weight vest or a plate on your back.
James de Lacey has a Master’s of Sport & Exercise Science and works as a professional strength & conditioning coach in elite and international Rugby Union and Rugby League around the globe. He is also a published academic researcher and you can find his website at Sweet Science of Fighting gold we instagram.
1. Kruger, MJ (1999). Effects of thick-bar resistance training on strength measures in experienced weightlifters (Doctoral dissertation).
2. Krings, BM, Shepherd, BD, Swain, JC, Turner, AJ, Chander, H., Waldman, HS, … & Smith, JW (2019). Impact of Fat Grip Attachments on Muscular Strength and Neuromuscular Activation During Resistance Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Other Novel Arm Exercises
While the towels change the grip of any exercise, if you’re looking to completely reinvent your arm workouts to break your plateau, check out these two weird arm exercises you should be doing and our biceps specialization program.