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Specifically, harden.

To elaborate: I weight 130; my friend weighs 200. He's very muscular. But I'm strong for my weight-- we both do one arm bicep curls at 40 pounds. I have no trouble with strength.

But here's the thing-- his bicep is massive and extremely hard to the touch. You could almost hit it with a baseball bat and expect him to laugh. My bicep, on the other hand, though comparable in strength, is very thin and soft to the touch. If I exert a great deal of pressure on it with my other hand, I can actually hurt myself. . . .what I mean is that my grip is sufficiently strong to cause pain by squeezing my arm hard enough. This displeases me.

Why are my friend's biceps so hard to the touch, whereas mine feel more normal?

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Hahahaha not sure if serious but this was funny to read. –  Mike S Oct 23 '12 at 23:21
    
Completely serious. –  Aerovistae Oct 24 '12 at 5:13
    
@Aerovistae well assuming you are cereal I have posted an answer with advice getting bigger muscles in arms :) –  Mike S Oct 24 '12 at 6:02
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3 Answers

Dunno for sure, but my recommendation would be to follow a strength gain program like Strong Lifts or Starting Strength. These have you doing a handful of sets with 5 reps each, with rest in between.

The idea is that more strength = more muscle, usually getting denser as you get stronger.

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Care to explain why this would be helpful? –  Ivo Flipse Oct 24 '12 at 21:55
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Hardness can be a component of how much glycogen has been stored in the muscle (from your diet). Are you eating enough? A well fed gym goer has puffier muscles which are harder upon flexing. If you are cardioing your ass off in between sessions this will deplete the muscle's glycogen stores. That said, I assume that if your muscles are small (as you say), then you want them bigger!

I have read about and have had more success with big compound movements which indirectly train arms. Try some bent over DB rows (trains back but overloads biceps). Your biceps will be turned 'on' for the entire bb row set. Chin ups are another great compound for biceps. Your nervous system will never let you load a single small muscle (like the bicep) to its max. Believe it or not, most people have the ability to snap the bicep off the bone but our nervous systems will limit the signal sent so that doesn't happen.

That said, you can continue what you are doing but switch to high reps & volume as the way forward with arms. I'm not sure what reps you are doing with the 40 pound dumbbell but pick a weight where you fail at about 20. Do 5 sets of that. Next time pick a weight that maxes at 10 reps and do 10 (yes TEN) sets of that with 1 minute breaks in-between. If you aren't barely able to lift your arms after that then you are a better man than I! Alternating between medium and high training volume will help with recovery while maximising affective work done.

This article gives great advice on how to train arms. Excuse the shameless plug for the recomposition clinic within the article!

Lastly, don't forget to EAT.

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Muscle tone may play significant role in the different stiffness of your muscles versus your friend's:

In physiology, medicine, and anatomy, muscle tone (residual muscle tension or tonus) is the continuous and passive partial contraction of the muscles, or the muscle’s resistance to passive stretch during resting state.

That's pretty close to the "hardness" attribute you describe. How do you maximize it? Per Rippetoe and Kilgore's Practical Programming, page 42, sidebar:

tonus describes an electrophysiological phenomenon, a measure of ionic flow across muscle cell membranes. It can be thought of as the muscle's readiness to do anaerobic work. The more "fit" the muscle, the more electrophysiological activity it exhibits at rest. Lack of exercise leads to poor tone, aerobic exercise improves tone a little bit, low-intensity weight training improves tone more, and high-intensity training improves tone the fastest. As a test, go poke the traps or quads of an elite weightlifter at rest, if she'll let you. They'll be hard as a rock.

Emphasis mine. Note that the term "intensity" in this context means "how close one is lifting to one's 1-repetition maximum", not "how hard the workout was" or whether one went to failure. They would probably suggest weight training in the three to five rep range, as heavy as possible.

Other factors affecting "hardness" of your muscles could include, as others note, muscle density and how full the muscles are with blood or glycogen. Muscle density would be improved with strength training using compound exercises. Fullness of muscles probably isn't worth optimizing outside of bodybuilding competition, since it is transient.

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