What's the first muscle people want to develop when they start training? Some might say the chest or even the lats but my money has to be on the biceps! It's not the biggest upper arm muscle, and in fact most of your upper arm size comes from the triceps, yet the biceps are almost always the showpiece muscle, meaning people always want you to flex your arm so they can see how big it is.
When I first started back in 1980, the biggest guns belonged to Arnold and Lou Ferrigno. Arnold claimed 22 and ½ (depending on the source) while Lou bragged about 23 inchers. However, Lou was 3 inches taller and needed more overall size to look as big as Arnold did at his best, so even though Lou's may have measured bigger, Arnold's looked bigger.
For many people, building big biceps is pretty easy, but some just can't get their biceps to respond no matter what they do. This is a problem that can plague top competitors all the way to the Mr. Olympia stage! Lee Haney, the other 8-time Mr O, was always working to bring up his biceps to the level of the rest of his physique. This article will offer both shock routines for weak biceps and also regular routines to use afterward.
The first step to improving your biceps is to understand what the muscle does. This is important if you want to work it correctly so here's the anatomy of the biceps:
The phrase “biceps brachii” is a Latin phrase meaning "two-headed [muscle] of the arm." It's a thick muscle that consists of two parts or bundles of muscle: an external or long head that originates in the external angle of the scapula (shoulder blade), and a short, internal portion that originates in the coracoid process of the scapula. The two bundles merge to form a single muscular mass that becomes a tendon which crosses the elbow and is inserted in the head of the radius (a long bone that forms the external part of the skeleton of the forearm).
The biceps has two primary functions: to flex the elbow and supinate the forearm. So here's what you need to know: not only does it raise the arm, it allows you to twist your wrist. This “twisting of the wrist”, or supination, is important and is in fact a somewhat overlooked function of the biceps that we will address in the routines presented later. Additionally, the biceps aids in flexing the shoulder.
The brachialis is a small muscle underneath the biceps that aids in the flexion of the elbow, development of this muscle can add quite a bit to your upper arm size, some authorities have said up to an inch!
So what's the reasons for weak biceps? Many of the problems people have with biceps training can be traced back to incorrect exercise performance and overtraining. Those of you that have read my articles over the years know how much I believe in recovery. I've been in this business for almost 30 years but I still get it all the time: a kid comes in to the supplement store that I run and tells me he wants to get bigger. As I begin to ask questions I discover he hasn't been training that long, or maybe he's been training long enough to know better, and that he works out everyday with no rest days.
As I press him further I learn that in many cases all he trains is arms and chest. That's 7 biceps workouts a week, every week! I've said it before in my writings, you grow in between workouts when you are recovering, not from how many workouts you do. It is absolutely amazing how many people do not understand that. The workout itself is a catabolic event, meaning it tears down muscle tissue. You have to refeed your muscles at the end of the workout and allow time for repair to take place. If you do not let this happen you will not grow, it's that simple.
How much time does the biceps need to recover? For the average natural athlete, I advocate only one session per week. By the way, that's true for all muscle groups. If you are young with a lot of free time, maybe not natural, you can train a muscle every 3-4 days. You can tell you are recovered if there is no soreness whatsoever in the arm. Additionally, you have to think of overall nervous system recovery, admittedly a bigger issue for the large muscle groups but one that needs to be addressed nonetheless.
As far as exercise performance goes, one of the problems people have when training the biceps is an inability to focus on the muscle being worked. If you watch them train, their form is poor – they're just heaving the weight up and down working their lower back more than anything, their rep speed is to fast and they don't feel anything in the muscle they are trying to work – it's all momentum!. If you aren't feeling the muscle work and your biceps do not get sore then you need to re-evaluate your technique. Slow down your rep speed, concentrate on your form or better yet have an experienced gym member evaluate your form.
Lack of change can also play a part, remember that variety is one of the keys to progress: everything works, some things work better than others, but everything only works for awhile. This ties into soreness as mentioned above, while sore muscles do not mean growth, it does mean you are subjecting them to something new – if you've been doing the same routine for months on end, you need a change, your arms are adjusted to the routine. Do a new routine and you'll be surprised at how sore they get.
Poor blood flow can also be a factor, high rep sets as well as the use of intensity techniques maximize the pump. Also there are two nutritional aspects to this: be sure you eat adequate carbs in the hours leading up to your workout so your muscles have enough stored glycogen. Not enough glycogen means no pump. If you are cutting carbs, use a cycling approach that has you eating more carbs on workout days and less carbs on off days. Finally, add a nitric oxide supplement, they work great at enhancing blood flow.
Strength and muscle growth have a strong neural component. Poor neuromuscular pathways to the muscles result in poor development. This refers to the mind muscle connection and ties into blood flow, which we just discussed. Learning to feel a muscle when it's working takes deliberate focus on that muscle: you can try this exercise to help with this – flex and tense the muscle through it's range of motion paying attention to what is happening in the muscle and how it feels. Now you have to translate this to the workout.
As far as nutrition and supplements for arm growth, you want to keep your protein intake high (1 to 1/12 grams per pound of bodyweight) and watch the timing of your protein, every 2 1/2 to 3 hours, get in some protein. Carbs, depending on your goals, should be in the range of 1 to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight. The trick with carbs is that whatever your body does not use for energy will be stored as fat. Healthy fats can be added to your diet but usually fat tends to take care of itself as far as daily intake because it occurs naturally in so many foods.
Total daily calories should be between 15 and 20% depending on your goals. You serious bodybuilders out there probably track your calories and macronutrient breakdowns by meal in a diet journal and have probably worked out your daily calorie requirements. For those who have not, my suggestions above are guidelines. The lower end of the numbers are for people trying to lose fat and the higher numbers are for those trying to gain lean muscle.
Supplement choices should be whey protein powder, glutamine, creatine and nitric oxide. A good multvitamin and joint product makes a lot of sense as well. Optional to these would be a pre-workout drink and a testosterone booster.
The routines I'm about to give you are more intense than what you would usually use, we are trying to “shock” your muscles into new growth. Unless otherwise noted, your rep performance should be explosive up, slow down, as much as 4 seconds down. Some biceps exercises, like the standard barbell curl, dictate you stop about ¾ of the way up, once you hit a certain point you lose the stress on the muscle. At that ¾ point you can hold the weight for a 3 count before lowering for better effect.
Biceps can be done after back on back day, or on their own day with triceps. If they are unusually weak, you can do them alone but allow 3-4 days before working back.
Warm-ups - 3 easy sets of 15 reps of EZ curls with a light weight.
- 21's with the EZ bar with static holds: 2 sets. This is done by doing 7 half reps from the bottom to the half way point, then doing 7 more reps from the half way point to the top, then doing 7 complete reps, all without rest. At the top, stop just short of the point where the stress to the muscle stops. That's the only problem with EZ and straight bar curls, in the last 1/8 range of motion, you lose the stress. Always stop just short of that point, you always want to keep stress on the muscle. Perform this movement by exploding the weight up, under control and lower slowly. After each half rep, hold the weight at the top for a 3 count, during the full rep hold the weight at the ¾ point for a 3 count.
- Standing dumbbell curls (supination): 2 sets of 8-10 reps. Since part of the function of the bicep is to twist the wrist, you want to take full advantage of that in your training. This technique was an Arnold favorite. Start this exercise with the biceps hanging down at your sides. As you start the lift, slowly turn your wrists towards the right, you're turning your thumb away from you. By the time you hit the top of the movement you should have the bells turned as far as you can, squeeze at the top, lower slowly and reverse the turn on the way down. You can do these alternating or both at the same time.
- Hammer curls: 2 sets of 8-10 reps. This is a bicep/forearm exercise that directly works that little muscle that lies underneath the biceps, the brachialis. My method on this is, using a “hammer“grip, to raise the bells straight up and down, not to opposite shoulders as is often suggested.
Warm-ups – same as in routine #1
- Seated EZ Curls: 8 – 10 reps. This is really a half rep exercise since you are doing it seated. It forces you to use very strict form, putting a lot of stress on the biceps. Do not rest the bar on your thighs after each rep, stop just short of your thighs and keep the rep going. This creates a lot of tension on the muscle.
- Seated dumbbell supinating curls with (heavier): 8-10 reps.
- Seated dumbbell supinating curls (lighter): 8-10 reps.
Remember, this is all one set. Do 3 sets of this combination. On triset #1 and triset #2 , use continuous tension reps, up and down slowly and under control, no pausing or locking out. On triset #3, use burns at the end of each set, these are short partial reps to further exhaust the muscle.
Reverse preacher curls with the EZ bar: 2 sets of 12 reps, this works the brachialis.
Warm-ups – same as in routine # 1
Even though I believe in the basics, I'm always looking for something new to use in my routines. This routine will feature two exercises that are probably seldom used by many of you, but I have found that they really hit the muscle hard. In fact, I feel these more than any other exercise I've used:
- Cable EZ curl – 2 sets of 8 reps, hold at the top for a 3 count, emphasize the negative. Not an unusual movement but they maintain stress along the entire range of motion. You'll want to keep your poundage up on these.
- Pull down curls – 2 sets of 8-10 reps. I have seen a version of these where you are sitting at the lat machine and you basically curl the bar behind your head. Good movement but these are not the same. Sit at the lat machine as if you were doing a pulldown to the front except, hold the bar with a close underhand grip, so close that your elbows touch each other. Now, pull straight down. No trying to curl it, just pull down like in a real pulldown for the back. It's a short range of motion and it really hits the biceps hard.
- Reverse bent rows – 2 sets of 6-8 reps - using a medium close underhand grip, pull the bar up as if you were doing a bent row but the grip will focus on the biceps much more than the back. This was a favorite of Dorian Yates, so fans of his will know this exercise – but this is more about the biceps and less about the back, so use a weight that works for arms.
Warm-ups – same as in routine #1
This will be a rest pause routine. There are quite a few rest pause variations as I recently wrote about but here we'll use a version similar to the one Mike Mentzer used back in the 80's: we'll pick a weight we can handle for 3 reps and we'll do 10-12 reps with it.
- EZ curls rest pause style: Pick a weight you can do for only 3 reps. Now do 12 reps by getting as many reps as possible, put the bar down, count to 8, pick up the bar and continue. Once you've hit 12 reps, rest 2 minutes, lower the weight if need be and do it again. Two sets of this is enough.
- Hammer curls: 3 sets of 15 reps, on the last 5 reps of each set, turn this into supinating dumbbell curls, so this effectively becomes two exercises in one.
Regular Bicep Workouts
For regular routines, try these:
- EZ curls - 3 warm up sets done in this manner: 15 reps, 12 reps, 10 reps. These are easy sets. 3 working sets, use a weight you can get 8 reps with and rest pause to 12. This is an intense set but not like the shock routines presented above.
- Preacher curls - 2 sets, 8-10 reps.
- Hammer curls - 2 sets of 8-10 reps.
Rep performance: use continuous tension, slow and controlled, no momentum doing the work. Use this as a strength routine, add weight as often as possible, especially on the EZ curls.
- EZ curls - After warm ups, use this pyramid scheme: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4-6.
- Alternate dumbbell curls with supination - 2 sets of 8-10 reps.
- Reverse preacher curls – 2 sets of 10 reps.
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