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! Most of your upper arm size actually comes from the triceps, yet the biceps is almost always the showpiece muscle, meaning people always want you to flex your arm so they can see how big it is. 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 even 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. Biceps are so dominant in so many poses and are critical to the success of so many others, you can't compete, expect to do well and afford to have a weak upper arm. You don't compete? That's OK, you still need big arms if you want to "look the part" so to speak.
So, the first step to improving your biceps is to understand what the muscle does. This is important if you want to train 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 supinattion, 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 of size to your upper arm size, some authorities have said up to an inch!
So what are the reasons for weak biceps? Much of the problems people have with biceps training can be traced back to incorrect exercise performance and over training. 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 even had one kid who did this twice a day! If your name is Arnold and you are training for the Mr. O, it might be OK but who knows who this kid was and he'd been training for about a month! 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 re feed 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 only advocate one session per week, of any muscle group. 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 regardless.
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. 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. Strength gains 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 will discuss next. 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.
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.
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. So the answer here is do not do the same workout for months and months and months but instead to change it up every 4-6 weeks. You can simply change the exercise order or a few exercises themselves but I tend to go with a complete routine change. Having said that, however, I do like to keep certain core movements to maintain or improve my strength on those exercises. Usually these would be a compound movement for each major muscle.
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. Divide your weight by 6 and take in that number every 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Protein combined with simple carbs is especially important first thing in the morning and after the workout. This is the only time you should be taking in simple carbs, by the way.
Total 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. If you are trying to stay lean or lose fat, I suggest a carb cycling approach where you take in more carbs on training days and less on off days. So for example, if you weigh 200 pounds you can take in 250 grams on training days and then drop back to 150 on off days. This approach does not matter if you are not trying do get lean, you can afford to be more generous with your carb intake.
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 fat calories should be between 15 and 20 % depending on your goals.
You serious bodybuilders out there probably track your calories and macro nutrient 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 multiple 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.
Routine # 1
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
Drop set tri-set – you're doing drop sets here because the weight lowers with each set, and tri-sets because you do 3 exercises in a row with no rest.
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 tri set #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.
Routine # 3
Warm-ups – same as in routine # 1
This will be a rest pause routine. There are quite a few rest pause variations but we'll use a version similar to the one Mike Mentzer used back in the 80's: pick a weight you can handle for 3 reps and 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. On these, do your reps explosive up, slow and controlled down.
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.
For regular routines, try these:
Routine # 1
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.
Routine # 2
EZ curls: after warm ups, use this pyramid scheme: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4-6
Alternate dumbell curls with supination: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
Reverse preacher curls: 2 sets of 10 reps
This is more of a strength routine, you would want to add weight as often as you can. Do your reps continuous tension style but under control.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.
By: Jim Brewster