In an ideal world each of us would have a genetically perfect body, with no weak bodyparts to overcome. No one would have problems with symmetry, proportion, muscle shape or muscle size’and a handsome face would be a given. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and even the champion bodybuilders who compete at the Mr. Olympia have their weak muscle groups. It’s perplexing and amazing that the top champs can all be wonderful and yet so different.
While genetics can be a limiting factor when you’re trying to bring up lagging bodyparts, sometimes the problem is exacerbated by improper training or inadvertent neglect. How many bodybuilders walk around with poor calves (tank-top bodybuilders) because they can’t be bothered to train them, or they do a few half-hearted sets and kid themselves that they’ve done the job?
The various muscle groups are all part of the same body, so why should some grow as easily as dandelions after a summer shower while others refuse to budge at all? Slow-growing muscle groups, to be sure, aren’t as fun to train as less-stubborn muscle groups, and bodybuilders often devote more time to muscles that are already well developed and less time to slow-growing and underdeveloped ones. Champion bodybuilders don’t have that luxury, so they must devote more time to lagging muscle groups and less to their best bodyparts because symmetry, proportion and balance are prerequisites for winning contests.
For example, many bodybuilders who have fantastic arm development may train arms only once a week in the off-season because they find their arms get all the work they need during chest, back and shoulder training. They save their energy for lagging bodyparts. Other bodybuilders cut their sets by half for their best bodyparts and double or triple the sets they do for their worst to bring up lagging muscles.
While I don’t purport to have all the answers regarding slow-growing muscle groups, I do believe that sometimes all it takes to improve a poor bodypart is good exercises, proper exercise form, hard work and an attitude that says, ‘I’m going to bring up this slow-growing SOB if it kills me.’ I know a few of you reading this are saying, ‘But, Zulie, you bonehead, aren’t structural problems and the shape of muscles pretty much determined by genetics? If someone is born with narrow clavicles or high calves or short biceps, isn’t there a limit to how much he or she can improve them?’ While I agree that someone who is born, say, with narrow shoulders and wide hips will never show as much V-taper as someone blessed with extra-wide shoulders and small hips, any problem area can be improved, and you’ll never know how much until you try.
Two-time Mr. Olympia Larry Scott had so-called pinched clavicles and narrow shoulders when he started bodybuilding, but with hard work and ingenuity he developed some of the most massive, thick, and rounded deltoids ever’especially on the important side, or medial, heads, which creates the illusion of width. In fact, his efforts were so successful, he didn’t look narrow.
Larry wasn’t particularly blessed in the chest area either, but he discovered through trial and error which exercises worked best for him and which he had to discard. (Since regular bench presses didn’t work for him, Larry got his pecs to grow by doing wide-grip dips with an inverted grip, bench presses to the neck on the Smith machine and various flyes.) Hard work, a belief in himself and a never-say-die attitude is what made Larry the great champion he was. He is a good role model for all of us.
Genetic elite or not, the top champions have all paid their dues. They’ve trained their butts off and spent their money on good food and supplements. They’ve made mistakes along the way and paid for them, but they learned from those mistakes and carried on. They’ve had to work through sticking points and plateaus and have experienced frustration when muscle growth was slow. Like Larry Scott, however, they discovered the exercises that gave them the best results and discarded the rest. Most of all they persevered, they didn’t miss workouts, and they didn’t neglect their diets. In other words, they did what was necessary to become the champions they are.
Bodybuilding by its very nature is an exercise in frustration because growth never happens as fast as we’d like it to. Sometimes it just requires that we get down and dirty and go through the pain of hard, intense sets.
Everyone wants a great set of guns. It’s one of the main reasons guys start lifting weights in the first place. So here are some solutions to common arm-training problems encountered by bodybuilders around the world.
Lots of bodybuilders have short biceps. It isn’t all bad news, however, because short biceps often have better peaks than long, full ones. One of Vince Taylor’s biceps actually got more peak after he tore it. When I was in Chicago in 1984 to watch Sergio Oliva train for four days, I noticed that he used a very wide grip on barbell curls, almost out to the collars on an Olympic barbell. When I asked him why he used such a wide grip, he replied in his thick Cuban accent, ‘Because it pulls the biceps down onto the forearms.’ Then he extended his arm and showed me what he meant, and it was true: His biceps really did extend down onto his forearms’amazingly so. While Sergio’s biceps were incredibly long and full, they never showed that much peak because the insertion was so long and down on the forearm. Arthur Jones observed that Sergio could not flex his biceps fully in the single-arm or double-biceps pose because they were so long and thick. The biceps were too large and thick to contract fully’they got in the way and prevented full contraction. In any case, give wide-grip barbell curls a try. If they worked for Sergio, they could help you too.
Another exercise that helps to lengthen the biceps is the preacher curl, performed with either a barbell, two dumbbells or one dumbbell; that is, one arm at a time. Larry Scott, as everyone knows, did mostly preacher curls when he trained biceps, and his biceps were long, full and football-shaped.
Here are a couple of tips to help make your preacher curls more effective. First, keep your elbows in and place your hands wide on the bar. Your biceps should line up with your deltoids, while your hands should be several inches wider than your shoulders. Use a thumbless grip, with your thumbs resting under the bar, not wrapped around it. The palms of your hands should face up. Do not place your elbows low on the bench; they should be near the top of the preacher-bench face. That puts more stress on the lower-biceps area.
As you curl the bar up to the contracted position, your elbows should feel as if you’re pulling them together. You should feel as though your elbows could touch, although they can’t unless you’re as flexible as Harry Houdini.
A third exercise for working the lower biceps is reverse curls performed with an EZ-curl bar. There are two ways to do these: strictly or with a cheating style. Both techniques will help develop the lower biceps as well as the forearms, but the cheating style is better for pure mass because you can use heavier weights. Larry Scott did lots of reverse curls in a cheating style. In fact, that was one of Larry’s secret exercises.
What’s so special about doing reverse curls after dumbbell and barbell preacher curls? It’s the way he did them. Larry had a unique way of doing almost every exercise, techniques he discovered by himself or was taught by Vince Gironda and the top bodybuilders working out at Vince’s Gym in Studio City, California, in the early ’60s. In fact, when Larry did reverse curls, he did either heavy partial reverse curls using a biceps curl machine or heavy partial reverse curls on the preacher bench using an EZ-curl bar. By partial I mean only the middle three-fifths of the exercise. Larry didn’t lower the weight all the way down, and he didn’t raise it all the way to the top. That way he could use heavier weights, which was his goal.
Another exercise that helps to lengthen and thicken the lower biceps is the hammer curl, where the palms remain facing each other, not up. Hammer curls are actually one of the best movements you can do for the biceps because they work not only the lower biceps but also the brachialis and coracobrachialis, which helps to push up the biceps, creating a greater peak. What’s more, you develop the forearm extensors. As I said, it’s one of the best exercises for building full biceps.
I like to do hammers with my back braced against the chest pad of a preacher bench to prevent cheating and to give me more leverage. Don’t let your shoulders come forward as you curl the dumbbells. Arch your chest and drop your shoulders back. Then curl the ‘bells explosively on the concentric, or raising, phase, and more slowly on the eccentric, or lowering, phase.
One exercise that you rarely see used anymore is Zottman curls. That’s too bad because it’s a fantastic exercise for working the complete biceps muscle as well as the forearm and brachialis. The champs of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s used to do them a lot, but the exercise lost favor as numerous arm machines came on the market and bodybuilders began performing more cable and concentration curls. One thing I like about Zottman curls is they force you to move slowly and with great concentration and deliberation. You cannot rush the repetitions when doing Zottman curls because you’ll lose your balance and control of the dumbbells.
To do Zottman curls properly, stand or sit on the end of a flat bench or, as with hammer curls, with your back braced against the chest pad of a preacher bench. Hold the ‘bells with your palms up, as if you were doing regular dumbbell curls. Curl the dumbbells to the contracted position at the top. Then pause and rotate your hands so you’re holding the dumbbells with your palms facing down and away from your body, as if you were doing reverse curls. Lower very slowly and with control. At the bottom pause and rotate your hands again so you’re once more holding the ‘bells in the normal, palms-up position.
You can also do Zottman curls on a preacher bench, even one arm at a time. That’s a very intense, deliberate movement and will give you a great pump. My good friend and colleague Charles Poliquin says in his fantastic book Winning the Arms Race’The Ultimate Training Program for Arm Size and Strength, ‘In my opinion, Zottman curls are one of the best exercises for thickening the upper arms because they thoroughly stress all the elbow flexors’. The biggest advantage of doing that exercise is that it allows you to overload the brachialis eccentrically.’
This is the other end of the spectrum. For every bodybuilder with short biceps there’s one who struggles to add biceps peak. The best exercises for adding peak are supinating dumbbell curls, peak hammer curls, 90 degree one-arm dumbbell preacher curls, drag curls, spider curls, bent-over barbell curls, squatting-down pulley curls, overhead lat pulldown curls to the back of the neck and nonsupport concentration curls. They’re all what I call ‘cramping’ biceps exercises’the biceps cramps in the fully contracted position. In other words, all the good stuff happens in the top, fully contracted position. If you don’t experience the cramp, your form is wrong or you’re cheating because the weight is too heavy.
Obviously, you cannot do all of those exercises in a single biceps workout. Your job is to experiment and find two of the nine exercises to use for three weeks. After that pick another two peaking exercises and use them for three weeks. When you’ve gone through the entire list, you’ll have a better idea of the ones that give you the best results.
1) Supinating dumbbell curls. When you do these, hold the dumbbells off-center, with the little finger of each hand touching the inside plate. Start with the ‘bells hanging down at your sides, with your palms facing the sides of your legs. Arch your chest and drop your shoulders as you begin to curl the ‘bells upward. Halfway up turn your palms up. When you reach the fully contracted position, twist your wrists as far as you can, trying to feel a cramping sensation in your biceps. Squeeze hard and then lower slowly to a full stretch. Don’t let your elbows come forward or move away from your body. Also, don’t let your deltoids and traps hunch up to help lift the dumbbells through the sticking point. Your form has to be very good if you’re going to benefit from supinating dumbbell curls.
2) Peak hammer curls. This is a John Parrillo special, specifically performed to work the outside head of the biceps, the head that’s responsible for peak. Until you get the hang of it, do it one arm at a time. As always, arch your chest and drop your shoulders before beginning. Curl the weight up slowly and smoothly using a hammer grip. About halfway up drop your shoulder and cock your elbow a little in front of your body, then twist your hand in. Unless you rotate your hand inward about 30 degrees, the brachialis and forearm will get most of the work, and the outside head will get nothing. If you cock your hand in too much, you work too much inner head. You’ll know you’re doing it correctly when you feel the cramp and the burn in the outside head.
3) One-arm 90 degree preacher curls. Hold the ‘bell slightly off-center, as you did for supinating dumbbell curls. Curl the ‘bell from the fully extended, or straight-arm, position to as high as you can go, feeling a cramp in the biceps. Hold for a count of two, flexing your biceps for all you’re worth, then return to the starting position. I like this exercise because you cannot cheat much. Try six to eight reps per set plus four burns, which are partial reps of four to six inches.
4) Drag curls. This was a favorite of Vince Gironda’s, and Parrillo likes them too. In fact, Parrillo calls them peak curls. You can use either an EZ-curl bar or a straight barbell. Both work well. You drag the bar up, touching your body with it, from full extension to a position just below your pecs. The bar never loses contact with your body. In the top position pull your elbows into your body and back as far as you can, and then squeeze the hell out of the biceps for a count of two or three. This sucker is all squeeze and contraction.
5) Spider curls. Not many gyms have a spider bench, but if yours does, count yourself among one of the fortunate few. Lie facedown on the spider bench, with your arms extended. Slowly curl the bar upward until you feel an intense cramp in your biceps. If you get that cramping feeling, you know you’re working biceps peak. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong, plain and simple. Hold for a count of two. As with the 90 degree dumbbell curls shoot for six to eight reps per set, plus four burns.
6) Bent-over barbell curls. Here’s an alternative exercise to spider curls. Hold a moderate-weight barbell with a medium-to-narrow grip and bend over at the waist. Your elbows should be in front of your kneecaps. Curl the bar as high as you can, again looking for the tell-tale sign that you’re doing the exercise properly’an intense cramping sensation in the biceps. The exercise is all cramp, so use only a moderately heavy barbell until you get the action down.
7) Squatting down pulley curls. Here’s another Vince Gironda special. This one was favored by Mohamed Makkawy and Samir Bannout. Strict performance is a must for this exercise. Put a short bar on the low end of a pulley (you can use the low pulley of a cable crossover machine or a seated cable row machine), and then squat down about three feet from the pulley’far enough away that there’s some tension on the cable. Rest your elbows on the insides of your knees, with the elbows pointing down. The upper arms must stay stationary; only the forearms move. Curl the bar until it’s near your face. Pause and cramp-squeeze your biceps, and then lower to the starting position. Once you get the hang of it, you can do it with a bit of rocking motion to enable you to use heavier weights.
8) Overhead lat pulldown curls. Boyer Coe and Larry Scott were partial to this exercise. Larry credits it with transforming his biceps from thick, full and football-shaped to thick, full and superpeaked. (You can see the transformation on page 77 of Larry’s book Loaded Guns.) Sit at a lat pulldown machine. Use a very moderate weight’try about one-third of your normal barbell curl weight. Hold the bar with a shoulder-width grip, or even narrower’hands 12 to 15 inches apart. The key is to keep the tips of your elbows pointing toward the ceiling at all times. Curl the bar in a wide semicircle until it hits the back of your neck. Then squeeze and tense as hard as you can until you get the cramping sensation that indicates you’re peaking your biceps.
It helps to have a training partner push on your elbows as you do this exercise so they don’t drift forward. A training partner can also help with forced reps.
9) Concentration curls. There are two ways to do these, seated or crouching in a nonsupport bent-over position. The seated version is simple and is almost like a 90 degree preacher curl in action because you use the inside of your thigh like a preacher bench. The nonsupport concentration curl is more complicated. It’s the version made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Hold a moderately heavy dumbbell in your right hand, with the other hand resting on your left knee. Bend over at the waist and lower the dumbbell until your arm is nearly straight. Curl the dumbbell up and across your body, driving your elbow downward, until it finishes in front of your left deltoid. Squeeze and tense for a count of two, and then lower. Perform the required number of reps, and then repeat for your left arm.
The Belly of the Biceps
This is the meat of the biceps, the part that gives it mass. While just about every biceps exercise will work the belly of the biceps to some degree, there are a couple that really hit it hard.
1) Cheating barbell curls. By cheating I mean that you can use some body motion and rhythm. I don’t mean cheating by leaning forward, allowing your elbows to go out from your sides, or lifting the bar with your deltoids. Use a weight that allows you to get about four strict reps and another four to five cheating reps. If you train with a partner, throw in a couple of forced reps at the end of each set.
2) Seated barbell curls. You rarely see anyone doing this exercise anymore, but when I was in Chicago in 1984, Sergio Oliva did them as part of his biceps training, and, as I said, the belly of his biceps was so thick and massive, it was almost too thick’if there can be such a thing. Use a weight that’s perhaps 10 percent less than what you’d use for barbell curls. Lower the bar until it just kisses the tops of your thighs, and then explode up to the finish position.
3) Zulak curls. I call this variation Zulak curls because I thought it up, but it could be that someone discovered it first back in the ’40s or ’50s. (There’s not too much in bodybuilding that’s new; just about everything has been done before.) The Zulak curl is a mass builder and really works the belly hard. It’s a one-dumbbell curl done for half reps, or two-thirds at best. Here’s how you do it.
Sit at the end of a flat bench or on a low stool, legs spread wide. Hold a relatively heavy dumbbell in your right hand, and put the elbow of your right arm into the lower part of your abdomen, in line with your right thigh.
In a sense you’re using your abdomen as a preacher bench. If you want, you can pad your lower abdomen with a folded towel so the elbow doesn’t jab into you so hard. In that position it’s not possible to do a full-range curl, but that doesn’t matter. Lower the ‘bell slowly between your legs about two-thirds of the way, and then curl it explosively back to the starting position. You can lean back a little to help get leverage on the ‘bell. In fact, that’s the beauty of Zulak curls. As you tire, you can lean back more and more, using rhythm to get leverage on the weight, and when you get close to failure, you can rock your body back and forth to help lift the weight. When you’re no longer able to curl the weight on your own, lower the ‘bell about halfway down and hold it there. Then gently rock your torso back and forth. Man, does it burn!
The neat thing about Zulak curls is that you can use dumbbells that are about 10 to 15 pounds heavier than what you use on regular dumbbell curls, and you can get about double the number of reps. For instance, if you can curl 35-pound dumbbells for 10 reps, you can probably curl 45-pounders for 15 to 20 reps on Zulak curls after a few weeks of practice and training. IM