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How to Get Bigger Without Curling

It was the last night of Uncle Buddy’s very enjoyable visit. Early the next day he would be off to Newport News, Virginia, where he would board a freighter and stay out at sea for the next six months. Then, after accumulating a sizable bankroll by working double shifts and not taking any leave, he would vacation for the following five or six months—until his money ran out. He had a covey of absolutely gorgeous lady friends in various parts of the world. He would hook up with one of them for a time, then move on to another, but he always made sure to stay with me for a few days.

Although Uncle Buddy was 10 years my senior, we got along quite well since we shared similar ideas about politics, religion, sports and, of course, training. He knew that I was a consistent trainer and could find a facility where he didn’t have to pay. While he was anything but frugal, Buddy had this thing about paying to lift weights. Truth is, I do too.

Since we both had an interest in history, we took day trips to Gettysburg, Mount Vernon and Fort McHenry. Instead of hitting restaurants, I fixed his favorite seafoods: crab soup, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs. I could make a dozen crab cakes for what one would cost in a restaurant, and we could indulge. I also offered to steam some hard shells, but he insisted that we go out for those. I agreed because they are messy and the smell lingers in my apartment for days afterward.

There aren’t many places left where you can sit down at a butcher-paper-covered table and hammer away at the tasty crustaceans. Hard-shell crabs are becoming more and more scarce and, therefore, a lot more expensive.

Even so, one of the best places to eat crab is in nearby Havre de Grace. Price’s Seafood has been around since 1944 and still serves up platters of steamed crabs from the Chesapeake Bay, along with delicious cream of crab soup and pitchers of cold beer.

We were seated by the front window and had a nice view of the Susquehanna River, only a hundred yards away. About a mile downriver, it flows into the bay. Buddy had just ordered a second dozen and another pitcher of beer when I saw a former training mate and a young man come in the door.

Steve saw us and hurried over, “Hey, Bill, Buddy. Fancy running into you two. I was just talking to Mike the other day, wondering how you guys were.”

“We’re both fine,” I said. “This is Buddy’s last night of his current vacation. He’s shipping out tomorrow, so we decided to splurge.”

“Splurge is right. Crabs have gone through the roof. We only had them a couple times this year. The in-laws are coming, and Mary and me decided it would be easier to set up in the backyard than bring a bunch of people here. It’s usually real crowded.”

“Mark!” he shouted, waving to the young man still standing near the door. “Come over here. There are some friends I want you to meet.”

Steve owned a business that fixed computers and other electronics. We had trained together during holidays and the summer at Sam Fielder’s shed when I wasn’t working at Hopkins. An accomplished athlete who played football and lacrosse at Salisbury State in Southern Maryland, he took to strength training instantly and achieved excellent results. From the looks of him, he was still lifting: broad shoulders, thick chest and a flat midsection.

He introduced his son, Mark, to Buddy and me, then said, “Mark’s been lifting for about a year now. He’s heard me talk about you guys and is dying to ask you some questions. Would you mind?”

“Cost you a pitcher of beer,” Uncle Buddy said with a grin.

“Deal. Let me go check on my order.” He pulled two chairs over to our table and told Mark, “Sit. I’ll be right back.”

He was a handsome lad, and I guessed he was just shy of 6’ tall and weighed 160. He wore shorts and a tank top, doing his very best to show off his arms and chest. We chatted. He was a freshman at Harford Community College and delivered pizzas at night.

Steve returned with a pitcher of beer and said, “It’ll be another 15 or 20 minutes. Hey, you guys should come over and train with us. I put together a weight room in a shed out behind the house. Flat bench, incline, power rack, two Olympic bars, some bumps and a lot of plates. There’s a situp board, dip rack and seated calf raise machine. The same stuff that Sam had in the shed.”

“Sounds good. We’ll take you up on that offer for sure. And I might come over before Uncle Buddy blows through again.”

Steve turned to his son and said to us, “He’s trying to get bigger and is obsessed with biceps and abs. I’ve tried to get him to train like we did, but he’s only interested in upper-body stuff.”

“Just like every other young man in this country,” interjected Uncle Buddy. Then he said to Mark, “Tell us your routine.”

He did, and I asked, “How often do you squat, and how much do you handle?”

“Once or twice a week, and the most I use is 180 for 10.” Then he added defensively, “I don’t want to be a powerlifter or anything like that. I just want to build a good physique.”

“So,” Uncle Buddy queried, “lots of curls and benches?”

His father answered for him. “He curls every day. Sometimes twice a day. Every type of curl under the sun—straight bar, EZ curls, seated, standing, and he rigged up a preacher curl bench. I’m telling you guys, he’s nuts about getting bigger arms.”

I asked Mark, “Have you put any size on your arms?”

Frowning, he said, “Not that much, but they’re shaped better now.”

That’s when Uncle Buddy pronounced the seemingly contradictory statement that I have used countless times over the years: “You don’t get big arms by doing curls.”

Mark’s mouth dropped open, and he looked as if he’d been slapped. Steve chuckled and muttered, “I told you so.”

Mark said in a low tone, “That don’t make sense. You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

“Not at all,” Uncle Buddy answered. “Where did you get the program you’re using now? Out of a magazine, supposedly written by a Mr. World or some title like that?”

“It’s kind of a combination of several programs used by the top guys in bodybuilding,” Mark explained.

“He trains with a couple of his buddies,” offered Steve. “They go through a pile of muscle mags every month and end up doing another variation of curling. I’ve told him over and over he needs to work the larger muscles more, but who listens to his father?”

Uncle Buddy went on, “First thing you need to understand is even if that champion bodybuilder did write that article, which is unlikely, he didn’t get those big arms from curling. Second, if the bodybuilder looks like he was assembled in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, he’s using steroids and probably a shitload of them. So unless you’re willing to risk your health and future by taking ’roids, the program he’s laid out isn’t going to work for you.”

In an aggravated tone, Mark asked, “Then how are people like me and my friends going to get bigger arms?”

“The same way all those top bodybuilders got theirs. By squatting, pulling and pressing heavy weights. Let me try to explain. You can shape your biceps by curling, but in order to add to their overall size, you simply must get bigger all over.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Mike returned.

Uncle Buddy took a swig of beer, then continued. “It’s quite simple. Where is the muscle going to come from to add inches to your upper arms? You aren’t going to relocate muscle from your back or legs, are you?”

“Guess not.”

“Then it logically follows that the only way you’re going to obtain those guns you’re after is to pack on bodyweight. Add 15 or 20 pounds and work your arms at the same time, and they’ll get considerably larger.”

“But I don’t want to put on sloppy weight.”

“Of course not. No one does. Which is why you work the major muscle groups hard and heavy and do every exercise correctly. At your age and with that output of energy, you’re going to burn off any fat you do accumulate. The weight you gain will be in the form of muscle, especially if you watch what you eat and avoid junk food and useless calories.”

While Uncle Buddy took a break to do some serious damage to a crab claw, I said, “More bodyweight translates to greater overall strength, and that increase in strength in the major groups—shoulder girdle, back, hips and legs—will enable you to use more weight in all your exercises, even specific ones like curls. How much are you using for straight-bar curls now?”

“Sixty-five for 10.”

“Okay, let’s say you pack on 20 pounds. How much will you be able to use then?”

His eyebrows went up, and he smiled. “A good bit more.”

“Right. If you want bigger arms, you have to grow and train hard.”

Uncle Buddy cut in. “In other words, you need to drop the exercises for the small muscles for the most part. There are some that fit what you’re trying to do, but curling isn’t one of them. You need to build your routine around handling as much weight as possible on the basic movements, like squats, high pulls, shrugs, benches, inclines, overhead presses and dips. One exercise for the large groups per session: upper body, back, and hips and legs. Moderate reps, fives or sixes, and only five sets. Move all the numbers up on those exercises and start packing on bodyweight. Eat lots of protein because that will help you build muscle, at least a hundred and fifty grams a day and more would be even better.”

“I’ll be eating all day,” Mark declared.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Snacking on protein-rich foods throughout the day is a smart idea since it helps you maintain a positive nitrogen balance, which is good for muscle rebuilding and growth, but a couple of protein milk shakes a day will also work. Have one right after you train and another at bedtime, with maybe a peanut butter sandwich. Do that consistently, and you’ll grow.”

He blew out a puff of air and grumbled, “Truth is, I just can’t afford any of those protein products. Dad covers my tuition and books, but I still have to pay for gas, upkeep and insurance for my car, and that pretty much eats up my paycheck.”

“I fully understand,” I told him. “I think those commercial protein products are too expensive too. Nearly all of the athletes I trained at Hawaii and Hopkins were in the same boat as you are. Go to Klein’s or wherever you shop, and buy a box of dry milk. It’ll cost you seven bucks. Mix half a packet in a blender with whole milk, add a half or full container of blueberry yogurt, plus some sherbet or ice cream, and you’ll have 40 to 50 grams of very assimilable protein at an affordable price. That’s all the protein you can digest at one time anyway.”

“Unless you’re lactose intolerant,” Uncle Buddy said. “Then use fruit juice instead of milk, and find a nondairy product, like soy.”

“I can handle milk all right. That’s sounds doable. How come I’ve never read anything about those bodybuilders doing heavy pulls and squats?”

“Part of it comes from the fact that arms sell magazines,” I replied.

“When I was editor of Strength & Health in the ’60s, I went back through five years’ worth of issues to see which ones sold the best and tried to determine why. It turned out that if I put a photo of a bodybuilder flexing his biceps on the cover, it sold well. I’m not positive, but I think the same idea applies today because nearly every issue has an arm shot. Most readers like you don’t want to hear about building a solid foundation that will take a year or longer before they can see positive results. They want instant gratification, but it just doesn’t work that way.

“Trust me, though: The bodybuilders of my era were extremely strong, and nearly all of them lifted in Olympic meets.”

Uncle Buddy asked Mark, “You know anything about John Grimek?”

“Sure, he was the first Mr. America—and the second too, wasn’t he?”

“That’s right, but did you know that he was a member of the Olympic weightlifting team before he got into physique competition?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Or that Sergio Oliva was a highly ranked Olympic lifter before he switched over to bodybuilding?”

Mark just shook his head in amazement.

“Here are some other tidbits for you to think about.” Uncle Buddy was on a roll. “Many Olympic lifters also won physique contests right after they competed in a meet—Dr. John Gourgott, Ernie Pickett and Tommy Suggs, for example. Two of the greatest Olympic lifters in U.S. history, Tommy Kono and Bill March, won the Mr. Universe title that’s held in conjunction with the World Championships. Those two never did a curl in their life.”

The waitress arrived with Steve’s order of steamed hard shells. He paid her, and she asked, “Can I get anyone something else?”

“Are we leaving?” Mark asked his father.

Steve checked his watch and said, “No, we can stay another 20 minutes. We’ll just tell them we had to wait for our crabs.”

“In that case,” Mark said to the waitress, “bring me a Diet Coke.”

“Don’t get the idea that we’re anti-curl,” I said. “It’s a good exercise, but it’s best used to shape the biceps, not build it. Pack on the bodyweight with the protein shakes and heavy training, and once you’ve gained several inches in your upper arms, then you can hit the curls again and have a nice block of muscle to shape.”

“Okay, I’m sold.” The waitress delivered Mark’s drink, and he asked if he could borrow a pencil or pen. She handed him a pen, and he tore off a chunk of butcher paper and said, “Tell me what I need to do.”

I turned to Steve. “You still have the notebook you kept when we trained together?”

“Sure, and I still use it.”

To Mark I said, “Do that program. Do you know how to perform power cleans, high pulls, shrugs and bent-over rows?”

Steve offered, “He knows how to do all the exercises you taught me, and he does them well. He would just rather do the easy stuff.”

“I’ll do them,” Mark declared, and I believed he would.

“Those back exercises I just mentioned are most important in helping you get the guns you’re after. Except for the power clean, you’ll be handling heavy poundages on them, and they’re all done in a dynamic fashion. Whenever an exercise is done explosively, it builds more muscle, and in the case of these lifts, it brings the two prime movers of the upper arm into play: the brachioradialis and brachialis, which are responsible for bending the arm. Lifts like high pulls and shrugs hit them directly. When those two groups are overloaded with heavy pulls, they get considerably stronger, and that enables you to handle a lot more weight in any other exercise that involves the arms.

“Consider this. After about two months of shrugging, you’ll be handling 400 or close to it. There’s no way you could even come close to using that much with any type of curl.”

“Should he do good mornings?” Steve inquired, although he already knew what my answer would be.

“Of course. Good mornings are the key to pulling and squatting heavier weights. Just have him use the ratio I gave you, and he’ll be fine.”

“What about my upper body?”

I turned to Uncle Buddy. He said, “Flat and incline benches, overhead presses and weighted dips.”

While Mark was writing that down, I added, “Again, just follow the program your father used. How many days are you training now?”

“Four. We’ve been doing a split routine.”

“Go back to three days for a while until you’re able to recover from the workload. Training heavy on the major groups is a lot more demanding than just doing benches and curls. You’ll be squatting three times a week, using the heavy, light and medium system, which your father knows how to figure the numbers for. You should be able to increase your squat by five to 10 pounds a week, maybe more at the beginning once you get in the groove, and that means you should be squatting 300 or more for reps in three months.”

His eyes sparkled at that prospect. “So no curls?”

“Not for a few months. Remember, your biceps are going to be getting a great deal of work with the pulling movements, and I’m also going to have you do what I regard as the very best biceps exercise there is—chins.”

“You serious?”

“Yes I am. Not only do chins hit the biceps—along with those two prime movers I talked about—but they also work a large number of groups in the upper back, especially the lats.”

“I can only do about six.”

“That’s okay. Do four sets of as many as you can do. Keep track of the total number you did and next time add at least one rep to that total. After a few months you’ll be doing 15 plus per set.

“To back up those upper-body exercises: The reason you’ll be doing all of them is so you’ll get complete development in your shoulder girdle. That ensures that all parts get attention and prevents any area from falling behind. Keep in mind that your triceps make up two-thirds of your upper arm, so if you want to gain size, you need to focus on your triceps much more than your biceps. The benches, inclines, presses and dips all hit the triceps in a slightly different manner, and that’s what you want. Add one auxiliary exercise for your triceps, the straight-arm pullover. That hits the long head better than any other movement.”

“What about skull crushers or French presses? A lot of bodybuilders do those.”

“Those two exercise put a great deal of stress on your elbows,” Uncle Buddy answered, “and they’ve already been stressed enough with the primary movements and all the heavy pulling. Straight-arm pullovers do not involve the elbows much at all, and they strengthen the long head better than either skull crushers or French presses. Do two sets of 20 at the end of your workout on the day you handle the lightest weight on your upper-body exercise.”

“Any other extra stuff?”

“Do calf raises at least once a week. Three sets of 30. I know you want a six-pack, so work your abs every day. Before training, do crunches or situps and after, leg raises. On your nonlifting days spend a half hour bombarding them. They don’t require much energy and won’t affect your workouts.”

Mark was scribbling like crazy, so we dug into the crabs and beer while he caught up. When he finished writing, he looked at Buddy and me and said, “There are too many back and upper-body exercises to fit into three workouts a week.”

“Set up two separate programs and alternate them every other week,” Uncle Buddy said. “Such as power cleans, good mornings and shrugs one week, then bent-over rows, good mornings and high-pulls the next. For your upper body do dips instead of overhead presses every other week, or better yet, dip and chin on Tuesdays. That’s just before your light day, so it won’t hurt your numbers on Wednesday.”

Mark wrote some more, then asked, “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Uncle Buddy said, “get plenty of rest. Growth depends on recovery, and if you’re not getting enough rest, you’re not going to be successful. You also have to drink those milk shakes religiously. Gaining weight is really harder at your age than losing. So two milk shakes every single day, never miss a workout, and get to bed early.”

Mark nodded that he understood, then looked at me for some final words. “Listen to your father,” I said. “He knows this program, and if you run into a problem, ask him.”

Mark looked over at his beaming father and said, “I will do that.”

Steve got up, saying, “We gotta run before these crabs get cold. Then Mary will know something’s fishy. I expect you guys to come over and train with us next time Buddy’s in town.”

Buddy declared, “I promise, and when I see you again, Mark, in about six months, I expect to see a heavier individual with lots more muscle all over, but especially I want to see some huge guns.”

“I’ll do my best. Thanks for the advice.”

They left and I asked, “You think he’ll stick with the program?”

“I do. Once a youngster starts getting bigger and stronger, he’s hooked. Forget crack or horse. Strength and muscle size are the most addictive qualities for any man’s ego.

“Well, I have to admit, I’ve finally had my fill of seafood for a while.” He motioned for the waitress to bring him the check.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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