You’ve probably wanted huge biceps since you were knee high to a shih tzu. Biceps are by far the most mainstream of muscles. People who know nothing about bodybuilding will flex a biceps when asked to ‘make a muscle.’ For some lucky guys and girls (my wife is one, doggone her), building big, peaked biceps is no big deal. Pretty much anything they do with weights for their bi’s results in growth. I’m not so fortunate, and odds are that if you’re reading this, neither are you.
Personally, I tend not to listen to training advice given by people whose muscles grow easily no matter what they do. To me that makes about as much sense as asking Shaquille O’Neal how I can grow to more than 7′ tall. Rather, I pay attention to those who have had to work really hard and learn every trick in the book to coax hypertrophy from a stubborn muscle group. They had to have learned quite a bit along the way about what works and what doesn’t.
Guess what? I’m a man who’s had to become an expert on biceps training because mine lagged in development behind the rest of my physique from day one and continued to be a challenge for many years. Over the past 20 years, however, I have indeed learned specific do’s and don’ts that the genetically average must adhere to if they’re ever going to bring those bi’s up to snuff. If you’re tantalized at the prospect of saving yourself years of frustration and nongrowth, read on and learn the 10 rules for building huge biceps, baby!
Use a weight your biceps alone can handle.
A little bit of logic should make it clear that if your biceps aren’t being worked, they won’t get the necessary growth stimulus and become larger. Yet logic often seems to evaporate in the face of foolish ego in the macho gym environment. It’s so commonplace to witness young’or even not-so-young’men heaving and thrusting their hips to curl bars with a 45 or maybe even two 45s on each side or dumbbells of 70 to 100 pounds. Throwing big weights around and yelling might make them feel like King Kong, but I always say the proof is in the pudding. How many of those dudes have enormous biceps to go along with the big weights they’re using? Judging by the people I’ve observed in many different gyms, I estimate the percentage at roughly five.
That style of training is ineffective, mainly because it fails to give the biceps muscle any significant time under tension. The reps are too fast, and the stress is going mainly to the joints, connective tissues, front delts and lower back, with the biceps getting just a tiny slice of the pie in there somewhere. There’s a time and place for cheating form, but it only occurs at the very end of a set, when you’ve reached failure in good form and want to extend the set. By cheating all the time, as many people do, you rob your biceps of any chance of growth because you don’t work them hard enough. It may seem ironic that you can actually train a muscle harder with far less weight, but it’s quite true. It doesn’t matter how much weight you use unless you’re stimulating growth, and shitty form simply can’t fulfill that basic requirement.
Squeeze the muscle at the end of every rep.
It’s not enough to simply use good form on your curls, displaying the proper body mechanics, such as keeping your elbows close to your sides and using a controlled rep speed. To get the most biceps stimulation out of curling movements, you also have to make a conscious effort to flex the muscle at the conclusion of each rep, at least for a split second. That means the bar, dumbbell, machine handle or whatever actually stops moving at that point as you forcefully squeeze the muscle. You may see some pros like Ronnie Coleman, in particular, use a continuous pumping motion and never make use of the peak-contraction principle. Don’t be fooled into thinking that will work for you. Squeezing the muscle is a crucial element in both increasing the time under tension and maximizing intensity. It also improves the mind/muscle connection, referred to by some as neural efficiency, so that you can fire as many muscle fibers in the biceps as possible.
Don’t train biceps after back.
‘Back and biceps’ has been a very popular training day for bodybuilders since the 1960s. The idea behind the pairing is that since the biceps are involved in nearly all back exercises’such as deadlifts, chins and rows’it makes sense to work them in the same session. I happen to think it’s a colossal mistake. Back training is exhausting, second only to leg work in sheer effort and total volume. That’s because the back is a complex muscle structure and can be hit from many different angles. It’s not uncommon for advanced trainees to do two or more types of rows, two or more types of chinning or pulldown movements, deadlifts, pullovers and shrugs all in one workout. That’s a lot of work. And then, after all that, you want to hit your biceps? ‘They’re already warmed up,’ the reasoning goes, ‘so you don’t have to go as heavy.’
Warmed up? Try totally fatigued. Don’t have to go as heavy? No, it’s more like you can’t go as heavy because they’re already thrashed. If you can’t train a muscle with the intensity and resistance it needs, it never has the chance to grow. So if you’re training biceps after back, I contend that you’re dooming your efforts to failure. In fact, you would be wise not to train biceps either the day before or the day after you work your back. To do otherwise would limit the biceps’ recovery. Try to wedge a good 48 or 72 hours between your back and biceps training.
Limit your training volume.
Yes, pros like Lee Priest thrive on high-volume work for biceps, on the order of 20 to 25 work sets. You may be like him and respond well to such high volume, but if you’ve been training that way for some time without spectacular results, the odds are that you’re overwhelming your bi’s with more volume than they’re capable of recovering from in time for the next workout. As a general rule, you should limit your total number of work sets for this relatively small and simple muscle to no more than nine to 12. That could break down to three sets of three exercises, four sets of three movements or four exercises for three sets each. But the fact remains that all biceps exercises are nothing more than variations of curls. How many different types of curls do you think you really need to do?
Don’t waste valuable time and energy. Hit your biceps hard and fast. You should be able to complete an entire biceps workout in 20 to 30 minutes, since little rest is needed between sets as compared to more metabolically demanding muscle groups like the back and legs.
Deep-six straight bars if they aren’t for you.
I never felt barbell curls when I did them with a straight bar. They just didn’t work for me. I persisted in doing them off and on for years because everybody else loved them and raved about how they were the best mass builder for bi’s. But they killed my wrists, and I could never use decent weights.
Then IRON MAN writer Michael G’ndill described something called ‘vulgus,’ having to do with how relatively straight your forearms looked in a mirror when they were hanging down at your sides with the palms forward. If they dropped straight down like a plumb line, straight bars were just fine for you. The further your forearms angled away from your body, the better off you would be to stick with dumbbells, cambered EZ-curl bars and cable attachments.
Once I read that, I ran to the mirror and sure enough, my vulgus was rather pronounced. If yours happens to be as well, don’t bother with straight-bar curls. If they strain your wrists because your hands don’t naturally rotate that far out, you won’t be able to use as much weight as your biceps are capable of, your range of motion will be limited, and you’ll shortchange your potential gains. While it may seem as if the guys with the biggest guns use the straight Olympic barbell or its shorter version, rest assured that curling with a straight bar could actually keep your biceps from growing.
Include machines and cables.
Free weights are very important, effective tools for building the biceps, but they’re not the only word on the subject. There are many productive machines for biceps made by companies such as Nautilus, Hammer Strength, Strive, Cybex, Bodymasters, Life Fitness and Icarian. Do yourself a favor and experiment with all the different curling machines in your gym. You are sure to find at least one that feels right for you, meaning that you can really feel your biceps working, the pump at the end of the set is phenomenal, and you get a little sore the next day. Curling with cables also gives your biceps a different type of stimulus from what they get with free weights, as the tension is constant and there are no sticking points. Choose one or two free-weight movements and one or two machine or cable exercises, so you get the best of what each type of equipment has to offer. You can ignore that recommendation and continue doing the same old workout of barbell curls, dumbbell curls and preacher curls that every mindless sheep and his cousin does, but you don’t know what you’re missing’like maybe another inch or two on your arms.
Brace the arm if your delts are overpowering.
One problem I had for years and was never even aware of was that my shoulders overpowered my biceps, not only in appearance but during biceps training as well. It’s actually a very common issue with those who are naturally very powerful at overhead-pressing movements. To keep the shoulders from robbing the biceps of much-needed stress, you need to brace the arm. Doing curls on preacher benches, or with the working arm against the inner thigh, as in concentration curls, solves the problem. Nearly all biceps machines also keep the upper arms immobilized so the biceps are better isolated. At first this method may be discouraging, as a drastic reduction in weight is usually called for. That’s only because the biceps are doing the work on their own for the first time. It also means that they’re finally getting the chance to grow, so don’t sweat it.
Work the brachialis every time you train.
The brachialis muscle, lying alongside the long head of the biceps, though technically not part of the biceps, sure looks as if it is. By developing it fully, you create a bigger upper arm. It is often said that a fully developed brachialis pushes up the biceps, giving the illusion of a higher peak. Since many of us weren’t genetically endowed with that highly prized peak shape, it would behoove us to do what we can to improve our biceps shape. Though you still want to stay within your total of nine to 12 work sets, always include a couple of sets of hammer curls or reverse curls to make sure your brachialis is becoming all it can be.
Pose and stretch.
I touched briefly on the subject of the mind/muscle connection in rule 2, but it’s time to elaborate a bit. If you can’t feel the muscle working, and I mean really feel it working’down to the last fiber’during your sets, you’re not a bodybuilder. You’re just somebody who lifts weights. That’s fine, except you’ll never get your muscles to grow as large as they could because you aren’t putting enough stress on them.
One way to dramatically improve neural efficiency is to incorporate posing into your workouts. After every set for biceps hit a pose such as a front double-biceps. Squeeze down on your bi’s hard, and hold the pose for at least a five-count. That will improve your ability to contract the muscle during your sets. Following the pose, stretch your biceps. The easiest way to do it is simply to grab hold of a stationary vertical object, such as the uprights of a squat rack or a machine, with your arm fully extended, and lean away from the arm until you feel a deep stretch in the muscle. (Warning: Do this slowly and only pull as hard as you have to in order to feel the stretch. You can tear your biceps if you’re too fast and apply too much power!) Stretching helps blood flow so that waste products can be shuttled out of the muscle. Experts like John Parillo believe it also facilitates growth by breaking up the fascia, the connective tissue that encases all skeletal muscles.
Use both high and low reps.
In general, you’ll get the best results from sets in the eight-to-12-rep range. But the human body is so remarkably adaptive that at times you’ll have to mix in reps that are higher or lower to keep gains coming. Try sets with reps as low as four to six and as high as 15 to 20 for variety. The low-rep sets are a great way to build strength that will pay off in your standard eight-to-12-rep sets, and the high reps are perfect for finishing off workouts with a skin-stretching, vein-popping pump.
Following these rules has helped me make the most out of my biceps. They aren’t a threat to Lee Priest’s or Ronnie Coleman’s and never will be, but they’re much improved in size. Realistically, few people reading this have the potential to build arms bigger than 20 inches lean’with or without drugs. Every one of them, however, probably has anywhere from an inch to five inches of untapped arm growth. If you want to make the most of your biceps and get them to explode to their ultimate size, follow the 10 rules I laid down above. Next time we’ll talk about that big old muscle opposite the biceps on the upper arm, the triceps. Until then, get to work thickening up your biceps.
Editor’s note: To contact Ron Harris, go to his Web site, www.ronharrismuscle.com. IM