By Dennis B. Weis
The Yukon Hercules
Without a doubt, huge muscular biceps are perhaps one of the most impressive muscle groups a bodybuilder can acquire, both in the eyes of the non-bodybuilding public and fellow iron pumpers.
I will grant you that the biceps development of the pro bodybuilders in the IFBB and those involved with the natural drug-free movement represent only a small portion of muscle mass when compared to muscle groups such as the quads, pecs, delts, and lats.
Yet the biceps are the muscle most non-bodybuilders refer to when asking the question, "Can you show me your muscle?"
The biceps make up one-third of the surface and muscle mass of the upper arm and it is only proper that special emphasis be placed on this muscle. I am going to give you some training information and programs in this article which will help you in building iron clad biceps. It doesn't take a magic formula to develop a terrific set of biceps. Why is it then that many intermediate and advanced amateur natural drug-free bodybuilders don't achieve huge biceps like their natural pro counterparts?
One of the answers to this question is that most contest winning amateur and pro bodybuilders utilize a four point plan when training their biceps for the absolute maximum in size, shape, cuts, balance and real muscle hardness. This four point plan consists of the following:
1) Achieving a Proper Pump
2) Exercise Mastery
3) Peak Efficiency Training Programs
4) Scientific Nutrition and Supplementation
Point No. 1 - Achieving a Proper Pump
The contest winning amateur and pro natural drug-free bodybuilder will execute at least 70-80% of their multi-rep sets in a rhythmic and intense manner. They generally use extremely correct technique with continuous tension on this percentage of curling movements where each and every rep is performed smoothly in exactly the way they have found best for their personal needs. They make each rep count, searching for that ultimate stimulation by concentration on a full extension and peak contraction on each and every rep.
These champions tend not to work for just the sheer exhaustion effect (beyond fatigue or saturation point) in the biceps, but rather for "the feel" of each rep and the amount of blood congestion or pump (this is a critical factor for big biceps) created within the biceps muscle itself. This where the training tool mind power to muscle link is established.
Eight time IFBB Mr. Olympia Lee Haney feels that the mind power to muscle link is the key to mass building beyond a certain point. Each rep of a set is performed in the manner described above to bring the biceps muscle to the last repetition at which the muscle fails. The ultimate set then is where the muscle has been worked to its maximum capacity and now must grow maximally for you.
A very simple way to begin establishing the mind power to muscle link is to think of the muscle as a bicycle tire that you wish to inflate with long slow strokes on each and every rep, using strict form with moderate weights and not shutting off the tension (former Mr. California Doug Stadele says the body responds to two different things: 1. A lot of tension, and 2. Heavy tension) between reps. This practice will produce that fibrous, thick, veiny look in the biceps. Achieving a proper muscle pump will be based on the difficulty or ease from the previous set completed. This is where poundages and reps will be added or subtracted for the upcoming sets.
Point No. 2 - Exercise Mastery - Three Big Biceps Exercises!
Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curl
This exercise in particular is a favorite among many of the previous top physique champions, such as Bill Pearl, Boyer Coe, Lee Haney, and the youngest Mr. America ever, Casey Viator. These and many other champions in the amateur and pro ranks learned early on in their careers that this exercise was one of the awesome secrets to developing spell-binding size and muscularity in the biceps.
Many non-bodybuilders have a tendency to judge bodybuilders' total bodies by the size of the upper arm and in particular the biceps. Quite possibly, the best single test of true biceps strength or power is the Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curl. One of the best demonstrations of pure biceps strength ever seen in the iron game was that of former world Olympic and all-around strength champion, the late Douglas Ivan Hepburn. Back in 1954-56, at a bodyweight of 260-305 lbs. with upper arms measuring 20 ¼", he performed a Two Hands Strict Barbell Curl with a straight bar, 260 lbs. for one slow rep; 5 reps with 235 lbs. and 135 lbs. for an amazing 35 reps.
Rating right up there to Hepburn in biceps strength was Val Vasilef, a winner of over 80 physique, power, and weightlifting awards, including the 1964 AAU Mr. America. Back in the 1960s at 5'11" and a bodyweight of 218 lbs. he did a single rep in the slow Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curl with 220 lbs. He was also able to perform and single rep in the one-arm table top or "bench curl" with a 150 ½-lb. dumbbell as well. I spoke with Val some time ago and he said he was pushing for 175 lbs. in this particular curl and he may have well done so by now.
Potential in the two hands strict standing barbell curl will vary from an average of 72% of your best strict two hands press overhead to as much as 85%. Proper exercise performance in this exercise and two other biceps blasters (Seated Incline Bench Dumbbell Curls and the Standing One Arm Dumbbell Concentration Curl) that I will be speaking about, will unlock yet another secret to rapid biceps growth. It is just too simplistic and brief to advise a bodybuilder to do a barbell curl by holding the barbell in the hands, with the palms facing away from the body, bend the elbows and raise the weight up in a curling motion to the top of the chest. Lower the arms back down and repeat.
You cannot expect to "work for the feel of the muscle and discover the muscular pathways" when all you have is incomplete and superfluous "stock" technique instruction like that just given. Little things like a twist of the wrist, pulling down the shoulder, raising the weight either a little forward or backward, or holding the barbell momentarily at the peak contraction of the movement can make all the difference between building just mediocre biceps or literally huge ones.
As you probably have noticed, I have chosen the exercise title heading to read "Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curl." As the third word in the title indicates, this exercise is to be performed strict. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do this exercise strict because the regular two hand standing barbell curl is probably the second most abused exercise next to the supine bench press.
Many bodybuilders seem to do exaggerated body movements by vigorously accelerating or moving the upper torso (shoulders and back) for and aft and thrusting the hips forward in an abrupt jerking action while swinging (not curling) the weight up in an attempt to gain some mechanical advantage in order to bypass the sticking point or resting inertia. This rather quick and snappy way of curling decreases maximum tension in the muscle because the weight is not being lifted against gravity but rather by momentum.
When the movement is performed in the manner described it is called "Cheat" Curls and should not be confused with the advanced training principle known as "Controlled Cheating." It is beyond the scope and space of this article to discuss the differences between the two types of cheating.
- Begin the starting point of the two hands strict standing barbell curl by first loading up a standard barbell bar with the exact assortment of disc weights you will be using, be it for the specific warm-up, or actual "hard work" sets. Many bodybuilders prefer to use an E-Z Curl bar because it gives more comfort by providing dramatic relief to the wrists and elbows torque. It lessens forearm pain in the ulna, but in doing so this particular piece of training equipment takes some of the biceps action away from the supinated (hands facing palms up). I suggest using a straight bar if biceps growth is the primary consideration rather than rehabilitation from an injury.
- While standing in front of the barbell with a shoulder-width or slightly wider foot placement, bend your knees slightly while bending forward at the hips joint and grasp the barbell with a supinated (palms facing away from your body) shoulder-width hand spaced grip. Now come up to an erect vertical and stabilized position. The heels remain in contact with the floor and the knees are just very slightly unlocked throughout each and every set. The arms are fully extended in a vertical position as are the wrists, with the bar touching or resting against the upper thighs. The chin is parallel to the floor.
There are three immediate advantages I want to discuss with you regarding the shoulder-width hand spacing before proceeding to the actual movement performance. The inside of the upper arms and elbows (locked above the hip bones) are tight against and in line with the side of the rib cage. The first advantage of this is that it tends to maximize the resistance of gravity by putting the shoulders, arms, and hands in a straight line of pull. This is another little secret of the contest winning amateur and pro bodybuilders for building more total biceps surface and mass.
The second advantage of having the elbows in close and tight to the body is that the short head of the biceps is maximally contracted, and when developed to its fullest potential can actually add to biceps peak.
Thirdly, muscles are uniquely structured with nerves all throughout so that when the message is sent from the brain to the muscle, the whole muscle contracts. In particular nerves that control the biceps activate both long and short heads. Using too wide a hand spacing can stress elbow joints.
- Begin the curling action by deeply inhaling a breath of air into your lungs (expelling the air slowly as the barbell begins to pass the horizontal or 90º angle position to the body during the positive contraction phase of the movement) while lifting and thrusting your chest forward. Open your hands slightly if you must to take tension off forearms. Tighten your grip on the bar, actually trying to crush the bar (this is yet another little known secret for squeezing out a couple of extra reps at the end of a set). Tighten thumbs on the bar. Flex your wrists upward, so that your hands (palms up) precede them (the wrists).
- Now strongly flex at the elbow joint while tensing the biceps muscles, moving the barbell in a semi-circular motion or wide arc forward and upward to the chin (keeping the bar close to your body), rather than to the top of the collarbone or neck. This will help to keep intra-muscular tension on the biceps muscles and not allow gravity to dictate the movement (where it could fall into collarbone or neck region and shut off the continuous tension effect). Forcefully contract and squeeze the biceps (biceps and forearms touching) at the completion of the upward curling movement and hold for a count of "one."
With regard to elbow position and its corresponding movement, there are a couple of alternatives to go with. You can keep the elbows vertical (upper arm kept aligned with the body) or slightly to the rear so that they remain behind the bar throughout the entire positive and negative phase of the movement.
This is exactly the way the "iron guru," the late Vince Gironda advises the elbows to be positioned (especially in his famous body drag curl). Vince felt that when the elbows are vertical and as motionless as possible throughout the movement it tends to keep the deltoids out of the action and allows for more of an isolated effect on the belly of the biceps. You can really add to the isolation effect by dropping your shoulders down and pulled back as well. Vince went on to say that when the elbows come forward it decreases the maximum resistance because the weight is not lifted against gravity.
Joe Bucci, a Mr. World title holder and with an upper arm that has measured as much as 21", on the other hand, raises or pushes his elbows up to a parallel position to the floor near the completion (135º-150º angle to the body) of the upward curling movement to produce the greatest tension curve and contraction by upping the percentage of effective resistance. Bucci also finds that an additional advantage to pushing the elbows up is that it helps in creating peak and separation between the biceps and deltoids especially when he squeezes and contracts the biceps for 3-4 seconds at the top of the movement on those last couple of reps in a set.
- Now that you have curled the barbell in an arc to your chin, lower the barbell (in a semi-circle, pushing the bar out and downward with elbows) in exactly the reverse manner described to an arms' length, elbows locked and motionless position (0 degrees = zero degree flexion). It is at this zero degree of flexion that allows the champion bodybuilder to take maximum advantage of contraction and circulation of the biceps by pre-stretching (this sudden relaxation and contraction kicks in a larger number of muscle fibers than normal and this can't help but enhance additional biceps growth stimulation). This full range of motion stimulus offers a number of immediate benefits. These include: Maximum muscle contraction; Optimal rate of blood flow for a super pump; and the Ability of increased flexibility while adding additional muscle size.
Be sure to pre-stretch one-half second between each and every rep!
To add an element of ultra strictness to the Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curl exercise, lean back against a wall or upright post with your body and head firmly against it and your legs at an outward angle from the hips to the floor. This will keep your upper torso from moving fore and aft.
Seated Incline Bench Dumbbell Curls
This is the second exercise in your three big biceps arsenal. While sitting on the seat of an adjustable incline bench reach down toward the floor and grasp a disc-loaded dumbbell in each hand. Use an off-center hand placement/grip where the little finger of each hand is touching the inside plate of the dumbbell. Lie back on the incline bench so that your head and back of your upper torso is in full contact with the incline seat back. Your glutes are in contact with the seat of the bench and remain so during each and every set.
Your arms should be in a fully extended, elbows locked and motionless in a dead-hang position as they are toward the floor. The palms of the hands are facing each other (neutral grip) with the dumbbells parallel to each other. This basic position as I have just described will vary slightly depending on the angle of the incline. The incline range for this particular exercise can be 15º-20º to as much as 45º. At the 15º-20º angle the upper biceps where it separates from the deltoid complex will be stressed maximally and as well this lower incline adjustment creates a dynamic stretch reflex which really activates the motor units in the muscle for big biceps gains in growth.
Deeply inhale a breath of air into your lungs (follow the directions given in the previous exercise). With elbow flexion begin curling the dumbbells in a semi-circular motion or wide arc toward the deltoids in a thumbs-up style until the forearms approach a 90-degree angle to the body. At this point, begin to slowly supinate (by twisting your wrist and rotating with your wrist) the little finger side of the dumbbell so that the palms of your hands face upward at 30º through the rest of the upward curling movement until the little finger side of the dumbbell touch each deltoid. Raise or push the elbows up as described for the previous exercise. Begin expelling air out of your lungs and lower the dumbbells in exactly the reverse manner described for the upward curling phase of the exercise.
The effect of the supination (rotation of the palms of your hands and twisting the wrists from facing the body to palms up) is very beneficial for developing the peak of the biceps, while the actual seated incline dumbbell curl lends itself to developing the belly of the biceps.
Standing One Arm Dumbbell Concentration Curl
Stand with the feet shoulder width apart or wider near a high flat exercise bench or dumbbell rack. With your knees slightly bent (soft knee), bend forward at your hip joint and grasp a dumbbell in your right hand. Bring your upper torso to a position that is approximately a 45º angle to the floor. With your knees still slightly bent, place your non-exercising hand on a support device such as the flat exercise bench, the top edge of 45º-90º incline seat back, or your own knee for back support and to brace your upper torso.
Your curling arm should be fully extended with the dumbbell hanging between the legs, utilizing a regular palms facing away from the body grip (you can't cheat at all because your arm is hanging free in this modified version of the concentration curl). Deeply inhale a breath of air and begin flexing the elbow joint, moving the dumbbell with biceps contractile force in an arc across the midline of your upper body until the little finger side of the dumbbell touches the left deltoid.
Squeeze and contract the biceps for a full "two counts" at the completion of the upward curling movement. Make a determined effort to keep the upper arm perfectly vertical during both the positive and negative curling sequence. Slowly expel the air from your lungs and lower the dumbbell to the beginning zero degree flexion starting position. Repeat for the desired number of reps with your right hand, then switch the dumbbell to your left hand and begin the entire starting point and movement performance over again.
Point No. 3 - Peak Efficiency Training Programs
Here are a couple of proven arms training systems. The first one was developed by former Jr. Mr. America, Harry Smith. Here is how it works. You perform two sets of 6 reps in a heavy generalized exercise such as the Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curl. Rest one minute between each of these sets (these sets will be approximately 80-84% of your current one-rep max). Then immediately following the second set, do one set of an isolationary/shaping exercise. For this you can use the Standing One Arm Dumbbell Concentration Curl. Do 10-12 repetitions in this exercise.
This completes one cycle. Intermediate bodybuilders can repeat this cycle once more and stop here. Advanced bodybuilders do 3 to 4 cycles for a total of 12 sets. On cycles 3 and 4 do Seated Incline Bench Dumbbell Curls as a substitute for the Two Hands Strict Standing Barbell Curls. Stay with the Concentration Curl either standing or a variation in which you are seated. Once you start, you can really go beyond the scope of this article, finding many of your own variations of this Two and One (2 sets of 6 reps/1 set of 10-12 reps) system of arm training.
A second arm training program is one that I call the Rotating Group Set. Perform the Two Hand Strict Standing Barbell Curl for 6 reps, then immediately do the Seated Incline Bench Dumbbell Curls for 8 reps and then finish off with the Standing One Arm Dumbbell Concentration Curl for 10 reps. This completes one sequence of the group set. Rest briefly and then begin a second sequence but rotating or reversing the order of the exercises.
On this sequence you will do the Concentration Curl for 10 reps, then Barbell Curls for 6 reps, and finish with Incline Dumbbell Curls. The third sequence goes with Incline Curls for 8 reps, Concentration Curls for 10 reps, and Barbell Curls for 6 reps. Intermediate bodybuilders can stop after two or three sequences and advanced can go with three to four sequences.
Point No. 4 - Scientific Nutrition and Supplementation
B-Complex with Iron is very helpful in all gaining programs, along with vitamin C and the Bioflavanoids and plenty of amino acids and desiccated liver tablets.
A Final Comment
This is the basic information you need to shock your biceps into huge, shapely muscularity. It takes a lot of hard work and some sacrifice to reach the huge measurement class of the big arm champs, but you'll find it is well worth the effort.
Dennis B. Weis is a Ketchikan, Alaska based power-bodybuilder. He is the co-author of 3 critically acclaimed books; Mass!, Raw Muscle and Anabolic Muscle Mass. He is also a frequent hard-hitting uncompromising freelance writer for many of the mainstream bodybuilding and fitness magazines published worldwide.
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