August 1, 2004

Weight Gainer Series: Biceps

BY David Bohn ("Fitness")

Hopefully you have all had a great summer thus far, even though it has been a bit cool for my taste. I trust that you all have not let your busy schedule overcome your training program and you have been making great progress this summer!

Thus far this year I’ve talked about overall programs to get your physique in shape incorporating different body parts, nutrition suggestions, etc. Now it’s time to break down some of those programs and hit specific body parts. This month I’m going to address the biceps. These muscles can either be one’s glory or one’s bane; they’re either full or flat. Following are some tips and ideas to help increase the potential of your muscles to add some pleasing symmetry to your arms and upper body.

Many people who have trouble developing their arms make the mistake of not doing enough. Lifters think that since the biceps are small muscles there is only so much work they should do, otherwise people risk overtraining. If you have little luck growing your biceps on your current program, then perhaps it is time to mix things up.

Don’t be afraid to do a few more sets, or doing biceps more than once a week. What do you have to lose if your current strategy is not getting you the results you want? Think about adding a little more volume to your program.

Another common mistake is that people sabotage their arm workout by doing arms with other body parts. I realize that people are busy, but if you break your workouts into smaller groups, you can still achieve good results, without sacrificing the smaller muscle groups. How do you expect to work your biceps hard if you have already pooped them out on chin-ups, rows, etc? Yes, there is a benefit for multi-muscle exercises, but we are in this discussion because your biceps may not be where you want them to be. Therefore, dedicate a workout just for that muscle group.

Along the same route of mixing muscle groups when you workout, many people still lift with improper form. Maybe you can throw a lot of weight around, but if you’re using your low back to get the weight up, all the lifter does is risk injury to the low back and take the concentration off of the bicep. When doing curls, make sure the motion is controlled in both directions, especially when resisting gravity. Why cheat yourself of half the workout, when you can work the bicep in both directions? Slow to the top, slow to the bottom. Also, make sure to lift through a complete range of motion.

Anyone can lift heavier if he or she cuts the movement path in half; however, you recruit fewer muscles fibers by limiting that range of motion. Further, with years of such lifting, you can risk shorting the muscle length, resulting in the “bodybuilder” form; tight form, constantly bent arms, etc. Again, don’t cheat yourself by lifting with weight that’s heavier than you can truly control.

For the program itself, try for 16-20 sets for the biceps, which works out to four or five exercises for three to four sets each. The rep range is a little lower due to the greater number of exercises and sets; keep it around 8 – 10. Again, this sounds like a lot, but if your program is stale, it’s time to freshen it up a bit.

Barbell Curl
Generally (though not always), the barbell curl is a good exercise to start with because it’s one of the best mass-building exercises for the biceps. This is because usually a lifter can lift the most weight with this exercise, and you want to curl as much weight as you can while you’re fresh. Remember to warm up the arms first before blasting them with a heavy weight otherwise you can risk a bicep tear; a not-so-pleasant situation indeed. Also, remember to isolate the biceps; don’t swing from the hips or low back just because you are trying to curl a heavy weight.

Preacher Curl
The preacher curl is a great exercise because it forces you to isolate the arms. Bracing the arms on a pad helps to take out the shoulders and the back from the exercise and forces the lifter to only use the biceps.

Bicep Curl
The bicep curl is a good standard exercise to incorporate because it allows the arm to move through its natural range of motion, with less risk of a pinch in the elbow joint versus other bicep exercises. Remember to isolate the arms; do the exercise seated to further ensure strict form.
A variation of this exercise is the angled bicep curl, where the dumbbells are curled out at a 45-degree angle, rather than straight ahead. The angled bicep curl is a good exercise to interchange with a preacher curl.

Hammer Curl
The hammer curl is an excellent exercise to hit both your biceps and your brachialis and forearm extensors. If you have ever noticed someone who had great guns, the forearms are always well developed along with the biceps. With the hammer curl, the hands are by the side, with the palms facing the body. Keep the elbows tight by the sides and curl up until the weight is almost touching the front deltoid or shoulder. Contract at the top and then release under control.

Cable Curl
Cables are a good way to finish off the arms. The benefit of cables is that they provide a constant tension on the muscle group, taxing them more than a free weight would. This constant tension makes cables well suited for holding a contraction at the top of the curl a bit longer than normal.
Lifters can use a short, straight bar for this exercise. Grab the bar shoulder-width apart. Again, chest up, shoulders back, elbows by the sides. Curl the bar up and hold for 1-2 seconds, then slow the decent back to the starting position.

Overhead Double Biceps Curl
The overhead double biceps curl is another good finishing exercise because the angle of the exercise does not allow for much leverage on the muscle, therefore again requiring proper form. This exercise also helps a lifter work on his or her contraction and form by forcing the lifter practice curling in single plane of movement (think parallel to the wall or mirror). If the weight is too heavy, it’s easy to start incorporating the shoulders and chest to bring the weight in. Therefore, make sure when doing this cable exercise, keep the chest lifted and shoulders back. Arms are extended out perpendicular from the shoulders, palms facing the ceiling. Contract the biceps and curl the hands in towards the shoulders or ears. Make sure to hold the contraction at the peak of the movement, and then control the weight back to the starting point, giving the muscle a good stretch.

By giving your weight program an overhaul; adding new exercises, more weight and additional reps, hopefully you can break out of a potential plateau and add a little bulk to those guns! Happy lifting!