Posted by Justin Woltering on February 02, 2013
How to get Round Biceps
Are you getting into lifting JUST to get big biceps? Or have you been plugging away for awhile now, dissatisfied with your lack of arm growth? Either way, the fix is the same.
There’s a lot of dogma and nonsense surrounding arm training, but your biceps are basically like every other muscle. People’s arms don’t suck because they haven’t found some undefined, “secret” training method. Their arms suck because they’re just not training them hard enough! Read on to find out how you can be better…
The Underrated Chin-up
Before we start talking about every curl variation under the sun, we need to discuss the most underrated biceps-builder of all: the chin-up. To be clear, I’m talking about a pull-up performed with an underhand grip, the kind that taxes your biceps every bit as much as your lats. It shouldn’t be the only weapon in your biceps-building arsenal, but you’re going to be dead in the water without it.
The key to getting arm growth from chins is to use a FULL range of motion. Stopping at eye-level may work when you’re training your lats, but it’s not going to cut it for arms. That final few inches of motion is what stimulate your biceps the most, and it’s worth a reduction in weight to do the movement right.
Still, don’t hesitate to add weight once you can bang out ten or fifteen chins with fantastic form. Use a chain belt, and add ten or so pounds at a time, always striving to get more weight and reps with perfect form. You think your biceps will still suck when you’re chinning fifty or more pounds for reps? I doubt it.
Do Rows Build Your Biceps?
Some gurus claim that back training is all you need for biceps, and that direct work (curls) is a waste of time. Frankly, that’s a bunch of crap. Yes, you should be aiming to get stronger on all movements at all times, but your biceps aren’t going to miraculously grow without any direct work. Chin-ups are great, regular pull-ups will still tax your biceps a little bit, but rows will do almost nothing. When was the last time a set of barbell or dumbbell rows actually gave you a decent bicep pump?
Curls, Curls, and more Curls
Now that we’ve cleared up that “no direct arm work” nonsense, let’s talk about the meat of your biceps program – curls! Sure, they’re not going to be the cornerstone of your mass-building routine, but you know that, right? As long as you’re plugging away at your squats, deads, and presses, there’s no reason NOT to dedicate as much time as necessary to curling.
Now, what kind of curl is best? Everyone has their favorites, but I’ve found the EZ-bar curl to be highly effective for almost all of my clients. A normal barbell is hard on the wrists, while dumbbells allow for a bit too much cheating. Curling with both hands at once kind of “locks” you into a strict position, and the grooves in the EZ bar ensure that your wrists won’t scream in pain.
Another favorite is the incline dumbbell curl. Lie back on a high-incline bench, keep your palms forward at all times, and curl with as full a range of motion as possible. If you keep your back against the bench, you can’t help but feel the enormous stretches and contractions in your biceps. You’ll have to use less weight than if you were standing, but your biceps get far more stimulation.
EZ bar curls, incline curls…those two movements alone will get you pretty far, but they won’t produce complete arm development. If your biceps are lacking, then chances are your forearms aren’t too great, either. The remedy? Hammer curls and reverse curls.
With hammer curls, I actually like to break my usual rule about strict form. Don’t sling the weights around like a madman, but don’t limit yourself, either. Use a moderately heavy weight, and put just a little body English into the movement. Get as many reps as you can with this “iffy” form, then go off the rails with some cheat reps. Your forearms will benefit from holding onto the weights for so long.
For the reverse curls, you’ll want to revert back to strict form. Use an EZ bar, keep your upper arms at your sides, and contract as hard as possible. If you don’t normally do any reverse curls, it’s amazing how rapidly your forearms will improve from this exercise alone.
Rep Ranges for Arm Training
As I said before, the biceps are a muscle like any other. They respond to progressive overload, and you should absolutely aim to add more weight and reps every time you train them. That being said, super-heavy curls CAN be a bit tough on the elbows, especially if you’ve sustained elbow injuries in the past.
The solution? This one’s going to be your call. If your elbows feel alright, then try working in the 6-8 rep range as much as possible, with some 15-20 rep pump sets thrown in for good measure. If your elbows are aching, however, don’t feel too bad about upping your normal rep range to fifteen or more. As long as you’re making tangible improvements, your arms will get bigger.
The “Shaping” Myth
Like most guys, you probably don’t just want bigger biceps; you want them to be as full and round as possible, just like Arnold’s. Can you really influence HOW your muscle grow? The short answer, unfortunately, is no. It’s basically impossible to preferentially recruit parts of individual muscle fibers. Your muscles can gain a hell of a lot of size, but they’ll always be the same basic shapes.
Still, you can somewhat improve your “peaks” by targetting your outer biceps. As their name suggests, your bis are split up into two segments of muscle fibers, both of which run lengthwise along your arms. To provide as much stimulus to the outer heads, keep a close grip and strict form whenever you do EZ-bar curls or other two-handed moves. Keep at it long enough, and you might just see those outer heads grow large enough to change the way your arms look when flexed.
The Importance of Weight Gain
Here’s the thing that too few “experts” are willing to talk about: if you’re 150 pounds soaking wet, you’re not going to have huge arms. If your biceps are truly lagging behind the rest of your body, then you might be able to get some growth without gaining weight. But if you’re still small overall, the only way you’ll get bigger arms is to do what every big lifter has done – train heavy, eat, sleep, and repeat!