The size of your biceps depends on your squat strength. Do you agree? No? You don't see the connection? Bear with me then because the above statement is true. Up to one-third of your upper extremity force is generated by your lower body, especially during multiple joint, mass building lifts. Golfers, throwers and powerlifters understand this connection.
Luckily, there are new ways to tap into this hidden strength potential. When properly tapped, athletes realize a prompt 30% boost in upper-body strength. Evidence from physical therapy suggests that your potential for upper-arm muscle mass may be squandered because of weak links in the pelvis and lower back.
In order of magnitude, the determinants of arm girth are:
- our capacity for size (genetic contribution)
- Total body strength levels (transfer of energy through the core)
- The ability to stabilize the shoulders at progressively higher loads
- Biceps muscle imbalances
What I'm going to do is present a unique approach to arm development that blends biceps hypertrophy into the movement chain of the rest of the body. Warning: The path we're going to take to bigger biceps may seem unconventional, but the results you'll experience will speak for themselves.
Genetic Freaks and Arnold
In bodybuilding, as in life, there's a distinct advantage to having the right parents. The most salient characteristics of muscle development are the tendon insertion points. Bodybuilders and strength athletes with biceps insertion points further from the center of the joint have a natural mechanical advantage. This is because a longer tendon is a longer lever arm.
The longer the lever arm, the greater the torque around the joint, and thus the more force that joint can produce. Historically, very few bodybuilders are blessed with low insertion points on all major muscles. Exceptions include Mike Matarazzo and Casey Viator.
The other genetic advantage is biceps fiber make-up. A fast-twitch guy, someone that can only do three reps at 80% of his maximum, has an advantage in that he utilizes a greater percentage of high-threshold fibers which are responsible for peak strength. These individuals are capable of muscle growth in just a few sets of single repetitions.
A recent discovery is a gene called myostatin. It's a member of the transforming growth factor-beta superfamily and is a genetic determinant of skeletal-muscle growth. Recent studies support the hypothesis that myostatin is an attenuator of skeletal muscle growth in adult men and contributes to muscle wasting in HIV-infected men. It's likely that certain people may produce a mutant form of this gene so that their bodies wouldn't regulate muscle growth, thus giving rise to the term "genetic freak."
Although the all-mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger had enviously long muscle bellies in the elbow flexors, he got the short end of the tendon stick in the long muscles of the calf. This is probably why he took early photos from his thighs up, or standing in water! However, due in part to the Oak's desire to be the best, he overcame this predisposition to achieve very respectable calf development. It goes without saying that desire and knowledge can make up the genetic gap.
Total Body Strength: The Missing Link
The sequence of muscle activation in a given exercise is termed a kinetic (movement) chain. All resistance exercises operate in a kinetic chain. The goal of the kinetic chain activation sequence is to transfer maximum velocity or force from the beginning (proximal) muscles to the end (distal) muscles. How much weight you can lift is highly dependant on every muscle in the chain.
For example, let's look at one of the best mass building exercises for the biceps–the standing biceps curl. The distal load is the barbell, and the distal muscles are the elbow flexors, better known as the biceps. The proximal segments are the muscles of the legs, pelvis and lower back. Because of their large relative mass, the legs are responsible for the impulse that's generated.
So once again, lower extremity strength production directly influences your arm strength by igniting the chain that transfers into upper-extremity force. In addition, arm cross sectional area (mass) is correlated to your squat strength and deadlift strength in resistance trained athletes.
Exercise scientists have even developed strength-prediction equations for the bench press, deadlift and squat that are based on biceps circumference. This is one reason that powerlifters turned bodybuilders place high in their first show. Even a correspondence-course fitness trainer understands that for maximum mass development you must rely on heavy barbell exercises. The more joints involved, the stronger your mechanical advantage, the more weight you'll lift and the more tension you'll place on the muscles. All of this results in greater muscle mass.
A Wrench in your Machinery?
Many bodybuilders have relied on isolated single-joint movements to develop bulk mass. After understanding the power of the entire chain, you'll realize that this thinking is completely out of order.
Additionally, I find most novice bodybuilders have the core stability of a linguini noodle. It's that ability for the leg impulse to travel through the core of the lower back and pelvic muscles that delivers more strength to the upper extremities. Priority must be placed on developing the muscles of the lower back and pelvis.
The snatch deadlift (a deadlift with a shoulder shrug) is one of the best lifts to rate total body strength. Being able to lift 1.5 times bodyweight is ideal. If you can't at least snatch deadlift your body weight, then this is where you begin your arm program, not in front of the mirror doing shameless concentration curls with the pink dumbbells.
To figure this out, just look at your strength. The higher your strength on a given lift, the better the exercise is for mass development. It's no coincidence that the standing lifts are your stronger lifts since they require tapping into the entire kinetic chain. Once your core is stabilized, priority is placed on the muscles further up the chain.
Pelvic control can be tested through a simple test developed by physical therapists called the Trendelenburg Glute Test. This procedure evaluates the strength of the gluteus muscle on the stance side and requires some assistance. Have someone stand behind you and observe the dimples overlying the buttocks. (Insert your own politically incorrect joke here.) These dimples are to the side of the spine just above the belt line. Normally, when you bear weight evenly on both legs, these dimples appear level.
Next stand on one leg. If you stand straight, the gluteus muscle on the stance side should contract as soon as the opposite leg leaves the ground and should elevate the pelvis on the unsupported side. This elevation indicates that the glute muscle on the supported side is functioning properly (negative Trendelenburg sign). If the pelvis on the unsupported side remains in position or actually drops, the gluteus on the stance side is either weak or non-functioning (positive Trendelenburg sign).
The Hollywood Microcycle
I call the following workout the Hollywood Microcycle. It's designed to correct the previous weaknesses. If I'm training a showbiz hotshot and they only give me 12 weeks to produce, I'll start with this cycle.
This microcycle is designed to quickly increase lower back strength and total-body muscle mass. In personal training circles, the snatch deadlift is a serious shortcut, so I'll use it as my primary exercise. By the way, it's best not to squat while you're involved with this program due to the intense loading on the spine.
Here's an outline of the program which is designed to be performed every fifth day for 30 days, a total of six workouts. I'll explain the lifts below in more detail.
A Snatch deadlift
- Sets: 6
- Reps: 6
- Rep Speed: 505*
- Rest Interval: 180 seconds
Each week decrease the reps by one, increase the sets by one, and increase the weight 5%. Then lay off five days and retest your 1 RM for the snatch deadlift. For an extra kick, hold the bar isometrically just below the knees on the last rep of each set. This will send your low back strength up to the next level.
Also note the "505" rep speed or tempo. Due in part to the maximum weight being used, the concentric speed of the bar will be slow and actually take approximately 5 seconds to lift, even though the trainee is lifting explosively. Also, a concentric rep will "shock" the nervous system much the same way that varied speed sports (such as gymnastics) produce the strongest athletes.
B1 Step-ups with hip flexion
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 10-12
- Rep Speed: 501
- Rest Interval: 15 seconds
B2 Leg Curls, prone
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 8-10
- Rep Speed: 402
- Rest Interval: 120 seconds
Note: The "B1-B2" designations just mean that you superset these two movements.
C One leg calf raises
- Sets: 3 each leg
- Reps: 12-15
- Rep Speed: 222
- Rest Interval: 60 seconds
This exercise is almost identical to a traditional deadlift: hands outside the knees, feet straight. Grasp the bar using a pronated, overhand grip (palms facing you.) Using an arched back, lift the bar and position it across the mid-thigh. Elbows are soft-locked and the chin and neck are retracted with the head in a neutral position.
Stand and lift the weight from the floor, then shoulder shrug the weight once the bar is at belt level. (At the point that the bar has reached mid-thigh level, the lifter simultaneously starts the shrug.) Lower the bar in constant contact with the body, scraping it past the knees and along the shins.
Step-ups with hip flexion
Start by holding a barbell across your shoulders with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Tuck the elbows directly under the bar at all times. Plant one foot on a 12 to 18 inch bench. Slightly externally rotate the toes on that planted leg. Using the active contraction of the thigh, raise your other "free" leg to bench level. Once that foot reaches bench level, bend the knee and flex the hip of the free leg. This will cause an unstable, diagonal pattern across the pelvis and induce pelvic strength.
Leg Curls (prone)
This is simply a lying hamstring curl performed on a machine.
One leg calf raises
These can be performed in a standing calf machine or by standing on a box on one leg and holding a dumbbell.
Stop doing those mindless arm routines you picked up like a foot fungus in the shower of the gym and focus on rebuilding your arm mass from the ground up. Realize your genetic potential, develop a strong core, test your hip flexibility and get ready to grow!
The second part of this article deals with the contribution of the shoulder blade (scapula) muscles to position the arm for advanced development, including a practical method of discovering your biceps weak points. Stay tuned.
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