In part 1, we took a comprehensive look at the genetic and absolute strength requirements for building impressive biceps. And, rather than just spouting my own dogma, I gave you a useful method to identify and stabilize the core for additional upper-extremity growth.
Now that you’re on your way to shoring up your core so that it’s the human equivalent of a suit of a titanium girdle, let’s continue our investigation on how to identify and fix some other things that might be hampering your development.
Part 2 will tell you how to effectively…
- Determine shoulder-blade position
- Determine upper-extremity support strength
- Determine biceps balance and potential
- Determine your total potential
Jellyfish Like Stability
Several years ago, I ran into an athlete that had contracted a strange neurological virus. This virus preferentially deteriorated the left axillary nerve that supplies the shoulder stabilizers with sensation.
The disease impaired his ability to fire his left trap and levator scapula in most planes of motion. Consequently, the left trap was as flat as a pancake. It wasn’t so strange that his trap was flat. That was to be expected. What was really unexpected was that his left biceps muscle was also atrophied. It looked like it belonged on one of those Olsen twins from TV.
In fact, his left arm was 5″ smaller than his right! This was my first lesson in the shoulder-arm connection. What I learned was that you can’t build “mountainous” biceps peaks with “flat” traps. Apparently, your nervous system senses the lack of strength in the shoulder stabilizers (e.g. trapezius) and shuts down all primary movers (e.g. biceps).
Bottom line: optimal function and stability around the scapula improves strength production and reduces wear and tear on the rotator cuff during arm training. Because functional loss of these muscles makes the scapula unable to counterbalance the weight of the arm during weight training, weakness and scapular “winging” result (a condition where the scapula flares out). An easy way to detect this imbalance is to simply look at the scapula.
The Right Winger
We’re not talking about hockey here, but shoulder problems! The test for scapular winging is this: if you can see or feel the medial angle of the shoulder blade (inside edge of the spine – between 5 and 11 o’clock), you’ve got winging. Alternately, your scapula is also probably winging if you get stuck in the bottom position on the bench press, in which case you need to fix the winging and get additional serratus work. (The latter can be accomplished with additional military press work and incline front raises.)
Here’s a routine to correct scapular winging:
Push press, barbell
The push press is a shoulder press that utilizes the entire body. Start by standing, with a shoulder-width grip and the barbell resting on anterior delts. Squat one-fourth of the way down to initiate the momentum. Next, press the bar straight over the head to a soft lockout while exploding up on to the toes. Finish by lowering the weight to your shoulders.
L-lateral raise, dumbbell
Same as a traditional lateral raise, except the elbows are bent at 90 degrees during the lift. Additionally, there’s an external rotation motion of the lower arm that follows the 90- degree abduction. In other words, as you complete the “lateral raise” portion of the movement, rotate the lower arm up and outward (while maintaining the 90-degree angle throughout the exercise and keeping the wrists neutral).
Incline front raise, dumbbell, semi-supinated
This is pretty much the same as a conventional front raise, except that you’ll use a semi-supinated grip and you’ll be doing the front raises at an angle. Grab a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing each other. Lie on an incline bench set to 45 degrees. With the elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells from the bottom position (at your side) to a perpendicular angle to the bench. Lower the weight under control to a dead stop before proceeding.
If indeed you do have scapular winging, you need to do the following routine 2 times a week for 4 weeks. It should also replace your current back routine:
|A. Push press*||5||3-5||30X||180 sec.|
|B1** L-lateral raise||3||10-12||501||0 sec.|
|B2 Incline front raise,DB||3||10-12||501||60 sec.|
* Stretch the traps and neck in between sets.
**B1 and B2 means to do the L-lateral raises, and then, without resting, proceed to the incline front raises. You’d do that 3 times.
Best Supporting Role
Many T-mag readers will find that they’ve got the correct shoulder blade balance (no winging). For you non-wingers, it’ll then be a question of your shoulders being strong enough to support your arm mass. If you suffer from stiff necks or stressfully tight traps, it’s likely that you need to stop pounding the prime movers (the biceps) and re-focus on the stabilizing muscles.
The lower trapezius, levator scapula and serratus anterior make up the sub shoulder-blade muscles. Because these are the primary support muscles for the arms and are often neglected by using the basic “Joe Weider” approach, they represent a natural weak link for the average iron freak to target. A secret weapon I use to save months of wasted training is to figure out whether the traps are strong enough to support additional arm mass.
Here’s how you can test yourself:
First, test your ACTUAL 1RM standing biceps curl using a barbell with a 303 tempo and your back flat against a wall. Your buttocks and shoulders must contact the wall at all times. Warm up with several sets progressively. Please don’t cheat! As your first-grade teacher used to say, “You’ll only be cheating yourself!”
Carve this number into your forehead or, better yet, write it down somewhere.
Now we’ll use some math to figure out what your predicted 1RM should be.
Predicted 1RM Based on Muscle Size
Since maximal force is proportional to the cross-sectional area or volume of the biceps the following equation will – based on your biceps size – estimate your biceps strength.
Example case – a lifter with a 16.5″ circumference (42cm) arm
Note:To convert to centimeters, multiply your arm measurement by 2.545
- Subtract your contracted arm circumference in cm by 2.4: (42cm. – 2.4) = 39.6
- Square it (Multiply it by itself): (39.6 x 39.6) = 1568.2
- Divide that by 12.56: (1568.2 / 12.56) = 124.9
- Multiply that by 4.7: (4.7 x 124.9) = 568.8
- Divide that by 9.8: (558.8 / 9.8) = 61.1
- This your 1RM strength in kg. To convert to pounds, multiply by 2.2: (61.1 x 2.2) = 134.4
So our example person should have a 122 lb.(give or take 10 lb.) standing biceps curl based on their cross sectional area. If the actual 1RM is greater then predicted, I’d delay additional strength training and develop more arm cross sectional area (work on hypertrophy). The best routine I’ve discovered for this is wave-like loading using sets of 5, 7, 3, 5, 7, 3 where you increase the weight 5% on each wave (each set of 5, 7, and 3 is one wave).
If, however, your 1RM is at or below the predicted value, then your traps can’t even support a caffeine habit, let alone larger arms. The following 3-week specialization progression will produce Herculean upper back, shoulder and arm development by re-balancing the muscles and strengthening the scapula.
Seated rope row to neck
Sit down in front of a low-row pulley system with the kind of rope often used in triceps pushdowns. Bend the knees slightly. Grasp both ends of the rope with your hands spaced 8″ apart, palms facing down. Pull the rope until the center of the rope touches your collarbone. Your elbows will flare out during the exercise. Do not, however, poke your head forward during the exercise.
Bent over EZ-bar rows
Use an “under” handgrip. Grasp an EZ-curl bar with a shoulder-width grip. Keep your back slightly arched and your knees flexed at 15 degrees . Keep your chin in and your head in line with your back. On the contraction, squeeze the bar to the upper abdomen. Emphasize the rhomboids and middle trapezius.
Prone position trap raises
Lie prone (belly down) on an incline bench set at 45Õ . Grip two dumbbells with the thumbs up (like in a hammer curl). Keeping the arms straight, elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells toward the ceiling, finishing at a 45-degree angle from your head. Retract your shoulder blades (squeeze them together) at the top position. This targets the middle and lower trapezius.
Holding a pair of dumbbells, the athlete stands with the arms in the scapular plane (same position as a lateral raise) with the thumbs down. As the arms are raised, they begin to rotate externally (thumbs begin to rotate outward). By the time the arms are at shoulder level, the thumbs should be facing up. The elbows stay straight throughout the exercise.
Here’s a simple routine incorporating all four movements (you’ll need to do this program twice a week for 3 weeks, and it should take the place of your regular back routine):
|A1 Seated rope row to the neck||3||10-12||131||0 sec.|
|A2 Bent over EZ-bar rows||3||10-12||501||0 sec.|
|A3 Prone trap raises||3||12-15||301||120 sec.|
|B. Scaption||3||15||404||60 sec.|
Note: By the way, I can also use the previous prediction formula to figure out how much strength I need to support future growth. For instance a contracted 18″ (46 cm.) gun would need to be able to do at least a 160 lb. strict, single.
The need to unwind
After establishing or ensuring upper-extremity strength, the next link in our relay is the rotator cuff. Rotator cuff activation follows scapular muscle activation. With that in mind, shoulder joint stability and strength will increase by:
- Increasing trapezius and pectoralis minor flexibility.
- Improving external-rotation strength.
There are various massage and stretching techniques that will handle the first point. Active Release Techniques and PNF stretching work well.
The second point is more problematic. Let me put it to you this way, what bodybuilding lifts are overdone more than an Italian wedding? Presses and chins or pull downs, which involve the chest (pectoralis major and minor, the middle-back lattissimus dorsi) and to a lesser degree, the lower neck muscles (upper-trapezius).
Undoubtedly, these are important, visually satisfying muscles that look great in a skintight tank. However, focusing primarily on these muscles leads to rounded, sloped shoulders, and a turtle-like neck reflex. The reason for this is simple. Their function is in internal rotation. There is little priority placed on the opposing muscles, the external rotators.
This is likely due to the faulty belief that the pull-up or chin is the opposite motion of a bench press. Not so. Related to the rotator cuff, the flat bench press and chin-up develop the internal rotators – the lats and pecs. Therefore, it’s easy to see that most trainees quickly develop a lack of external rotation strength.
In order to properly decelerate and stabilize arm movements required to pack on size, you’ll need a ratio of (3:2) internal to external rotational torque. In other words, your external strength should be 66% of your internal strength.
To test your internal/external strength ratio, simply test your 10-rep max on the internal cable rotation (description below) using a 303 tempo. Multiply it by 66% and test that weight for 10 reps of external cable rotation (description below) at a 303 tempo.
Please don’t actually perform a 1RM as this is potentially dangerous.
Note: Functional exercises that activate the entire kinetic chain are the best choices. Isolation exercises, i.e., single movement exercises (eg. external dumbbell rotations) can be used after the functional exercises.
Did you have trouble doing 10 strict reps of external rotation? Then the following 3-week, external rotator microcycle will be effective. Perform it 2 times per week for three weeks. If your external strength is really poor and your posture is affected (slumped over), then you should perform this routine and stretch your chest in place of your current chest routine. Don’t worry about your bench. I guarantee it’ll go up after 3 weeks.
Start by holding a barbell with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Upright row the bar until it reaches the lower portion of your sternum. Rotate the arms outward until the forearms are perpendicular to the ground, then finish the exercise by pressing the bar overhead. Reverse the movement. (Editor’s note: in some circles, this movement is also known as the Cuban press.)
Internal cable rotation
This exercise starts with legs staggered and feet parallel to one another. Grab the high cable with an overhand (pronated) grip. The starting position is with the elbow at a right angle. Initiate the movement by rotating the hips. Then follow through diagonally with the arm ending at the front leg.
External cable rotation
This exercise starts with legs straddled and feet perpendicular to one another (in other words, the rear foot should be pointing at a 90-degree angle from your body). Grab the low cable using an overhand (pronated) grip. Initiate the movement by standing and rotating the hips. Then follow diagonally with the active arm forming a right angle in the elbow at the top position.
Side Lying abduction
Lie on your side on an incline bench. The start position is the arm (and dumbbell) in a neutral (adducted) position. Abduct the arm (move it away from the body) until the arm is fully raised. Repeat.
Here’s a simple routine incorporating all three movments. You’ll need to do it 2 times a week for 3 weeks, and it should substitute for your regular shoulder routine. Feel free to add it to the preceding scapular strength routine:
|A *Muscle snatch||5||6-8||301||120 sec.|
|B1 External cable rotation||3||10-12||301||0 sec.|
|B2 Side Lying abduction||3||10-12||301||60 sec.|
*Stretch the lats and chest in between sets to facilitate external rotator activation.
Big Bi and Little Bi
We’re finally at the distal target muscle of our chain – the biceps.
Proper biceps muscle strength consists of balance between the arm flexors and extensors (biceps and triceps) as well as the two primary biceps muscles, the biceps brachii and the brachialis. Since this article deals with biceps development and quite frankly, most bodybuilders have optimal tri to bi’s ratio 1.6 to 1, I’ll just focus on the elbow flexor dynamic.
Both elbow flexors function to bend the elbow and help stabilize the shoulder. I, along with other coaches, have discovered that most trainees have very weak bracialis muscles compared to the biceps brachii. The brachalis should be roughly 70% of your biceps strength.
To test this, simply multiply your actual standing curl max. (from the previous exercise) by 70% or 0.7. Then, try to reverse curl that weight with strict form. If you fall short, you need to do the following 3-week cycle to restore brachalis balance.
Do it just once a week, replacing your current biceps routine. Feel free to add your current triceps routine, but make sure not to exceed 18-22 total sets for arms.
|A1. E/Z Bar reverse curl, standing||5||6-8||503||120 sec.|
|B1. Hammer curls, incline, DB||3||10-12||201||15 sec.|
|B2. Cable palms-up wrist curls||3||12-15||201||15 sec.|
|B3. Cable palms-down wrist curls||3||12-15||201||120 sec.|
Get the girl
I’ve exposed key links in the performance chain that, unfortunately, are weak for most bodybuilders and strength athletes. The next move is to step up and customize this to your own needs. Take one training day and perform the entire battery of tests. Learn where in the chain you’re the weakest and strongest. For instance, one of my trainees just discovered that his stabilizer strength was 25% more than predicted!
Since he has average tendon insertions and average fiber make-up, I know that this is no genetic fluke. In fact, this is the ideal set-up for massive gains! Better yet, up until now he was training for relative strength, so this test not only answers his size wet dreams, it tells him that it’s time to switch modes by training differently.
All he needs is more time under this heightened level of tension. A workout based on volume, for instance, work capacity progression incorporating sets of 12,10,8,8,10,25 with lower rest intervals, will easily lay down another 1 1/2″ of Bike growth in no time flat.
It’s clear that I’m expecting a certain amount of mathematic ability and work on your part, but biceps development requires effort. Just think, though, how good they’ll look when draped around another guy’s girlfriend.
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