From Bonsai to Bamboo

Biceps Exercises for the Genetically Challenged


I'm genetically challenged. I guess that's a nice way of saying that I have some gimp-like aspects. True, I've got my strengths. For instance, I scored an 800 on the verbal part of my SAT. I only scored a 2 on the math part, though. For some reason, I'm just not very good at that stuff. I mean, I can't even make a phone call without getting math anxiety. All those numbers!

My body's the same way. I do okay with my upper legs, back, and even chest (that is, before I blew a pec two months ago). My biceps? They suck. Charles Poliquin used to call me some German term for which the approximate translation was "asparagus arms." Nice guy.

However, I've never been willing to let nature have its way. I keep looking for new ways to make my biceps grow as fast as a bamboo plant, as opposed to a bonsai tree. Given my height and long limbs, though, I could gain a half-inch on them during my next workout and it wouldn't make all that much difference. However, if you took that same half-inch and troweled it on to some fireplug of a guy, he'd look like he just injected a Heinz Ketchup bottle of synthol in those babies.

Another bad thing about biceps, or arms in general, is that it's damn hard to add size to them and them alone, without adding weight or size to the whole body. Nature's just not that kind. You normally have to add weight all over in order to make a sizable increase in the girth of your arms. That same, mean, Poliquin guy theorized that it took an overall weight gain of about 15 pounds to achieve an inch of growth on the biceps. That may be true of the average height man, but in my experience – at least for us taller guys – it's more like 20 pounds, or even 25!

In any event, I've spent as much time experimenting with biceps exercises as Hannibal Lecter has spent learning new recipes for serving brain.

Here are a few of the ones that I've found to be the most effective, especially for the genetically challenged:

Standing Barbell Curls

Okay, so you're saying, "Standing Barbell curls? Wow, TC, I never hoid' of those!" Sure, this exercise is about as elemental as it gets. Still, in all my years of going into gyms around the world, I'd have to say that the number of lifters who do this movement correctly would fit into an old-fashioned phone booth.

You may know the drill – shoulders relaxed, elbows glued to the side, and no "body English," but most people toss all of this out the window when it comes time to actually do the movement. The lure of using big weights is just too great, and few people have the strength to avoid their Siren call.

Therefore, in addition to using a Swiss Ball – placed between your back and a wall – to keep your posture Kosher, place one 2 1/2-pound plate between each upper arm and your torso. (It's a great little trick that I learned from one of our readers.) That way, if your elbows tend to move either forward or away from the body, the weights will fall to the floor and hopefully break your toes, in which case you'll always use good form from that point on.

Furthermore, keep your wrists neutral. While Pavel T, in an interview in this same issue says to bend your wrist toward your body while doing curls, he's concerned with functionality, and working your wrist flexors while doing curls would build them up so you could potentially tear the throat out of one of your attackers. However, for those of us who don't lead lives as exciting as Pavel's, it constitutes cheating.

Reverse Incline Hammer Curls

I've never seen anyone doing this movement, but I'd be surprised if I invented it. You simply take an incline bench and adjust it so that it's at a 60 to 70-degree angle. Then, after grabbing a pair of dumbbells, sit backward on the bench, so that your chest is leaning against the bench. Let the dumbbells hang straight down, and using a hammer grip, curl both dumbbells up so that they touch your shoulders.

This is a cool movement for a variety of reasons. First of all, it's impossible to use body English on them. Secondly, it makes it really difficult to recruit the front deltoids, which allows for a more "pure" biceps movement. It also allows you to draw the elbows back a bit as you curl the weights up, which helps recruit the long head of the biceps, which seems to be underdeveloped in most bodybuilders. And lastly – and this is subtle – it forces you to straighten the arm out completely. Most lifters have some sort of a Popeye syndrome where they almost never fully extend their arms, but by doing this movement – straightening the arm out completely – it may actually feel like the elbow is hyperextended.

Preacher Curl Zottmans

For those of you unfamiliar with Zottmans, they're a unique movement that combines a traditional dumbbell curl with a dumbbell reverse curl. By combining the two movements, you're stressing all the elbow flexors, but with particular emphasis on the short head of the brachialis. You simply raise the dumbbell in the conventional way with the hands supinated (with the palms up). When you reach the top, you rotate the palms so that the palms are now facing downward.

These are typically done while sitting on the edge of a bench or while seated in an incline, but I prefer to do them Ian King style, which is on a Preacher curl bench. (True Ian King style would require you to wear a loincloth made out of a wallaby pelt, but that's not necessary for our purposes.) Do them one arm at a time (otherwise, it feels awkward), and position your torso so that you're sitting sideways on the bench and the working arm is extended straightaway from the body (in other words, the torso, shoulder, and arm form a straight line).

Also, make sure you jam the edge of the preacher bench into your armpit to make it almost impossible to cheat.

As you raise the dumbbell toward you, don't bother coming up all the way up. Instead, stop at the exact point where you begin to lose tension. If you go any further, the line of force is parallel with gravity and you're not doing your muscles any good.

Again, like the other two movements I've discussed, Preacher Curl Zottmans don't allow you to use body English. Just remember to keep the traps relaxed and that armpit firmly jammed against the edge of the bench.

Crippled Dumbbell Inclines

I call these "Crippled" inclines because not only will you look a little physically challenged while doing them, but because they'll also cause you to have trouble functioning in the days that follow.

For the most part, these are done like conventional Incline Dumbbell curls. You just lie on an incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand. However, before you curl the weights upward, bend your wrists backward as far as they'll go and keep them that way for the duration of the movement. This not only takes the forearm flexors out of the movement, but it also makes the movement much more difficult. You'll undoubtedly have to use less weight.

While doing conventional Incline Dumbbell Curls, the tendency is to have the elbow move forward during the lifting part of the motion, but that isn't so much the case with "Crippled Dumbbell Inclines," which makes it that much more effective.

While this exercise is good for working that all-important long head of the biceps, the bent-wrist action also tends to bring in, kicking and screaming, the brachialis.

Eccentric Chins

You must wear oven mittens and a beanie while doing these; that's what makes them eccentric. Nah, these are called Eccentric Chins because there's no concentric, or lifting motion, involved. You'll simply be lowering yourself from a chin bar, taking 45 seconds. (If it's too easy, you'll need to hang some additional weight from your body.)

While chins up – with the palms facing you and the hands about 8-inches apart – are a great lat/biceps movement, you tend to tire out concentrically before you tire out eccentrically. That allows your lats to get more out of the movement than your biceps.

What I like to do is push a regular bench underneath a chin bar and step onto it. I grab the bar in the aforementioned grip and step off the bench so that my chin is directly above the chin bar. Then, over a count of 45 seconds, I slowly lower myself, spending some extra time in whatever range I happen to be weakest in. (For me, it's the bottom third of the movement, so I make sure to spend a good deal of the 45-seconds "hanging around" in this range.)

Make sure you lower yourself all the way, though, so that the arms are completely straight.

This movement is a great biceps "finisher." Do 1, 2, or even 3 "sets," depending on the workload imposed by the previous exercises in your biceps workout.

Lazy Man's Dumbbell Curls

I call these "lazy" curls because you do them while lying down, or nearly lying down. Don't think for a moment that they're named that because they're Homer Simpson's favorite exercise.

These are similar to regular old Incline Dumbbell Curls, except that instead of doing them with the bench at a 45-degree angle, you do them with the bench flat, or at most, a slight angle. (If your rotator cuffs belong on top of a junk heap somewhere, don't do these, or at least use caution.)

Just flatten the adjustable bench, grab a pair of dumbbells, and lie down with your back and butt against the bench. Begin with your arms and dumbbells hanging straight down (if you're long-limbed, like me, you might have to use a higher bench, or maybe even prop it up with some of those Reebok Steppers).

Simply curl the dumbbells up while trying not to move your elbows forward (or, in this case, up). Keep the wrists neutral and bring the weights up as high as possible.

This is a great movement for recruiting the long head of the biceps, and, like most of the exercises I've mentioned, takes cheating out of the equation.

Dumbbell Hangs

While this isn't a biceps movement, I'm convinced that this exercise has helped make my biceps grow. The anatomy books convinced me long ago that there are a few forearm muscles that contribute to elbow flexion, and if you work them, you'll end up building up the biceps and the brachialis.

While I've done my share of wrist curls and reverse wrist curls, the movement that seems to have helped me most is simple Dumbbell Hangs.

Just walk over to the dumbbell rack, pick up the heaviest pair of dumbbells you can handle, and simply hold on to them – with your arms hanging straight down and your elbows fully extended, for as long as you can.

If possible, keep your bulging eyes on a clock so that you can time yourself and try to improve from week to week.

As always, try to relax your shoulders and traps.

If you find yourself holding on to them for more than, say, 60 seconds, move up to a heavier pair. Repeat this exercise for 2 or 3 "sets" every time you work arms.

There's no wrist extension or flexion involved here, so the exercise in itself isn't going to contribute much to growth of the wrist or elbow flexors, but if it makes those muscles stronger, it'll allow you to use heavier poundages in other conventional biceps movements, which will then translate into additional growth.

There's obviously a lot more to building size and strength in the biceps than just using some novel exercises. Without proper rep and set schemes, a logical training split, lots of rest, a periodized approach to training, and stellar nutrition, it ain't going to happen.

Still, if you're doing all those things and you still haven't had any luck, try using some of these movements. Hell, if they helped my "asparagus arms," they'll help anyone's.