My friends, it's time for another quickie. If you read my previous quickie article, then you now know three great techniques for busting those stubborn plateaus. This time, I'm reaching deeper into my big ol' bag of tricks to conjure up three training techniques for stimulating great gains, fast.
When I was working in St. Louis, my friend Stef Cazeault, who's also an outstanding coach, asked me how I made such drastic progress with my biceps. He remembered me from 2003 at a time when I was lean and muscular, but essentially had no biceps mass, separation, or thickness. When he saw me in 2007, though, the picture was drastically different. Now, I'm no Ronnie Coleman, but my once-flat biceps are now pretty darn good.
At first he thought it took me the whole four years to improve them, but truth be told, most of the gains I made occurred in eight weeks. All I did was follow a special but extremely simple biceps routine; the very same routine, in fact, that I'm going to share with you now.
The program is performed two or three times a week. I did it three times a week, but I have great recovery capacity from my days of Olympic lifting. It's a very short program (around 20-25 minutes), so you can actually perform it at the end of a regular workout. Obviously, don't perform it two days in a row, or the day before training your back.
You'll perform three arm flexor exercises:
- Steep preacher curl (preacher curls on the side of the bench that's directly perpendicular to the ground).
- Steep dumbbell hammer preacher curl.
- Steep reverse grip preacher curl.
You'll perform 5 to 8 sets of each. Yes, you heard me right.
And now I hear some of you screaming "Whaaaaaat?! 15 to 24 sets for biceps, are you crazy, Thib?" Not in the least. Before you say anything about overtraining, allow me to continue.
None of the sets are performed to muscle failure, or close to it. Well, it might happen at the end of the workout, especially if your work capacity is low, but overall the actual stress of each set isn't maximal. So 24 sets will actually have the same training stress impact as 12-15 sets (which is within the norm when it comes to volume for a body part).
The key is progression. My original program lasted 8 weeks (two phases of 4 weeks), but you can also use it for a short cycle of 4 weeks to spark some new growth. The guidelines are as follow:
- You'll use the same weight for the whole duration of a 4 weeks cycle.
- This means that if you perform the program 3 times per week you use the same weight for 12 workouts.
- You don't change the weight during a workout, either.
- If you extend it to an 8-week cycle, you'll increase the load only on the fifth week.
- Rest intervals are kept to 45 seconds between sets, ideally. If your work capacity sucks you can bump it up to 60 seconds until you improve.
- You start each cycle with a load you can lift for 5 difficult but solid reps.
- Week 1: perform 8 sets of 3 reps (with the weight you could do 5 times) of each of the three exercises
- Week 2: perform 7 sets of 4 reps with the same weights
- Week 3: perform 6 sets of 5 reps with the same weights
- Week 4: perform 5 sets of 6 reps with the same weights
At the conclusion of a 4-week cycle, if your nutrition was in line (mass gaining approach) you should have added at least half an inch to your arm. It should also look more solid and dense.
If you decide to start a new cycle, keep the same three exercises and loading parameters but start the cycle with 5 to 10 more pounds on each of the three movements.
As you can see it's a fairly simple and straight-forward program. Nothing fancy, but it works! Why does it work? Relatively heavy loading, stimulating a pump with a heavy weight, planned progression, and a relatively high frequency (to improve neuromuscular activation of the biceps). Give it a shot and your upper arm size and strength gains won't disappoint you.
- If your biceps have been stuck at the same size since the Reagan administration, doing an intensive forearm and hands specialization phase is probably the best way to get those suckers to grow! Weak forearms lead to curl poundages that are way inferior to what your arm flexors (especially biceps and brachialis) should be able to handle. As a result they're being under-stimulated. Drastically increasing forearm and hand strength is thus one of the fastest ways to significantly increase curling strength and upper arm size.
- Improving forearm and hand strength is one of the fastest ways to increase pulling strength.
- Having balanced forearm muscles (developing every function of the forearms) is one of the best ways to prevent elbow tendinitis, golf elbow, and tennis elbow. Most training enthusiasts are too weak in forearm pronation movements compared to their forearms supination motion. And both functions often pale in comparison to elbow flexion strength. This can open up the door to some elbow injuries, which can be prevented by making sure that all the functions of the forearms and elbow functions are relatively proportional. Furthermore, having strong forearms reduces the stress of repetitive actions at the elbow joint (e.g. golf swing, tennis swing).
- Many sports require a high level of forearm and hand strength. The obvious examples are baseball, golf, and tennis. However, the benefits of having strong forearms and hands transfer to practically every sport, such as football (especially defense and quarterback), judo, wrestling, mixed martial arts, powerlifting and Olympic lifting, arm wrestling, and rock climbing.
- It's obvious that stronger hands and forearms will improve performance in the deadlift, curls, pulls, and Olympic lifting movements. But did you know that it can also drastically improve your bench pressing strength? Stronger hands, thicker wrists and forearms provide a more solid base when holding the bar. That's why powerlifters often wear wrist wraps when bench pressing. Weak hands, wrists and forearms lead to more wrist strain and more energy loss when pressing. It also makes the bar feel heavier. Don't believe me? Load the bar with close to your max and try to bench press it while keeping your hands and forearms as relaxed as possible: the bar will feel like it weighs a ton! Squeeze the bar as hard as possible and it'll feel 50 pounds lighter. Having the bar feel lighter is a psychological advantage that you shouldn't sneeze at when attempting a maximum lift.
- Big forearms make you look strong even in an extra baggy t-shirt.
In fact, forearms are at the top of my MI:3 list. These are the three areas I consider to be the most important, but also the most neglected when it comes to being functional and reducing the risk of injuries.
The MI:3 areas are:
- Forearms/hands: A high level of development helps reduce the risk of elbow tendonitis, and make every movement involving the hands more effective.
- Trunk (abdominals and lower back): Strong trunk muscles greatly reduce the risk of lower back injuries, improve posture and stability and make you stronger in every movement where you're standing).
- Glutes: Weak glutes lead to hip instability, which can lead to knee, ankle and lower back strains, which can lead to injuries. With strong glutes, you can also run faster, jump higher, and change direction more easily.
Perhaps they aren't glamorous muscles, but if you're interested in being injury-free and increasing your performance level, they're of prime importance.
Most trainees adopt one of two training styles when it comes to forearms:
- They don't perform any direct forearm work, but get their forearm stimulation from the curls and pulling movements they're doing.
- They do include some form of direct forearm work, but generally train them as an afterthought, with a few sets of wrist curls and reverse curls here and there.
I admit that for some people these methods might be enough to squeeze some growth out of their forearms. For most, however, it'll lead to suboptimal gains and a functional imbalance: you're much stronger in some actions (such as wrist flexion and elbow supination) than in others.
The upshot is that most people would benefit greatly from paying more attention to building and strengthening their forearms and hands by working on every function of these structures.
So if you want big bowling pin forearms, here's a good program for you:
- A1. Thor's hammer supination/pronation
- 5 x 4-6 per side
- Slow and controlled movements
- 90 seconds rest
Note that you can make your own Thor's hammer by using an adjustable dumbbell handle. Put weight plates only on one side. If you're really cool, you'll refer to it as "Mjolnir".
- A2. Reverse barbell preacher curl
- 5 x 4-6
- Extend wrist at the end of the curling movement
- 90 seconds rest
- B1. Wrist curl (flexion)
- 4 x 12-15
- Hold peak contraction 2 seconds on each rep
- 75 seconds rest
- B2. Wrist roller
- 4 x 3-4 "up and down"
- 75 seconds rest
- C1. Radial flexion *
- 3 x 12-15
- 30 seconds rest
- C2. Ulnar flexion *
- 3 x 12-15
- 30 seconds rest
* The version of the two flexion exercises illustrated above, borrowed from Charles Poliquin, use a special cable handle. Alternatively, you may use the Thor's hammer, with the weighted end on the thumb side for radial flexion and on the pinkie side for ulnar flexion.
Because forearms can be trained more often, you can perform this routine twice a week: once at the end of your torso/back workout, and once more at the end of your arms/biceps workout. For example:
- Day 1: Torso (chest/back) + forearms
- Day 2: Lower body
- Day 3: OFF
- Day 4: Arms (triceps/biceps) + forearms
- Day 5: OFF
- Day 6: Shoulders
- Day 7: OFF
Or, you can train them on their own day.
Enhanced biofeedback to improve muscle recruitment
Enhanced biofeedback refers to an increase in the sensation that you have for the target muscle group. The easiest way to do this is to utilize the pre-fatigue technique. Pre-fatigue is a method in which you superset (perform two movements without rest) two exercises for the same muscle group. The first one is an isolation exercise and the second one is a general/multi-joint movement.
Example of a pre-fatigue superset: pec deck machine immediately followed by the bench press. The pec deck set will allow you to feel your pecs working while bench pressing.
Most people will have trouble feeling and recruiting a lagging muscle when doing an exercise in which other muscles have an opportunity to take over.
For example, in the bench press you're more likely to have trouble feeling your chest working than when you're doing a set of pec deck flies. This is because in the bench press you're much more likely to use other muscles to take over the chest while in the pec deck movement, even if you suck at recruiting your chest, the pecs will still take on most of the workload because there's hardly any other muscles around to take over.
This is especially true of "central" muscle groups like the chest, back and glutes. Peripheral muscle groups like biceps, triceps, forearms, quads, hamstrings, and calves generally don't come with that problem.
So by performing an isolation movement such as pec deck, crossover, or flies, you'll pump up the pectorals, which increases intramuscular pressure. This increase in pressure will allow you to better feel your chest working during a general pressing movement like a bench press or incline press. Furthermore, since the chest is already somewhat fatigued, it'll take less stimulation from the multi-joint exercise to stimulate growth.
Simply put, the pre-fatigue technique will allow you to become better at feeling (and thus recruiting) a lagging muscle group. It's an inferior technique for those who don't have any lagging muscle groups, because it forces you to use much less weight in the "meat and potatoes" multi-joint movement. But to learn how to integrate a lagging muscle group into a multi-joint movement, it's a good strategy.
Here are good combos if you plan to use the pre-fatigue technique to enhance the mind-muscle connection with your back.
|Pre-fatigue (first) exercise||Adequate second (compound) exercises|
|Straight-arm pulldown||Chin-ups, pull-ups, lat pulldowns, rope lat pulldowns|
|High pulley cross-rowing with fixed elbow angle||Chin-ups, pull-ups, lat pulldowns, rope lat pulldowns|
|Low pulley cross-rowing with fixed elbow angle||Bent-over barbell row, 1-arm dumbbell row, chest-supported dumbbell row, chest-supported T-bar row, seated cable row|
|Chest-supported dumbbell shrugs||Bent-over barbell row, 1-arm dumbbell row, chest-supported dumbbell row, chest-supported T-bar row, seated cable row|
|Seated scapular retraction||Bent-over barbell row, 1-arm dumbbell row, chest-supported dumbbell row, chest-supported T-bar row, seated cable row|
|Decline cable pullover||Chin-ups, pull-ups, lat pulldowns, rope lat pulldowns|
|Rear deltoid/rhomboid raises||Bent-over barbell row, 1-arm dumbbell row, chest-supported dumbbell row, chest-supported T-bar row, seated cable row|
Here's a list of good exercise combinations when using the pre-fatigue technique to improve pectoral recruitment via enhanced feedback.
|Pre-fatigue (first) exercise||Adequate second (compound) exercises|
|High pulley cable cross-over handles kept close to the body (in the finish position)||Dips|
|High pulley cable cross-over handles in front of the body but in line with the hips (in the finish position)||Decline bench press, decline dumbbell press|
|High pulley cable cross-over handles in front of the body but in line with the chest (in the finish position)||Flat bench press, flat dumbbell press|
|Low pulley cable cross-over handles in line with the abdomen (in the finish position)||Flat bench press, flat dumbbell press|
|Low pulley cable cross-over handles in line with the upper chest/collarbone (in the finish position)||Incline bench press, incline dumbbell press|
|Flat cable flies||Flat bench press, flat dumbbell press|
|Decline cable flies||Decline bench press, decline dumbbell press, dips|
|Incline cable flies||Incline bench press, incline dumbbell press|
|Flat dumbbell flies||Flat bench press, flat dumbbell press|
|Decline dumbbell flies||Decline bench press, decline dumbbell press, dips|
|Pec deck machine, hands lower than shoulders||Decline bench press, decline dumbbell press, dips|
|Pec deck machine, hands in line with shoulders||Flat bench press, flat dumbbell press|
|Pec deck machine, hands higher than shoulders||Incline bench press, incline dumbbell press|
As we said before, the pre-fatigue technique isn't an optimal approach to stimulate growth if you're already efficient at feeling/recruiting the target muscle group during the execution of the compound movement. This is because performing the isolation exercise first will reduce your performance in that compound movement, which is the money exercise.
Keep the pre-fatigue technique for when you have problems developing a central muscle group, because you can't recruit it optimally during the performance of compound movements. It's also a good method to use for beginners since it'll allow them to learn to feel their muscles right off the bat.
If you're already efficient at recruiting your central muscles and you want to use a similar "advanced" technique, I would suggest the post-fatigue method. It's essentially the same concept: performing two exercises for the same muscle group as a superset, but you start with the compound movement and you follow with the isolation one. If you decide to use that method to stimulate muscle growth, you can use the same tables that we just presented, simply reverse the exercise order.
Magnum guns, bowling pin forearms, and a Herculean torso, all in one article. What else do you want, a photo of Jamie Eason in a skimpy leopard-print bikini?
Good training to you all.