The "Problem" With Barbell Curls

If there's one exercise that every single person on the planet understands, it's the basic barbell curl. You can take a child that's still being potty trained and give him a toy barbell and he'll do curls.

Throw some dudes in prison and give them weights? Barbell curls all over the yard. Ask your granny to join you in the gym for some clangin' and bangin'? She'll find a barbell and start curling it.

It's as if the three most instinctive things in the human condition are...

  1. Survival
  2. Procreation
  3. Curling a barbell

Regardless, I actually read a lot of neat little insightful thoughts on social media about how barbell curls are a horrible choice for all sorts of anatomical reasons. Bad for the wrists, bad for the elbows, joints locked into a particular position, something about poor patterning or activation, blah blah blah.

Most of the time, this stuff is coming from dudes whose arms look like they spend their spare time whittling away at hunks of wood to make tiny little animal figures while sipping on non-caffeinated espressos.

Look dudes, barbell curls will build big biceps. Yes, a barbell locks the joints into a particular position. So what? So does the bench press. We're not throwing the barbell out with the bathwater because of that, are we? Hey, I'm a distinguished meathead, not an emasculated one.

A well-executed barbell curl is a thing of beauty. Full elbow extension with the biceps just sprawled out there in all their naked glory. Zero momentum to start the concentric phase. Veins erupting all over the place. Not a fatceps in sight.

Fatceps? That's what I call a dude's arm that's covered in layer after layer of thick walrus blubber as he crows about its size. No one cares about fatceps measurements. Not even your mom.

Back to barbell curls. This routine will include biceps curls. Get over it.

A Little Ranting About Triceps Too

The biggest bench pressers always have amazing triceps development. When I see guys struggling to really pack some meat on their triceps, without fail, their pressing numbers are usually weak.

I have no desire to debate all the reasons why that might be. I just find it odd (no, not really) that dudes with big bench numbers have big-ass arms, and dudes with pre-pubescent bench numbers have pre-pubescent triceps development.

But let's take care of all that – the lousy arms, the fatceps, and the toddler triceps development – with one program. It's the same program I used for 4 weeks. The results? Not too shabby.

Before and After Biceps

Here's the overview. I'll break down the details below and provide some videos of each exercise.

The Program

Day 1

Biceps

  • A. Barbell Curl: 4 x 8. The last 3 reps of each set are cheat curls. Use 5-second negatives on every rep. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
  • B. Incline Dumbbell Curl/Standing Alternating Curl Superset: 2 x 10 seated, then as many reps as possible (AMRAP) standing. Use 5-second negatives on every rep. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

Triceps

  • A. Rope or Independent Handle Pushdown (warm-up): 3-4 x 20.
  • B. Banded Close-Grip Bench in Rack: 2 x 6-8. Use a 1-second hold at lockout. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
  • C. PJR Pullover: 2 x 15-20. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

Day 2

Biceps

  • A. Preacher Hammer Curl: 2 "muscle rounds" (5 mini-sets of 4 reps + 1 AMRAP). Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
  • B. Concentration Curl with Offset Resistance Grip: 2 sets of 8/8/8 drop sets. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

Triceps

  • A. Rope or Independent Handle Pushdown (warm-up): 3-4 x 20.
  • B. Dip with Chains: 4 x 6-8. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
  • C. Pullover and Press: 4 x 15-20. Rest 60 seconds between sets.

The Details

Day 1 – Biceps

A. Barbell Curl, Strict Then Cheat

Take about a shoulder-width grip on the barbell. You want to flex the triceps before you ever start the first rep. This will force you to stop doing that stupid and ugly biceps curl where the biceps actually never get fully lengthened.

As you flex the triceps, pack your shoulders into your back pockets. This is a really low- rent way of telling you to retract and depress the scapula. What this does is keep you from getting all Hulk'd up at the initial start of the concentric. You know what I'm talking about – where you flex the traps and turn the barbell curl into sort of a reverse-grip clean.

On every rep, the focus should actually be on the eccentric/lowering phase. If your biceps growth has been non-existent, then accentuating the negative phase of the curl should cure your puny biceps woes. Take a full 5 seconds to lower the bar on every single rep.

We're now going to take a page out of Arnie's book and actually include some "cheat curls" to extend the set. You use just enough momentum to get the weight past the sticking point to grind out a few extra reps.

So that's 4 sets of 5 reps with 3 cheat reps at the end to extend the set. Let me repeat this. You need to be able to perform 4 sets of 5 reps with a weight you can use with strict form, taking 5 seconds to lower. Then you use a slight amount of cheating to eke out reps 6, 7, and 8, where you continue to lower those reps over the course of 5 seconds. Take 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.

After the cheat curls, it's time to work the biceps from a slightly different angle, with a slightly different movement, focusing on some slightly different things.

B. Incline Dumbbell Curl

A muscle produces maximal force when it's put into a stretched position against a load. So we're going to get those puppies into a loaded stretch and throw in some mechanical drop sets too.

Set the bench at a pretty low incline, somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees. For these, focus on getting the biceps into a fully lengthened position so that it's really stretched out with the palms facing forward at the bottom.

Choose a weight you can do for 10 reps, with 1-2 reps left in the tank, once again lowering the weight over 5 seconds on every rep.

From there, stand up and start doing alternating dumbbell curls, again taking 5 seconds to lower the weight. You can use a little bit of English here to get the weights moving but don't get too messy. Grind out as many reps as you can in this fashion without turning it into pure slop. Rest 2-3 minutes and then repeat.

Day 1 – Triceps

A. Rope or Independent Handle Pushdown (warm-up)

Before we even get into the meat and potatoes of the triceps work, start it with some rope or independent-handled pushdowns to get some blood into the triceps and keep the elbows happy. Do 3-4 sets for 20 reps.

B. Banded Close-Grip Bench Press

I like to do these out of a rack, but a 2-board press will work as well, as long as you don't start board humping.

That's right. Board humping. Don't bother searching for it on Pornhub because it's not there, but you can probably find it on YouTube if you do a search for "2-board press." It's where guys lower the bar to the boards and then use this God-awful maneuver where they use the boards to help thrust the weight up to lockout. I swear it's a thing.

If you're going to use a 2-board press for this, don't do board humping. Lower the bar to the boards and then actually press it off of them without assistance from the boards.

If you're going to do these out of the rack, set the pins so that the bar rests on them a few inches above the chest. Press and hold the lockout for at least one second to take advantage of the peak contraction and then lower under control. Rest the bar on the pins for just a second before performing another rep.

Do 2 sets of 6-8 reps after your warm-up sets, leaving a rep or two in the tank on each set. Take 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.

C. PJR Pullover

This is the most effective movement for growing the long head of the triceps. It's a modified pullover using a dumbbell where the emphasis is placed on the triceps rather than the lats or pecs.

Begin with the dumbbell over your face and then lower it behind your head. Focus on stretching the triceps. Think about dropping the dumbbell down to the floor, directly behind your head.

Instead of pulling the dumbbell back over your face using your lats or pecs (that will happen to some degree anyway), focus on using your triceps by prioritizing elbow extension instead of shoulder extension.

Think heavy and high reps here: Two sets of 15-20 reps, going hard in the paint on both sets. Trust me, 2 all-out sets will have your triceps screaming for days.

Day 2 – Biceps

We're going to focus on the brachialis, the little muscle that sits in between the biceps and triceps. Build it and it'll actually push the biceps and triceps away from one another, giving the appearance of a bigger arm.

A. Preacher Hammer Curl

We're going to do one-arm preacher curls on the vertical side of a preacher bench. (If you use the angled preacher bench, there's virtually no resistance at the top of the movement.)

The intensity technique for these will be "muscle rounds," a technique I attribute to my friend, Scott Stevenson. A muscle round is where you use a weight you could normally do about 12 reps with, but only do 4 reps with it. You rest 10 seconds and do another 4 reps. Do this 6 times. Then, on the last mini-set, you do as many reps as possible (AMRAP):

  • 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • AMRAP

This gives you a built-in work to rest ratio because you'll be swapping hands on each mini-set. The right arm does 4 reps, the left arm does 4 reps; back and forth like this for the entirety of the round.

Do 2 complete muscle rounds to light the brachialis up, taking 2-3 minutes between each round.

B. Concentration Curl with Offset Resistance Grip

We're going to do these with supination so that we're invoking one of the main functions of the biceps, but that's not the only twist. The dumbbell needs to sit in your hand in an offset weight distribution, meaning you won't be grabbing the dumbbell in the middle of the handle, but with the thumb side flush up against the dumbbell plate.

This way, when you supinate, the short head has to work a bit harder against the offset resistance. (Supination makes the short head of the biceps work a little bit harder than the long head, and it's the development of the short head that will make the biceps appear thicker when viewed from the front.)

The intensity technique we'll use here is good ol' drop sets, and my preference here is crazy 8's. That's 8 reps to failure, 8 reps to failure with a lighter dumbbell, and another 8 reps to failure with a still lighter dumbbell. Rest 2-3 minutes and do this 1 more time.

Day 2 – Triceps

A. Rope or Independent Handle Pushdown (warm-up)

Do 3-4 sets for 20 reps.

B. Dip with Chains

Set the chains up so that the majority of the chain weight comes off the floor for the top half of the dip. Remain as upright as possible (meaning you're not leaning forwards) to effectively load the triceps.

Four sets of 6-8 reps is your prescription. These aren't "to failure" sets, though. Leave 2-3 reps in the tank for each one. Take 2-3 minutes between sets.

C. Pullover and Press

These are fairly elbow friendly, but since you're already really warmed up you should be good to go. Regardless, we're going to actually focus on getting the triceps pumped to hell with these, to the tune of 4 sets of 15-20 reps.

You want a smooth transition from the pullover into the press part. No pausing at any point. We want to let the metabolites really accumulate and focus on creating significant metabolic stress, which is why the rest period between sets is only 60 seconds.

What About the Rest of Your Body?

You can probably cut back a bit on the chest and shoulder pressing stuff while using this routine. They'll all be getting a fair amount of work with the close-grip benches and the dips.

Related:  The 10 Best Biceps Training Tips

Related:  The Cure for Puny Arms