THE IMPORTANCE OF STRONG BICEPS
by John Christy
n. division into two usually contradictory parts or categories.
A different way to start an article on developing strong biceps, huh?
I'll tie it in later.
It is generally accepted in the strength training world that one of the best ways to increase your pressing strength is to increase the strength of what are considered the weak link -- the triceps.
Especially in the sport of powerlifting, the triceps are considered the weak link in the bench press. Every trainee performs and every strength coach usually recommends either the close grip bench press or the dip to get the job done.
This is a no-brainer.
So, then, why does the dichotomy (told you I'd tie it in) exist in that the same weak link logic isn't recommended when it comes to increasing the strength of the biceps -- the weak link for maximizing pulling strength for rows, chins, pullups, high pulls, etc.? Don't you think that stronger biceps will allow you to handle more weight on your compound upper back exercises? Don't you think that strengthening your upper back in turn will help you ace the marines' pull-up test, lift the Inver Stone off the ground, balance the caber better, and pull the truck-on-a-rope as if it were soap-on-a-rope?
An interesting dichotomy, isn't it?
In my experience consulting with strength athletes from around the world, the practice of increasing biceps strength to help pulling strength has gone completely in the wrong direction. It is becoming much too common for me to hear the question do I really need to perform curls at all to strengthen my biceps if I'm doing heavy rows, chins, etc.?
Sure, the compound movement alone will strengthen the weak link -- because the strength of the weak link will give out first. But to maximize the stimulation of the major muscles that are supposed to be doing the majority of the pulling work -- the upper back -- you must get the biceps as strong as possible by doing direct biceps work.
And there is an
Biceps work will go a long way toward preventing injuries. It helps to prevent various types of elbow tendinitis and bicepital tendonitis of the shoulder, and it will help protect you from a complete biceps rupture when you pull that big deadlift.
I believe one of the reasons biceps work has fallen out of favor is that most true strength athletes don't want to be considered bodybuilders -- they don't want to be considered vain by specifically training their biceps. At best they'll throw in a couple of halfhearted sets of curls at the end of a workout and call it a day. This omission just won't do it if you want to get your upper back as strong as possible -- and you'd better if you want Herculean strength.
And by "seriously," I don't mean 20 sets of 5 different exercises to pump you up. Don't do that. And don't shave your arms or apply tanning cream, either.
Here's what I recommend to my trainees.
Perform heavy barbell or dumbbell curls once or twice a week per 10-day micro-cycle. You won't need a lot of frequent work, just heavy consistent work to augment your pulling exercises.
Keep in mind that this is no different than utilizing triceps work to help augment the pressing exercises.
Look at curling as a power movement -- just as you look at squatting.
You have a couple of options concerning sets and reps. A good simple method is to modify the time-tested 5 x 5 approach to 3 sets of 5. Experience has taught me that 5 sets can be too much if you're putting in some serious pulling work. Remember, we want your biceps work to augment your pulling work, not replace it. Use your 6-rep max and try to complete a 3 sets of 5.
Another option is to use a low-rep pyramid. Perform 3 sets, starting with a set of 5; add 5-10% and perform a set of 3 reps; then add another 5-10% and hit a heavy single.
If you are a HIT guy, simply perform 1 set (or sneak in a second after a 5 minute rest), using an honest to goodness double progression approach. Start with a weight that you can complete only 5 reps with. Then battle this weight every workout until you can legitimately get 7 reps. Add 5% and start the battle over again. If you're going to do HIT work, do it right.
Whatever you do, keep it simple with the intention of moving some heavy poundage and getting measurably stronger, evidenced by an increase in the weight you can curl.
More Than a Few Words on Curl Technique
I've seen a lot of curls in my 30-plus years under the iron and 20-plus years as a professional strength coach, and most trainees' curl form stinks.
I've seen everything from what could only be considered a reverse grip power clean, to the "partial Romanian deadlift swing curl," to the "hybrid reverse-grip upright row throw and catch."
Make sure your curl form is perfect if you want to get your biceps stronger instead of your ego. When you curl, nothing should move except the lower arm from the elbow down . . . and I mean nothing.
Here's how curls should be done, step by step.
Wear a belt if you want. We're not here to develop your lower back, so you want as much stability as possible. Pull the belt tight as if you're going in for some heavy squats. If you want to do them without a belt, it will be harder to maintain a perfect upright position -- and less weight on the bar will equate to less strength.
Chalk up. This is serious business.
Grip the bar as if you mean it. Stand erect, and then (this next part is where most trainees start to go south), allow your arm to go completely straight. The elbow should not be bent at all at the bottom. Let the arm "dead hang," but keep the muscles tight. To get a true feel for how straight the arm should be at the bottom, simply flex your triceps hard when the bar is sat the bottom position of the curl -- this will surely straighten the elbow out. You should feel a good stretch in the biceps; this is good as it will initiate the "stretch reflex.'
Some may argue that it could potentially injure the elbow by allowing (or forcing) the arm to go completely straight at the bottom. (Again, another dichotomy: no one seems to be concerned when they recommend keeping the arms as straight as possible when deadlifting or performing the Olympic lifts). I disagree with this assumption unless the trainee has some serious flexibility limitations or is hyper-mobile at the elbow. Allowing the arm to go straight at the bottom of the movement will greatly enhance biceps stimulation by safely increasing the range of motion, and it will go a long way to protect the biceps from injury during a heavy deadlift or Olympic lift, when the arm will be forced to straighten out at the start of the movement.
The next step is critical: start curling without any body movement -- I mean none. Act as if your head, upper back, and hips are duct taped to a pole. Most trainees really drop the ball here. They lean forward and get the whole thing started with the torso moving. Of course, this body action takes away from biceps strength.
Curl for real.
Use your arm strength and nothing else.
Do not allow the elbow to move backward or forward at all. Most of the time, what I see right at the start of the movement is that the elbow shoots back and the bar is dragged part of the way up against the body, more like an upright row than a curl. Then, about halfway up, the elbows shoot forward to catch the barbell. From here the barbell is pushed with the delts to the chin or thereabouts to complete the movement. Sure, the biceps have to work some to help with this hybrid curl, but nothing like they would if the elbows didn't move and the biceps did most of the work.
When the elbow is held truly stationary from beginning to end, the barbell comes nowhere close to the chin or shoulders upon completion. If you completely close the elbow joint, as you should strive to do at the top of the movement, the barbell ends several inches in front of the shoulders. In this position, the biceps are experiencing a maximal contraction -- instead of getting a break when the deltoids kick in as the elbows shoot forward and the bar is brought to the chin.
Lower the bar and stop. Do not hit bottom and pop the bar right back up. Stop at the bottom, take a big breath -- just as you would with a big squat -- and explode into rep number two.
Yes, I said, "explode."
Speed is king in all sports as long as the speed doesn't throw off proper technique. When using the proper weights for a 5-rep (or fewer) set, the bar won't move fast anyway. But that doesn't matter as long as the intent to move fast if there. This will help you to recruit more of the desired fast-twitch fibers. The explosion must not move the body -- you have to keep the entire body tight, and this immobility takes a lot of whole-body strength.
Work on strengthening the weak link in your compound pulling movements -- the biceps -- just as you do with the triceps and pressing movements.
After a couple of months of heavy, intense curls, you'll say goodbye to your old rowing weight, and if you hit the chinning bar, you'll have to strap on some additional poundage. Your upper back strength will jump, and there will be additional slabs of beef up there.
The increased biceps strength will also go a long way to keeping you healthy. And although you aren't concerned with impressing onlookers with your pumped up bi's at the beach, I'm confident you'll impress those watching at Crathie when you break the Inver Stone off the ground; or the next time you knock off 20 pullups or lock out 400 pounds above your chest; or when you finally lock out that triple bodyweight dead (without your biceps ripping).
I want to leave you to consider the words of strongman-stonelifter Steve Jeck on curls:
"Many a manhood stone has remained landlocked due to inadequate arm strength of the would-be lifter. All the leg and hip strength in the world is useless if you can't hang onto the stone. Arm strength, especially the biceps, is the vehicle that either gets the stone to your shoulder or leaves it in your lap. So, while we're not concerned with your back double biceps pose, to ignore the arms would be foolish."
Enjoy Your Lifting!