Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once remarked, "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything." He was talking hoops, but the sentiment certainly applies to bodybuilding, too.
Those of us with a few years under our lifting belts have all tried the "more is better" approach to training, cheated a heavy weight up, or cherry-picked parts of different programs we liked and mashed them all unsuccessfully into one. We've done plenty of things completely wrong, but hey, it was all in the quest of doing things right.
In the spirit of "do as we say, not as we've done," we recruited MuscleTech athlete and Toronto-based fitness lifestyle coach Dylan Thomas—himself the owner of 20-inch guns—to turn up the heat on your lagging biceps development. With his help, we've identified five of the most common mistakes guys make when training arms and provided the quick fix for each.
Mistake 1 Putting Too Much Weight on the Bar
It's tempting to try to impress the crowds when doing standing curls with an Olympic bar. After all, the bar looks almost naked without at least a 45-pound plate on each side, right? But hitting that weight requires a whole lotta momentum via the hips and knees to hoist the bar upward. Your biceps actually end up getting less work as a result.
"Biceps typically aren't a muscle group you'll need to do heavy training with to get results, like your thighs or back," Thomas says. "It's a relatively small body part by comparison, and it responds much more to a good pump than it does to sheer brute overload. The contraction on each rep is absolutely key with biceps training, working for extreme cell swelling and pumps."
Is there a time and place for heavy biceps work? Sure, but that time and place is during your back workout, when they'll get all the high-tension work they need from rows, pull-ups, and pull-downs. Outside of that context, doing heavy single-joint biceps work has the potential to put more strain on the elbows than is worth the trouble.
Thomas' solution is to stop worrying about the number on the bar, and to allow feel to guide you. "Lighten the load to a point where you can totally control each and every rep," he explains. "Try a cadence of 2-3 seconds up, a brief contraction at the top, 2-3 seconds down, followed by a short pause that will allow you to reverse direction smoothly."
Not only will the biceps get more work as a result, but you'll be far less likely to strain your lower back. Cheat curls, it should be noted, should be saved for your last rep or two, and even there the actual "cheat" should be kept to a minimum.
Mistake 2 Giving Up at Arbitrary Rep Numbers
To maximally stimulate the biceps, you don't need to reach momentary muscle failure—that point in a challenging set where you cannot complete another full rep—every single set. But you do need to get to that point at least once or twice in a workout. As your biceps get more pumped with blood, reps can become painful, prompting the squeamish to bail out of a set too soon.
If you have trouble getting beyond that pain and discomfort when doing straight sets, consider some intensity tricks and techniques to help. One is a super-slow negative, in which you take the negative portion of each rep as slowly as you can, whether that's 4-5 seconds or more to bring the weight all the way down. Add in 5-second isometric holds at various points along the path, like at the top, one-quarter of the way down, and halfway down, and you will burn out the biceps with fewer reps.
Some of the best intensity boosters include forced reps with the aid of a training partner, partial reps in which you train in a shortened range of motion, dropsets that help make the biceps really burn, and negatives in which you're focusing mainly on the eccentric phase of the contraction.
Another option is partial reps, where you do less-than-full reps once you reach a point you can't do a whole rep on your own. You can try for three-quarter reps, then half reps, then quarter reps, and finally small "pulse" reps, until you just can't move the weight at all.
Mistake 3 Not Priming Your Pump
Some trainees easily find the pump when training arms; others chase it like a ghost. But there are a few methods you can employ to generate the kind of muscle pump that blows up your arms so big you can't take your shirt off afterward.
First, train biceps and triceps together in one workout session, and superset the exercises, suggests Thomas. That means performing one exercise for triceps followed immediately by a biceps exercise with no rest in between, or vice versa.
Doing this means you have two antagonist body parts drawing blood into your upper arms in response to the muscular activity instead of just one. During a given set, one muscle group contracts while the other is being stretched, and then the pattern is immediately reversed.
Looking for some pairings that are easy to set up and won't require you to hog both the preacher-curl bench and the bench-press station? Try these common biceps/triceps superset pairings:
- Standing barbell curl/lying EZ-bar French press
- Alternating dumbbell curl/overhead dumbbell extension
- EZ-bar preacher curl/triceps dip machine
- Close-grip chin-up/close-grip push-up
- Lower-pulley cable curl/triceps push-down
Another pump-inducing technique is a variation of supersets called compound sets, in which you do two moves for the same body part consecutively, like a close-grip chin-up followed by bilateral dumbbell curls. The biceps get worked from multiple angles in the same set, and the total volume drives plenty of blood (and nutrients) into the muscle.
Higher-rep training is also useful for generating a muscle pump. But that doesn't necessarily mean grabbing 10-pound dumbbells and curling away for 10 minutes. Supersets, compound sets, and the other classic set-extension techniques discussed earlier are adequate to give you all the burn you could want.
Mistake 4 Sticking to a Few Favorite Moves
First, the bad news: You can't necessarily "fix" genetic limitations in your biceps. "Unfortunately, you can't change the shape or insertion points of the muscles you're born with," Thomas admits. "However, you can hide these genetic dispositions somewhat by adding sheer mass."
To start the building, you'll want a biceps workout that covers all the bases and doesn't allow any particular area to not get stimulation during a workout. Yes, technically speaking, there is only one major movement to target the biceps: bending your arm. But you can manipulate exactly how the muscle fires and what areas are engaged through hand positioning and various exercise angles.
This workout from Thomas has all three grip variations: palms up, palms down, and palms facing. It also has all the angles: arms in front of you, arms behind you, and arms at your sides. You'll hit the long head, the short head, and get some forearm work to boot. If you pyramid up slightly in weight and hit failure on the final set of each exercise, your biceps will be cooked.
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Why start with a move like the reverse curl, which puts you at such a disadvantage? Simple: It allows you to extend a set. Once you reach muscle failure with the overhand grip, keep the set going by quickly switching to an underhand grip.
Mistake 5 Not Eating or Supplementing for Size
This is a classic one. You eat for a six-pack and take a fat-burner, but you also train for monster mass...and then wonder why your arms aren't getting any bigger. Shoulders are just like any other part of your body; if you want them to grow, you've got to eat to support that goal the same way you would for any other body part.
"As with improving any particular body part, your nutritional intake will play a huge role in how successful you are at building arm size," Thomas says. "You ultimately need to be in a caloric surplus to pack on mass."
That means eating additional calories above your maintenance level and topping off your protein intake while consuming enough carbs and dietary fats. Not concerned about pre- and post-workout meals or supps? This is the time to start. Not taking carbs or BCAAs during your workout? Give it serious consideration.