I went into a big commercial gym a few weeks ago to train biceps and there seemed to be miles of Nautilus, Flex, Cybex, Hammer Strength, Life Fitness and other machines. Because every young buck, at one time or another, has dreamed of 20" guns, gyms accommodate that pie-in-the sky wish, with plenty of fancy machines. If they didn't, those young bucks would take their backward baseball hats, tribal tattoos, and daddies' credit cards elsewhere!
But, you know, while the latest and greatest machines come and go, dumbbells have survived the test of time, from Sandow to Sonbaty. Indeed, all pro bodybuilders have used dumbbells to build massive arms.
With dumbbells, a shift in arm position can help you to the perfect groove while, conversely, you might toil forever adjusting machine parts up and down and back and forth yet never get the damn contraption to fit. Machines can only be best-fit guesses.
The ubiquitous dumbbell can be found in both the posh executive health spas with loofah goofah and sea mud, and, of course, in all the back-alley gyms where some of the members seem to be part of the FBI's most wanted division.
Once more, if you get dependent on a certain arm machine and it breaks, you are screwed. But a dumbbell is pretty much a dumbbell. The best things about dumbbells are their affordability and how portable they are. Dumbbells are suited to arm training. They are all you need to build Iron Arms.
Alternate Dumbbell Curls
These are real mass builders! Your arms work independently of each other. If one side is weaker, your stronger side can't compensate masking the disparity. Training unilaterally causes your nervous system to channel all primary nerve signals to just one arm, instead of two. If you can curl a pair of 40's X 10, you could probably do 50's X 10 by alternating your arms.
Alternates are also effective because you can work the supination function of the biceps (turning your palms up). By combining arm flexion and supination you get bang for your biceps buck. But -- don't throw the weight up by heaving it with your spinal erectors. And…don't lean so far sideways that you look like the Titanic on its last sea legs. Finally, don't let your elbows ride forward as you curl, turning the exercise into some half-ass front delt raise.
For several years my biceps refused to grow, no matter what I did. Meanwhile, my shoulders got bigger and stronger. Actually, my deltoids started making my arms look like asparagus stalks growing out of honeydew melons. Then I read in Arnold's Encyclopedia that guys with naturally powerful shoulders need to be wary of the delts taking over in curls. His recommendation was to perform all curls with the upper arm stabilized against something, as in a preacher curl.
I gave the Terminator's suggestion a try and my arms came up faster than his paychecks did (well, maybe not quite). I prefer the straight side of the preacher bench pad. You get a greater range of motion, since you can start with your arm hanging straight down. Keep your body in one place instead of rocking back and forth to leverage the weight up, and use your free hand to give a couple of forced reps at the end.
True bodybuilders find ways to make exercises harder! You can do that by curling using an incline bench. Now you have resistance from the start to the end. Because you aren't standing, you are less likely to cheat.
Some bodybuilders never tap the full growth potential of the outer head of their biceps and brachialis, that flat, short muscle that lies under your biceps and goes half way up your humerus bone. Here's a test. Flex your right biceps so that your forearm is pointing straight up at the ceiling, and look down at it. It should bulge evenly on both sides. If you see a round bulge on the left side and the outside is flat, add hammer curls to your training. You can 'hammer it' seated, standing, or on a preacher bench.
This is an exercise with a false reputation of being worthless for building size and just contributing to long head biceps peak. Single joint muscle shape is genetic. Multiple headed muscles like the deltoids can be shaped because there are 3 distinct heads and each acts to move the humerus through different planes of motion. But - it is difficult, if not impossible, to change the peak height of the flexed biceps long head, even though it acts at two joints.
Three-times Mr. Olympia, Cuban born Sergio Oliva never had the genetic biceps peak of Austrian born Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sergio could have done concentration curls until Fidel Castro retired and Sergio still wouldn't have approached Arnie's biceps peak.
Likewise, because of his long forearm bones, Arnold never achieved the huge brachioradialis development of the Myth. Concentration curls do isolate the arm flexors. The inside of your thigh acts to stabilize and isolate your arm. As for building mass, many pro bodybuilders use more than a 100-lb. dumbbell in strict form in the concentration curls. That will build plenty of mass!
This is a popular dumbbell triceps exercise with either one arm or both. Your triceps extend your lower arm. Do extensions slowly. If you drop the weight and bounce it back up, you may damage your elbow joints. Try to keep your elbows pointing directly skyward and as close to your head as possible. The further your elbow starts to drift away from your head, the less will be your range of motion.
Compound pressing movements (more than one primary joint movement) such as dips and close-grip bench presses are excellent for the triceps, but you can also replicate them with dumbbells. Start seated with the dumbbells at shoulder level. You want your elbows to flare out away from the head at the start of each rep and move in toward the head as you press upward and squeeze your triceps as you push them up. Use a spotter, since the weight you can handle will probably be fairly heavy. (This is not the best exercise for those with rotator cuff problems.)
This is a favorite 'finishing' movement for many bodybuilders. It seems quite effective at isolating the lateral and medial heads of your three-headed triceps muscle since they only act to extend at the elbow joint and not the shoulder joint, which the triceps long head extends at both joints. Keep your elbow pointed directly in back of you, and keep it there throughout the set.
Too many lifters cheat and swing the dumbbell up using their triceps long head to extend the upper arm instead of just the lower arm. If your form/speed is correct, you won't be able to use much weight. Perform your reps slowly with a pronounced 'tensing' of your triceps upon full extension.
Besides dips, perhaps this is the most popular exercise for triceps. Also called skull crushers (which you don't want to happen), you can lie supine on a flat or decline bench, and do these with both arms at once, or use one dumbbell. You can even go 'cross-face.' (For these, you lower the dumbbell toward the opposite shoulder, creating a pretty unique sensation and angle of resistance.) Many trainers find the dumbbell variations much easier on their wrists and elbows than using a barbell.
Caution: The Elbow Joint
Thousands of workouts of presses and extensions can cause inflammation where the triceps attaches distally. Because full healing would require months away from heavy lifting (and you know we meatheads can't miss any training), most initial acute cases become chronic. I have been training for 18 years, and have severe left elbow joint pain with any extension movements. This limits my training.
If you don't want this to happen to you, take care of your elbows. Never bounce at the bottom of a rep in any exercise for the upper body, and cycle your training so that you aren't using maximum weights all the time. If your elbows start to ache, treat them with ice and rest and avoid any exercises that aggravate them. Tendons heal slowly. Avoid injuring them and continue to get those iron arms!