by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS
Few things are a truer representation of masculinity and strength than a pair of mountainous, sleeve bursting biceps. Symbolism in its simplest sense, muscular biceps epitomize the hallmark alpha male characteristics of strength and masculinity.
As early as junior high, kids begin taking notice of their rapidly morphing bodies. A surge of hormonal production during adolescence ignites a cascade of physiological changes. Among the many transpiring changes, is muscle growth. During puberty, sex hormones and growth factors feed muscular hypertrophy and hyperplasia without having to touch a weight, much less glance at one.
Those experiencing precocious puberty are gifted with muscular development which provides the foundation for brief athletic superiority, until the rest of their peers catch up to them.
Aside from the preciously pubescent domination of athletic feats and the popularity gained via budding facial scruff which is utilized to buy smut, beer, and tobacco at the local corner store, they are usually the first to intimidate peers and impress girls when they roll up their sleeves and flex their arms.
Life is unfair, albeit briefly, that is, until the baby faced ectos and endos discover how to manufacture their own musculoskeletal armor and optimizing hormone production through lifting weights.
Merely lifting weights sparks a volley of physiological changes due to the ample osteogenic and myogenic stimuli. Resulting adaptations include stronger bones, muscles, and of enhanced hormonal firepower.
One of the first exercises, kids and novice lifters perform is a biceps curl. However, more often than not, the simple act of curling a weight is butchered so badly, it ends up resembling a WOD on PCP.
Intermediate lifters and athletes fall in the trap of beating their biceps into oblivion with the hopes of exploding through developmental lulls. This bro science training fallacy will be soon debunked by an accomplished bodybuilder, who achieved his greatest gains adhering to somewhat of a minimalist training approach.
Any training article would be remiss without a brief anatomy review.
The biceps brachii consists of two aspects, or heads – short and long. Both heads originate from different regions of the scapula with the short head stemming from the coracoid process and the long head originating from the supraglenoid tubercle. Both heads attach to the radial tuberosity and the aponeurosis, which shield a bundle of nerves and veins below them. Collectively, both heads flex the elbow and supinate the forearm, while the short head assists in flexing the shoulder.
The Importance of the Biceps
Biceps serve prominent assistive roles in each powerlifting movement. During the squat, they help harness tension by keeping the elbows flexed and pulled down. In the bench press, they help stabilize the bar during the eccentric. In the deadlift, strong biceps protect tendons from snapping off the bone during the pull from the floor.
In football, biceps serve as one of the five points of pressure when carrying the ball. Ball carriers who protect the pigskin, cradle the ball tightly against their biceps, forearms, and chest, all of which involve the key actions of both heads of the biceps – supination, elbow flexion, and shoulder flexion.
Stronger biceps equals fewer fumbles. Larger cross-sectional area of the biceps may also contribute to ball protection.
In throwing and punching motions, the biceps help protect the elbow from dangerously hyperextending during follow through.
And as we’ll soon see, in well-developed physiques, a pair of shapely biceps serve as a metaphorical icing on the cake.
While training to achieve strength and performance oriented goals may differ from hypetrophic driven ones, athletes, lifters, and bodybuilders must be cognizant of how much they’re using their biceps when: they perform rowing and pulling movements, which include back and shoulder exercises and activities of sport and daily living.
Considerations on Cheat Curls
The adage of “cheaters never prospering” doesn’t hold completely true during training. Arnold championed cheat curls during his heyday. Brian Dobson, owner of Metroflex, who’s worked with his share of pros, endorses them for serious lifters. “Whenever I train a person who is not into bodybuilding or powerbuilding, they act as if it is wrong to heave up heavy iron on the cheat curl, usually citing how their last trainer at Pansy Inc. Fitness said to stay perfectly straight and not to lean back. These trainees usually have arms that are less than 14 inches and the trainers’ arms are usually less than 15 inches.”
While quarter squats, invisible board presses, and hitched deadlifts will draw more red lights at a meet than Manhattan at rush hour, some cheating is beneficial as recent research highlighted.
Cheating enhances muscle growth through increased stimulation of working muscles (1). The authors of the study cautioned that excessive cheating may inhibit gains in strength and hypertrophy due to reduced time under tension.
Vic Tringali, MS, CSCS, Drexel University’s Executive Director of University Wellness and founder of Team Vic Exercise Science, once a nationally ranked heavyweight bodybuilder, who’s worked with a host
of top bodybuilders during his career, chimed in with a few tenets of sagacious training advice.
- Invest your energy in compound lifts
“In my opinion, those seeking maximum biceps hypertrophy and strength should employ a comprehensive plan that is mainly focused on overall strength in compound lifts. The likely byproduct of which, will be increased biceps size and strength. For example, the biceps will receive significant loading during heavy compound pulling movements like rowing and pulling exercises,” says Tringali.
- Train them with biceps
“Biceps training in conjunction with or following an antagonistic muscle (i.e. triceps) may be ideal to enhance intensity and strength of contraction and improve blood flow and cell swelling,” continues Tringali. Research indicates that alternating agonist and antagonist muscle exercises during training increases muscle activation and power output during a complex training session (2).
- Pay attention to hand and grip positioning
“Because the main functions of the biceps are to flex the elbow and supinate the forearm, performing flexion exercises with a fully supinated hand position is ideal as it will produce maximum stress and tension on the bicep,” concluded Tringali.
Vic also provided a snapshot of his biceps training which yielded considerable gains in development during his competitive days.
|Machine Bicep Curls||*2||8-10|
|Standing Straight Bar Curl||2||8-10|
|Reverse Preacher Bench Dumbbell Curl||2||8-10|
*Followed by two warm-up sets of 12-15 repetitions.
“This is one of my more popular routines during my competitive career. This was typically performed in conjunction with triceps training in superset fashion. (i.e. alternate biceps and triceps exercises). However, biceps training was also incorporated in other muscle groupings from time to time. For example: following chest or back training.”
- Arandjelović, O. (2013). Does cheating pay: the role of externally supplied momentum on muscular force in resistance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(1), 135-145.
- Baker, D. & Newton, R.U. (2005). Acute effect on power output of alternating an agonist and antagonist muscle exercise during complex training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(1):202-205.
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