The No-Curl Solution to Bigger Arms
Building big guns doesn’t have to entail endless sets of biceps curl variations. Working these unique methods and movements into your weekly routine will have you splitting sleeves in no time.
By Lee Boyce/Model: Kip Brown
Remember being 15-years-old and convinced that the only way to impress the ladies was to get big and strong? For most guys, this early quest for muscle meant wandering into a gym every now and then and banging out set after set of poorly performed bench presses and biceps curls. We’d follow it up with a little post-set flexing before heading home comfortable in the belief that our arms were getting bigger everyday.
Okay, maybe that was just me. Regardless, the take-home point is that having grown up, I now know that arm development doesn’t begin and end with curls. The following tricks of the trade will help you build jacked arms without having to drone through different variations of essentially the same exercise. Take these four points with you to the gym next time you train for the gun show:
Tip 1: Do Close Grip Overhead Pulls!
There are many studies that show the efficacy of close grip overhead pulling to be more effective for developing the biceps than standard biceps curls. These studies aside, we can all take advice and evidence from gymnasts (helpfully, the Olympics are on as I write this). I am yet to see a male gymnast that doesn’t have amazing biceps development, complete with awesome peaks. If you think about it, it makes sense. The amount of pull-ups and pull-up-like movements they have to do on a day–to–day basis is much more than a typical lifter. They need to essentially do muscle-ups on the uneven and parallel bars as well as on the rings.
Here are the facts: From an overhead position, both heads of the biceps are much more accessible to be stimulated, along with the brachioradialis muscle, which lays beneath the biceps tissue and adds thickness to the upper arm, and creates the coveted “peak” effect. The best part about overhead pulling movements is that they usually double as solid back exercises. Focus on movements like:
- Chin-ups (palms in, neutral grip, weighted)
- V-Grip Pulldowns
- Reverse grip Pulldown
- TRX (or other suspension straps) Biceps Curls *Pull Above the Head*
Tip 2: Double Up On Your Triceps
We’ve heard it before. Your triceps make up 60% of your upper arm. As true as this is, the take home point isn’t simply to just plain train your triceps more. Good lifters may incorporate dips, pressdowns and close grip bench press into their routines and that’s fine. But to truly add mass to your upper arm, the answer comes again, from looking over the head. The long head of the triceps becomes much more active the further the upper arm moves away from the torso. That means bench press variations, dips and pressdowns just won’t hit it as effectively. You’re halfway there by doing skullcrushers, but again, we want to go the whole nine yards and employ overhead triceps movements that will shock your upper arms into growing. These include:
- EZ Bar French Press
- Decline (Or flat) Skullcrusher with Pullover
*For this exercise, perform a typical skull crusher then open the shoulder angle so that the barbell goes behind the head and to the floor. Reverse the movement and drive the bar up towards the ceiling like you’re doing a soccer “throw-in” from your back. Focus on controlling the negative half of the movement, and feeling the triceps getting torn to shreds with each rep.
Tip 3: It’s all about T.U.T.
This one is simple – increase the time under tension (T.U.T.) a muscle has to endure and it will adapt to meet that stress. That’s where indirect exercises like loaded carries come in handy. Farmer’s walks DO make your arms grow! Aside from farmer’s walks, slow tempo on negative reps through any of the exercises I’ve listed thus far can do a lot of good to stimulate some solid gains in the upper arms. Here’s a killer exercise that exploits T.U.T.:
Step 1: Use a chin-up bar (palms in) and pull to the very top position, with the face above bar level and hold for 5 seconds.
Step 2: Lower yourself to 90 degrees (head just below bar) and hold for 5 more seconds
Step 3: Lower again to 120 degrees (almost straight elbows, but not quite), and hold for 5 more seconds.
Step 4: Repeat the entire movement times before resting.
Not only will this improve your pull-up and chin-up strength, but it will beef up your biceps until you’re looking like The Hulk.
Tip 4: Weekly Volume Matters
I’m not saying you have to have an “arms day” three times a week. However, doing something as simple as introducing a cumulative amount of pull-ups, chin-ups, skullcrushers, or V-grip pulldowns after every workout or throughout your day can do wonders for bringing up your arm size. I stole this idea from one of my favorite fellow writers, Chad Waterbury, and I’ve seen great results personally and with my clients. Try alternating these “mini supersets” at the end of each workout (that’s the end of EVERY workout) for the next 4 weeks:
Superset 1 (Day 1)
A1) Bodyweight chin-ups – 40 total reps
A2) Bodyweight dips – 50 total reps
Superset 2 (Day 2)
A1) Bodyweight pull-ups – 40 total reps
A2) Skullcrusher with pullover – 50 total reps (use 60% Max effort)
Note: The amount of reps is a cumulative amount. You can break it up however you want. Hell, you can even do 25 sets of two skullcrushers. If you’re a real trooper, you can do it all in one set. The point is to get those added reps in each workout to create an increased total weekly volume. You’ll notice improvements and a perma-pump after the first week. Keep alternating between days 1 and 2 as your workout week progresses. And you DON’T have to do this at the end of a back workout. As for leg day, chest day, shoulder day, however, all systems go!
Pipe Cleaners No More
A couple of neat tricks and a little bit of logic makes for a great way to start busting some sleeves. Instead of doing the redundant and only half-effective biceps curls, apply some of this stuff to your routine – you’ll be glad you did! Or, you can choose the alternative and continue wearing long sleeved shirts in July. The choice is yours. Isn’t it always?
Lee Boyce is a sought after strength coach based in Toronto, ON. His work has been featured in many major magazines including Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, and TNATION. He’s a former university level sprinter and long jumper and works with clients for strength, size, conditioning and sport performance. To contact him, visit his website www.leeboycetraining.com, and follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce and facebook.