You may think that sculpting great biceps is the result of a simple formula: Do curls + more curls.
But, you can’t focus solely on isolated biceps exercises and expect to see results, says Nick Clayton, M.B.A., M.S., C.S.C.S.,*D, N.S.C.A.-C.P.T., U.S.A.W. Instead, emphasizing pull-dominant, compound exercises like heavy deadlifts, rows, and pullups will keep those arms growing, he explains.
“Research suggests that getting jacked is best accomplished by addressing three primary factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress,” says Clayton. (You can read more about each of these things below—they’re all incorporated in this routine.)
“This workout provides a fairly high amount of volume (total weight lifted = weight x sets x reps) in a short amount of time,” explains Clayton. In addition, it has a variety of exercises and incorporates drop-sets—a research-backed way to create metabolic stress. “If you push yourself, you will see a noticeable increase in the size of your biceps,” assures Clayton.
As you move through the exercises below, be sure to use a full range of motion and don’t “skip the negatives.” (aka, be mindful of the eccentric phase of the movement.) Also, Clayton suggests varying the speed of movement and rest periods throughout in order to keep your muscles guessing.
“Apply these same concepts to your triceps program and you’ll be needing to cut the sleeves off your shirts in no time,” assures Clayton.
* Mechanical tension, simply stated, refers to stretching a muscle while it's placed under tension. A full range-of-motion biceps curl creates mechanical tension.
* Muscle damage occurs to the greatest extent during eccentric contractions in particular when performing unaccustomed exercise.
* Metabolic stress comes about as a result of relying on fast glycolysis for energy production causing a buildup of metabolites. Fast glycolysis becomes the primary energy system for sets lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes.
The 10-minute biceps workout
Perform the following tri-set (three exercises in a row) with 15-30 seconds rest between each exercise. If you’re sadistic, rest two minutes and repeat for a total of two tri-sets, completed in under 10 minutes. Perform this workout for 3-4 weeks and cycle through another program before coming back to it.
Exercise #1: "Clayton curls"
Intermediate: perform 1 set of 5 reps with a moderate weight
Advanced (eccentric only): perform 1 set of 3 reps with a 100-120% of your Clayton curl max. Use your opposite arm to curl the weight to the starting position.
Clayton curl: Exercise technique
The start of the Clayton curl is similar to the “drag curl” and is a variation of a single-arm cable curl that emphasizes mechanical tension. Be warned, if you haven’t been doing eccentric biceps work this exercise will leave you sore for days, start slow. To perform:
1. Face away from the cable stack and stagger your stance with the handle in the right hand step your left foot forward.
2. Your right arm should be straight with your elbow behind your torso. Keeping your shoulder and elbow from shifting forward, curl the handle as close to your shoulder as possible. At this point the palm of your hand should be facing the ceiling, and the inside part of the handle should be touching your rib cage.
a. If you’re performing the eccentric-only portion of the exercise (advanced) you’ll be using ≥100% of your 1-rep max for this exercise; use both hands to get into this position.
3. From here you’re ready to start the negative. Still keeping your shoulder in the same position, drive your hand down and forward. The end position for your hand is in front of and just below your hip.
Coaching tip: think about driving your elbow forward (extended) by flexing your triceps.
Exercise #2: Chinups
Intermediate: perform as many chinups as possible with perfect form. If you can perform more than 8 reps use weight (advanced).
Advanced: perform the chinup with a weight that allows for 5-8 reps
Exercise #3: The rack run (drop sets)
Set 1 – standard biceps curl: select a weight that allows for between 8-12 reps
Set 2 – hammer curl: decrease the weight by ~25% and perform 12-15 reps
Set 3 – reverse curl: decrease weight by ~25% and perform 15-20 reps
Coaching tip: In order to create muscle damage you have to push yourself harder than you’re typically used to. This is the fundamental principle of overload. Apply this principle over the course of days/weeks/months/years and you’ve now got progressive overload, providing gains that will keep on coming. However, do not sacrifice form by arching the low back or cheating through the sticking point. Ask for a spot when necessary, failing to maintain form will increase the risk of injury (down the road) and reduce the effectiveness of your training program.
Nick Clayton is Personal Training Program Manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He has 15 years of experience as a personal trainer and strength coach, and earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science and his MBA from the University of Florida.
The NSCA offers NCCA-accredited certifications in Strength and Conditioning and Personal Training and provides peer-reviewed journals, articles, career support, and more at www.nsca.com.