In the beginning, building bigger biceps is easy: perform barbell rows and weighted chin ups, and focus on progression. When that no longer works, add a bit of direct biceps work and voila! Your biceps are growing again.
As you get more experienced, however, the rate at which you can progress on those barbell rows slows down, and adding even 5 pounds to your biceps curls becomes impossible (without sacrificing volume).
If you’re struggling to add another 5-10 pounds to your big heavy pulling movements and you can’t curl any more weight without doing less overall work, you can forget about building mountainous biceps peaks.
If that sounds like you, you’re in luck. In this article I want to share 3 very simple—but effective—methods for taking your arms to the next level without having to curl more weight or perform any specialization training.
I don’t care how long you’ve been lifting or how many different techniques you’ve tried; if you implement any of these strategies to your training—or all of them—your arms will grow again, period.
1. Increase Frequency
When we talk about training frequency in the context of this article, we’re referring to the number of times we’re training a muscle-group per week.
Here’s what we know: When we equate for volume, training 3 days per week produces greater muscle growth than training once per week.
I’d be willing to bet that these results were due to two primary mechanisms:
- The Repeated Bout Effect: the adaptation whereby a single boutof eccentric exercise protects against muscle damage from subsequent eccentric bouts.
It’s been shown that, when training a muscle-group more frequently (to a degree), we increase our ability to recover and adapt. That said, the notion that training a muscle-group more than once per week would impede recovery is, to put it blatantly, hogwash. To the contrary, training your biceps 2-3 times per week would actually increase your ability to recover between bouts. The more we can train a specific muscle-group in a week, while being able to recover from the stress, the more time we will spend synthesizing protein for that particular muscle. Which bring me to mechanism number two: muscle protein synthesis.
- Muscle Protein Synthesis: the driving force behind adaptive responses to exercise and represents a widely adopted proxy for gauging chronic efficacy of acute interventions, (i.e. exercise/nutrition).
Studies suggest that MPS is more than doubled at about 24 hours following a workout. By the 36 hour mark, however, it has dropped back to baseline. It’s not hard to see that, despite volume being equal, the person spending more time in this anabolic state will produce greater muscle growth.
Now before you decide to start hitting your biceps 7x per week, consider this: A recent meta-analysis concluded that frequencies of training twice per week promoted more muscle growth than once per week, on a volume-equated basis; however, they also added, “whether training a muscle group three times per week is superior to a twice-per-week protocol remains to be determined.”
That meta-analysis, however, only accounted for higher frequency with volume being equal. That said, training at a higher frequency can be a great way to accumulate volume once you’ve reached a certain threshold in your training.
The evidence is clear that, even if total volume is equal, the individual who trains a muscle-group twice per week would have achieved greater muscle gains than the individual who only trained that muscle-group once.
What we don’t know is whether or not distributing that same volume between 3 days (instead of 2) would have any additional benefit in terms of muscle-hypertrophy.
What we do know, however, is that if we added an additional biceps training and increased the total volume that way, we’d elicit greater muscle growth.
It’s no secret that progressive overload is the primary pathway by which we build new muscle. We also know that, with single-joint movements (i.e. biceps curls), it’s not as simple as adding more weight to the bar.
So we need to handle more load, but we’re at a point where we just can’t add any more weight to the bar.
What do we do?
We cheat! (Read This: A Strong Case for Cheating to Build Bigger Biceps)
Say for example you’re able to curl 70 pounds for 8 reps, maximum. No matter how frequently you train your biceps, you just can’t get passed that 8th rep. I’d recommend squeezing another 2-4 reps out by using a bit of body English.
Not only is using momentum going to increase the workload by aiding with additional reps, but despite how little work the target muscle is doing on the concentric, it’s still doing all of the work on the negative.
More work equates to more growth. And because a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, you’ll be able to move up to that 75 pound barbell (without sacrificing volume) much faster.
3. Undulate Rep Ranges
There are three primary mechanisms that drive muscle growth: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and to a lesser degree, metabolic stress. There are two main variables that determine which one of these responses we elicit: for one, the amount of load we use, and second, how long the muscle is placed under tension.
Mechanical tension is—as the name implies—a mechanically induced tension produced both by force generation and stretch. This stress is typically formed when lifting a heavier load for a sufficient amount of time. Mechanical stress has been shown to produce the greatest increases in strength and is a primary driver of muscle growth.
Muscle damage is a localized damage to muscle tissue which generates a hypertrophic response. The tension necessary to produce this result is typically found in a moderate rep range—where the load is still relatively heavy, but due to the higher number of reps, the muscle is placed under tension for a prolonged period of time.
Metabolic stress has to do with a metabolite build up that is a byproduct of training with a lighter load using higher repetitions. When you’re curling those 20 pound dumbbells to the point your biceps feel like they’ve caught fire, that’s metabolic stress.
The previous chart depicts the relationship between volume and intensity, and the stress it produces. It’s important to understand that these stresses aren’t confined to specific rep ranges or intensities—instead, it’s a continuum. For example, an individual who is using a relatively heavy weight and performing 7 repetitions is producing a good deal of mechanical tension and a great deal of muscle damage. On the other hand, the person using a lighter weight and lifting it for 15 reps may not get any mechanical tension, but, the intensity is still sufficient enough to cause some muscle damage while eliciting metabolic stress.
Now that we see what each rep range can provide, let’s talk a little about how they can work together to aid in hypertrophy.
Increases in the lactate threshold—caused by metabolic stress (15-20)—will allow the trainee to work with a heavier weight for a longer period of time. Increases in strength (1-5) will spill over by allowing the trainee to work with a heavier load when training for higher reps. Creating muscle damage (6-12) will induce adaptive responses that will aid in both mechanical stress training and metabolic stress training.
It’s not hard to see that, if you undulate these rep ranges effectively, your training becomes a virtuous cycle of growth.
Want to break through a plateau and force newfound growth into your biceps? It’s a simple as training them 3x per week—with each day dedicated to a specific stress (i.e. light, medium, heavy)—and focusing on progression.
Having a hard time adding any more weight to the barbell or lifting heavier dumbbells? Cheat your way big by using a bit of body English to get passed that threshold.