To the dedicated bro, arm day is equal to or greater than God’s day of rest. Some guys will say you only need to do weighted chin up and barbell curls for your guns to grow, but I’m not buying it. If that’s the case why aren’t there more dudes with impressive arms?
Big arms call for direct arm work. Case closed. Before you slam your computer shut and knock the barbell out of your buddies hand finish reading this first.
There is more to building your arms than countless barbell curls. Sure you can do it that way but a little bit of science, smart programming, grunting, and lots of motion that involve your wrist moving towards your shoulder, will get you there faster.
It amazes me how some bros never get hurt. It also amazes me others won’t acknowledge they’re hurt and what got them hurt in the first place. In the quest for bigger arms most guys end up with severe elbow pain from too much heavy barbell curls.
The article isn’t meant to demonize the barbell curl, in fact, I love the exercise. I even give you recommendations at the end of the article if you aren’t in pain and still want to keep it in your workout.
The rest of this article will give you exercise variations and recommendations to dodge cranky elbows while building nice ass biceps.
The keys to healthy elbows and big biceps
- A warm-up of some sort
- Picking good exercises
- Manage volume, intensity, and frequency
- Check your form
- Recovery (rest periods, nutrition, sleep, active, massage, etc)
Picture this, the zombie apocalypse takes over and for some odd reason the zombies flock to all barbells. You can:
- A) Risk fighting off bicep eating zombies who will stop at nothing to prevent you from doing barbell curls
- B) Find a safer alternative that not only feels better on your joints but is effective and saves your life (and gains) from bicep eating, zombies
I choose ‘B’. A bro with no pain is able to train more, with a higher intensity and will have a longer curling career. This will allow him to have better biceps, compared to if he was never injured.
There are countless benefits of a good warm-up before working out. In this case, it decreases the chances of elbow pain by warming up your muscles, tendons and ligaments and getting them ready exercise.
Think of your warm up as throwing the some WD-40 on a creaky door. If you try busting through an old door with rusty hinges it’s going to be rough. If you throw some lube on it before, it will make for a much smoother open.
If you have a dynamic warm-up that is great. If you don’t like dynamic warm-ups you can do something more specific.
For example: perform 3-4 warm up sets of your first exercise at a controlled speed. Ramp up the weight and use heavier weights on each set.
Choose Good Exercises
This hack alone has decreased elbow pain in many of my fellow bros on the quest for bigger guns. A trick I learned from John Meadows is to train your brachialis first.
My favorite way to do this is to use lighter weights with a forceful contraction at the top.
One of my favorite exercises to pre-pump my arms is a slower tempo hammer curl with a forceful squeeze at the top of the movement. If you have access to Fat Gripz, feel free to use them here.
Use a light weight with a strict slower tempo and forceful squeeze at the top. This will get a lot of blood into the elbow and get it ready for a good workout.
*This is also a great thing to do before your bench. You will feel much more stable when performing the exercise. Give it a go and let me know how it feels. I learned this trick when I was interning at Westside a few years back and it made a huge difference how strong I felt when I would bench heavy.*
I put together this video of 11 different bicep exercises so your training won’t go stale. Mix and match these exercises with the different intensity techniques I give you later in this article. You’ll be busting out of your shirt in no time.
Volume, Intensity, and frequency
This is where things can get out of hand and one of the main culprit’s overused and cranky elbows.
As a good reference point follow these guidelines…
- Weekly Volume: 15-25 working sets. This does not include warm up sets.
- Weekly Frequency: 2-4 x per week.
- Intensity: 50-85% of your 1RM of the exercises you are doing.
*DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT test your 1RM in every exercise, use an estimate which will also vary depending on the exercise and it’s order in the workout.*
Form and Intensity Techniques
Don’t be a hero, keep your form in check and keep the swinging out of it. There’s a time and place for cheat curls but when you are doing some arm specialization and have had cranky elbows, it is rarely the case.
With an arm specialization program, your weekly volume is already much higher than normal so you are just asking for an injury. I have yet to see a girl in the gym walk over to a guy and start making out with him because he impressed her with how much weight he curled.
If you have seen this happen please let me know ASAP and I will be sure to update you but in the meantime keep your form in check and add one of these intensity techniques instead.
- Slow eccentrics – change the speed of eccentric phase of the movement (lowering) to 3-6 seconds.
- 1.5 reps -add in a ‘pulse’ in the top half of the movement. For example: perform a bicep curl when you begin lowering the weight, stop half way down and then return to the top position. Then return all the way to the bottom. That is one rep.
- Hard contraction: perform and deliberate and intense squeeze at the top of the curl.
- Constant tension: perform the movement in a smooth continuous flow with no locking out or stopping at the top or bottom of the movement.
Sleep your 7-8 hours, eat your protein and veggies, rest between heavy training sessions, and like ‘Hulkamania’ says take your vitamins and say your prayers.
Now you know how to rest when you aren’t training, but what about during your training session, like in between your sets?
Keep your rest times short, 30-45 seconds between sets.
This should be plenty of time when you are training your arms and will maximize your pump. It will also prevent you from feeling like Superman because you waited 6 minutes for your last set of barbell curls so you keep adding more weight and end up in pain.
Can you still perform the barbell curl?
Of course, you can. Especially if it hasn’t given you any pain in the past. Just keep in mind when you start increasing the frequency and volume things may start to bother you.
If you are hell bent on using the straight barbell curl, follow these 2 tips to decrease the chance of overuse injuries associated with barbell curls:
- Move them to the end of your workout
- Add ONE of the four different intensity techniques I listed above (slow eccentric, 1.5 reps, constant tension, hard contraction.)
By moving the exercise to the end of your workout and adding intensity techniques, you are less likely to be injured. You are properly warmed up and in most cases will actually be performing the barbell curl in a fatigued state.
The combination of being fatigued and adding different intensity techniques which make the exercise even harder forces you to use lighter weights than normal. This decreases the load you would normally use and reduces the stress on your elbow that is associated with heavy barbell curls.
Follow the guidelines I listed here if you want to build big biceps by avoiding elbow pain. If you read this all the way through there’s a good chance you’re a bro or bro’ette who likes to have a good time. What good are big biceps if you can’t enjoy them in the company of others?
If that’s you, I have put together a free course that will teach you the secrets to keeping your abs while still going out to party on the weekends. Sign up for the free course here → http://joeypercia.com/stay-lean-and-party
Happy curling, rowing, squeezing and partying.