The preacher bench with arm pad

Getting to grips with preacher curls

Preacher curls are an excellent exercise to target and thoroughly exhaust your biceps. They are a good exercise to do towards the end, after the more basic movements. The movement is also similar to the concentration curl as the upper arm is immobilised in both exercise.

Position

You will need a preacher bench in order to do the preacher curl. The bench has a pad agaisnt which you lean your upper arms and leave your hands hanging below. So grab a bar and sit at the bench with your upper arms against the pad.

The preacher bench with arm pad

Alternatively, if your gym doesn’t have a preacher bench, it’s not the end of the exercise. You can adapt by using the back rest of a bench. However, as the bench is likely to be narrow, you won’t have space to work two arms at a time and will have to use a dumbell instead. Personally I prefer the use of the backrest and dumbell as I can adjust the angle of the back rest and work one arm at a time.

The angle of the upper arm rest

The whole effectiveness of the exercise depends on the angle of the preacher pad. Too often, the pad is not vertical enough. This means that as the rep is over as soon as you reach the vertical since beyond this, gravity is helping you. The result is that your range of motion is narrower.

The optimum angle for your upper arms is to be slightly beyond vertical so that you can curl your lower arms all the way to the vertical position. If your upper arms are vertical, then your lower arms won’t be able to reach the vertical – you can’t fold your forearms over your upper arms! in this case again, your range of motion would be less.

This is why I prefer doing the preacher curl using the backrest of a bench – I can set the angle exactly to what I need, not to what a manufacturer decides is best for me.

Execution

Sitting at the preacher bench or standing behind the backrest of a conventional bench with your free arm gripping the backrest for stability, breathe in and then exhale as your curl the bar or dumbell up. Lower the weight all the way down for a full range of motion and to complete the rep. Try not to move your body to much. In effect ,the preacher curl is a much more strict variation of the concentration curl as you are less able to cheat by leaning back with your body.

One arm advantage

Working one arm at a time, the free arm can help towards the end of the set. If you had a spotter, the spotter won’t know exactly how much help you need. Whereas if your free arm is helping the working arm, you know exactly how much help to give to just go past the sticking point. You also have the advantage of having a more natural motion – your arm will not be directly facing in front but will be slightly inwards.

It’s hard to get this exercise wrong – as long as you get the pad angle right and go through the full range of motion, you can be sure your biceps will get a hell of a workout.

The best triceps exercises – and the worst

Exercising can be a personal experience – some exercises will feel great to you but not to others. I’ve gathered here the most popular triceps exercises and separated them into what I think are best and worst in my experience.

The top triceps exercises

The best exercises put little stress on the elbows and allow you to go heavy to build mass.

Narrow grip bench press

Despite the misleading name, this exercise hardly works the chest area. This is probably my favourite exercise when it comes to lifting extremely heavy. Just make sure you keep your elbows tucked in to your side at the bottom of the exercise, even though you will feel you want your elbows to point out. With your elbows pointing down instead of to the side, you put less stress on them.

Dips

This is another exercise where you can lift very heavy. Unfortunately, it is not possible to do this as a free-weight exercise. You can put your feet high up on a bench and add some plates on your lap to increase the difficulty. But because your feet support a large proportion of the total weight, this position will never feel challenging enough as you progress. The alternative is to use a dip machine and you’ll be able to go very heavy indeed, easily exceeding your bodyweight. However, this is not free-weight. There is no balancing of the weight. Dips put very little stress on your elbows if you keep them to your sides.

Pushdown

You perform this exercise at the cable station with a high pulley. You can also go heavy with it but it’s easy to lose good form and use your bodyweight to push the bar down. There is some stress applied to the elbows as well, especially when going very heavy and cheating.

Rope extension

Still at the cable station and using a high pulley, you replace the bar with a rope. The grip will feel very different and will affect your triceps in a very different way. You won’t go as heavy but you will be able to get a very strong contraction at the bottom.

Lying triceps extension (skullcrushers)

This used to be my favourite exercise when I just started out and I would go very heavy indeed. I stopped doing it as much when I found out that it puts a lot of stress on the elbows. I only keep it among the best exercises because it feels like a very natural movement and allows you to go heavy.

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The worst triceps exercises

The worst triceps exercises are those that apply too much stress on the elbows and do not put you in a position of strength where you can recruit maximum muscle fibres. Over many years, too much stress on the elbows can lead to injury. So you want to avoid these exercises or not go heavy on them.

 

Kickbacks

I don’t know why this is such a popular exercise, it barely challenges the triceps, especially with the dumbbell version. You have maximum strength at the bottom of the exercise when the weight is at its lowest and you have minimal strength at the top of the exercise when the weight is at its heaviest – it’s backwards! The cable version is better as the tension on the muscle is constant but you are still not in a position of strength. Elbow stress is high too.

The Tate press

This is a rather obscure exercise and I have never seen it done in the gym, except by myself to try it out a few times. I included it here to show everything that is wrong with a triceps exercise.

To perform it, you lie on a bench with a dumbbell in one hand which you hold over your chest just below the nipple. Your elbow is at 90 degrees such that your upper arm is vertical and lower arm horizontal and the dumbbell vertical in your pronated grip. To do the exercise, you simply extend your lower arm so that it becomes vertical.

This exercise places a lot of stress on the elbows and does not put you in a position of strength. There is also very little stretching.

Overhead dumbbell extension

You can use the 2-arm variety or the 1-arm variety which feels worse in my opinion. You could also use a cable instead. A lot of elbow stress here and the exercise itself is difficult to master and uncomfortable to perform – you need to lift a heavy weight up and behind your head. But the good side is that it does give you a lot of stretch in the muscles, so a good exercise to add when warming up or cooling down.

Seated or standing ez-bar extension

This is similar to skullcrushers except that you are standing or seated (more strict). It is also similar to the overhead dumbbell extension in that the weight is behind and above your head. The exercise is more comfortable to do than the 2-arm dumbbell extension as you can more easily bring the bar above your head and the grip feels more natural. The stress on the elbow is higher than skullcrushers but it does give you a good stretch, which is why I still do this exercise when going light.

 

So when choosing a triceps exercise, try it out to see how it feels, if the movement is natural, if you are in a position where you can recruit all your muscle fibres and if stress on the elbows is minimal, otherwise, keep the weight low and enjoy the stretch you hopefully get in return.

Barbell curl

Benefiting from the barbell curl

Barbell curl

The barbell curl is a key exercise to building bigger and better biceps. It is to the biceps what the squat is to the legs. Here is a description of how to perform the barbell curl and why it is beneficial to your biceps.

Technique of the barbell curl

Grasp a barbell with an underhand grip, that is, with the palms facing up, about shoulder width apart. Stand straight, feet slightly apart for balance, back arched slightly, shoulders pulled back gently and chest thrust forward. Start the exercise with your arms hanging down and by taking a deep breath before.

Curl the bar up whilst holding your breath. Keep you upper arms static while moving only your forearms and hands. The hardest part, the sticking part as it is called, is when your arms form a 90 degrees angle at the elbow and your forearms are parallel to the floor. Once you pass this sticking point, exhale forcefully and bring the bar up to your chest. You will find that it is impossible to stop the upper arms from moving at all, especially at the top of the exercise. This is normal and part of the natural movement of this free-weight exercise.

Once at the top of the exercise, don’t rest but lower the bar down under control. At the bottom, don’t rest either and keep a slight bend in your elbows to keep the biceps under tension.

why it’s a biceps mass-builder

As with any exercise, it is not possible to entirely isolate the biceps from other muscles, so with the barbell curl, the shoulder muscles, in particular, the anterior deltoid, are partially recruited. This is why it is important to keep the upper arms fixed to minimise work done by the shoulders in raising the bar and also why the barbell curl is sometimes regarded as a compound exercise for the biceps.

In addition, the position to perform this exercise is a natural and a fundamental movement of the arms and the leverage that you get allows to lift heavy. Couple that to the fact that you are using both arms and that the barbell curl is a free weight exercise and you start to understand why it is so popular and so effective at working the biceps thoroughly.

The barbell curl may also be easily modified in order to keep the muscles guessing, a fundamental aspect of bodybuilding. So for example, you can use an EZ-bar instead of a barbell, you can even use dumbbells instead of a bar or move on to a machine that replicates the movement. You can vary your grip width and thus target different angles of the biceps head. By holding the bar with the palms facing down, you work the brachialis, that muscle between the biceps and triceps on the exterior side of the arms. As you can see, every time you vary this exercise, you change its focus on the biceps.

Cheating

The barbell curl is not a perfect exercise and its main disadvantage is considerable indeed. Anyone who has done this exercise to their limit would have noticed the sticking point which severely limits the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted. As a  result, lifters have a natural tendency to cheat, or use a sloppy form during the exercise in order to get past it. Cheating involves bending the knee, moving the upper arms but more commonly, bending backwards. So keep an eye on these and try not to do them.

Another post will discuss cheating at the barbell curl in much more detail. For now, stick to proper form and enjoy working your biceps with this mass-builder.

Image credit: locknloadtraining.

Biceps busting workout to wake them up

Arnold's double biceps poseHave you been training your biceps for ages without seeing any growth or any increase in the amount of weight lifted? If so, there are countless others like you. You have reached a plateau and it’s time to breach this wall. Try this plateau-busting workout for a while to spurt your biceps into growth.

Forget the past

If your biceps workout in the past has revolved around the barbell curl for mass and concentration curl for definition along with a few other dumbbell exercises thrown in, now is the time to drastically change direction. We’ll try two approaches at the same time: work one arm at a time to give each your total attention each time and also work both arms during another exercise to give each little time to rest. What you want is to shock them into growth, to make them do work like they’ve never have.

Giant sets

We’ll be doing a giant set throughout.

What is a giant set and why this?

The giant set is simply several exercises performed back to back without rest. Usually they are used when exercising different muscle group so that while one group is working, the other muscle group is resting for the next round.

Why the giant set here if it’s meant for different muscle groups?

We use the giant set because we want to ramp up the intensity of the biceps workout, to shock it into new growth.

The exercises

Here we go with the order of exercises.

Start with the seated dumbbell curls. Do one set. Being seated means you can adopt strict form.

Move on to preacher curls using the EZ bar and then a machine curl. Preacher curls are really good at making the biceps peak and this is how you can really increase the apparent size of your arms. You need to finish with a machine exercise because your arms will be pretty much exhausted at the end. Use whatever is available in your gym or else do the concentration curl, remembering to really concentrate on working the muscle when doing this exercise.

So is that all there is to it?

The bicep is a small muscle group – you want to work it thoroughly but not to kill it with too many exercises. So 3 exercises in a giant set ought to be enough as long as you do them well and thoroughly.

Technique

Go through one set of each exercise quickly for warm-up. You’ve just done 3 warm-up sets at the end. Then do 2 more rounds with the last one being till exhaustion. This is where the pain and suffering, I mean, the fun begins. With your biceps already tired after a heavy set of seated dumbbell curls, move on to the preacher curl; you may allow your body to move somewhat more to help you. In the machine exercise, just close your eyes and go through the pain barrier until your arms become numb. After your first set to exhaustion, add 2 more sets for each exercise to exhaustion, if you can.  If not, do a giant set to exhaustion and try to increase it to 2 or 3 giant sets in future training sessions as your biceps toughen up. Because you will be very tired throughout these additional sets, you will have in fact to decrease the weight. This is good.

That’s it. You will have done a warm-up set, 2 sets with the second to exhaustion and 2 more sets past exhaustion, squeezing every single fibre of muscle in your biceps to jump-start growth. Remember, the workout starts in the mind. Focus on each and every rep like it is your last.