By Adam Besik
Everyone wants to make the best of their time in the gym. There’s nothing worse than spending a training session spinning your wheels if you’re an avid weight trainer. With that being said I would like to propose a solution. It’s not necessarily a strict training method, but rather a strategic approach to each body part to best make use of your time and energy in the gym as well as create the optimal stimulus for muscle growth.
The strategy is a melding of years of education and implementation; experience. While I hadn’t ever read Steve Holman’s “Critical Mass” I had been using his concept of Positions of Flexion (POF) for years. Along with that, I had adopted John Meadow's approach to training for hypertrophy after working with him in 2012-2013. The former is an approach to training a muscle in three different lengths: mid-range, lengthened, and “contracted” (shortened). Recognizing Holman’s order here is important as it is slightly different than Meadow’s.
The Meadow’s approach, I hope I don’t bastardize this John, is a strategy whereby you use an initial movement to warm-up your target muscle, typically getting to a shortened position and really connecting with said muscle while not overly exhausting it. One may say this movement has an aspect of creating “intention,” a term I picked up from Ben Pakulski’s work that centers around mindfully creating tension in a target muscle. This is secondarily followed by a bigger compound movement in a lower hypertrophy rep range (~6-8 reps) whereby you may find a failure point(s). Thereafter, you employ a tertiary movement that puts the target muscle into a stretched position after it is fully “pumped.” This strategy seems quite congruent with the research on muscle hypertrophy but doesn’t inherently nor strictly adhere to achieving different POF.
Looking at Brad Schoenfeld’s work on the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy it seems that Meadow’s approach makes a helluva lot of sense. These three mechanisms are proposed to be, 1) mechanical tension, 2) metabolic stress, and 3) muscle damage (Schoenfeld). Meadow’s approach covers these bases by utilizing relatively heavier loads for mechanical tension, rep ranges and times under tension that create metabolic stress, and longer muscle lengths that can augment muscle damage all within one training session.
The strategy I propose combines the overall session structure put forth by Meadows with Holman’s POF concept. However, the additional component would be to not just simply get to those three POF (lengthened, mid-range, shortened) with exercises but to also best find peak muscle torques/tensions in those positions as pragmatically as possible.
While I won’t refer to overall program volume or frequency, those variables are extremely important to juggle concerning optimal progress. Please refer to my article “The Best Way to Build Muscle: How Much?” for the latest research as far as weekly training volume and frequency.
When it comes to implementing this strategy I will go over three movements to employ, ideally in a single training session, or at least within a training microcycle (~1 week). In practice most people will combine multiple muscle groups within a training session and as such recommendations will be made as to how to best navigate this. And with that let’s get right to guns!
The Biceps (and Brachialis)
The Biceps Brachii have two heads (short and long) that both originate (connect) to the scapula at different points. Their insertion (other attachment point) is on the lower arm bone, the radius.
The Brachialis is the step-sibling to the Biceps, which is sometimes superficially visible on the outer portion of the upper, and originates on the upper arm bone (humerus) while inserting on the lower arm bone that runs parallel to the radius, the ulna.
The Biceps both flex the elbow and supinate the wrist (bring them palms up). The short head can also assist the should in adduction (bringing arm closer to the body) while the long head can assist the shoulder in abduction (bringing the arm away from the body). The Biceps also flex the shoulder joint as well.
The Brachialis is a strong elbow flexor and does so more readily when the wrist is in a neutral (hands facing) or pronated position (palms down).
1) The Shortened Position: Single-Arm, High Pulley Cable Curl
Working Sets: 3
Repetition Range: 10-12
Rest: ~45 seconds between arms
Repetitions in Reserve (RIR): ~1-2
Make sure that the non-trained arm is holding on to a sturdy object and lean slightly towards the working arm’s side. Hold the handle with a firm, palms up grip focusing on the pinky side of your grip most intensely. Start with your arm/elbow extended and your shoulder in a relatively flexed and abducted position in the frontal plane (up and out to your side). From that position keep your arm in that plane of motion while flexing your elbow, bringing your pinky towards your ear. Towards the end range of motion allow your shoulder to flex a little (your upper arm will raise a bit more). Hold that shortened contraction hard for one second and then slowly return to the starting position. This movement and its set-up will create peak torque/tension when the cable/line of force and your lower arm are perpendicular to one another. This is not at the end of the range of motion, but certainly close to when your biceps are relatively near to their shortest muscle length.
2) The Mid-Range Position: Standing EZ Bar Curl
Working Sets: 3-4
Repetition Range: 6-8
Rest: ~90-120 seconds
Stand holding an EZ or Cambered bar in a semi-supinated (underhand) position. Make sure your shoulders are pulled back into a relatively packed position (shoulder blades back and down, retracted and depressed). Because the biceps originate on the scapula it’s important for them to maintain this position. Essnetially the biceps are anchored there. From there, your elbow should start the movement directly underneath your shoulder joint with your upper arm relatively close to your side. Brace your abdominal wall and begin from a sturdy position then flex your elbow, bringing the bar up towards your shoulders. As you approach the top of the movement your elbow will raise a bit from its beginning position as the shoulder flexes under control. Begin your descent by letting your elbow slowly return to its beginning position (not past) and then slowly let your elbows extend returning the bar to its starting position. Do not initiate the movement with your hips or any other movement aside from your elbow joint. Practically speaking, with a heavier load and near failure to complete technical failure intensities a little bit of overall body motion will inevitably occur, simply try to minimize it.
Peak torque/tension on the biceps will be reached as your lower arm is parallel with the ground. This is when it is perpendicular to the line of force which is gravity in this instance. This is also when the bar is furthest away from your body and your biceps are roughly in their mid-range and length.
3) The Lengthened Position: 60-75 Degree Incline Bench Zottman Curl
Working Sets: 2-3
Repetition Range: 8-10
Rest: ~90 seconds
The “Zottman” portion of this exercise implies starting with a supinated (palms up) position for the upward (concentric) phase of the movement, and then switching to a more pronated (hands-facing to palms down) position for the downward (eccentric) part of the movement.
Choosing a degree of incline that is appropriate for you is massively important as individual shoulder mobility will play a large factor. The worse your mobility is the higher the incline needs to be to accommodate it. You will want to keep the aforementioned shoulder packed position the whole time. What tends to happen when mobility is insufficient in this movement is that at the bottom of the exercise the shoulder blade (scapula) will slightly protract and/or your shoulder (glenohumeral) joint will internally rotate as shoulder extension mobility needed is lacking. What this will look like is your shoulder joint coming forward out of the packed position. Remember that the biceps attach to the shoulder blade so coming out of that strong, foundational position while lifting can lead to short- and/or long-term injury issues, not to mention sub-optimally training the biceps.
With an appropriate bench angle and shoulder position intact start the movement with your elbows directly under your shoulder joint. Keep your upper arm relatively close to your body and beginning with a supinated (underhand) grip of the dumbbells flex your elbow to bring the dumbbell close to your shoulder. A little bit of elbow raise, shoulder flexion here is fine. Once at the top rotate the wrist to a more neutral (hands facing) or even pronated (palms down) position. Your particular mobility will govern how much pronation is appropriate for you. As you rotate your wrist once your elbow needs to venture away from your body to accomplish any more wrist rotation you’ve gone too far. Only pronate as much as you can keep your elbow in the starting, near-your-side position. After getting to that pronated wrist position lower the dumbbell very slowly until you’ve reached the starting position of the movement. This pronated wrist position on the downward portion of the movement will bias using your brachialis.
By using this incline bench position you get closer to your greatest level of shoulder joint extension and subsequently closer to your longest biceps length. While peak torque/tension is not found at the longest position of the biceps in this particular exercise it does get them in their near longest appropriate training position for the individual. You could manipulate the position of a cable apparatus to create peak torque/tension in the longest position but it’s not nearly as pragmatic as this dumbbell version, nor may it be as advisable to do so at this point in the training session. By now your biceps are pretty fatigued and using a heavier load in the muscle's longest and weakest position would limit overall training stimulus of the movement and could be a more injurious approach.
The Biceps and Brachialis are most commonly paired with the Triceps Brachii for a traditional “arms” day or paired into a “Pull” or “Back n’ Biceps” day whereby the overall back musculature, biceps, and sometimes rear deltoids are trained together.
When paired in the traditional arms day routine both a superset or straight-set approach work just fine. In the former scenario, rest periods would be altered a bit from the above as you would go from a biceps/brachialis movement immediately to a triceps one, or the inverse, in a typical “A to B” exercise format. It would then be prudent to use the above rest periods after you complete the “B” exercise before returning to the “A” exercise. When using a straight-set approach simply alternate biceps/brachialis exercises with triceps exercises, completing all working sets of a given exercise before moving onto the next. You wouldn’t do all one muscle group’s exercises first before moving to the next as you will see as this series moves forward.
Even though this strategy can be implemented within a “pull day” routine it may not be the best. Typically, in a pull-based routine, the larger back musculature would be trained first, leaving the isolation (biceps/brachialis) exercises for later in the routine. With volume in the session escalating completing all of the biceps/brachialis exercises and their associated volume after the preceding back work wouldn’t be optimal or pragmatic in one session. Therefore, it may be best in this scenario to spread the three movements over a microcycle (~1 week) of training, placing one to two of the above movements into a given “pull day” session. Their respective working sets, repetition ranges, and tempos would remain the same as they tend to the differing mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy eluded to earlier in this article.
*Tempo is referred to in a 4-digit sequence whereby the first digit and thirst digits are the lowering/lengthening (eccentric) contraction and raising/shortening (concentric) contraction respectively. The second and fourth digits are the times between those two contractions/movements. For example, using the Single-Arm, High Pulley Cable Curl’s tempo above (2011) you would extend your arm away, lengthening your biceps by lowering the weight for 2 seconds (2011), not pause (2011), curl your hand towards your ear for 1 second (2011), and then hold that shortened contraction for 1 second (2011) before lowering the weight again.
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872.