I remember taking courses in college many years ago when I was in Physical education in which it was apparent the courses being taught were far behind state of the art training knowledge available from many of the leading bodybuilders. Consequently, I never thought to look to this source for more information about proper exercise.
Not too long ago however having glanced through some of the advanced physiology courses available today and the content of the text books opened my eyes considerably.
As Nehru once said, “We must have eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind that opens up to the outside world”.
Soon I was devouring everything from muscle testing and function courses to Exercise physiology. It was fascinating. I was learning about my passion. How good it felt to discover new truths about training.
Let me share some of these findings with you in the hope it will help you in your quest for physical excellence.
I must begin by explaining a little about the origins and insertions of the biceps heads. This is important to know in order to be able to determine which muscles are working during a specific exercise.
Lets take working the biceps for “peak ” development for instance. If we look carefully we will see the biceps being composed of two heads, both the long and the short head which is of course not anything new to anybody with even a little knowledge of anatomy.
Closer examination reveals the short head is connected to the coracoid process (the small bone furthest out on the shoulder) and the long head is connected to the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. This again is not anything earth shaking. It is important to note however, even though these origins are close to each other, the coracoid process is about 1 to 2 inches closer to the spine than the connection of the long head.
In other words the best way to work both heads would be with a movement that would bisect these two vectors.
This is very difficult to explain without the use of a picture but let me see if I can create a picture in your mind.
Imagine you are doing a bicep curl with the elbows held in and the hand grip position a little wider than shoulder width. This is the ideal position for building both heads. Due to the fact that any movement of the wrist with respect to the shoulder is going to be working both heads there doesn’t seem to be any way to work one head of the bicep at the exclusion of the other.
One can put a lot more emphasis on one head over the other however by different positioning of the hand on the barbell or dumbbell. Let me explain. Let’s suppose your desire would be to develop more bicep thickness rather than peak biceps development. The short head of the biceps is the head which head which gives greater thickness to the arm so more exercises which activate the head would be appropriate. In as much as the short head is connected more close to the spine, exercises with the wrist out away from the body and the elbow in would give better pre-stretch and would thus activate the head more effectively.
On the contrary if the desire is to build better peak on your bicep then, effort should be expended to work the long head which primarily gives peak to the bicep. We would then best accomplish this function by doing exercises such as Vertical Preacher Bench curls or Spider Curls which keep the elbows out and the wrists in during the exercise.
There is however, another muscle in the upper arm which also is responsible for elbow flexion. This muscle is the Brachialis. I’m sure you have heard of this muscle before.
Looking carefully at this muscle’s origin and insertion we learn some very interesting facts. First, we will note the long and short heads of the Biceps insert on the radius (one of the bones of the Forearm) The radius is the bone that swivels to allow for the twisting of the palm from supination (palm up) to pronation (palm down). As a matter of fact one of the functions of the biceps muscle is to supinate the palms. This explains why we get better development from biceps work when we do the exercise in as full of a supinated (palm up) position as possible.
The brachialis on the other hand has its insertion on the ulna (the other bone making up the forearm). It is not dependent on the position of the palm in order to work at its maximum.
Even more important than the insertion of the brachialis is its origin. It does not connect in the shoulder region at all. It originates at the top of the humerus (upper arm bone). This means it is not dependent on arm position in order to work. This is very important information.
Especially when one looks at the position of the brachialis. You see, it lies directly under the two heads of the biceps. This would seem to indicate if we could build up this muscle it would push up the biceps and give us much better peak.
How then can we concentrate totally on the brachialis rather than just working on the heavy biceps heads. The origins are the clue. If the elbows are raised to at least shoulder height and even higher, the biceps are put on such a slack they can never fire to effect elbow flexion (flexing the bicep). In this position then the only muscle that can work is the brachialis.
What exercise could we do then to really work peak biceps?. The answer: one in which the elbows are raised over the head. An exercise like kneeling curl downs with the lat machine are tremendous for building peak biceps. The elbows have to be kept high over the head however. You will notice immediately that you will have only 30% of the normal strength you usually have while doing bicep curls because the biceps muscles are totally deactivated and all the work is now being done by the much weaker brachialis.
By the way, Get a camera when you do this exercise you wont believe the peak on your upper arm at the fully contracted position.
Okay, lets talk about the triceps.
The triceps of course are composed of three heads, thus the name tri-ceps. The obvious intention is to get all three heads so big they will be enormous.
The triceps muscles have some of the same peculiar differences between origin and insertion as does the biceps. Lets examine them carefully.
The lateral head (external head) and the small internal head have the same origin and insertion. They both originate on the upper portion of the humerus (upper arm bone) and all three insert together on the under side of the ulna. This means for one thing the position of the palm does not effect the exercise because as you remember from our earlier discussion the ulna does not change with palm movement.
The really interesting item to note is the origination of the long head of the tricep. Before I continue, let me also call your attention to the fact that the long head is the head with the most potential for size. It has more muscle fibre than the lateral and the medial head combined.
Continuing, the long head finds its origin not on the humerous bone but on the Infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (the back of the shoulder). Lets examine what this means to us who are interested in building big arms.
It’s very similar reasoning as with the biceps and brachialis muscles. The external and medial heads are connected to the upper arm bone and consequently are not dependent on the position of the elbow with respect to the shoulder to achieve full extension and full flexion. The large tricep head however, is very dependent on the position of the elbow with respect to the shoulder because it is connected to the shoulder.
I used to refer to certain triceps exercise as shape and others a size movements. I really didn’t know what I was talking about but it seemed to make sense at the time. It was apparant, standing triceps pressdown with the elbows in on the lat machine were excellent for chizeling out some terrific shape on the external (lateral triceps heads). I could never get any size doing this exercise because there just wasn’t enough muscle fibre in the external head to accomplish real arm size. I could however get some impressive “horseshoe” development.
Consequently, I would label this exercise as well as all dumbell and barbell kickback exercise as falling into the category of “shape” exercises.
On the other hand I would label all exercises such as supine triceps presses with the EZ curl bar and standing triceps pressdowns with the elbows out as good “size” exercises because they (unbeknownst to me) actually activated the long head much better because of the elbow position with respect to the shoulders.
You see, because of the origin of the long head it is necessary to get the elbow raised as much as possible in order to get full extension on this tricep head. Once we understood what is happening we can devise exercises that will really attack this potentially huge tricep head.
By using just a few of these exercises I can now keep my arm size up very easily. I even have to watch it carefully in order to keep my triceps from becoming out of proportion with the rest of my other body parts.
Not too long ago Joe Weider and his wife Betty came out to Utah to visit us for a while and we were enjoying a walk through some of the shops in an old restored mining town by the name of Park City. It so happened I had just worked arms the day before and was wearing a short sleeved shirt to show off in front of Joe because I knew he always had a love affair with arms himself.
We happened to be looking in the window of on of the curio shops and Joe asked me. “Have you been working extra hard on your arms Larry?”
“No about the same as before but I have found some terrific exercises for them.” I answered.
“Your arms belong on a 250 pound man Larry”.
I don’t know whether I felt like a freak or felt good about what I had discovered about building arms. Coming from Joe I knew it was a compliment as Joe is not one to criticize anyone.
Let me be more specific about how you go about using some of this exercise knowledge. In order to visualize what I am going to share with you, you must imagine the long head is connected to the back of the deltoid and the only way you can get this muscle fully prestretched (it wont build to its maximum potential unless you get into full prestretch position) is to raise the elbows fullly overhead.
You will remember this as being the position we use while doing standing EZ bar tricep extensions or overhead dumbell presses. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
The only problem with the over head dumbell or EZ bar tricep extension is the elbows go bad after a few weeks of doing these movements and they are a long time coming back.
The position is correct it is just the exercise is too hard on the elbows.
Try this experiment. Raise the elbow high over the head with hand behind your head. Raise it as high as possible. Can you feel the tightness of the tricep way down on the bottom close to the shoulder? This is the area you will be able to build. It will forge a peak on the bottom side of your arm causing the tricep to sweep down like a bunch of hanging grapes.
Actually, it isn’t the elbows that are hurting while doing the standing tricep press with the Ez bar, it is a small muscle called the Anconeus which is also an elbow extensor (works along with the other triceps muscles).
You will find most of the fellows that have been training for some period of time will have a tender Anconeus muscle due to hyper extension.
Let me tell you how to work the long head to its maximum. This exercise is even better than the overhead triceps extension and it doesn’t hyper extend the Anconeus.
I am going to tell you exactly how I do it and I have experimented with it for years to get it correct. You can use all of my suggestions or part of them. It’s up to you.
First, you must have a lat machine with a pulley attachment which will allow the cable to come off the pulley at about 5 feet off the ground. You then need to have some sort of arrangement against which to place your feet. Similar to the foot stops used on a seated lat machine. You will also need a twin pedastal bench with two surfaces each about 1 foot square, separated by about 1 foot. The surfaces of the bench upon which your elbows will be resting should be about 1 foot off the ground.
You will also need to get a “V” bar to hook onto the cable. Your palms should be facing away from the machine and you should be kneeling on the ground with the elbows resting on the twin pedastal tricep bench, facing away from the machine.
As the arms are bent bringing the bar close to the machine the shoulders should be dropped down to get as much extension on the long head as possible. Try not to use the body to get the bar back up to full arm lock out position again.
Alternate this exercise with Supine tricep press with the EZ curl bar using as heavy a weight as possible. Do 3 to 4 series of these two exercises and finish off with only the kneeling tricep extensions for about 3 to 5 sets dropping the weight each set with no rest between sets.
You will find you have discovered a gem if you do it exactly as I have it outlined.