Five Workouts for Non-Responsive Biceps

Articles Muscle gain / 20 September, 2018 /

By Christian Thibaudeau

Here’s what you need to know…

  • Some guys get big arms just by pressing and pulling. Others aren’t so lucky. These workouts are for them.
  • Staggered sets, doing more pull-ups, hitting the biceps daily, and using occlusion and constant tension methods all work tremendously well.
  • Pick just one method and kill it for 3-4 weeks, then don’t train biceps at all for a week. Next, choose another method and hit it for 3-4 weeks again, followed by another week off. Then purchase several sleeveless T-shirts.

Direct arm training is boring. I get seriously demotivated when I have to work “arms.” I prefer simply to work on heavy lifting and performance. Fortunately, my arms are satisfactory for my goal and I can maintain them and even improve them slightly by only doing the big basics.

It wasn’t always that way. While my triceps have always been good (I’m a natural presser), my biceps always lagged behind. I eventually had to knuckle down and focus on my biceps to get them up to par with my delts, traps, and chest. I used a number of special tried-and-true strategies, all of which I’ll teach you here.

Note: These strategies are meant to be used one at a time. Do not combine them.

1 – Staggered Sets

Staggered sets worked extremely well for my biceps training. Every time I did a pressing workout I performed a set of a biceps exercise before every set of horizontal or vertical pressing.

I found this helped my pressing by stabilizing the elbow joint – like how hamstring work before squatting stabilizes the knees – and was a great stimulus for the biceps for two reasons:

1. The amount of mechanical work done:

During a heavy pressing workout I might ramp up my bench press in 12 sets and then perform 3-5 sets using a different technique (e.g., chains, bands, different tempo, etc.) So if I’m performing staggered sets, at the very least I’m getting in about 18 sets of biceps work, almost without noticing it.

Even if you follow a more traditional training routine where you use 3-4 pressing exercises for 3-4 sets each, that still adds up to a similar volume if you’re staggering your biceps work.

2. Stretching a pumped muscle:

During most pressing movements, the biceps are stretched under load, provided you use a full range of motion. If you perform this loaded stretch on a pumped muscle, you’ll stretch the fascia and increase the sensitivity of the IGF-1 receptors, both of which positively affect protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy.

With this approach, the weight used on the biceps exercise is irrelevant. The goal is simply to induce the biggest pump possible with the least amount of effort. The key is to constantly contract the biceps as hard as possible – essentially flex the muscle while doing the movement, and never release the contraction.

So do a set of 8-10 reps in-between each set of a pressing movement, and flex the muscle during the entire movement on each and every set.

The constant contraction has an occlusion effect on the muscle, leading to an accumulation of waste product and edema, followed by a huge rush in blood flow to the muscle once you end the set. This causes a big pump with very little muscle damage.

A question I often get about this technique is if you have to drop your “arm day” when applying staggered sets to the pressing workouts. The answer is no, you can keep doing your arm day. The staggered sets, if done with the constant tension technique, won’t cause significant muscle damage and shouldn’t interfere with your regular arm training.

Additionally, if you’re using Plazma™ pre-workout, the constant tension technique will deliver an enormous amount of nutrients to the biceps, which will help them recover and grow from the “heavier” biceps training.

2 – The Plazma Load

This can only be performed while using Plazma. If the blood isn’t filled to the brim with specific nutrients, you’re wasting your time. The goal here is to use a very long time-under-tension as well as to take advantage of the occlusion effect to create a huge rush of nutrient-rich blood into the biceps.

Make sure you start pre-loading with Plazma 20-30 minutes before the workout and continue to sip it during rest periods.

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Preacher Curl * 3 8-10
Rest with arms held at your sides for 5 seconds.
A2 Flex your biceps as hard as possible for 30-45 seconds 3  
Rest for 1 minute.
A3 Dumbbell Hammer Curl * 3 8-10
Rest with arms held at your sides for 5 seconds.
A4 Flex your biceps as hard as possible for 30-45 seconds 3  
Rest for 1 minute.
A5 Standing Reverse Curl with EZ Bar * 3 8-10
Rest with arms held at your sides for 5 seconds.
A6 Flex your biceps as hard as you can for 30-45 seconds 3  
Rest 1 minute and start over, performing the circuit three times total.

* Constant tension as explained above.

The constant-tension reps cause an accumulation of metabolites and growth factors in the muscle and when you release the tension (the 5 seconds of rest) blood rushes back inside the muscle. That’s called reactive hyperhemia. Flexing hard afterwards will occlude the muscle again, preventing the nutrient-rich blood from exiting the muscle, thereby producing even more growth factors.

Since this strategy uses constant tension and occlusion you can use it frequently. In fact, if combined with a double-dose of Plazma you can use it 3-4 times a week and make tremendous progress.

Note: If you perform this biceps strategy on a leg day, do the biceps work first. If performing it with a pressing workout, again do the biceps work first. By pumping the biceps you’ll get the added benefit of a loaded stretch during your presses. Conversely, do it at the end on pulling days as it will hinder performance in your pulling exercises.

3 – The Accidental Growth Solution

This is for those who hate doing direct arm work but still need their arms to grow. It’s simple – start every session with a lot of pull-ups.

Use two different workouts:

Perform 50 pull-ups in as little time as possible.
Perform as many pull-ups as possible in 10 minutes.
Alternate workouts during the training week (i.e., A-B-A-B, etc.)

The biggest mistake seen with the A days is trying to do too many reps in the first set. If you go anywhere near failure on any of the sets, it will greatly hinder your ability to complete the task in decent time.

The same thing holds true for B days. If you start too fast you’ll quickly burn out and won’t even be able to do even one more pull-up, thereby defeating the purpose of the method.

Try to end each set with 2 or more reps in the tank so that you can be ready to go in 15-20 seconds.

Two Notes:

This method works best with lifters who can do 8-10 strict pull-ups. Use an elastic band to provide help if you can’t do that many. If you can do a lot more than 10 strict pull-ups (e.g., 15 or more), then add weight – just enough to knock you back to 8-10 strict reps.

Be sure to mix up your choice of grip. Change it as often as you want during a workout. The supinated grip hits the biceps more; the neutral grip will target the brachialis; and the pronated grip fries the coracobrachialis.

4 – The Million-Dollar Challenge

Tim Patterson once asked me, “If there was a challenge where the person who added the most weight to his bench press in one month won a million dollars, what would you do?”

My answer was to bench press every day. And that’s especially true with the biceps as you can do them every day while maintaining your regular training schedule.

Pick one biceps exercise, the one you feel the most. I like the preacher curl, but some might prefer the standing barbell curl or hammer curl. Here’s how you do it:

Set 1: Warm-up with a light weight.
Set 2: Do 6 reps with a weight you could do about 10 reps with.
Sets 3-6: Perform 3 strict reps on each set, using as much weight as possible.
Sets 7-9: Perform 3 loose reps (use a slight cheat to lift the weight) with as much weight as possible – 10-20% more than the preceding sets.
Set 10: Use 50% of the max you used for the strict reps and perform as many strict reps as possible.

Remember, you’re doing this every damn day. On some days you’ll feel weaker and you’ll have to use a bit less weight. Some days you’ll feel stronger and should use more weight. The key is that for both steps (strict and loose) you strive to lift as much weight as you can.

While ideally you’d use the same weight for sets 3 to 6, use more weight if you need to. The goal is to do at least one set with the absolute heaviest weight you can do with strict form.

The same applies for sets 7 through 9. You may adjust the weight from set to set if you think you can do more or feel like you should decrease the load. Don’t be afraid to go up a notch if you feel like you can.

Since you’ll be doing a fair amount of biceps work daily, you won’t do anything else for biceps for 3-4 weeks. You should see some significant growth, and the daily heavy work will increase your biceps’ capacity to recruit its fast-twitch fibers, making your bi’s even more responsive to training after those 3-4 weeks.

5 – The Do-Over

This is an old-school method I learned from 1970’s-era competitive bodybuilders. You have one dedicated day where you train the biceps hard, i.e., an arm day (biceps/triceps). The next day you have a workout where you pair biceps with another major muscle group.

On the dedicated arms day, choose three exercises for the biceps. I recommend one with a supinated grip (barbell curls), one with a neutral grip (hammer curls), and one with a pronated grip (reverse curls).

For each exercise perform 3 sets of 6 reps and then 3 sets of 3 reps with a heavier weight. Go heavy but still control the eccentric – you can lift fairly fast but always lower the weight under control.

The next day begin the workout with pump work for the biceps. For each of the 3 exercises you used the day before, perform 2 sets of 10-15 reps using the constant tension technique. Then go about your regular planned workout.

So it might look like this:

Day 1

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Dumbbell Hammer Curl 3,3 6,3
B Standing Reverse EZ Bar Curl 3,3 6,3
C Preacher Curl 3,3 6,3

* Fast concentric; controlled eccentric.

The rest of your arms workout can be done before or after the biceps work.

Day 2

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Dumbbell Hammer Curl 2 10-15
B Standing Reverse EZ Bar Curl 2 10-15
C Preacher Curl 2 10-15

* Constant tension: slow concentric, slow eccentric, contracting the muscle at all times.

The biceps portion must be done first in the workout. Then you can perform the rest of the planned workout.

Effective Biceps Programming

These workouts should be used for 3-4 weeks at a time. After the 3-4 week cycle, stop all direct biceps work for a week. And remember, only use one method per cycle.

After the 1-week break you can perform a second 3-4 week cycle using a different method, but do not do more than two 4-week cycles in a row. It’s far better to go back to your normal training for at least 8 weeks to allow supercompensation to occur.

Now can we go back to talking about heavy lifting and performance?


*Originally posted on 10-24-2013

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…