John Grimek, ‘Shaplier Biceps’, Strength and Health, November (1957), 35-49.

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The arm, particularly the biceps muscle, the best-known of all the muscles and incite more interest and controversy than any other group of muscles. Both old and young are for some inexplicable reason, fascinated by strong, muscular looking arms. The very young are always intrigued and not heard anyone with a fine pair of arms “to show me your muscle!” Youngsters don’t realise the almost 700 muscles comprise the muscular makeup of the body, but to then only the biceps muscles because they not up to a peak when the arm is flexed.

And, speaking of older people, on a return trip from Canada a couple of years ago, Jake Hitchins and I stopped for gas in an upper New York state town. It was hot and sticky that day, and my shirt, a short sleeve cotton one, clung tightly to me, especially around my arms. After telling the attendant to “fill ‘er up” I went to the men’s room to freshen up and didn’t notice an older lady rocking in the shade. As I went by she called to my companion asking the nature of my vocation. Jake merely answered I was a writer. A pause followed in apparent contemplation, then she added, “My, what a wonderful pair of arms that young man has.”

When I was told this incident after we got under way I was pretty sure that old gal hasn’t seen many lifters or bodybuilders, and calling me a young man was proof enough her vision wasn’t 20-20. She must have been 80-plus if she was a day, and people that age consider anyone younger a mere kid!

I mention this because it bears out my conviction that arms for reasons unknown attract more attention than any other muscle, from the very young to the extremely old. At practically every stop we made, some comments were made regarding my arms, primarily because my sleeves seemed to be strangling them. However, this was not the first time such incidents occurred. On every trip I ever made comments were made towards other muscles but it was always the arms that received the most. For this reason I often wear long sleeve shirts or jackets for such comments can sometimes be embarrassing and annoying. But a man doesn’t have large arms to create attention. Frequently a well developed arm of 15 to 16 inches causes quite a stir among the neighbourhood small fry who incessantly request the owner to “show your muscle!”

Perhaps all this interest for arms is the result of many romantic tales relative to arm strength which come down to us through generations. Even Longfellow’s poem about the Village Blacksmith did much to popularize “the brawny arms” conception from which “muscles stood out like iron bands.” Although today the village smithy is as obsolete as the horse and buggy, the “brawny arms” conception is still with us.

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Frequently large arms are associated with strength, and while this may be true in many cases, it does not reflect the truth for the majority. Arm size does not indicate exceptional strength, although the two make an impressive combination. However, when a good size arm is capped by well-rounded deltoids and massive forearms they make an even better striking appearance and certainly any man with this combination is bound to be fairly strong, especially if these muscles were developed through coordinated, sensible exercise.

I find another odd incident regarding the biceps. Many muscle culturists consider the biceps as a single muscle and assume all biceps have the same general shape in all individuals. The biceps, meaning two-heads, vary considerably among all types of athletes and individuals, showing varying contours even when fully developed. In my opinion there are three distinctive shapes; the high peaked biceps, the rounded baseball type, and the longer but massive biceps without any apparent apex. Biceps that show a high peak are more impressive when the arm is flexed, but the baseball type is also impressive and appears more powerful. The long biceps, when muscular, look more massive and larger than either of the aforementioned two and are usually exceptionally strong. But, shape is usually determined by the manner in which the muscles originate and where they insert, although exercise can help to bring out its basic shape. Biceps strength, too, does not depend on size and frequently a medium-sized arm will out-perform a larger arm in various arm tests. Therefore, while some find it difficult to acquire greater arm mass they invariably acquire unusual strength and vice-versa. But here again this accomplishment depends on training and those, especially beginners, who insist on using heavy weights with fewer repetitions are apt to “toughen up” the muscle making it harder to developer, for a time at least. Under these conditions no amount of training seems to have any effect, although they will show improvement in strength.

When this condition occurs it is best to rest from all arm exercises from two to six weeks, to allow the muscles to return to normal, then light progressive training should be undertaken to coax the muscle along, using 8 to 12 repetitions. Resistance should be increased only when the 12th repetition becomes easy, although some may prefer as many as 15 counts. However, as progress is made and heavier weights are employed the repetitions need not exceed 10, because, quite unconsciously one may be doing more exercises and even employing series of the same exercise making higher repetitions unnecessary. Nevertheless, in doing any set number of counts be sure that most of them are done in correct style. I repeat, the first 5 or 6 reps should be done rather easily, but the remaining reps should require increasing effort on your part… there’s your cue and the true secret of biceps development.

Those who begin to swing curl or “cheat” with the first repetition are not using the entire biceps muscle, consequently develop a peculiar shaped arm. When hanging normally at the sides, the crook of elbow isn’t as full or in proportion to the upper biceps, and when the arm is flexed a large gap between the curve of the biceps and the elbow is seen. Naturally some space will be evident because the biceps contracts and shortens, but in many cases there is an excessive gap in what are considered well developed arms. Arms that have their tendons torn will naturally show a decided gap, but arms that are normal with this excessive space are the result of specialising too early on cheating curls, or employing such exercises that eliminate the starting action of the lower biceps ends. To develop this lower end of the biceps will require more deliberate starting action and a thorough extension of the biceps each time the arm is flexed. Reverse curls also react favourably here, as do curls with dumbells while keeping the palms facing each other.

I want to emphasize here that I am not condemning cheating curls because this method is favoured by the “opposition.” Such exercise may have a place in the training routine of many exercise fans, but is not suited to the development is below par. Personally, I have never seen such curls develop any arm from scratch to outstanding proportions, and I have never met anyone else who did.

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Those who use such exercises NOW have done enough proper exercises to develop their arms first before using this style, more as a means of using heavier weights, which point is conceded, but even then the question remains, whether the biceps actually got stronger or whether it is the combination of other muscles involved that encourage the use of heavier poundage. Anyone who employs this exercise realizes the biceps alone do not curl the weight, but the powerful muscles of the back, legs and abdomen all help to proved the impetus for completing the exercise. I can readily understand the use of this style to encourage more strength where progress of strength has not kept up with development, but so far as actual development resulting from the exclusive use of this style, it is doubtful. In one of our exhibitions on a cross country tour in 1940 I clean-curled 295 lbs. which I also pressed using the same undergrip, but this clean was nothing more than an exaggerated from of cheating curl.

Yet under strict conditions I was capable of 215 but could easily cheat curl 240 and 250 repetitions. To make claims for “curling such weights” would be preposterous, and this is precisely what many are doing today. My real purpose for doing an occasional cheating curl those days was not to encourage biceps development, but as a means of increasing my cleaning ability, which was done mostly by arm power!

For complete biceps development they should be thoroughly exercised by employing a full range of action’ contracting and extending the biceps fully. Repetitions for developing purposes for the majority seem to favour 8 to 12 counts, more for some, less for those who include more variety and multiple sets. Beginners will always do better when 12 or even 15 reps are used, since they do not include a large variety of exercises. Ordinary chinning will often increase biceps size for the average individual, and when combined with such exercises as rope climbing and rowing, gains are more rapid. Yet, chinning never did increase the arm girth of those who already achieved fair development from weight training, unless weights were attracted to the feet to increase the resistance. Curling exercises react more directly and resistance can be applied to meet the demand of the growing muscle, benefitting the biceps.

Many muscle culturists believe that only curling movements will effect biceps development, while in reality there are many exercises that influence and activate the biceps. In all rowing exercises, for example, the upper arm muscles are strongly involved, especially the brachialis, the muscle that adds width and thickness to the biceps region. Lots of fellows have huge looking arms hanging at their sides, but when viewed from the front the biceps are thin and shallow looking, all because the brachialis lacks complete development. A well developed arm usually looks wide from the sides and equally as thick from the front. It’s because the brachialis, which lies beneath the biceps and extends on each side of the arm, helps to show more massive development. Its tendons attach deeper and lower into the forearms and provide better leverage for the biceps.

Most exercises done on the “lat machine” induce some biceps growth, effectively different from regular curling and is advisable if this apparatus is at your disposal. High pullups are equally beneficial to the biceps, as are all methods of cleaning weights to shoulders. Therefore, it’s easy to see how the biceps can be worked even if curls were not included regularly. However, some form of curls are best included if one seeks to attain the maximum in biceps size. Nevertheless there are some fellows who think that in order to get big arms or keep them they have to curl and curl everyday, often using the heaviest weights possible. Frankly, with only a minimum of exercise I manage to retain myself in fair condition as the posed pictures recently taken show. What’s more, for almost seven years I have done practically no curls and am only now trying to coax myself into using them, yet I find no obvious decrease in arm girth. In my training I try to get the most out of my exercises with the least amount of effort and anyone else can do the same, providing they follow sensible training exercises.

Occasionally we have training with us a man who finds a way to cheat in any exercise you give him and one of specialities is a travesty on the two hands curl which he calls “lurchers” which are nothing more than a forward-bend, a heave and then a backbend before the dumbbells reach his shoulders … all in “perfect military form” because he doesn’t use either the split or squat style! Whenever we ride him for his efforts his retort is always…it works my arms! This we know, but we also know what a terrific strain his back suffers, and once his back gives out the “lurchers” will come to an end! Often I have challenged him to hold those dumbbells in his hands without any effort to “curl” them, for a minute or so, to prove he will still feel the same strain but he refuses to accept the terms. It doesn’t take much reasoning to realize that nay strain or stress is enough to fatigue the muscle, but my question is, does this help development? Development results only when the muscle is used over its entire normal range, and this applies to all muscles as well as the biceps.

Proper curling motions will undoubtedly cause the biceps to grow and strengthen, although the exercises mentioned previously are also very beneficial and can help to round out this muscle more fully. Regular curls work the biceps very well but some men fail to achieve full contraction in this upright position. By bending forward from the hips, leverage is increased and imparts greater action and resistance to the biceps. Reverse curls, knuckles up, works the biceps differently and bring the forearm muscles into play. Curling dumbbells, knuckles facing out, also works the forearms and activates the lower points of the biceps. Alternate curls are no different except when one acquires the rhythm of performance, more weight can be used in each hand. Nevertheless, I would like to reitate, while weight is important in all exercises to gain size and strength, it must be emphasized here that correct performance is equally as important in early stages even more so than employing limit poundages. If handling heavier weights is your objective then you can do the exercise in any fashion you like, but if you seek optimal development, be sure you work the muscle correctly first, then if additional work is required for strengthening purposes, employ maximum poundages in the cheating style.

To achieve optimal biceps size it’s not necessary to do a dozen biceps exercises, although three to five exercises can do done unless numerous sets are used, then fewer exercises and lower reps are advocated.

A word regarding measurements. Regular readers all know we do not stress measurements. The reason for this is obvious; too any grossly exaggerated measurements are published in other magazines. The reason for this is obvious; too many grossly exaggerated measurements are published in other magazines. The number of men today claiming 18, 19 and even 20 inch arms is difficult to count, yet only a small percentage actually have the measurement they claim. Our aim therefore is not to enoucrage falsified girths but suggest such measurements be judged by proportions and not the tape. A man whose forearms are well developed will have a large looking arm, but if the forearm lacks development the upper arm may appear larger than it is because of the contrasts and vice versa. In fact, forearm size is controlled to a large degree by wrist size, the upper arm by the forearms and deltoids. One writer, Alan Calvert, was of the opinion that if the forearms and deltoids were superbly developed, the upper arm would take care of itself. It might to a certain extent but some direct exercises should be done to encourage this growth.

Arm length is another factor to consider in relation to arm size. The longer the humerus the “more meat” will such an arm have, making it more massive, although it may not appear any larger than the arm that is two or more inches shorter and equally developed. Stanko’s arm is rather long and shows massiveness not accurately revealed in pictures. Bruce Randall, who visits us regularly, has tremendous looking arms of exceptional length. Strangely enough they look more massive when just hanging at his side or when he flexes his triceps in front of his chest. Because of his arm length he probably has “more meat” on his arm than any man his size, being muscular as well.

As for exercises, there are more than can be mentioned if one considers all movements that influence biceps development, but a brief break-down is that barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells can all be used to affect the biceps. Just as many can be done with cables or chest expanders, “crusher apparatus”, gymnastic equipment and many can be done without any equipment. However, increasing resistance must be maintained if the muscle is expected to improve with certain number of repetitions needed to stimulate this muscle growth. Bear in mind that several correct movements are essential that work the biceps over their full range before the shorter, heavier movements are done. Repetitions need not be excessive and those bent on following a system of sets instead of a wider variety should try the 10-8-6-5-3 system of reps which call for increased weight with each consecutive set. Using this system, three to five exercises would be more than sufficient, particularly if several indirect movements are employed in your training routine. Nevertheless, remember to do them correctly, if you are interested in building a shapelier biceps.