Published on March 20th, 2013 | by James Fell0
The Why and How of Building Your Biceps
I am not a jealous man, so my blood pressure did not skyrocket the other day when my wife told me this: “There was this one guy in high school who used to wear T-shirts that showed off his pipes and I drooled over him.”
But I’ll admit to being a tad competitive, especially in the fitness arena. “What about mine?” I asked.
She groped my biceps. “I love them.”
The TMI portion of this article complete, let’s turn our attention to the male biceps muscles.
Biceps brachii run the length of the inside of the upper arm and are primarily involved in elbow flexion, the bending movements that allow you to curl a beer up to your mouth or lift a baby’s belly to your face to blow a raspberry on it.
These are important movements, to be certain. Yet biceps play an outsized role in popular culture, with the bro-handshake-turned-arm-wrestling scene from “Predator” between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers springing immediately to mind. The image made men envious and women swoon.
Too bad Carl got one of those arms blown off by an alien laser cannon.
Muscle-building magazines frequently contain articles about the best ways to “blast your biceps” because they know many guys want to grow theirs. It’s a desire relayed to me by clients and friends alike. But is it worth the effort?
You bet, according to my highly unscientific survey.
I interviewed 20 random women of various ages in a park near downtown Calgary, and the results revealed that most women really like male biceps.
You may be thinking, “Who cares what Calgary women think?” But before you pass judgment know this: All the women surveyed were beautiful.
I love my job.
Anyway, 40% said they thought male biceps were a “nice” feature, and the other 60% “loved them.” Not one said she was neutral about these muscles.
And most women want them displayed. I learned that 40% “don’t mind” if a guy wears a biceps-bearing T-shirt; another 40% proclaimed, “Show those babies off!” Only 20% considered bare-upper-arm enthusiasts to be “arrogant show-offs.”
As for size, 95% said they liked them “moderately big” and the other 5% (meaning one respondent) said “the bigger the better.” No one showed any appreciation for small or medium biceps.
For Marina Cosic, a 25-year-old sales assistant who responded to the survey questions with much enthusiasm, good arms are a requirement. “If you have nice shoulders and big biceps, I’ll consider marrying you,” she told me.
Some men are genetically gifted and can grow their biceps by sneezing on them, whereas others must slave endlessly to avoid being considered scrawny. The question is, when it comes to building the biceps, are you doing it right?
I have my own opinions, but I contacted internationally renowned fitness expert Christian Finn from Northampton in England for backup. Finn, who has written for magazines such as Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness and Esquire, receives about 250,000 visitors to his fitness website each month (I’m a devoted reader of his e-newsletter). Besides looking like a fitness model, he has a master’s in exercise science.
“To build as much muscle [over your entire body] as you can in the shortest time possible, you should be investing most of your time and energy on pressing, pulling and squatting movements,” Finn told me. That means doing overhead and bench presses; dead lifts, chin-ups and rows; and squats. “Think of these exercises as the ‘big rocks’ that should go into your training ‘bucket’ first.”
I completely agree. If you wish to grow your biceps specifically, it’s the chin-ups, rows and other back-muscle-focused exercises that are going to be those big rocks, and isolation movements such as various types of biceps curls are the “pebbles and sand” that top up the bucket.
I’ve heard it said that training biceps muscles directly isn’t a very functional exercise, and Finn agrees: “If you’re an athlete, there are probably better ways to spend your time.” But for average Joes who want to look better, there is nothing wrong with investing some effort to develop these muscles. I spend a whopping 10 minutes a week on my biceps. Well, maybe 15 minutes.
Next I spoke with Matt Jordan, a strength trainer and sport physiologist for Olympic and professional athletes based in Calgary. He agrees that what biceps do is “not an important prime movement.”
“The arm is literally just an extension of the larger, core muscle groups,” Jordan told me. “Even for something like a discus throw” — which involves significant elbow flexion — “it plays a secondary role.”
However, Jordan notes that biceps play an important role in safeguarding the elbow joint. “A lot of sport movement involves rapid extension of the elbow, and biceps brachii protects it from overextending by decelerating the forearm at the end of a rapid extension.”
I should note the importance of maintaining some sense of balance with the triceps brachii muscles, which are located at the back of the upper arm and serve to extend the elbow. You don’t want to look … weird.
And even while tastefully showing off your arms, keep in mind that the intended effect may backfire. When 28-year-old Rebecca Darling, a happily married mother of a small child, sees a guy in a biceps-revealing T-shirt, she thinks the message he’s sending is: “I can’t afford a Ferrari, so this is the next best way to compensate.”
Just FYI, go no more revealing than a T-shirt. My survey included a question about what women think of guys wearing tank tops, and the overwhelming response was, “Blech!”