Bicep Growth Training Tips
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Oct 29, 2020
The following are some helpful tips for your bicep training. Please note that these are averages based on our personal training experience and, accrued through training thousands of clients over the course of many years. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates. For a deeper dive into the science and logic of hypertrophy training, give our hypertrophy book a read. If you have questions about how to apply these recommendations, please give some thought to joining our online community on our YouTube Channel, where Dr. James Hoffmann and Dr. Mike Israetel answer your top questions every week, and informative videos on muscle growth, fat loss, and strength enhancement are posted regularly!
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To be technical for a minute, the muscle group being discussed here would be more accurately termed the “elbow flexors” which include the biceps, the brachialis, and several other muscles and supporting muscles. We’re just referring to this muscle grouping as “biceps” for the sake of simplicity and easy internet searching.
While the biceps are involved in shoulder flexion (and can thus get pretty sore from chest flyes, for example), and can be taxed significantly through close grip pulling during back training, their direct work is based on a large variety of curls of different kinds.
- Alternating Dumbbell Curl
- Barbell Curl Narrow Grip
- Barbell Curl Normal Grip
- Cable EZ Bar Curl Wide Grip
- Cable EZ Bar Curl
- Dumbbell Single Arm Preacher Curl
- Dumbbell Spider Curl
- Dumbbell Twist Curl
- EZ Bar Curl Narrow Grip
- EZ Bar Curl Wide Grip
- EZ Bar Preacher Curl
- EZ Bar Spider Curl
- Hammer Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Machine Preacher Curl
- Rope Twist Curl
When choosing your bicep exercises, the advanced approach is to potentially choose up to 5 different categories of biceps movements.
- Full ROM basics that let you lift big loads through most of the ROM of the biceps, such as barbell curls.
- Exercises that allow you to load the supination function of the biceps, such as dumbbell twist curls.
- Exercises that allow you to load the peak contraction, such as spider curls.
- Exercises that load the stretch, such as the incline dumbbell curl.
- Chest flyes (done on your chest sessions, of course) may be included at least on occasion to train your biceps in stretched shoulder abduction. Kind of like the hamstrings with an RDL.
You don’t have to do all of these exercises once a session, once a week, or even once every meso. But every few mesos, you should rotate around to most of them at least on occasion if you’d like full biceps development.
Within a training session, we recommend including between 1 and 3 different biceps exercises, but no more than that in most cases, as doing more than 3 biceps movements in one session is likely just a needless burning of potential exercise variations you can save for later mesocycles. Within a single week (microcycle) of training, we recommend between 2 and 5 different biceps exercises. For example, if you train biceps 3x a week, you can do a heavy barbell curl on one day, a lighter barbell curl on the next day, and a machine one-arm curl on the last day for 2 total exercises in the week. On the other hand, if you train biceps 6x per week, you might want to choose (though don’t have to choose) as many as 5 different exercises, with only one of them repeated in a heavier/lighter arrangement. Because you want to keep exercises variations fresh for when you need to change exercises (through injury or staleness, for example), you should use as few exercises per week (and thus, per mesocycle, as we recommend keeping the same exercises in every week of each meso) as you can to get the job done. If you can just do a few more sets of barbell curls and get a great workout, there’s no reason to switch to dumbbell curls, for example. If you’re doing an exercise, there should be a reason for it.
Lastly, how do you know when it’s time to switch out a given exercise from your rotation to another exercise in your list of effective choices? The decision is based on answering just a few questions about the exercise you’re currently using:
- Are you still making gains in rep strength on the exercise?
- Is the exercise causing any aches or pains that are connective tissue related? And are these getting worse with each week or accumulating over multiple weeks?
- Is there a phasic need for the exercise to change? In other words, is the exercise appropriate for the rep range you’re trying to use it for? Example: dumbbell curls for 5 seem kind of risky, but doing weighted underhand pullups on your back days can hammer the biceps at such low reps more safely.
- Are you getting a good mind-muscle connection on the exercise, or is it feeling stale and annoying to do?
If you are still hitting PRs on the exercise, it’s not causing any undue pains, you’re getting a good mind-muscle connection, and there’s no other need to change it, then don’t change it! If this means you keep an exercise around for up to a year or more, so be it! But if an exercise isn’t yielding any more PRs for a whole meso (especially on a muscle gain or maintenance phase), if it’s hurting you in the “bad” way, if it feels super stale, and/or if you have to dump it because it’s not appropriate to an upcoming rep range target, then you should replace it. Many times, the questions will fall on both sides, and then it’s up to you to make a wise choice considering all the 4 variables above.
Range of Motion
Only squats might be more commonly ROM-abused than bicep curls. If you can limit your ROM on curls, you will of course have all the boys and girls vying for your attention in the gym and you’ll be the king. Alternatively, if you actually want to grow your biggest arms with the smallest chances of injury, go all the way down and come all the way up when curling. Do you have to engage some shoulder flexion at the top of the movement? You can (biceps are also shoulder flexors), but you don’t have to. But if you’re not at least going close to all the way down and coming all the way up, you’re likely missing out on the growth-promoting effects of full ROM.
In general, like all muscles, the biceps benefit from weights in the 30%-85% 1RM range, which in many people roughly translates to a weight that results in between 5 and 30 reps on a first set taken to failure. We can split this range into heavy (5-10,) moderate (10-20), and light (20-30) categories, as there are tradeoffs to make between all of them.
The first point on loading is that the biceps, like most muscles, seem to benefit from some training in all three of the rep ranges listed above. Because the moderate (10-20 rep) range often offers the best tradeoff between stimulus, fatigue, injury risk, and slow/fast fiber specificity, and mind-muscle connection, an argument can be made that a first-time program design could have most weekly working sets for the biceps in this range, perhaps up to about 50% of them. The other 50% can perhaps be split evenly between the heavy (5-10) and light (20-30) rep ranges, as loading range diversity has been shown to be a potential benefit in its own right.
While the 10-20 range can support nearly all types of exercises, the other ranges have some practical delineations. For example, exercises that require a high degree of mind-muscle connection to have best effects may not be optimally effective in the 5-10 rep range, like spider curls, for example. Such exercises are perhaps also not ideal for the 20-30 rep range because the duration of the sets and the physical pain toward the end of them might cause the lifter to focus on just getting through the set or pushing as hard as possible instead of on the mind-muscle connection. For most types of biceps exercises, however, the whole 5-30 rep range is highly effective.
When constructing a weekly training plan, it’s probably a good idea to train the heavy ranges before the lighter ranges. Because both types of training cause fatigue, they all interfere with each other to some extent. However, the muscle and connective tissue damage from heavier training is likely more substantial and presents a higher risk of injury if some damage already exists from earlier training. Thus, if you do sets of 5-10 on Monday and (nearly always) sustain some form of micro-tearing, sets of 10-20 on Wednesday are lower in absolute force magnitude and are unlikely to cause the micro-tearing to expand into a notable injury. On the other hand, if you’re pre-damaged from lots of sets of 10-20 on Monday, going even heavier in such a state on Wednesday in the 5-10 range is a bit more likely to result in injury. Thus, a potential sequencing of heavy-moderate-light during the week might be advisable, with a day or two of extra rest after the light session and before the next heavy session to make sure most damage has been healed and another productive week can begin.
A sample arrangement of exercises, sets, and loads can look something like this:
Based on your personal responses to each of the main rep ranges, you can adjust how much volume you perform in any of them. For example, if you notice that you get a better stimulus (pumps, soreness, mind-muscle connection, etc.) and lower fatigue (joint stress, systemic fatigue, joint soreness, etc.) in some of the ranges vs. others, you can do more sets in those ranges and a bit less in others, though you should in most cases still include at least some work in the least productive ranges. For example, you might find that neither 5-10 nor 20-30 rep ranges work very well for your biceps training, so you might only do a few sets of both in most weeks and do the vast majority of your sets in the 10-20 range.
When determining how long to rest between any two sets in training, our goal is for enough rest to be taken such that the next set is at least close to maximally productive. How can we ensure this? By answering 4 basic questions about our recovery status:
- Has the target muscle locally recovered enough to do at least 5 reps on the next set?
- Has the nervous system recovered enough to remove it as a limiting factor to target muscle performance?
- Has the cardiorespiratory system recovered enough to remove it as a limiting factor to target muscle performance?
- Have synergist muscles in the exercise being performed recovered enough to remove them as a limiting factor to target muscle performance?
It might take only 1-2 minutes to recover very well (let’s say, 90%) on all of those factors, but because set to set recovery is asymptotic in nature, it might take another 3 minutes to get to 95% recovery and another 10 minutes more to get to 99% recovery. Since you only have so much time to spend in the gym, 10 “90% recovered sets” in 45 minutes of training is a much more anabolic stimulus than only 3 “99% recovered” sets in that same amount of time. Thus, our recommendation is to make sure you can clearly check all 4 boxes of recovery above, but to not wait much longer than what can be considered “very good” recovery in the incredibly inefficient quest for “near perfect recovery.”
Here’s an example of what can be considered “very good” recovery between sets of biceps training. Before you do another set of barbell curls, ask yourself:
- Are my biceps still burning from the last set, or do they feel ok again?
- Do I feel like I can pull hard with my biceps again, and I am mentally ready for another hard set, or do I need more time to rest?
- Is my breathing more or less back to normal, or is it still very heavy?
- Are my forearms and lower back still very fatigued, or are they ready to support my biceps in the upcoming set of barbell curls?
If you can get the green light on all of these, you’re probably ready to do another set, and waiting much longer will almost certainly not be of benefit.
You’ll notice that depending on the exercise and on the lifter, very different rest times will be generated by this questionnaire. For example, spider curls might not even have synergist muscles, so question 4 doesn’t even apply and rest times can be less than 30 seconds, whereas barbell curls might need 2 minutes between sets just to regain normal breathing. And if you’re on the larger and stronger side of things, and your cardio isn’t great, you’ll be resting much longer than someone smaller, not as strong, and in excellent cardio shape. While average rest times between sets of biceps training will be between 30 seconds and 2 minutes, the most important consideration is to take the rest time you need, and not copy someone else’s, rush the process, or sit around needlessly for minutes after all 4 factors are good to go for your next set to commence.
There are two main considerations for determining training frequency. The first is the duration of the increase in muscle growth seen after a bout of training between MEV and MRV. If such an increase in muscle growth lasts 7 days, then perhaps a once a week frequency is optimal. If such an increase lasts only a day, then perhaps 6 days a week for the same muscle group is much better. While direct research on muscle growth timecourses is very limited, it seems that typical training might cause a reliable 24-48 hour increase in muscle growth. This would mean that if muscle growth elevation was the only variable of concern with regards to frequency, we should train every muscle 3-6 times per week.
However, the second main consideration on determining training frequency is recovery. A single bout of training between MEV and MRV causes muscle growth to occur, but it also presents some degree of fatigue. If we are to progress in training and allow adaptations to fully take hold over days and weeks, we must allow enough time to elapse between overloading sessions for at least most fatigue to dissipate. On average, the exact amount of fatigue dissipation must be at least enough to allow performance to return to baseline or higher, such than an overload can be presented. In other words, if you can normally barbell curl 65 for 15 reps, asking yourself “when should my next biceps workout be after this last one” can be answered by “when will you be recovered enough to be able to curl at least 65 for 15 reps?” The timecourse of fatigue is usually a bit longer than that of muscle growth, unfortunately, so that for most people, recovery, not muscle growth cessation, will be the limiting factor on frequency. In most per-session MEV-MRV training volumes, fatigue will take between 1-2 days to come back down enough to restore or improve on past performance, and that highly depends on the muscle in question and even the exercises used.
How do you determine what training frequency is appropriate for you? You can start by training your biceps at per-session MEV volumes. After each session, you note when soreness has abated and when you feel recovered enough psychologically to attempt another overloading workout. When you’re ready, and no later, go back to the gym and train biceps again, with volumes just a bit higher than MEV (using the RP Set Progression Algorithm). If you’re recovering on time, keep coming back and training your biceps as often as you have been. If you notice that you need more time to recover, add a day to your next post-biceps-training window. If you’re recovering faster than you thought you could, train a bit more often. After a mesocycle of such adjustments, you will have a rough but very good guess as to what your average biceps training frequency can be for most of your programs going forward. In fact, your frequency will not only be tailored exactly to your responses, but you’ll be pretty sure it’s close to optimal because it was literally derived from how fast you can recover; which is the very primary variable that determines frequency.
Just so that you have some expectation of where to start, most individuals can recover from biceps training at a timecourse that allows for 3-6 sessions of biceps per week at MEV-MRV volumes. However, only through direct experimentation on yourself can you tell where in this range is best for you and if maybe you’re even outside of this range. Just remember that so long as you’re recovered to train again (can perform at or above normal levels), training is a better idea than waiting to train, because higher frequency programs, at least in the short term, have shown to generate more muscle growth than needlessly lower ones.
To improve your training frequency, you can alternate exercise selections between successive biceps workouts. For example, if you do barbell curls on one day, you might do dumbbell curls or spider curls the next day, and so on. This rotation of slightly different exercises and movement patterns can take repeated stress off of very small and specific parts of your muscles and connective tissues, which might reduce chronic injury risk exposure.
Please note that when you’re determining your biceps training frequency, you’ll have to juggle it a bit with your back training frequency, as unrecovered biceps can impede your back training, and even back training itself can tax your biceps enough to require a frequency reduction for direct biceps training.
There are a few relevant timescales in periodization:
- The repetition (1-9 seconds)
- The set (5-30 repetitions)
- The exercise (1-5 sets)
- The session (2-6 exercises)
- The day (0-2 sessions)
- The microcycle (usually 1 week of training)
- The mesocycle (3-12 weeks)
- The block (1-4 mesocycle)
- The macrocycle (1-4 blocks)
We’ve already covered the most important details on most of these timescales, so in this section, we’ll focus on a brief understanding of how to manipulate training over a typical mesocycle and training block.
A mesocycle is composed of two phases: the accumulation phase and the deload phase. The accumulation phase lasts as long as it takes to hit systemic MRV, which, because fatigue accumulates in MEV+ training, has to happen at some point. For beginners with very high recovery abilities, it can take up to 12 weeks of increasingly more demanding training for systemic MRV to be reached and a deload to be required. For very advanced lifters that have very strong, large, and volume-resistant muscles, it can take only 3-4 weeks of accumulation training to reach systemic MRV and need to deload. The deload phase is designed to bring down the fatigue from the accumulation phase, and it usually only lasts a week or so (one microcycle).
When you begin a mesocycle of training, you should probably begin at or close to your MEV for all the muscle groups you’d like to improve during that mesocycle, for reasons described extensively in our book on the subject of training volume. Week to week, you can manipulate working sets by using the Set Progression algorithm from the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth (link) article. You should seek to keep reps stable from week to week while letting your RIR decline from a 3 or 4 RIR start until it gets down to 0 (for exercises that don’t threaten the bar falling on you) or 1 (for those that do) in the last week of training. The way you keep the reps stable as RIR falls is by adding weight to the exercises you’re using. How much weight to add is a matter of an educated guess on your part. You want to add enough weight to get your target RIR with the same reps as last week. For example, if you did 100lbs last week for 10 reps on your first set of an exercise at 2 RIR, how much should you do next week to get 10 reps again but at 1 RIR? Well, you might think that adding 2.5lbs would be too easy, and you could honestly get 11 reps with that next week at 1 RIR, but adding 10lbs might require you to push to 0 RIR to get 10 reps, so you would just add 5lbs and that will probably take you where you need to be. If you’re making very rapid gains on an exercise, you might have a few weeks here and there where even though you increased weight by a bit, your RIR didn’t decline. You might have hit 8 reps at 100lbs at 3 RIR last week, and then hit 8 reps again at 3 RIR with 105lbs this week! This is a good thing, and lots of these weeks are how beginners can sometimes crank out up to 12 weeks of accumulation. Since getting to failure too soon is MUCH WORSE than getting there a bit slower, we recommend being conservative on nearly all weekly weight additions.
If you can’t realistically add weight, you can add reps. This might happen when, for example, you are using the 25lb dumbbells one week and then having to do the 30lbers next week, wildly slashing your reps. Just remember to stay within your general rep range and not leave it in any given meso. If you start at sets of about 5 reps, don’t add any more reps than will give you sets of 10, because that will take you out of the 5-10 range and no longer fullfill the needs of your training program in the way it was intended. If you start to exit a range by adding reps, add weight to take yourself back into that range, even if the increments are big and take you all the way down to the bottom of the range. Yes, this might mean that last week you were doing 20 reps with the 20lb dumbbells on your first set, and this week you’re back to only 10 reps with the 25lbers at the same or one less RIR, but that’s proper training!
Once you cannot tie previous reps in at least two consecutive sessions for a given muscle group, you have likely hit its local MRV, and need to reduce its training volume. Our recommendation is to take the next planned session with half of the planned working sets, half of the planned reps, and half of the load for recovery. In the session after, resume your load progression from before, but start at a number of sets halfway between where you started the meso and your MRV set number, and an RIR of around 2. Thus, for example, if you hit 100lbs for 10 reps on a first set last session (6 total sets in the session for that muscle group), whereas the week before, you hit 95lbs for 12 reps, your next workout can be 50lbs for 3 sets of about 5 reps. Then, next week, you resume with 105lbs, but shoot for 2 RIR and do 4 sets total, because you started the meso at 2 sets, and 4 is halfway between 2 and 6 sets. Continue to train normally after that until and unless you hit MRV again.
Systemic MRV is when you’re training so hard that your sleep quality declines, your appetite falls, and you might get sick more often. It’s also when nearly all of your muscles start to hit local MRVs at about the same time. Once that happens (and be honest with yourself when it does), stop the accumulation phase and begin the deload phase.
The deload can be done many ways, but our recommendation is to take sets to MEV for the whole week. The load should be week 1’s load for the first half of the week and ½ of week 1’s load for the second half. The reps should be roughly half of all week 1’s reps for all sets during the deload week. This makes the deload VERY EASY, which is the whole point, since hard training doesn’t bring down fatigue! You should feel refreshed and be craving hard training toward the end of your deload week if you’re setting it up correctly.
Those are the basics of periodization over the mesocycle. The training block is a sequence of mesocycle strung together for one unifying purpose. For example, a muscle gain block may be 3 mesocycles of 6 weeks each, one after another, with weight gain the goal for all 18 of those total weeks, or a fat loss block might be 2 mesocycles of 5 weeks long during which weight loss is the goal for all 10 of those weeks.
Though we can potentially alter all training variables over a training block, frequency, exercise selection, and loading are definitely noteworthy.
When you start a training block, your MEVs are very low and so are your weekly MRVs. Thus, you can fit your total training volume relatively easily into lower frequencies, such as 2x per week per muscle group, for example. As training progresses and you start your next meso, not only do your per-session MEVs go up, but your weekly MRVs go up as well, making fitting all your training into just a few sessions more difficult. As well, you’re now quite used to the exercises, and recovery between sessions occurs much faster, allowing a higher frequency microcycle to be much more realistic. At this point, you can increase your frequency a bit, perhaps to an average of something like 3x per muscle group, for example. In the last one or two mesos, your per-session MEVs are very high and your per-week MRVs even higher. To really get the best gains, another bump in frequency is recommended, and you might go to 4x or so training per muscle group, and perhaps even higher.
Unfortunately, super high frequencies might not be the most sustainable for a couple of reasons. First, muscles heal faster than connective tissues, and if you train with very high frequencies, sometimes your connective tissue recovery can lag behind your muscle recovery, which may set you up for injuries if unabated. Secondly, the sheer weekly volume that higher frequencies let you do productively might cause so much fatigue escalation as to not be sustainable for longer than a mesocycle or two. Thus, after training for a meso or two at your highest frequency, you might end the training block and seek to reduce the very high fatigue levels you have accumulated, in part by starting whatever phase you start next at lower frequencies.
Exercise Selection Periodization
For normal exercise selection decisions, you can just follow the 4-part exercise deletion and replacement guidelines in the variation section above. But as you add sessions from meso to meso with a climbing frequency, you’ll need to consider adding exercises. Yes, you can repeat exercises a few times in the week with different loads, but we recommend doing this sparingly, and more often adding in new exercises when you add new sessions as frequency climbs. Thus, you might start with an exercise on Monday and a different one on Thursday in a 2x meso, but when you move to 3x, you might have to add a new exercise on Friday, keeping the Monday exercise the same and moving the Thursday exercise to Wednesday. Because fatigue and wear and tear increase with each meso in a block, we recommend adding less systemically disruptive exercises more often than adding more disruptive ones. For example, you might consider adding some cable curls on that Friday 3x session but adding barbell curls to an already fatiguing week of back training might be overkill. Yes, you can add very tough movements as you go, but we recommend against it in most cases. Thus, you start with pretty much only or mostly basic, high-stress moves such as barbell curls and dumbbell curls earlier in the block, and later on add cable curls, spider curls, and other such less fatiguing exercises as you add in sessions to expand frequency over the training block.
Whatever exercises you’ve carried over from one meso to the next should be done in the same rep ranges as they were done in the last mesos. For example, if you did barbell curls in the 5-10 rep range on a first set in the last meso, in the next meso, you should continue your loading progression to stay in that same rep range, which often means just adding small increments of weight from where you last left off in the last meso, or lightening up the weight just enough to get similar reps at 3-4 RIR again in the first week. But for new exercises added in each meso as frequency goes up, we recommend adding in the moderate (10-20) and light (20-30) rep ranges instead of the heavy (5-10) range. This recommendation occurs for two reasons. First, as you take on more wear and tear and fatigue, adding more 5-10 rep movements might cause a large increase in injury risk, especially now that you’re asking your body to perform with such heavy loads with even less recovery time between sessions. Secondly, very high rep (20-30) training seems to cause robust gains over a meso or two, but in part because your body adapts to buffering metabolites so quickly, might not work nearly as well for much longer. Thus, you may want to start with heavier training in the first meso of a block, keep it for all remaining mesos, and add in lighter training with new sessions as you go, which also pairs well with the selection of less fatiguing exercises. Here’s an example of how that might look for the biceps:
Once you’ve done a whole training block, you can do a mesocycle of low frequency (2x) training at MV with mostly 5-10 rep ranges and compound movements to resensitize your muscles to volume and growth again. This meso can take about a month and can be good to pair with maintenance eating to bring down any diet fatigue you might have from hard dieting in the last block. If you don’t have any real diet fatigue, you can instead take around 2 weeks of active rest (sometimes just one week if you count the deload after your last meso), where you train with 1x frequency for every muscle, with only about 2 working sets per muscle per session, and with weights that are around 50% of your 5-10 range, but doing them for only 5-10 reps per set. This ultra-easy training can make you ready for another whole block of training in the gym and can even be replaced with no training at all if you’re feeling really beat up or tired. Once you’ve taken this easy time, you’re probably ready to give another training block a go!
Straight sets are sets performed to 0-4 RIR, with enough rest time to recover all 4 limiting factors (see the rest time section above for details).
The biceps respond well to straight sets, especially for more systemically fatiguing exercises like barbell and EZ bar curls.
Down sets are straight sets, but with less weight (usually 10-20% less) than the previous straight sets. By lowering the weight, you can keep reps over 5 per set, and/or keep the mind-muscle connection high and keep technique excellent to continue to have a high stimulus to fatigue ratio in every set of that exercise.
It’s quite easy to lose a good mind-muscle connection with the biceps when the reps drop off with heavy weight, so down sets can come in very handy after a few straight sets of curls.
Controlled Eccentrics and Pauses
Concentric, eccentric, and isometric phases of each exercise can be between half a second and 3 seconds long and still confer near-optimal effects on hypertrophy. In some cases, slowing down eccentrics and extending pauses can enhance technique, mind-muscle connection, and safety of the exercise.
While pauses at the stretch don’t seem to have much utility for biceps, holding the peak contraction can improve the mind-muscle connection, as can slowing down the eccentric. Both can improve overall technique on exercises, but please remember that they are not magical and won’t somehow triple your gains. They are just tools for a task.
Giant sets give you a certain weight to lift, an RIR range to hit (usually 0-4 RIR), and a goal of total reps over as many sets as it takes. An example is aiming to do 100lbs for however many sets it takes to get 60 total reps, while taking normal rest between each set. Such an approach can take the focus off of having to match or exceed the per-set reps you did last week, and can thus let you super-focus on technique and the mind-muscle connection, thus potentially improving both and getting more out of the training with exercises that can demand lots of technique and mind-muscle connection to be effective. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting giant sets at 2/3 of the contribution of straight sets, such that if you did 6 total sets to get to your giant set rep target, you can count that as 4 sets of “straight set equivalency” in terms of stimulus and fatigue. This discount is because with a higher focus on technique and mind-muscle connection and a lower focus on getting as many reps per set as possible, giant sets likely don’t cause as much fatigue as straight sets.
Giant sets can come in very handy for biceps when you’re really trying to work on your mind-muscle connection, which rep-chasing can impede significantly on exercises like curls, where “feeling it the most in the bicep” and “making sure to get another rep” can be quite divergent at times. This is especially true for curls because cheating just a bit is so easy on them. Giant sets (as well as just adding reps per set instead of weight) are also great for dumbbell curls, as they can be difficult to add weight to in small enough increments.
Myoreps are just like straight sets in that they must check all 4 recovery boxes before doing another set. However, they are different in two ways. First, while the first set is usually between 10-20 reps (0-2 RIR), the next multiple sets only rest long enough to get between 5 and 10 reps each. This is to maximize the ratio of effective (near-failure) reps to total reps over the multiple sets. Secondly, for all of those successive sets to register the highest number of effective reps per set, the local recovery factor (the muscle itself) must be by far the most limiting, so that successive sets are not limited by the nervous system, the lungs, and other muscles, allowing the final reps of each set to recruit and tense the fastest and most growth-prone motor units. For this to be possible, only isolation exercises without limiting synergists are appropriate for myoreps. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting myorep sets each as the equivalent of a straight set. While they do have fewer reps, they are often taken closer to failure and thus turn out to be about as fatiguing.
Myoreps can be excellent for biceps, especially on cable and machine setups where re-racking weight doesn’t take a lot of energy. The one thing to watch out for is that the forearm muscles are often the curling synergists last to recover, so make sure your technique or grip attachment involves them the least and that you wait until they are recovered before going again.
Drop sets are exactly like myoreps, but with even shorter rest times because weight is reduced by 10-20% on average between each set. The effects are very similar. The advantage of drop sets is their time saving, and their slight disadvantage over myoreps is that dropping the weight a lot can reduce mind-muscle connection via reducing tension perception. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting drop sets each as the equivalent of a straight set. While they do have fewer reps and lighter loads, they are often taken closer to failure and in such rapid and painful succession that they turn out to be about as fatiguing.
Drop sets are nearly ideal for cable biceps work. Just make sure you’re getting close to true failure on each set, as this gets difficult when the weight is really light. Anything below 30%1RM probably can’t reliably bring you to local muscular failure, so this load acts as an automatic cutoff to further drop setting.
These supersets begin with an isolation exercise for a given muscle group, and with no rest after taking it to 0-2 RIR, end with a compound exercise to which the target muscle is a big contributor. The local pre-exhaust of the isolation exercise allows the target muscle to be by far the limiting factor for the compound exercise that follows, and lets it be exposed to a few more effective reps than it otherwise would be if that compound was done fresh. After each 2-exercise superset, 4-factor rest is again taken until the next 2-exercise superset begins. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting pre-exhaust supersets as 1.5x as the equivalent of a straight set. This is because the compound exercise done in the second part of the set is only limited (highly) by the target pre-exhausted muscle, and this isn’t nearly as fatiguing, especially systemically, as it would be if it were done fresh.
Tough to do with biceps, but possible. Pre-exhausting with cable curls and then moving into underhand pulldowns or underhand machine rows might be a good idea to try.
Occlusion training is myorep training with the limb occluded just above the muscle. This occlusion causes the local muscle and nerve to be far and away the limiting factors on recovery between sets, and thus allows you to focus in on a target muscle group that might have otherwise been difficult to reach with non-occluded movements. The big benefit is time saving, because rest between occluded sets is only long enough to get another 5 reps, and you can also use weights at the very low end of the growth range and even a bit lower (20-30% 1RM). The downside is that the local vasculature adapts very quickly to occlusion, so it might not be very effective for any more than a mesocycle or two in a row. Also, some muscles are much harder than others to occlude, or even impossible to occlude. If you’d like to be super precise in counting sets for your volume landmarks, we recommend counting occlusion sets each as the equivalent of 2/3 of a straight set, as they cause much less systemic fatigue due to the lower reps and weights used.
Occlusion training works very well for biceps, with the caveat that your forearm muscle endurance and recovery can sometimes still be a limiting factor.
Sample Programming [Program Nickname: “Seabrook”]