In the past, the bodybuilding press would often list the poundages the top champions could handle in their favorite lifts. We knew that Reg Park was the first bodybuilder to bench press 500 pounds, that Bill Pearl could do 310 in a seated behind-the-neck press, and that Franco Columbu could deadlift around 780, which exceeded the world record at his bodyweight. But with the exception of Ronnie Coleman, it would be difficult to find the poundages hoisted by today’s best. Pictures in competition and training? Sure. Videos of posedowns? No problem. But for some reason we’ve lost interest in learning if today’s bodybuilders are as strong as they look.
One issue could simply be embarrassment. When Lou Ferrigno completed a 310-pound jerk from the stands during the Superstars competition in 1976, the lay public was impressed. But of course the weightlifting community would jump on this by explaining that athletes who weighed at least 100 pounds less than Big Louie could exceed this poundage. And Reg Park’s 500-pound benchmark doesn’t seem so amazing when you consider that a 165-pound woman has hoisted 525 pounds in this lift. Ouch!
There’s the same issue with arm wrestling. You’d think that someone with large biceps would be the best arm wrestler, but it’s not necessarily the case. John Brzenk is considered by many to be the greatest arm wrestler ever, and in fact the Guinness Book of World Records regards him as the “Greatest Arm Wrestler of All Time.” But at Brzenk’s height of 6'1", at his largest his right biceps measured 18 inches and his right forearm 16 inches – not exactly the type of arm that is featured on the cover of Guys with Arms Larger Than Their Heads magazine. Factors such as speed and technique are critical in this sport, and in fact Brzenk himself will tell you that the best training for arm wrestling is not biceps curls but arm wrestling.
One issue that often clouds the measurement of upper body strength is the enormous variety of exercises bodybuilders use. My new workout software, iStrength Pro, contains over 1,400 exercises for the triceps alone! And when you consider that using thick bars and bands increase the difficulty of an exercise without adding additional weight, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine exactly how much a trainee can lift. Hold on, I’m just getting started.
You’ve got to take into account that many of the exercises common in the early days of weight training are no longer being performed. When was the last time you saw a bodybuilder do a power clean and military press? Likewise, chin-ups have been replaced by lat pulldowns, bench presses by pec decs, and squats by leg press machines. And although it’s impressive to see someone who can barbell bench press 315 pounds, it’s perhaps more impressive to see that same person lift five 45-pound plates on each end of a horizontal leverage bench press machine. And don’t get me started with leg presses, as there is apparently not enough room on the weight pegs to handle those powerful legs, thus requiring the spectacle of having training partners standing on the machine.
Then there’s the late Bob “The Father of American Weightlifting” Hoffman of the famous York Barbell Club. Hoffman wrote a book called Big Arms: How to Develop Them, which was first published in 1939 and was reprinted six more times (the last version in 1972). In this 240-page classic, Hoffman discussed many amazing feats of upper body strength by bodybuilders and weightlifters, but there was a surprising lack of information about performances in isolation movements such as barbell biceps curls. Maybe, just maybe, he didn’t care?
I say this because Hoffman’s training philosophy for developing mighty guns could be summarized in the following passage from his book: “…you can get all the arm that any man would want, a pair of arms, with Triceps and Biceps which will possess classical contours, that will symbolize great power and strength if you will practice just the two hands curl in its various forms, the side press, military press with dumbbells, bent press, alternate press; in briefer words, a variety of curling and pressing movements with the addition of a little upright and bent over rowing.” Uh, thanks Bob!
As a result of all this distraction, nobody knows what the heck a good result is in a barbell curl, much less a Scott curl with a dumbbell! And the result often is a lack of structural balance that can compromise physical performance and increase the risk of shoulder injuries.
In my PICP Level 1 course, we devote a considerable amount of time to determining the optimal lifting norms for arm strength, and the following are a few examples of my upper body structural balance tests. As a bonus, I’m also sharing with you the performances in these exercises that I believe represent exceptional arm strength, such that only about one percent of the trainees in the world will be able to achieve these results.
Elbow Flexor Structural Balance
A flexor is a muscle that reduces the angle between a pair of bones, so an elbow flexor is a muscle that bends the arm. An example of an elbow flexor is the biceps brachii.
Three basic exercises for the elbow flexors are Scott reverse curls, Scott supinated close-grip curls, and incline curls with dumbbells. I selected these exercises because they minimize the possibility of cheating. And during the performance every rep should be performed with full extension and the forearms must make contact with the biceps at the top of the concentric range (also known as the position of peak contraction).
Scott Reverse Curls. A Scott bench is another name for a preacher bench, and the bench reduces the chance of cheating during the exercise. An optimal ratio would be 60 percent of bodyweight for 6 reps.
Scott Supinated Close-Grip Curls. The grip for this exercise is slightly narrower than biacromial width, which is the distance between the edges of your shoulders. In 1982 I went to IFBB World Champion Jorma Raty’s gym in Helsinki. I saw him perform multiple sets of curls for 6 reps on the barbell Scott curl using 154 pounds; he weighed about 198 pounds. Besides being a bodybuilder, he also had excelled at powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Ideally, you should be able to use 73 percent of bodyweight for 6 reps.
Incline Curl with Dumbbells. Use a 45-degree incline bench. Each dumbbell should represent 36 percent of bodyweight for 6 reps.
Elbow Extensor Structural Balance
An extensor is a muscle that increases the angle between a pair of bones, so an elbow extensor is a muscle that straightens the arm (in the opposite direction from an elbow flexor). An example of an elbow extensor of the upper arm is the triceps. Here are two elbow extensor exercises.
Close-Grip Bench Press. Use a grip with the hands 14 inches apart, not a very narrow grip (4 to 6 inches) because a narrow grip creates tremendous stress on the wrists and elbows. Use 158 percent of bodyweight for 6 reps.
Dips. V-shaped dip bars are recommended, and the athlete jumps from the foot supports to the arms-locked position. By the way, for a dip to be considered a dip, in the bottom position you should be able to pinch a sheet of paper between your elbow flexors and your forearms. If not, you are not going low enough. Use 185 percent of bodyweight for 6 reps – what this means is your bodyweight plus 85 percent tied to it, preferably using a loaded pin tied to a climbing belt.
Having strong arms is good. Having large arms is good. But the best of both worlds – and the true measure of success in bodybuilding and functional hypertrophy for athletic and physical fitness – is an optimal balance of strength and size!
Copyright ©2010 Charles Poliquin