Bigger, Stronger Arms: The Poliquin Way
by Bryan Krahn
An in-depth look at strength coach Charles Poliquin’s new arm training book.
When I heard that Charles Poliquin was set to release a new book on arm training, I have to admit that my initial reaction was less than enthusiastic.
First of all, it’s arm training. It’s been done to death. Virtually every strength coach and physique star has at some point released a book, magazine article, or “lifestyle video” outlining their secrets to building massive guns. And as much as I love bodybuilding and learning new things, there are only so many different ways you can explain how to perform a biceps curl.
Secondly, Charles had already published what many consider to be a pretty good arm book in Winning the Arms Race. It seemed foolish to re-release material unless, to borrow a popular Poliquinism, the human body somehow managed to evolve since 1997.
So why another arm book, Charles?
“While the programs in Winning the Arms Race are effective, the book itself was incomplete,” says Poliquin. “It didn’t take into account the variety of deficiencies a lifter might have that could hold them back from making optimal gains.
“For example, if the brachialis is under-developed you’ll never have big biceps. Same with the long head of the triceps.”
“But I also address other key, often overlooked areas that I see every day in my training practice. This book is designed to allow every lifter to figure out exactly where their deficiencies lie and target them directly, and in effect become their own personal strength coach.
“So you ask me who needs another book, and I say, you all do!”
The sub-heading of Poliquin’s new book is 57 Methods For Strong, Muscular Arms, and it’s an important designation. Charles presents each method as a “tip” with some being short, one-paragraph quick-hitters, while others are in-depth and span several pages, actually providing a lot more tips than just 57.
The tips are divided into six chapters:
• Loading Parameters
Many lifters may be tempted to skip over the goal setting section of the book and it’s understandable. Bookstores and the internet alike are bursting at the seams with self-help books written by gurus of varying degrees of authenticity and it’s tempting to tune them all out completely.
Mercifully, Poliquin keeps the discussion of goals rooted firmly in training, such as how to set effective training goals and how to foster an “all business” environment in the gym that encourages gains.
Essential info in this section includes why naturals should keep getting strong in the six key arm lifts. The six key lifts are:
• Close grip bench press
• V-bar dips
• Lying triceps extension
• Scott curl
• Incline dumbbell curl
• Reverse EZ curl
According to Poliquin, in most cases a 10-pound increase in strength in these lifts will usually translate into one pound of lean muscle on your frame. So, taking your close grip bench from 225 for six reps up to 275 for six usually means five new pounds of muscle mass.
Another area covered at length is the importance of meeting specific exercise strength norms, what Poliquin calls “Structural Balance.”
Poliquin has established benchmarks for each of the six key lifts based upon the lifters’ close grip bench press score. With this information, any lifter can quickly find out where they may have a muscular weakness that might be holding them back from reaching their arm training potential.
For example, if a lifter can blast out 100 pound Scott curls but can barely incline curl 60 pounds, there’s a huge potential for biceps growth if he or she makes bringing up incline curl poundages a priority, as incline curl and Scott curl poundages should be nearly equal. The strength norms provided for each lift should save a lifter a ton of trial & error time, as it takes the guesswork out of deciding where additional focus is required.
If you’ve ever trained with Poliquin you’ll know that he’s a stickler for perfect form, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by Christian Thibaudeau in his “Perfect Rep” article series. While a book obviously can’t take the place of one on one instruction, Poliquin does try to give you an impression of what constitutes perfect form when training arms.
• When setting up your arm workouts, favor seated biceps exercises over standing versions. This may seem like heresy to the typical gym rat who grew up with the image of the great Arnold Schwarzenegger doing barbell curls with 225 pounds to build his iconic cannons, but there’s a method to Poliquin’s madness.
Electromyography (EMG) studies, a scientific method that measures the electrical activity of muscles, have shown that Scott curls and incline dumbbell curls produce greater involvement of the elbow flexors than so-called mass movements such as standing barbell curls. Poliquin asserts that this is likely due to the fact that there is no neural drive wasted in stabilizing the body.
Poliquin says that it’s also much easier to use perfect technique in seated movements, noting that cheat curls are often better at building your chiropractor’s bank account than your biceps.
This isn’t to say that you should never do a standing biceps movements, especially if you’re an athlete seeking maximum carryover to your given sport. But if biceps strength and hypertrophy are the primary goals, it’s best you pull up a bench and take a load off.
• Keep the wrists cocked down and back when performing biceps curls. This takes the forearm flexors out of the movement and places more emphasis on the biceps. It will feel awkward at first and your biceps poundages will initially suffer, but stick with it. You’ll be rewarded with better biceps gains.
• Find a gym that has fat grip dumbbells and barbells. Thick grip training will shoot your grip strength up almost overnight, and some lifters report that the wider base makes for less painful pressing. If your gym’s dumbbells have handles that resemble Bic pens, relax, all’s not lost. Grab a set of FatGripz and start growing some ham-hocks.
• Steal a tip from 7-Habits of Highly Effective People guru Steven Covey and do first things first. Put the top priority lifts that require the greatest loads first in your arm training. Presses before pulldowns, incline dumbbell curls before cable curls, etc.
• Your girlfriend was right, position matters. But it also matters when performing triceps extensions. If you’ve been lifting long enough, you probably assumed that adjusting the angle of the bench when performing lying triceps extensions changed which heads of the triceps are forced to carry the lion’s share of the load. In this tip, Charles breaks it down so it’s no longer a guessing game.
From incline to perpendicular: The further away your arms are from your belly button, the greater the stress is placed on the stubborn long head of the triceps. This means that overhead triceps movements target the long head more than an incline triceps extension.
Flat: In standard flat lying triceps extensions, the lateral and long heads of the triceps are the workhorses.
Decline: The closer your arms are to your torso, the greater the contribution of the medial head of the triceps at the top position, while the lateral head is the driver at the bottom position.
Charles then describes how to put it all together by combining this information with the added wrinkle of changing hand positions, providing an example of a triceps specialization workout that targets the medial head specifically.
Other tips, like the Kaizen principle (adding micro-loads each workout), starting with dumbbell work, and pairing agonists with antagonists might be a review for more seasoned readers but still bares repeating. This section also features a tremendous six-week brachialis-specific routine.
In this brief section, Poliquin outlines a few things you can do within the set to increase its effectiveness, including a detailed discussion of tempo and varying the eccentric contraction on biceps curls.
The section also describes a number of interesting tricks you can add to your workouts right away:
• The last slow eccentric rep: Eccentric training is a tool to enable you to use more weight on the eccentric portion of the lift than you would lifting the weight concentrically. If you’re struggling to get your dips and chin-ups scores up to snuff, try lengthening the time of the eccentric (lowering) of the last repetition of dips and chins to increase the time under tension and favor strength development.
Specifically, being able to lower yourself over the course of 30 seconds on the last rep should equate to one additional chin-up or dip rep.
• Cluster training: Cluster training is a favorite of Christian Thibaudeau’s and a staple in the I,Bodybuilder program. For those who’ve never tried it, cluster training involves using intra-set rest periods to enable you to use a higher percentage of your 1RM, such as 90% instead of 85%.
A sample cluster workout could look like this: 5 x 5 RM, resting 10-15 seconds between reps and two to three minutes between sets. In this example, the athlete performs a total of 25 reps at 90% of their 1RM in 25 minutes, resulting in an increased total time under tension for the higher threshold fibers. (Translation: greater hypertrophy). Charles then provides 9 crucial cluster-training tips, along with a sample biceps and triceps cluster workout.
• Apply the concept of the back off set. One way to foster faster gains is to add a back-off set of high repetitions (around 60% of your 1RM) after working with loads in the 80-85% range. Charles admits that he didn’t invent this protocol; in fact, he isn’t even sure why it works so well! But three possible reasons for its effectiveness are:
• Further stimulus of the lower threshold motor units.
• Anti-catabolic mechanisms from the growth hormone output associated with high reps.
• Increased glycogen storage.
Whatever the reason, it works!
This is the meat & potatoes of the book. Poliquin provides 16 different programs to target lagging biceps and triceps. Many of the routines, like the 12-week Maximal Weights routine and the Twice a Day arm routine will be familiar to fans of Poliquin’s work, although there are some fantastic original programs as well.
One such routine is the 100 Reps method. Poliquin says this is a great method to increase work capacity by training the lactate capacity energy system.
To perform the 100 Reps Method, grab a partner and challenge one another to perform 100 cumulative repetitions with a specific weight in as few sets as possible. A good starting weight is about your 20RM in that particular exercise.
For example, with your 20RM weight, perform as many reps of Incline dumbbell curls as possible, say 20 reps. Upon reaching failure, your partner immediately performs his set to failure with his 20RM weight. As soon as your partner is finished, perform another set of Incline curls with your 20RM weight, and upon completion your partner should try to beat your repetition score. This continues until both lifters have performed a total of 100 reps.
Poliquin suggests using such a method once every three weeks, or whenever your body tells you that a heavy lifting session is just not in the cards that day.
All of the routines are supported by photos of bodybuilders performing the exercises, among them Hidetada Yamagishi, the first Japanese bodybuilder to qualify for the Mr. Olympia and the freakiest monster to come out of Japan since Godzilla. This is a marked improvement over Winning The Arms Race, which had anthropometric drawings that while effective, were about as inspiring as watching Avatar on your iPhone.
It’s in the areas of diet and supplementation that represents the biggest evolution in Poliquin’s approach. The emphasis in this short section is primarily on pre- and post-workout supplementation, and while the specifics go beyond the scope of this review, it’s interesting to see how he uses “brain nutrients” like Alpha GPC , R-ALA, and Acetyl L-Carnitine to foster training drive.
The sixth and final section of the book is the support section and it offers a few interesting ways to trouble-shoot your arm training woes.
• The importance of verifying neck alignment. Improper posture from sitting too much combined with lousy shoulder shrug technique can lead to an impingement of cervical nerves that may impair neural drive to the arm muscles. If your posture resembles that of someone constantly searching the ground for loose change, see a qualified soft tissue specialist.
• Developing the traps can be a quick way to kick-start biceps gains. Poliquin notes that lifters who start training their traps effectively almost always report increased curling poundages. His preferred trap exercise: The one-arm barbell shrug, performed in a power rack, with the barbell across the pins. In this set-up you can brace yourself with your free hand against one of the rack posts, which will allow you to keep your torso in an upright position. To favor hypertrophy, include a pause of 1-6 seconds in the top position.
• Overtraining can quickly short circuit arm gains, but it’s notoriously hard to identify. Charles uses a simple grip test performed in the morning to test for overtraining.
• Strong grip + strong forearms = bigger biceps. Charles provides a comprehensive grip & forearm routine that will get your toothpicks on the right path to resembling bowling pins. A strong grip and developed forearms won’t just help you fill out your shirt sleeves; imagine how impressed your father-in-law will be next Christmas when you squash his mitt like a beer can?
I’ve yet to meet a bodybuilder, recreational or otherwise, who didn’t want to somehow improve their arm development. Although arm-training books are a crowded category, I think virtually every serious lifter could find room for this book on their shelf. Rather than being simply a collection of routines and pretty pictures, it provides the reader with the necessary tools to assess their own development and get on the road to growth again.
Bonus: Quick Hits with Charles Poliquin
TM: Coach, what are we all doing wrong that we need another arm training book?
CP: Where do I start? I go to commercial gyms sometimes and just shake my head. The biggest problems I see are:
• alignment issues
• sloppy form
• inability to concentrate
• not standardizing tempo or rest intervals, so you never find out what works best for you.
TM: I noticed that you reference a lot of your influences throughout the book.
CP: I’m never ashamed to give credit where credit is due. The vast majority of my principles are not concepts that I’ve personally invented. If I’ve done anything right over the years, its been allowing myself to learn from the true pioneers in this sport.
TM: Are there any new techniques in this book?
CP: There is nothing “new” period! Everything that works has been around since 1930. I’m serious. I have thousands of strength training books in my library and I’ve yet to come across anything worth noting that wasn’t first written about between 1896 and the 1920s.
TM: So what happened after the 1920’s? Why did the quality of published strength training work go down?
CP: The biggest thing is the introduction of anabolic steroids to bodybuilding. You have to understand that gear changes the rules of the game. A gifted bodybuilder on anabolics can make gains on the absolute most poorly designed programs, but problems occur when these misguided methodologies trickle down to the average Joe who isn’t on steroids. That’s when you get 160-pound guys doing 30 sets of cable curls and wondering why their biceps haven’t grown since the Clinton years.
TM: So your arm training philosophies haven’t evolved at all?
CP: I wouldn’t say that. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, which has allowed me to refine my approach. Basically, using these 57 methods I can get results a lot faster now than when I began strength coaching full time in 1982.
But I would say unequivocally that the biggest thing I’ve learned since my first day in the gym is the importance of grit. You have to persevere past your comfort zone. I like to say it’s the sets that you don’t want to do that lead to the most growth.
TM: What are the most common deficiencies you see in arm development?
CP: Definitely weak reverse curl and incline curl performance, or weak brachialis and long head of the biceps. The long head of the biceps is crucial and if you neglect this long enough, the short head will actually become the long head! Many lifters have so much untapped growth potential here.
TM: If I were to only absorb one thing from this book it should be to:
CP: Double your gingko biloba intake and get a script for Selegiline. If you can only absorb one thing from this book you probably take an hour to make minute rice.
Pursue structural balance. Hit those strength norms. If you’re out of balance and suddenly start addressing your weaknesses you won’t believe how fast you’ll grow. Stop shooting in the dark and trying new, useless exercises to “keep your body guessing.”
Find out where you’re lacking and address it accordingly. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.