by David Willoughby
Exercises for the Upper Arms
As previously pointed out, the best method of developing the arms is the method practiced by those subjects who possess the finest arms. In this connection an ounce of fact is worth a ton of theory. Some mail-order instructors have found it more convenient and more profitable to advocate some other form of training other than that actually employed by the outstanding examples of bodily development.
In considering the best exercises for developing the upper arms, one should bear in mind the chief functions of the muscles in that part. The muscles of the upper arm extend, or straighten the arm.
The most effective of all exercises for the flexor muscles of the arm is curling. To curl a weight means to raise, with one hand or both, slowly from a position in which the arm hangs straight, to a position in which the arm is fully bent and the hand is near the shoulder. In curling a barbell, the bar is grasped with the hands about shoulder-width apart and the palms facing upward. The commencing position of the exercise is with the body in erect standing posture, and the weight held hanging at arms’ length with the bar touching the front of the thighs. From this position the weight is curled or raised slowly to the shoulders in a semi-circular movement by bending the arm.
Throughout the movement, the elbows should be kept by the sides, a little to the front, and not allowed to move backward. The hands should be kept bent upward at the wrist, this position developing the flexor muscles on the inside of the forearm. As stated, the barbell should be raised to the shoulders slowly. By “slowly” is meant to proceed at a rate of motion that would allow the weight to be stopped at any stage of the exercise. In other words, you should avoid any swinging or sudden starting of the bell that would assist you in getting it past the “tough” stages of its travel. By observing this rule, you will train your muscles to possess equal strength and capacity of all stages of their contraction. In lowering the bell, let it down in the same slow manner until the arms are straight, meanwhile keeping the wrists bent upward, the elbows in the position stated, and the weight at the half-way stage well in front of the body, so as to throw the maximum leverage on the muscles being exercised.
Curling, as here described, is the best and quickest way of developing the biceps. The exercise may also be performed with a pair of dumbells, using the arms either together of alternately. Using a dumbell permits the wrist to be flexed further toward the little finger side, with added benefit to the inside forearm muscles. Otherwise, the use of dumbells possesses no particular advantage over a barbell in this exercise.
A second form of curling is with the backs of the hands uppermost. This exercise is usually termed the reverse curl. In raising and lowering the barbell the wrists are again kept bent upward, the only difference being that in the reverse curl it is the backs of the hands that remain uppermost. The reverse curl is particularly valuable for developing the forearm. During this exercise, care should be taken that the elbows remain close by the sides; for here more than in the regular two-arm, there is a tendency for the elbows to move outward as the barbell is being raised. If the latter tendency is not avoided, much of the developing effect on the forearms is lost. When the reverse curl is performed as a competitive lift, with the most weight that can be raised once, it is called the Rectangular Fix, and the forearms are raised only as high as the horizontal position where they are “fixed” momentarily at right angles to the upper arms – hence the name “rectangular fix”. As a development exercise, however, the reverse curl should be performed by raising the barbell all the way to the shoulders precisely as the regular two-arm curl.
In all forms of curling it should be remembered that the lowering of the weight develops the muscles almost as much as the raising; and that in both motions a bending of the wrists upward increases the developing effect on the muscles of the forearm. In performing the reverse curl the wrists should occasionally be held straight, rather than bent upward, so as to put the maximum effect on the muscles that extent the wrist. A suggestion is to do the first 4 counts of this exercise with the wrists straight, and the remainder of the counts with the wrists bent well upward. In this way, strength of the wrist in both positions will be developed.
A form of curling that is intermediate between the regular curl and the reverse curl may be performed with a single dumbell or a pair of dumbells. It consists of holding the dumbell with the hand pointing fore and aft instead of crosswise, and maintaining the hand in that position as the curling and lowering movements of the arm are made. This style of curling, with the hand in semi-supination, or supinated only half-way, is especially effective for developing the large brachioradialis muscle in the forearm, which when well-developed shows up on the top or front of the forearm in a swelling ridge. In this exercise, too, an appreciable developing effect is thrown on the grip if the dumbell handle is grasped in the middle, as shown in the illustration, so that the weight of the dumbell is sustained by the grip alone and not by the top of the fist. An even more effective form of this exercise is to curl with one hand a long barbell, by grasping it in the middle and levering it over to the shoulder purely by arm and wrist strength.
In any discussion of arm development, it is customary to mention the familiar exercise of chinning the bar. In actuality, however, this exercise depends to a greater extent upon the development of the muscles of the front chest and the broad of the back than upon the muscles of the arms. Although the flexors of the arm do come strongly into action in the first part of the chinning movement, they are not developed nearly so much by this form of exercise as they are by the curling movements with a barbell or dumbell that we have just described. Rope climbing, also, while often considered primarily as an arm developer, produces results similar to chinning. However, both chinning, and dipping on the parallel bars, are effective movements for exercising the muscles of the upper arms in conjunction with those of the chest and upper back, and they are useful supplementary exercises for specialized routines such as will be described in Chapter VII. In chinning, an overhead horizontal bar is grasped by the hands, which are shoulder-width apart, and the body is slowly raised by the flexing of the arms until the chin reaches the level of the bar. As with curling, there are two principle ways of chinning. In the regular chin, you grasp the bar with the palms of your hands facing toward you; while in the reverse chin the palms face away from you. Both varieties should be practiced. In chinning the bar for arm development, be sure to make the movement as complete as possible, both when raising the body and when lowering it.
The three forms of curling previously described, if practiced judiciously in accordance with the suggestions to be given later, are adequate for the full development of the flexor muscles in the upper arm. Variety in exercise is, of course, desirable to relieve what otherwise might be monotony. Therefore, a pair of adjustable dumbells may be used to advantage to supplement one’s exercise with the barbell. And by “barbell” we mean a modern plate-loading barbell that can be quickly adjusted to any of a wide variety of poundages. This barbell apparatus, being well-nigh indispensable to the body culturist, we shall throughout this book assume to be the mainstay of his exercising equipment. An adjustable barbell weighing, when fully loaded, from 150 to 200 pounds, is sufficient for the full and complete development of the average masculine physique. Such barbell sets, as sold today, almost invariably include two dumbell handles as well as a long barbell handle.
We may now opportunely turn our attention to the extensor muscles of the arm. The triceps muscle on the back of the upper arm, together with the anconeous muscle in the forearm, is brought into play in any exercise where against resistance, the forearm is extended into line with the upper arm. Lying flat on the back (supine) on the floor, and pressing a barbell to arms’ length, is one of the best exercises for these muscles. A modification of this “press on back” movement, about equally valuable for triceps development, and which permits greater poundages to be handled, is to press while in the “shoulder-bridge” position. In this latter position, the back is arched up off the floor and the feet are flat on the floor close to the hips, with the knees bent. (See Figure 5) There are various ways of getting the bell into position for performing the press on back or the shoulder-bridge press. If it lies on the floor behind the head, it may be drawn over the face into the starting position for the press. In doing this, it will be helpful to arch into the shoulder-bridge, whether one is going to press the bell in this position or not, and then arch again into the bridge when lowering the bell over the face to its position on the floor. It is a good plan to have the barbell rest on two wooden blocks, so that the bar is raised almost, but not quite, as high as it will be when in the starting position for the press. By then lying on the floor as it will be when in the starting position for the press. By then lying on the floor and sliding your head beneath the bell until the bar is directly over our neck, you can then easily lift the barbell off the blocks and replace it thereon at the conclusion of the exercise. Care should be taken to see that the bell does not roll off the blocks while one is sliding one’s head beneath it or crawling out from under it. A third method is useful if one does not exercise alone. Your partner simply hands you the bell and removes it when you have finished pressing. Your partner should grasp the bar with a narrow grip, so that his hands will not conflict with yours when he gives you the weight or takes it away.
Another effective exercise is to dip on the parallel bars. That is, to first support the weight of the body on straight arms between two bars, then lower the body until the arms are completely bent, and then return to the starting position by re-straightening the arms. A good substitute for the parallel bars, which as a rule are available only in a gymnasium, is to perform the dipping exercise between two chairs faced back-to-back, the hands grasping the backs of the chairs. In the latter form of dipping, in order for the feet to remain clear of the floor, the knees must be kept bent during the lowerings and raisings of the body. This movement of dipping between two chairs is one of the most result-producing exercises that can be performed with simple household furniture. Regular parallel bars, however, are much more satisfactory, since in using chairs one must waste a certain amount of energy in keeping them steady, and moreover, if the chair backs are not padded, they may cause uncomfortable pressure on the hands. But one can often find other articles of furniture that can be adapted to this dipping exercise, without the disadvantages possessed by chairs. A window sill and a typewriter table, for example, are often of approximately the same height. Or two tables can be placed near each other; or a table and a bureau. But one can sometimes find articles of furniture that are as high as regular parallel bars or even higher. Two bookcases, for example, of a bookcase and a chiffonier. In all of these cases, if one article of furniture is somewhat lower than the other, it may be equalized by placing upon it a book or books of the necessary thickness.
If the reader wishes to go to the necessary expense, he can have a pair of sturdy parallel bars made as shown in Figure 7. Someday, perhaps, architects will consider built-in chinning bars and parallel bars as essential and indispensable to a house as bathtubs and showers.
The exercise of dipping on the parallel bars, as customarily performed, although effective for the triceps in the final stage of straightening the arms, has even greater effect on the muscles of the breast. A method of dipping that has far greater effects on the triceps, is to grasp the bars with the backs of the hands uppermost and the thumbs nearest the body. This position of the hands causes the arms to point outward from the sides of the body, throwing greater leverage on the elbow-joints, and so in turn making greater demands on the triceps muscles. (See Figure 7) Because the hands, in this position, must push strongly inward, this exercise requires either regular parallel bars or solid and heavy pieces of furniture. It is one of the most strenuous and effective of all exercises for the triceps.
The familiar exercise known as floor-dipping, which consists of alternately bending and straightening the arms while supporting the body face downward on hands and toes, is somewhat similar in action to the exercises of pressing weights while lying on the back. The floor-dip, however, has its principal effect on the muscles of the breast rather than the arms. It can be made more effective for the triceps if the hands, instead of being placed shoulder-width apart, are placed together, with the fingers interlaced.
A very simple way to make the floor-dip more difficult and thereby increase its developmental effects is to do most of the work with one arm, keeping the elbow close to the side. Sway the weight of the body first over one hand, then over the other. This form of dipping may be made progressively more strenuous by resting one hand on a bench or chair (See Figure 8). In the latter style, after exercising one arm, be sure to reverse the position of the hands and do a similar number of pushups with the other arm. Gradually increase the weight on the hand on the floor until you can finally do a series of pushups with each arm while bearing little or no weight on the hand on the chair.
A highly effective gymnastic exercise for the triceps is the breast-up or full mount on the Roman rings. In this feat the performer first chins himself, or pulls his body upward until his shoulders reach the level of the rings; he then continues by a powerful downward pressing on the rings which brings his shoulders above his hands. From the latter position the movement is completed by a straightening of the arms which raises the body to a position of rest, as on the parallel bars. During the first half of the breast up, that is, until the body is pulled up to the stage where the turning over of the hands and the effort of pressing downward begins, the rings are grasped not in the usual manner, but with what is known as the “double grip.” This double grip is taken so that the ring crosses the hand diagonally, coming close to the wrist on the little finger side. While employing this grip the wrists are held in a bent position. Without the use of this grip, a breast-up becomes extremely difficult to accomplish. The effect of the breast-up on the development of the triceps muscles is most powerful at the halfway stage where the effort is changed from pulling to pushing. It would be hard to find another exercise, or feat that brings the triceps into as sheer and vigorous action as does the breast-up at this point.
A standard exercise of the weight lifter, and one that develops the triceps in addition to many other muscles, is to press a weight from the shoulders to arms’ length overhead in the standing position. This fundamental exercise of pressing admits of many variations. The exercise may be performed with both arms or with one arm at a time, using either a barbell, a single dumbell, or a pair of dumbells. Its performance depends more upon the shoulder muscles than upon the arms, although the triceps muscles are brought into action in the final stage of straightening the arms. Before continuing with the description of this exercise, it will be opportune at this point to mention, for the benefit of the beginner, some fundamental principles to be applied to the handling of barbells.
There are two main ways of holding a barbell while exercising: the “undergrip”, in which the bar is grasped with the palms of both hands turned upward, and the “overgrip”, in which the palms face downward. The undergrip is used in the regular two-arm curl, as already described. The overgrip is used in nearly all other barbell exercises, including the two-arm press.
The preliminary movement by which a barbell is taken from the floor to the shoulders, preparatory to lifting it overhead, is known as “cleaning”. The pupil must at the very beginning learn the technique of this method of shouldering a barbell, which will here be described in detail. Standing immediately up to the barbell (the ankles almost touching the bar), reach down and grasp the bar, using the overgrip, the hands being about as far apart as the width of the shoulders, and the arms straight. In stooping over the back should be kept as flat as possible, all the bending takes place in the hips, knees and ankles – the feet being flat on the floor, and about fifteen inches apart. In other words, bend over just as though about to sit in a chair, the legs being bent considerably and the body inclined forward from the hips, with the back straight. As soon as you have this commencing position right, straighten up suddenly, pulling the bar up close to you in a vertical line until it reaches the height of the chest; then shoot the elbows forward, turn the wrists over, and bend the knees very quickly – all at the same instant, and as the body is thus lowered several inches the bell will be “received” at the shoulders, after which you merely straighten the legs to be in a position for the exercise of pressing. (Note the this “clean” lift to the shoulders is accomplished mainly by the power of the back and legs, the arms acting chiefly as connecting-links which transmit this power to the handle of the barbell) Although the arms are straight at the commencement of the upward pull on the bar, they must be held loosely, in readiness to bend as the bar is “yanked” upward vertically and reaches its maximum height with straight arms.
Now to return to our description of the two-arm press. Holding the bar across the upper part of the chest, slowly press it upward by straightening the arms until it reaches full arms’ length overhead, with the arm or arms extended completely, with the elbow and shoulder joints “locked” – that is, with the arm bones in vertical alignment – so that the weight can be supported in the finishing position with a minimum of effort. In repeating the exercise, the bell is not lowered to the floor each time, but only to the shoulders, after which it is again pressed overhead. For the best results, the body should be maintained in an erect position, with the knees rigidly straight, and the feet on one and the same crosswise line about fifteen inches apart, as the barbell is pressed from the shoulders to vertical arms’ length. The movements, both of raising and lowering the weight, should be performed in a slow and steady manner, without jerk, swing, or other assistive maneuver. An important point of advice to beginners is that in every exercise where the weight is raised overhead, the gaze should be fixed steadfastly on the bell in order that it may be kept under control. Always watch your bell!
Pressing a weight with one arm and assisting the movement by simultaneously bending the body to the opposite side possesses no advantage over straight two-arm pressing insofar as development of the arms is concerned, although such elaborated movements are instrumental to the development of the trunk muscles.
A variation of two-arm pressing that is especially effective for the triceps is to raise and lower the barbell from behind the neck. The commencing position of this exercise requires that the forearms assume a more horizontal position than when the barbell is held in the usual manner in front of the neck. Consequently, in the act of straightening the arms and raising the barbell overhead, the triceps muscles are required to work against greater leverage and so take on greater development. The loser together the hands are placed on the bar, the greater the effect on the triceps. If the arms are tired at conclusion of the exercise of pressing from behind the neck, the pupil is faced with the problem of getting the bell over the head and back to the chest. This is accomplished by quickly bending the knees and then straightening the legs with a snappy movement, at the same time heaving upward with the arms. In the way the bell can easily be lifted, or jerked, over the head and brought to the chest.
After performing the two-arm press exercise, the barbell is lowered from the chest to the floor by a movement the reverse of cleaning, bending the legs as it descends from chest to hips to floor so that no shock may result to the back.
That portion of the triceps known as the middle or long head, which in addition to assisting the other two heads of the triceps to straighten the arm, acts to draw the arm backward and downward, is not affected in its latter function by any of the pressing or dipping exercises previously given. To develop the long head of the triceps completely, it is therefore necessary to use exercises wherein the arms are forced backward against resistance. Typical exercises requiring this movement of the arms are chinning on the rings or bar, rope climbing, rowing, and barbell and dumbell exercises in which the arms are raised backward and upward while the trunk is maintained bent forward parallel with the floor. In these exercises the long head of the triceps works in conjunction with the large muscles of the upper back. An effective exercise is the backward dumbell raise. With a pair of dumbells in the hands, bend forward from the hips, letting the arms follow so as to remain in a hanging position. Maintaining the trunk of the body parallel to the floor, and the arms straight, raise the dumbells straight backward as far as you can, keeping them close to the sides. At the finish of the movement, check the bells a moment before lowering and repeating. This is an example of an exercise where, due to ligamentous restriction (in this case, of movement of the head of the humerus in the scapular socket), momentum may be introduced to effect a more complete contraction, with consequent development of the muscles involved. So, after repeating the exercise at the usual rate of motion until it is felt that only a couple of additional counts could be performed, speed up the latter part of the backward arm movement so as to raise the bells as high as possible.
An exercise that has an isolated effect on the triceps similar to the effect that curling has on the biceps, has been called the “triceps push-away”. Grasping two dumbells with the undergrip, bend forward from the hips till the trunk of the body is parallel to the floor, the upper arms being held horizontal and the forearms vertical. Maintaining the trunk and the upper arms in the same position, the dumbells are then raised backward by straightening the arms. At the finish of the movement, the bells are held firmly for a moment before lowering and repeating. This exercise can be varied by grasping the dumbells with the overgrip, so that the palms are facing backward; and also by holding the bells with the handles pointing fore-and-aft.
Many other exercises could be given for the upper arms if it were of advantage to do this. The majority of such exercises are mere duplication, in effect, of those here recommended. Certain other so-called arm exercises, still prescribed by some instructors, are devoid of practical value. Such, for example, is that old-reliable exercise of the light-dumbell advocate wherein the upper arms are alternately flexed and extended. It should be superfluous to expatiate upon the unnaturalness and the inefficacy of such exercises.
For the beginner to insure that he adheres to his training to the stage where real results are apparent (from which stage on, he will need no extra stimulus!), he should rely chiefly on a limited number of exercises of general character, that is, exercises in which the effect is shared by various parts of the body rather than confined to some one part. Such general exercises, besides being the quickest and most satisfactory means for developing the entire body, educate the various muscle groups to respond in an efficient coordinated manner. Over and above these general exercises, as a supplement thereto when the student has attained a good all-around development, strength feats may be used to bring about whatever special ability is desired.
We wish to stress, however, that the beginner should take advantage of every habit that will make it easier for him to persevere with his exercising until the desired results appear. A limited number of far-reaching exercises, even though the repetition of them may in time become monotonous, is far more conductive to a fine physique than is a ceaseless searching for new variations and novel exercises before one has laid the foundation for complete physical development. Some instructors, in an effort to impress the pupil with their knowledge, prescribe for use an overwhelming number of exercises, when a few well-chosen ones would be far more practical and beneficial.
A point commonly overlooked by the teacher is that a comprehensive training system os remolding the body in order to be productive of the results desired must take into account the inconstancy of human will-power. A program of body building exercise, to be followed faithfully until the coveted physical qualities are developed, must be interesting, enjoyable, practical, conveniently accessible, economical (for most of us), result-producing, and last but not least, a refreshment rather than an added burden, to the mind. If too great a number or too exhausting a series of exercises is attempted, it is inevitable that in due course, often only a short time after commencing, the entire program will be dropped in despair. Our endeavor, in this book, is to present the student with the best means known for developing his arms to approximate perfection.