The elbow flexors are more than just ornaments on a Christmas tree – they play a critical role in upper body structural balance! To achieve a big, strong upper body you must learn how to train the elbow flexors!
Your long-term shoulder health demands that you learn how to train the elbow flexors properly!
Functional anatomy of the elbow flexors
When most people say the word “biceps,” they are thinking of the biceps brachii muscle located on the front of the upper arm.
There are many muscles responsible for flexing the arm, but the biceps get all the love. This is quite strange, as the biceps aren’t even the primary elbow flexor!
In reality there are four primary muscles that flex the elbow: the biceps brachii, the brachialis, the brachioradialis, and the pronator teres.
It is very important that you learn how to properly train these muscles, regardless of your goal. Yes, it is crucial even for strength athletes to learn how to properly train the muscles that flex the elbow.
The reason is simple:
The elbow flexors play a critical role in upper body structural balance.
Yes, you read that right. If you want to achieve optimal upper body structural balance, then you must train your arms properly.
If you have read my other articles, then you surely understand the importance of upper body structural balance testing.
For those of you who are new to Revolutionary Program Design, here is a quick explanation:
Upper body structural balance testing allows you to quickly compare strength ratios between different lifts and body parts to better understand which muscles and lifts are limiting overall performance.
The best upper body structural balance norms were developed by the late Charles Poliquin.
He analyzed data from the tens of thousands of athletes
that he trained to come up with these strength norms. These strength norms are now available for you to use to optimize your own training.
Somewhat surprisingly, many of the muscles that flex the elbow are often extremely weak in most trainees relative to horizontal pressing strength.
This strength imbalance limits overall performance and represents an obstacle to your goals.
You see, when all of the upper arm muscles are in balance with each other in terms of their relative strength, it is far easier to pack on muscle and get stronger.
However, when the various muscles of the elbow flexors are not in balance with each other, it is much harder to make progress.
The body is highly intelligent and will automatically sense unfavorable joint angles during exercise.
Rather than allow an injury to happen (which would be life-threatening only 10,000 years ago), the body dampens the overall central nervous system output to specific muscles.
You see, your body loves you. But it also hates you.
It would much rather maintain a fifteen-inch arm and mediocre strength levels than get dramatically bigger and stronger but risk an injury.
The only way to get around this and convince your body to continuously adapt to training is to play by its rules.
That is, you train for structural balance, and your body rewards you with increased size and strength gains.
Whether you are a powerlifter looking to set a world record in the bench press or a bodybuilder looking to maximize your upper body development, you MUST know how to train for optimal structural balance of the upper arms!
The problem is, almost no body knows what these structural balance norms are, much less how to train for them.
Let’s fix that.
Elbow flexor structural balance norms
There are four strength ratios that you must be aware of when designing your resistance training routines. These ratios are as follows:
- Biceps brachii vs horizontal pressing strength
- Brachialis vs horizontal pressing strength
- Brachialis vs biceps brachii strength
- Short head of the biceps brachii vs long head of the biceps brachii strength
Let’s examine each of these strength ratios in detail
Biceps brachii vs horizontal pressing strength
If you are in proper structural balance, your 1-rep max on supinated grip barbell preacher curls will represent 46% of your 1-rep maximum on the shoulder-width bench press.
That is, if you can shoulder-width bench press 300 pounds on a 4/0/X/0 tempo, then you should be able to perform a barbell preacher curl with precisely 138 pounds on a 4/0/X/0 tempo.
Most of you reading this will not come anywhere close to achieving this strength ratio. If that is the case, then you would be wise to focus on increasing your curling poundages for a period of time.
It may also be wise for you to back off on the bench presses for a while and focus on things like overhead pressing strength and the external rotators of the rotator cuff.
If you are truly dedicated to correcting any upper body structural balance deficits, then you will find this article very helpful.
So the ratio of your biceps brachii strength to your horizontal pressing strength is important. But perhaps even more important is the ratio of the strength of your brachialis to your horizontal pressing strength.
This brings us to our next strength ratio:
Brachialis vs horizontal pressing strength
Most individuals have horrendously underdeveloped brachialis muscles, both in terms of strength and hypertrophy.
The biceps brachii gets all the love on arm day, probably because you can lift more weight with a supinated grip than you can with a pronated grip.
This is a serious mistake for many reasons. In reality the brachialis is the primary elbow flexor, and needs lots of training love to be in proper balance with your other muscles.
Specifically, if you are in proper structural balance, your 1-rep max on standing pronated-grip ez-bar curls will represent 35% of your 1-rep maximum on the shoulder-width bench press.
That is, if you can close-grip bench press 300 pounds on a 4/0/X/0 tempo, then you should be able to reverse ez-bar curl 105 pounds on a 4/0/X/0 tempo.
Unfortunately, if you are reading this you are probably nowhere near reaching this strength norm! This does not make you a bad person; rather, you have identified an area for improvement.
By bringing up your brachialis strength, you will not only dramatically improve the size of your anterior upper arm, you will increase the hypertrophy potential of your entire upper body. Not a bad deal at all!
Now that we know the strength ratios of the elbow flexors relative to upper body pressing strength, it’s important to cover the strength ratios of the different elbow flexors themselves.
Brachialis vs biceps brachii strength
If you are in optimal structural balance, your brachialis strength will be 82% of your biceps brachii strength.
That is, if you can ez-bar curl 100 pounds for one repetition on a 4/0/X/0 tempo with a supinated grip, then you should be able to ez-bar curl 82 pounds for one repetition on a 4/0/X/0 tempo with a pronated grip.
If you are like most weight trainees, then you are probably nowhere near being able to reach this strength ratio!
If that describes you, do not panic: you now have an opportunity to dramatically improve your overall upper body size and strength (not to mention resistance to injury!) if you learn how to train your elbow flexors properly.
If this describes you, then I would recommend you undergo a brachialis specialization phase where you primarily focus on curling movements with a pronated grip.
Don’t worry; I will cover the best exercises for training the brachialis below.
Once you have achieved the proper ratio of brachialis to biceps brachii strength, then another strength ratio becomes important:
Short head of the biceps brachii vs long head of the biceps brachii strength
In an individual with optimal structural balance, the strength of the two different heads of the biceps brachii will be identical!
That is, your preacher curling strength should exactly match your incline curling strength.
Let’s get even more specific:
if you can 1-arm preacher curl a 30 pound dumbbell for six repetitions on a 4/0/X/0 tempo, then you should also be able to incline curl a pair of 30 pound dumbbells for six repetitions on a 4/0/X/0 tempo.
Most individuals have underdeveloped long heads of the biceps.
This is quite understandable, as the long head is primarily trained with incline curls and other movements where the elbow is held behind the torso.
Not many people make incline curls a core part of their elbow flexor routines.
This is a mistake, as the long head of the biceps plays a critical role in maintaining proper shoulder health and alignment.
The long head even assists with bench pressing strength, if you can believe it!
Exercise selection for the elbow flexors
By now you should be aware of the need to directly target the elbow flexors for optimal structural balance.
I highly recommend you perform your own testing to identify any potential strength deficits in the elbow flexors, particularly the brachialis and the long head of the biceps brachii.
Again, it is absolutely crucial to perform this testing. Unless you know which muscles are negatively impacting upper body structural balance, how can you design routines to address them?
Ok, let’s say that you have performed the four tests listed above and you know which muscles are weak. For most individuals the brachialis will be the glaring weakness.
Which exercises should you now use to strengthen these weak links?
Let’s cover the most effective exercises for training the elbow flexors.
Exercise selection: the brachialis
The brachialis is worked during all forms of curling exercises, but it is primarily targeted when using a pronated grip. As such, all forms of reverse curls will target the brachialis quite nicely.
However, my absolute favorite exercise for targeting the brachialis is undoubtedly the zottman curl.
Here is a demonstration:
The zottman curl is probably the single best exercise for hypertrophying the brachialis. It is a shame then that so few people are aware of how to perform this exercise.
The reason it works so incredibly well is that it overloads the eccentric portion of the exercise.
The brachialis, in contrast to the biceps brachii, is primarily composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers and as such responds extremely well to all forms of eccentric training.
It’s worth noting that all forms of zottman curls overload not only the brachialis, but all of the elbow flexors.
There are two main versions of zottman curls that you may want to try: seated 2-arm zottman curls, and preacher 1-arm zottman curls.
Here is the seated version:
You may also want to play around with an offset grip where your pinky is touching the inside of the dumbbell to make the exercise even more challenging.
Note: the pronator teres is also quite strongly activated when training with a pronated grip.
Therefore, all exercises that stress the brachialis (pronated ez-bar curls, zottman curls etc.) will also thoroughly stress the pronator teres.
Exercise selection: the biceps brachii
The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle: there is the short head and the long head. Each of these exercises responds to different variables such as grip width, hand placement on dumbbells etc.
However, the primary factor that determines whether the short or long head will be recruited more is the position of the elbow relative to the torso.
When the elbow is held behind the torso, the long head is recruited more. Conversely, when the elbow is held in front of the body, the short head is recruited more.
When it comes to training the biceps brachii, EMG studies have very clearly shown that all forms of incline curls and preacher curls are the most bang-for-your-buck exercises you can perform.
Of course, you would perform all forms of preacher curls to target the short head:
And all forms of incline dumbbell curls to target the long head:
Preacher curls and incline curls even clearly outclass the so-called mass-building exercises such as the standing barbell curls.
This is probably due to the fact that, when it comes to isolation movements, the more you can fullyisolate the target muscle(s), the better.
With preacher curls and incline curls,
the elbow flexors are thoroughly isolated.
There is virtually no way to use your lower back, shoulders etc. to help lift the load.
This is in great contrast to exercises such as the standing barbell curl where the lower back, shoulders etc. are invariably recruited to help perform the exercise.
In addition, some amount of neural drive is sent to the lower body to maintain correct posture when performing standing curling exercises.
This wasted neural drive dampens the output sent to your elbow flexors and ultimately reduces the quality of your training stimulus.
This does not mean that you should never perform standing exercises for the elbow flexors.
Rather, all things being equal, incline curls and preacher curls will give you your greatest return on investment in terms of strength and size gains on the elbow flexors.
Exercise selection: the brachioradialis
The brachioradialis is often called the “beer-drinker’s muscle.”
This is because it is most strongly activated when using a hammer grip, or the grip you use when drinking a beer.
In order to optimally train the brachioradialis, you must make sure to include some movements that utilize a neutral grip in your elbow flexion training.
Much like with the biceps brachii, the most bang-for-your-buck exercises for training the brachioradialis include incline curls and preacher curls.
If you want to maximally develop the brachioradialis muscle, then I highly recommend you make incline curls and preacher curls with a neutral grip a cornerstone of your training.
Putting it all together
I am a firm believer in the idea of practical application. After all, knowledge that is not applied is useless.
Some of you may be wondering how to apply the information presented in this article. If that is the case, then you will find the following information most useful.
Let’s examine a case study for how an intermediate level trainee may use the information in this article to take his upper body training to the next level.
Joe Average decides that he is tired of wasting his time. He is an intermediate level lifter who is stuck in a rut. Try as he might, his strength and size gains have all but dried up for the upper body.
Being the smart guy that he is, the first thing that Joe Average does is he performs a complete upper body structural balance assessment.
This includes testing the strength of the following lifts:
- Close grip bench press
- Seated DB external rotations
- Prone trap 3 raise
- Seated overhead DB press
He then uses this information to write up a two-three month training program designed to address the muscular imbalances identified through his testing.
This is all great, but Joe Average is no ordinary trainee. He is highly dedicated and wants to make sure his training routines are as results-producing as possible.
Therefore, he also tests the strength of his elbow flexors. After all, the elbow flexors (especially the brachialis!) are often a limiting factor in terms of upper body strength and size.
Joe Average’s testing results
Joe Average’s test results are as follows:
- Close grip bench press x 1 rep on a 4/0/X/0 tempo: 250 pounds
- Supinated barbell preacher curl x 1 rep on a 4/0/X/0 tempo: 100 pounds
- Standing reverse ez-bar curl x 1 rep on a 4/0/X/0 tempo: 60 pounds
- Preacher 1-arm DB curls x 6 reps on a 4/0/X/0 tempo: 30 pounds
- Incline DB curls x 6 reps on a 4/0/X/0 tempo: 20 pounds
What does this all mean? And how should Joe Average use this information to properly train the various elbow flexors? Let’s take a closer look.
|Exercises||Ideal Ratio||Joe Average Ratio|
|Supinated BB preacher curl vs close grip bench press||46%||40%|
|Reverse Ez-bar curl vs close grip bench press||35%||24%|
|Reverse ez-bar curl vs supinated BB preacher curl||82%||60%|
|Incline DB curls vs 1-arm DB preacher curls||100%||66%|
Based on Joe Average’s test results, we can clearly conclude three things:
- His elbow flexors are too weak relative to his horizontal pressing strength
- His brachialis is uber weak relative to his biceps brachii
- His long head of the biceps brachii is completely overpowered by his short head of the biceps brachii
Therefore, when designing his next routine,
Joe has three clear goals:
- Increase his overall elbow flexor strength
- Radically improve his brachialis strength
- Improve his long head of the biceps brachii strength relative to his short head of the biceps brachii
These goals are in addition to whatever goals he identified following his upper body structural balance assessment.
It is very likely that Joe Average needs to spend less time focusing on the bench press and more time focusing on external rotation strength, lower trap strength, and overhead pressing strength.
However, this article is about optimally training the elbow flexors.
So let’s dive into a 2-month routine designed to correct Joe’s structural balances and dramatically improve the strength and size of his elbow flexors!
Joe Average’s 2-month elbow flexor program
Joe Average is an ambitious weight trainee with big goals and a burning desire to achieve them. It should be no surprise then that he reads all of the latest articles at Revolutionary Program Design.
Joe also understands how to properly write and read a training routine and the importance of alternating accumulation and intensification phases. After all, alternating such phases is an unbelievably effective way to train.
Therefore, Joe Average puts together the following accumulation and intensification workouts designed to beef up his elbow flexors.
Joe knows they are going to be hard, but that’s OK. Joe is not afraid of hard, hard work.
The real gun show
There are many possible training splits that you may want to choose from. For the purposes of this routine, Joe Average chose one of Charles Poliquin’s favourite splits:
Day 1: Elbow Flexors/Triceps
Day 2: Quads/Hams/Calves
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Chest/Back
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Repeat
You may choose whatever exercises you want for training the legs, chest, and back. I am simply offering some advice on how you may want to design your training for the elbow flexors and the triceps.
As an added bonus I will be completing the arm workouts with exercises and loading parameters targeting the triceps.
Of course, proper programming for the triceps is a complex topic and deserves to be dealt with in a separate article(s). Stay tuned…
Arm Routine 1: Accumulation Phase
I recommend that you perform this routine for a total of 4-6 workouts. Remember, a routine is only as good as the time it takes you to adapt to it.
A1: Seated 2-arm zottman curl, pinkey touching inside of dumbbell, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
A2: Preacher reverse ez-bar curls, wide grip, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
A3: Close grip bench press w/ chains, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
A4: Cable rope overhead extensions, 3-5 x 10-12, 2/2/1/0, 120 seconds rest
This workout utilizes agonist supersets for the elbow flexors and triceps.
Supersets are one of the more effective methods you can use during an accumulation phase where increases in muscular cross-sectional areas are desired.
Joe Average wisely decides to focus on improving his brachialis strength as this was his most glaring weakness from his structural balance testing performed above.
For his triceps, Joe Average chooses to utilize a
That is, a compound movement for the triceps that overloads the mid-range of the strength curve is supersetted with an isolation movement for the triceps that overloads the stretched position of the muscle.
I first learned of post-exhaustion super sets from Charles Poliquin. They are very effective, but they can create significant muscle soreness. You’ve been warned!
On average, you should perform all sets one rep short of failure. This means that your last repetition should be extremely challenging, but you can complete it without a break in form.
If you were to attempt one additional repetition, you would fail on it, reaching true muscular failure.
How do you know if you are stopping one rep short of failure? On at least a small number of your sets you should actually fail on the final repetition. This is the only way to truly gauge how close to failure you are in your sets.
Don’t worry, Joe Average isn’t a maniac and won’t be training to failure at all in his intensification workout. He will, however, be performing a very specific type of eccentric training…
Arm Routine 2: Intensification Phase
Again, I recommend you perform this routine for a total of 4-6 workouts.
A1: Standing eccentric reverse ez-bar curls, 2-4 x 4+2*, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
A2: V-bar dips, 2-4 x 4+2**, 3/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
B1: 45 degree incline DB curls, supinating grip, 4 x 5-6, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
B2: 15 degree decline DB extension, neutral grip, 4 x 5-6, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
*After completing four repetitions in clean form, add 5-10% in weight to the bar and perform 2 additional eccentric repetitions.
Power clean the weight up to the top, then slowly lower the weight down with an 8 second negative phase for the 2 additional reps. Yes, 8 seconds on the negative!
**After completing four repetitions in clean form, add 5-10% in weight to your dipping belt (added weight is calculated based on total body weight and additional loads used on dipping belt) and perform 2 additional eccentric repetitions.
Use a platform to stand up to the starting position, then slowly lower the weight down with an 8 second negative phase for the 2 additional reps. Yes, 8 seconds on the negative!
This routine utilizes the 4+2 method. The 4+2 method is an outrageously effective set/rep scheme that works extremely well for increasing strength and jacking up functional hypertrophy for intermediate and advanced lifters.
If you are interested in more reading on eccentric training, then this is the article for you.
As you can see, training the elbow flexors is far from simple as many misinformed experts would have you believe.
By far the most important thing you must do when training the elbow flexors is to train for structural balance. And the only way to truly do this is to perform the necessary structural balance tests.
After all, as Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to say: you can have the best ship in the world, but if the captain does not now where he is going, you will just drift around at sea and you will never end up anywhere.
You will never reach your full potential without a thorough understanding of how to train all of the elbow flexors.
In the words of Louie Simmons:
My advice to you is to get to it and good luck.
P.S. If you want more awesome information on training the elbow flexors (or the triceps!) then I highly recommend you check out the following resource:
I consider Charles Poliquin to be my greatest teacher in the fitness industry. If you like my content, then you will love what he has to write on arm training.
What are you waiting for? The e-book version is running for less than $10!
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