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The Best Muscle Workouts


Best Old-School Bicep Workouts – Fitness Volt

There’s no denying that the old-school Pros had some of the most aesthetically pleasing physiques ever. Think Larry Scott, Robby…

By admint10m , in Arms , at July 8, 2021

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There’s no denying that the old-school Pros had some of the most aesthetically pleasing physiques ever. Think Larry Scott, Robby Robinson, Arnold Schwarzenegger

But one thing they all seemed to have in common were massive, great-looking biceps. And it’s not that they knew any secret formula to getting big biceps. But we reckon it was their unique creativity and utilization of the tools at hand that paved the way for how we train today.

So, without further ado, here are a few of the best old-school bicep workouts that many of the legends from the Golden-Era used to build big biceps.

For the following workouts, you’ll need access to…

  • Dumbbells
  • Barbell (long, EZ bar, or adjustable will do)
  • Adjustable bench
  • Preacher curl bench (or you can use an adjustable bench instead)

Biceps Anatomy

Let’s talk about the anatomy of the biceps and anterior upper arm so that you can understand how each exercise can emphasize different heads/muscles.

  • Biceps brachii – Composed of a long (outer) and short (inner) head. Both heads are joined at the elbow which functions to bend and supinate the forearm. The long head also crosses the shoulder joint whereas the short head originates just at the scapula. However, action at the shoulder joint is less pronounced than where both heads meet near the elbow.
  • Brachialis – An entirely different muscle from the biceps, the brachialis is located on the outer portion of the long bicep head but deeper and it’s the prime mover of elbow flexion. This muscle gives width to the front of the arms and neutral/reverse grip curls are ideal for developing it through isolation.
Biceps Anatomy
Biceps Anatomy

3 Old-School Bicep Workouts

Now it’s time to get to the actual workouts. We’re going to provide you with a few exercises, instructions, plus sets/reps and tips at the very end. Do all exercises from each workout in one single session and avoid doing this routine more than once or twice per week depending on your experience level.

If you do any of these routines twice per week, allow for at least 4-5 days in between to avoid overtraining since the biceps are a relatively smaller muscle group; especially if you’re also doing heavy and consistent back training which will involve lots of bicep action!

Note: Many Old-school bodybuilders utilized a lot of volume, however, we’ve adjusted to an extent to ensure you get an optimal stimulus without overdoing it.

Old-School: Workout #1

1.1 Barbell curls

Barbell curls are a pure size builder and by barbell curls, we mean using a standard 45lb bar in addition to whatever weight you add on. Back in the day, this was an essential for bicep mass as it’s the best way to overload your muscles with the most amount of weight possible, not to mention it works both heads for overall development.

You’ve probably seen the photos of Arnold doing these very heavy cheat style.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Barbell Curls
Arnold Schwarzenegger Barbell Curls

But nowadays, you see people using a lot of machines, cables, and dumbbells but for the Golden-Era bodybuilders, barbell training was a mass-building staple.

How to do it:

  1. Grip the barbell about shoulder-width or slightly wider standing straight.
  2. Keep your wrists straight and arms tucked to your sides.
  3. Keeping your glutes and core tight, take a breath in and curl the barbell to the top and squeeze while allowing your elbows to move slightly forward to get a good contraction in your biceps.
  4. Slower lower the barbell back down until near elbow lockout and breath out.

You can also use an EZ bar that will allow you to grip the bar at an angle which can also relieve wrist strain.

Sets/reps

  • Do 3 sets x 8-10 reps challenging reps

1.2 Preacher curls

The first-ever and repeating Mr. Olympia champion (1965 and 1966) Larry Scott sure loved the preacher curl which he incorporated in his training very often and supposedly, the bench was created for him by the very famous bodybuilder and gym owner at the time Vince Gironda. 

Although, Scott apparently modified this variation with his own version called Scott curls which you’ve probably heard of. But pretty much every old-school bodybuilder did the preacher curl.

Larry Scott Preacher Curl
Larry Scott Preacher Curl

This exercise places a lot of tension on the lower biceps if done correctly due to the angle in which the arm is positioned. Although, you want to maintain a neutral torso to avoid the tension being lost at the top of the curl. 

How to do it

  1. Adjust the seat so that your upper arms are resting against the padding. 
  2. Using a dumbbell or barbell, position your hands wide while tucking your elbows inward slightly. 
  3. Keep your torso straight, breathe in and tighten your core, then curl the weight to your clavicles and squeeze.
  4. Lower the weight but do not fully extend your elbows as this can place excessive strain on the lower biceps. Exhale as your arms reach extension.

If new to this movement, choose a relatively lightweight for your safety and to get the most of the exercise. As you become more advanced, you can increase the weight although you never want to use maximum poundages with the preacher curl, especially at a decent angle.

Variation: Adjust a bench to a high incline angle and do the preacher curl standing. You don’t have to curl the weight to the very top with this variation, as this tends to relieve tension from the biceps at the top of the movement.

Sets/reps

  • Do 3 sets x 8-10 challenging reps

1.3 Incline Zottman curl

We mentioned earlier that the long (outer) head of the bicep crosses the shoulder joint and there are few exercises better than an incline curl variation for stressing the bicep at the shoulder joint as well as near the elbow.

This is a movement that was also utilized during the Golden-era of bodybuilding and it was named after George Zottman who was a Strongman in the early 1900s. 

George Zottman
George Zottman

But what makes the Zottman curl different from the basic incline curl is that at the top of each rep, you’ll change to an overhand grip before changing grip once again at the bottom of the exercise when the arms are fully extended. 

This movement works the biceps primarily during the concentric (positive) portion of the movement but by switching to the overhand grip at the top, you’ll work more of the brachialis and brachioradialis during the eccentric. But you also won’t be able to use as much weight as you normally would for that very reason. 

How to do it:

  1. Set up a high incline at about a 45-degree angle. 
  2. While holding the dumbbells, sit back against the bench and let your arms hang behind your body. 
  3. Using a supinated grip, breathe in and tighten your core, then curl the dumbbells at the same time or in an alternating fashion and squeeze your biceps at the top. Then rotate your wrists toward your body so that you’re hands are in a pronated (overhand) position.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells maintaining an overhand grip until your arms are nearly fully extended and breathe out.
  5. Return to the underhand grip and repeat.

Sets/reps

  • Do 3 sets x 10 challenging reps 

Here’s a video example of the Zottman curl…

1.4 Standing barbell reverse curl

Reverse curls (overhand grip) are a very effective exercise for targeting the brachialis muscle as well as the brachioradialis which is located in the forearm (knuckle side) and that functions to flex the elbow, in addition to pronation and supination of the forearm.

How to do it:  

  1. Using either a straight or EZ curl bar, grip it about shoulder-width or slightly wider with palms down.
  2. Keep your elbows to your sides, breathe in and tighten your core, then and curl the weight up to the top feeling the tension in the muscles of the forearm and brachialis.
  3. Slowly lower the weight to near elbow extension and breathe out, then repeat.

Variation: Use dumbbells if you want a freer range of movement throughout. You can also do cross body reverse curls this way.

Sets/reps

  • Do 3 sets x 8-10 reps challenging reps

You won’t be able to train with as much weight using a reverse grip as you have to maintain a full grip with a straight wrist. This is for your safety and effectively executing this curl variation.

Here’s a video example of the barbell reverse curl…

Old-School: Workout #2

The second old school workout is based on what Arnold Schwarzenegger used to do to build his mountain-top bicep peaks. But his ‘secret’ (which isn’t really a secret anymore) was supination of the hand and forearm which isn’t possible with a barbell (although the barbell curl was still apart of his biceps training). 

Here’s a bicep workout that the ‘Austrian Oak’ fancied…

2.1 Barbell Curl

Sets/reps

  • 5 sets x 6-8 challenging reps

See instructions from workout #1

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

The 7x Mr. Olympia champion swore by focusing on the supination technique as he noted that it improved the size of his outer bicep head which gives the peak and that is what he believes allowed him to have such an impressive back double biceps pose. But he did it a little bit differently by allowing the dumbbells to roll down into his fingers which gave a much better bicep contraction when he twisted his pinkie toward his bicep.

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

Although, we don’t necessarily recommend rolling the dumbbell onto your fingers as this could cause structural issues long term.

To do the alternating dumbbell curl…

  1. Start with an underhand grip and as you curl the weight up and try to turn your pinkies as much towards your shoulders as you can.
  2. Then lower the weight while rotating the wrists back to an underhand grip. 

Sets/reps

  • 5 sets x 8-10 challenging reps 

2.2 Barbell Preacher Curl 

Sets/reps

  • 4 sets x 8-10 challenging reps

See instructions from workout #1

2.3 Concentration Curl

You probably remember Arnold Schwarzenegger doing the concentration curl (standing variation) in the movie Pumping Iron back in the seventies where he also talked about how satisfying the pump is. If done correctly, the concentration curl is an amazing isolation exercise.

Concentration Curl
Concentration Curl

To do it standing, bend over while holding a dumbbell in between your legs then curl it to the top and squeeze. Lower the weight and repeat.

Sets/reps

  • 4 sets x 8-10 challenging reps

Old-School: Workout #3

Robby Robinson aka ‘The Black Prince’ had some of the best arms ever and his biceps definitely stood out as one of his notable body parts with high peaks and tons of mass. But even as get got up into his 70s (currently 73) you could tell that he’s genetically gifted in this area.

Robby Robinson
Robby Robinson

Although, he was able to build an amazing physique overall and if he gives training tips, you want to listen!

The former Mr. Universe and Olympia winner recommends pre-exhausting the forearms with reverse curls and wrist curls before arm training which will not only make the forearms bigger, but the biceps have to work harder as a result. 

Here’s a common biceps workout from ‘Mr. Lifestyle’ himself that he even implements to this day…

3.1 Standard barbell reverse curl 

Sets/reps

  • 1-2 sets x 10-12 should be sufficient for forearm pre-exhaustion. Use a relatively lightweight.

See instructions from workout #1

3.2 Dumbbell wrist curls

Robinson would also incorporate wrist curls before his bicep training to continue pre-exhaustion of the opposite side of the forearm.

Sets/reps

  • Use a relatively light or moderate dumbbell and do 1-2 sets x 15 reps for optimal pre-exhaustion

3.3 Preacher/Scott curl

The preacher/Scott curl is one of Robby Robinson’s favorite movements building big biceps. He recommends keeping the torso straight to get a really good stretch and contraction in the biceps. 

Sets/reps

  • 3 sets x 10, 8, 6 challenging reps

Increase the weight each set.

See instructions from workout #1

3.4 Preacher/Scott dumbbell Zottman curl

This is a combination exercise that involves doing a dumbbell hammer curl on the preacher bench but with a twist (literally). This variation works the brachialis muscle, your forearms, and grip while allowing for a pronounced stretch.

To do it…

  1. Using a neutral grip, curl the weight up to the top and squeeze.
  2. Then as you lower the dumbbells, rotate your hands so that your palms are facing down.
  3. Change to the neutral grip again and repeat.

Sets/reps

  • 4 sets x 10 reps using relatively light dumbbells

3.5 Spider curl

The spider curl is a must-have in any serious biceps training regime and if Robby Robinson uses it, then you probably should too. It’s a great isolation and focus exercise that prevents cheating.

To do the Spider curl…

  1. lie prone on a low incline bench with your chest at the top and arms hanging down in front of you.
  2. Then curl the weight while keeping your upper arms still and really focus on getting a good bicep contraction.

Sets/reps

  • 3 sets x 8 challenging reps

And that’s it! These are three of the main exercises that Robby Robinson uses to build and maintain his bicep size.

Important Bicep Training Tips

Here are a few important tips so that you can maximize your bicep training potential.

Choosing your weight

Whether you’re using dumbbells, barbells, or anything else for that matter; we’d highly recommend selecting a weight that allows you to perform at least 8-12 reps with clean form to failure and without cheating (although cheat reps can certainly be advantageous if you’re a little more advanced).

Now, this definitely isn’t the only rep range for building muscle but you want to increase strength as well and 8-12 is an ideal for achieving both. But by all means, vary your reps for maximum development.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Curls

Utilize different hand positions

Research shows that hand position does have an influence on muscle activation. However, you’ll still work each head and the brachialis to a varying degree regardless as it’s impossible to isolate either head. (1)

But typically, a close grip emphasizes the outer head while a wider grip emphasizes the inner head. And if you want to target the brachialis (which you should every arm workout), a neutral or overhand grip is ideal as the bicep is naturally at a mechanical disadvantage in this position. 

Read more 7 best grip variations.

Biceps contraction/mind-muscle connection

Getting the most optimal contraction is a must for maximum bicep development. But it’s also important to keep tension on the muscles throughout each repetition.

One review of a study done on the best bicep exercises found that the concentration curl was superior for muscle activation compared to many other popular exercises. But why is that?… well, the concentration curl involved the arm being in a pretty set position on the leg to where your biceps are doing most of the work without assistance from other muscles. (2) 

Although you definitely don’t get the same amount of total biceps overload with isolation exercises like these. However, this evidence strongly supports the importance of mind-muscle connection and focusing on getting a good contraction in the target muscle. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the most popular old-school bicep exercises?

Bodybuilders from the Golden-Era typically utilized a few basic free-weight bicep movements which included…

  • Barbell curls
  • Dumbbell curls
  • Preacher/Scott curls
  • Spider curls
  • Reverse curls
  • Hammer curls
  • Concentration curls
  • Zottman curls

How many bicep exercises did old-school bodybuilders do per session?

Typically 3-4 exercises, each of which emphasizes/targets the two heads of the biceps muscle as well as the brachialis.

For example, the barbell curl was used as an overall mass builder, while the preacher curl allows for a deep stretch in the biceps. Then bodybuilders would add in neutral or overhand grip curls to target the brachialis and forearm.

Is old-school training superior?

It would certainly be hard to argue as there were many phenomenal physiques during the Golden-Era and many training strategies were very effective.

Although, we’ve come a long way as far as training knowledge and research but many concepts still remain the same regarding the actual exercises which are widely used even to this day.

But the best thing you can do is take what you’ve learned from your own training experiences and apply it until you find what works best for you.

What’s the best old-school bicep workout?

If we were to take several different bicep exercises that were commonly used by old-school bodybuilders to create the ultimate Golden-Era workout, we’d probably choose the following in order.

  • Barbell/EZ bar bicep curls
  • Preacher/Scott curls
  • Alternating dumbbells curls
  • Barbell reverse curls

Wrapping Up

Try out these killer old-school bicep workouts in your next session. Each one is put together so that you can work every part of the biceps thoroughly, in addition to the brachialis to ensure you’re squeezing out every little bit of growth possible.

Training biceps definitely isn’t rocket science but you do need a little variety and proven methods for building big guns. 

So, enjoy and feel free to mix up the sets/reps to fit your style of training!

Check Out Other Great Bicep Workouts

 

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