The BB for PL series describes how you can incorporate bodybuilding exercises into your powerlifting training for big benefits in strength and aesthetics.  This fifth installment addresses everyone’s favorite muscles: the biceps and triceps.  Those little guys play a big role in other compound lifts, but here, I explain how you can combine your arm and grip training for fast results.

Other parts in this series:

According to Ed Coan, biceps are like the ornaments on a Christmas tree: they look pretty, but don’t do anything practical. I’m not one to argue with the greatest powerlifter of all time, but I sure as fuck wanted big arms when I started training. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind another couple inches on ‘em now, but since I’ve started powerlifting competitively, I’ve found it pretty difficult to find the time and energy to fit arm work into my training schedule.

But as it turns out, I’ve neglected training both my upper and lower arms, and now I’m suffering for my lack of grip strength. I’ve missed deadlifts on grip in three of the four meets I’ve done in the past year (I just wasn’t strong enough to finish my third pull at BOB3). Grip training doesn’t have to be time-consuming, but I’ll be honest: I find it pretty boring.

RECENT: Bodybuilding Exercises for Powerlifters — Widen Your Grip to Beef Up Your Back and Deadlift

Now, there are plenty of times in training when there’s no way around it — you’ve just gotta suck it up and do the boring work that produces results. But in this case, with a little creativity, you can spice up your grip training and get in some work for the guns at the same time.

Grip in Powerlifting

If like me, you’ve ever dropped a deadlift in a meet, I don’t need to convince you of the importance of grip work for powerlifting. Few things are more frustrating than knowing that your back and legs are strong enough to lift the weight, but your hands can’t hold up. It’s generally pretty easy to gauge your level of strength on a particular day during your warmups, but grip often fails suddenly and unexpectedly. I’d not missed a single lift on grip leading up to the US Open. The idea of letting go never entered my mind, and I was honestly a little shocked when it happened.

But grip can make a difference in your squat and bench training, too.  You know that hot, uncomfortable tightness that builds up in your elbows after a high-volume low-bar squat or close-grip bench session?  Left ignored, it often turns into a chronic issue, but with a little targeted work for the grip and hands, you can often head off any major problems. And over time, strengthening the grip and arms can help prevent those problems altogether.

(Incidentally, if your elbows are hurting right now, look to your hands for answers! Taking a claw grip on the squat, like I do, can help alleviate pain there and in your shoulders. A false grip on bench can be dangerous, but careful use can take some pressure off in that movement, too. And don’t forget to incorporate specialty bars like the elitefts Yoke Bar if you’re really struggling.)

Curls for the Girls

Way, way back in the day, I used to train arms two or three times a week.  All that volume didn’t do much for my overall strength, but I got a sick pump.  And having to find exercises to fill all that training time meant that I had to learn to be creative.

I tried a lot of different movements, but both then and now, my all-time favorite exercise for the biceps is the spider curl, called that because it will build arms big enough to squish Shelob:

  1. Take a dumbbell that’s about two-thirds of the weight you’d usually use for regular dumbbell curls.
  2. Stand backward facing a preacher curl bench or machine, so that your arm hangs over the flat side of the pad (instead of over the slanted side). At the bottom of the movement, both your upper arm and forearm should be perpendicular to the floor.
  3. Perform one-arm curls, making sure to move through a full range of motion. As you curl, think about pressing your triceps against the pad. Be very mindful of your elbow at the very bottom of the movement.
  4. This isn’t an exercise to load heavily. Stick with light to moderate weights and reps of 8 to 20.

This movement feels very similar to a concentration curl, but the pad makes it more difficult to cheat yourself into a better-leveraged position and provides better support for your arm. For that reason, it’s one of my favorite exercises for elbow-related rehab — especially for lateral or medial epicondylitis, common issues when you’re doing a lot of grip work. I can generally perform this exercise even when my elbows are blowing up and can’t perform similar movements.

You can also very easily use the spider curl itself for grip work.  My favorite way is incorporating a tool like the Grip4orce. It mimics a thick-handled dumbbell and really torches the forearms. For the most bang for the buck, pick a light dumbbell, throw on the Grip4orce, and perform spider curls using a reverse grip.  When you hit your limit, switch over to a regular grip, and keep cranking out reps until your forearms and biceps are fried.

One final note: it’s possible to do two-armed spider curls, using either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. It’s always good to experiment with new variations, but generally, I find that (unless you’ve got excellent shoulder and elbow mobility), it’s very difficult to get in the correct position on the bench with both arms under load. I usually can’t get my forearms to hang straight down, and so at that point, I’d rather just do a regular preacher curl and get a little more support for my elbows.

Tris for the Guys

Generally, I find that compound exercises work pretty well for strengthening the triceps, as long as you use a light enough weight to focus on the appropriate muscle groups, rather than allowing your chest and shoulders to take over. Isolation exercises are more useful for hypertrophy and rehab, but they still have their place.

Eric Garnel taught me this particular variation on the overhead pulley extension:

  1. Set up at a pulley station, as if you were going to perform regular overhead pulley extensions.  Choose a light weight and a pulley handle with knobs at the end that you can grip easily.
  2. Begin the movement with your palms facing, upper back and core tight, and feet staggered.
  3. Extend your arms, rotating your wrists outward as you do.  At the end of the movement, your palms should face in opposite directions (as much as possible).
  4. Slowly return to the starting position, rotating your wrists inward again so that you finish with your palms facing again.
  5. Again: not an exercise to load heavily.  Light weight, high reps, and focus on the rotation of your wrists and squeezing your triceps throughout the range of motion. 

This is a fantastic finisher for your triceps; in fact, I haven’t found anything that gives a better pump, especially when performed for high reps.

It’s easy to get a little grip work in with these, too: just swap out your pulley for a pair of training grenades. The grenades force you to really squeeze with all of your fingers individually, making it a great exercise to improve pinching and hook grips. Even more importantly, they make it easier to rotate your wrists during the movement and take some stress off your elbows.

Conclusion: Get a Grip

Don’t get it twisted: these are suggestions, not the be-all, end-all exercises for grip and arm work. In fact, if you want a vise-like grip, you’ll almost certainly need to incorporate other types of exercises, making sure to train not only support grip but also pinching and crushing exercises, and exercises for the extensors (for balance and to prevent injury).

And if you want hooge guns, you’ll need to include other exercises for your arms, especially compound movements like Yoke Bar presses and supinated pulling exercises. Training for arm size is tough; they need a lot of volume to grow, but the elbow is a vulnerable joint, and it’s easy to accumulate overuse injuries.  Regardless of whether you’re a bodybuilder or powerlifter, you’ll need to train smart to get strong.

Got any secret grip or arm exercises of your own?  Share them in the comments!