Saturday 20 November 2021

Multi vs. Single Joint Exercises for Building Bigger Biceps

So, you want bigger biceps. What is the best way to get bigger arms? Should you do multi-joint or single-joint exercises? While the internet is full of “The top 3 exercises for to build bigger biceps” clickbait, let’s look at how the latest science and real-world experience can help you increase the size of your arms. 

Study reference: 
Mannarino, P., Matta, T., Lima, J., Simão, R., & Freitas de Salles, B. (2021). Single-Joint Exercise Results in Higher Hypertrophy of Elbow Flexors Than Multijoint Exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(10), 2677–2681.

Now I’ll give you a quick summary of the training study. If you are not interested in this, feel free to skip down to the practical application section at the bottom (I won’t offended). 

While it is good to emphasize multi-joint exercises (i.e. exercises that train more than one joint at a time such as a row), both multi-joint and single-joint exercises (i.e. exercises that move one joint and help to target a specific muscle such as a biceps curl) can help build size and strength. Other studies have shown that adding single-joint exercises to a program with multi-joint exercises may not offer additional benefits. However, this study looks at a direct comparison between single and multi-joint exercises. 

10 untrained men (ages 24-38) were recruited for this study. Researchers used ultrasound to measure their biceps size. After 2 sessions to get familiar with the exercises, subjects performed a 10RM test (max weight for 10 reps) to measure strength on each exercise. Then, the men trained one arm with a 1-arm dumbbell row and the other arm with a 1-arm dumbbell biceps curl. They trained twice a week for 8 weeks. For the first four weeks, subjects did 4 sets of 8-12 reps to failure. In the final four weeks, they did 6 sets of 8-12 reps. Subjects were instructed to eat a high-calorie, high-protein diet and given a mass gainer supplement. After 8 weeks, researchers re-tested the strength and muscle size of each arm. 

Not surprisingly, 10RM strength improvement on the 1-arm dumbbell row was greater in the arm that trained the 1-arm DB row for 8 weeks. The other arm that did the 1-arm curl showed greater strength gains on the 1-arm curl test. The arm that did the 1-arm curl had greater biceps size gains than the row arm.

  1. It is always great to see an actual training study where subjects are tested, trained and re-trained. 
  2. This study only had 10 subjects
  3. The subjects were untrained men. This makes it difficult to extrapolate the information females or to those of us with several years of training experience. 
  4. Researchers used ultrasound to measure muscle growth. This provides good testing accuracy. 
  5. This study used a within-subject design. This means that each of the two training protocols was used on the same person. This eliminates issues with genetics (e.g. muscle fiber type dominance, body type, structure, rate of muscle growth, etc.). In studies where you have one group of people that does one training protocol and another separate group of people using a different protocol, you always run the risk of one group having better genetics and that (not the particular training protocol) is the reason they did better. 
  6. I wish the researchers used the chin-up which places a far greater emphasis on the biceps than a row. This would be a more helpful comparison. 

Practical Applications
Okay, let’s wrap things up with some practical wisdom to help how YOU can use this science to help you build more muscle.

  1. Rows are a great exercise, but not a great biceps builder. Use rows to build your upper back, increase pulling strength, improve posture, and help with muscle balance in your shoulder girdle. 
  2. Chin-ups are a better exercise than rows for building your biceps. You will likely see a correlation between your weighted chin-up performance and the size of your biceps. It would be very difficult to add 40lbs to your weighted chin-up for 5-10 reps and not build bigger biceps.
  3. Avoid binary thinking. In the real world, you do not have to choose between multi and single-joint exercises. You can do both!
  4. Very few people (if any) will be able to build big arms with just single-joint biceps and triceps exercises. This is especially true as you move past the beginner phase of training.
  5. Single-joint exercises are most effective when used as strategic additions to a program based on big, multi-joint movements.
  6. The worse your genetics for arm building, the more total body muscle you will have to gain. I was able to build over 3 inches on my arms, but I had to gain almost 50lbs of muscle to do so.
  7. Some people take the “train the big movements” too far. They think that all you need to do is squat, bench, and deadlift and everything will grow. The truth is that if you are not on drugs and don’t have great genetics, you have to emphasize big movements or nothing will grow. However, you cannot ignore the principle of specificity. If you want a muscle to grow, you must train that muscle.
  8. Consider your structure when designing your training programs. If you have long arms like me, you will find that compound movements primarily develop your torso muscles. As a result, direct arm work will be more important. If you have short arms, you can get a lot of arm growth from big pressing and pulling exercises.

If you want to build muscle, grab a copy of my latest book Size for Skinny Guys: A Hardgainer’s Guide to Building Drug-Free Muscle

Questions? Comments? Topic suggestions for future posts? Please place them below in the comments. Thanks!


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