If you watch the typical teenage bodybuilder train their arms, they’ll be doing virtually endless sets of standing barbell and dumbbell curls. Sure, a beginner can make progress on a program like that, but it’s not the smartest way to train. With the same amount of effort on better workouts, they will develop larger arms and will achieve them faster. One person who would agree with me is the first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott.
Scott won the Mr. Olympia title in 1965 and 1966, weighing 205 and with arms that reportedly measured over 20 inches at his height of just 5 feet 8. Scott paid his dues to achieve these results, making many mistakes along the way. Here are 7 tips you can learn from his success.
1. Choose your mentors carefully.
Many beginning bodybuilders fail due to information overload, by trying routines that are too optimistic for their conditioning level. When Scott started his training at a local Y in his Idaho hometown, he followed the advice of a boxer, who told him to perform a circuit training system that consisted of doing one set of each exercise for each major body part, and then repeating the circuit two more times. For the biceps, Scott would do one set of 10 reps of standing barbell curls, then a set of one-arm concentration curls, then a set of Zottman dumbbell curls. This type of program might have been fine for a boxer seeking to improve muscular endurance, but not for building the muscles of a bodybuilder.
The next mentor Scott had was Lou Degni, whom Scott met at Bert Goodrich’s Gym in Hollywood. Degni convinced Scott to use a more conventional program, such as 3 sets of 6-8 reps of the following exercises: standing barbell curls, bent-over dumbbell concentration curls and standing dumbbell curls.
Back in Idaho, Scott happened to meet Steve Reeves when Reeves visited the gym where Scott was training. Reeves introduced him to such methods as drop sets. Rather than increasing the weight every set as Scott had been doing, Reeves taught him about starting with a heavy weight and decreasing the weight for several sets without rest between sets. For Scott, this meant he would pick a weight for a set, let’s say 100 pounds for 10 reps, and perform 10 reps; then he would immediately decrease the weight by 10 pounds and perform another set, and then decrease it once more by another 10 pounds for another 10 reps.
2. Use a split system.
Scott found that it was better to work different sections of the body on different days, a method that Scott credits to Dave Fitzen from Salt Lake City. In an interview by David Prokop published in 1992, Scott talked about the benefits of the split system. “It was quite a novel way to train the muscles more intensely and give them time to recuperate. It was a new concept. Nobody had ever thought of that before. We had always trained the whole body in one day, and it was exhausting!” Using this type of system Scott started to make faster progress (at this time, he weighed 155 and had arms that measured just 15 ¼ inches).
3. Soar with your strengths.
In his early days of training Scott had emphasized triceps training more than biceps, but that was before he learned he had a genetic advantage for biceps development (a low point of attachment). When Scott moved to North Hollywood and trained at bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda’s gym in Los Angeles, a fellow trainee pointed out Scott’s potential for great biceps. Scott began to focus more on his biceps, and in a year he placed third in the Mr. Los Angeles competition.
4. Overload all parts of the strength curve.
Scott made excellent progress by using techniques that would overload all areas of a muscle’s strength curve. His favorite program was to start with a set of dumbbell curls on a preacher bench, then immediately do a set of wide-grip curls on the preacher bench and then a set of reverse-grip EZ bar curls. He would do 5 sets of this system. He would do 6 reps, and then 4 burns (quarter movements) at the end to overload the strongest part of the strength curve.
Although that’s a great workout, it can be even more effective, especially in terms of forearm development, to use thick implements. In Scott’s prime, such equipment was not commercially available, but now there are not only thick barbells and dumbbells (with revolving sleeves that make it easier on the wrists and elbows) but also EZ Curl barbells. If you’re interested in this type of equipment, I recommend visiting the website for Watson Gym Equipment, a UK company.
5. Emphasize forearm training to develop the biceps.
I’ve always found that when you add direct work for the forearms, your poundages go up in curling exercises, and Scott experienced the same phenomenon. “When I got to the advanced stage of my training in the ’60s, I began to realize that I couldn’t go up to the heavier weights unless I began to strengthen my forearms,” said Scott in the 1992 interview. “And so I started to train the forearms real hard so that I could get the wrist curled at the bottom of the movement on the preacher bench. When you’re doing biceps curls and you’re way down on the bench, you can’t get the bar up unless you get your wrists curled, and you can’t get your wrists curled unless you have the forearm strength. So I started working forearms very hard, and I noted that as I worked forearms harder, I could use heavier weights in the biceps exercises. Consequently, it was the forearms that were the key to building bigger biceps at that point.”
6. Use equipment that gives you the best results.
Scott said that the type of equipment he used made a big difference in his training results. In fact, Scott made such great progress in his biceps development using preacher curl benches that the bench became known as the Scott bench. Scott found he got the best results from using equipment that had convex arm pads rather than flat (so they didn’t dig into his armpits) and had a short face (so the weight plates did not hit the pad at the bottom of the movement).
7. Listen to your body.
Scott found that there was no single, perfect way to perform an exercise that works for everyone. For example, he got the best results by performing barbell curls in a strict manner but performing dumbbells curls in a loose manner (i.e., using body English to get the weight up any way he could). And he found that 9 was the optimal number of sets for him to achieve the best results in his biceps training.
One of my favorite comments from Larry Scott is that his arms got so big that they were hard to carry around! “My traps just got exhausted carrying them. I used to tuck my thumbs into my belt loops just to give my traps a rest.” Don’t we all wish we had such problems?