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Updated On: August 02, 2023
There are two types of lifters - those that would like bigger arms and liars. Let’s be honest, none of us would say no to another inch on our biceps, more meat on our triceps or thicker forearms.
Vascular, bowling ball forearms let everyone know you have real world strength. They signal that you have a vice like grip capable of crushing steel or twisting open the most stubborn of jam jars (see – I told you they build real world strength). Developing strong forearms can be done with heavy rows, pulls, and deadlifts, but to make them really stand out, some direct forearm training is needed. Few people train their forearms though. I don’t really blame them. Direct forearm training is a bit like calf training. It is boring and it's usually an afterthought done with a complete lack of intensity. The key difference is that while calves can be extremely stubborn, the forearms can be really responsive to training. Without too much training time directed towards them they can really blow up and make your arms look much more impressive.
The great news is there is an exercise that will fill out your forearms and build your biceps - Zottman Curls. The Zottman curl delivers on two fronts. Using this advanced curl, you can blow up your biceps, force forearm growth, improve grip strength and save time during workouts.
Born in 1867, George Zottman was a strongman from Philadelphia famed for his physique and freakish forearms. Before getting into body development and gymnastics at 16, Zottman was described as a big-boned lad but not particularly large. However, his outlandish response to training earned him the unofficial title of the strongest boy in Philadelphia by 17. In those days, touring troops of performers would grace the theaters, showing feats of strength and challenging locals to wrestling matches. It just so happened one was looking for someone to fill in as a strongman and came looking for a Philadelphia teen, kick-starting Zottman’s decade long career as a strongman.
At his peak Zottman stood 5’11 and 218lbs, boasting an enormous 47-inch chest, 58-inch shoulders, and 27-inch thighs. However, his piece de resistance were his arms. Zottman’s 19-inch biceps and 16.5-inch forearms made him a real-life Popeye. These muscles weren’t just for show. His most notable display of strength was a 175lb seated floor to overhead. Sitting on a chair next to the mammoth dumbbell, he reached over, cleaned it up to his shoulders before pressing it overhead with one hand. Something yet to be matched. This brutish display was classic of Zottman, using nothing but raw strength. As a man who saw finessed technique as a way to cheat the system akin to lifting heavier weights without actually being any stronger he prioritized the pursuit of brute strength. Zottman’s impressive physique also got him a role as “Charles the Wrestler” in the Shakespearean play “As You Like It”. It was here Alan Calvert, founder of Strength Magazine, saw him. Zottman might not be a household name, but I’m sure many of you are familiar with Eugene Sandow. Calvert, who had met Sandow, said the sight of Zottman in the flesh “lowered his opinion of Sandow” as Zottman appeared “two sizes larger” and “looked very much stronger”. High praise indeed!
Zottman retired from strongman at 27, joining the workforce at the Girard Theatre, going from star to staff. Despite hanging up his dumbbells, he would occasionally remind the rest of the cast just how strong he was. He was banned from a show after accidentally showing up an Italian strongman, swinging a 250b bell (Zottman claimed it felt closer to 170lbs) to his shoulder and pressing it overhead with his right hand, 7 times in a row. The traveling strongman felt shown up, and the following night Zottman was turned away when he tried to get into the show.
Despite his impressive records and remarkable feats of strength, his name is best known for his legendary bicep and forearm builder - Zottman Curls.
Popularized by the renowned 19th-century strongman, this curl variation attacks your forearms and biceps in equal measure. Combining the concentric of traditional curls and eccentric of reverse curls, Zottman curls mean you don’t have to feel guilty about skipping wrist curls at the end of your session for the 12th week in a row.
Key Terms To Know:
Mistake #1 - Going Too Heavy: As with other bicep curls, it’s common to see people training their ego and not their biceps. Swinging to create momentum and using too much weight to impress the hot chick on the X-trainer. Don’t make this mistake – she’s not paying any attention to you anyway. Select a weight you can control. The lowering phase of the Zottman curl creates much more stimulation than regular curls. Thus, it creates more fatigue and requires a lighter weight.
Mistake #1 continued: As outlined below, this variation alters which muscles are stressed during different stages, placing more strain on the weaker muscles during the eccentric phase. This ensures all muscles get good stimulus, but it does mean going too heavy could result in excessive strain on unprepared, weaker muscles and possible injury.
Mistake #2 - Rushing the Wrist Rotation: A second mistake to be wary of is rushing the wrist rotation. Twisting the wrist when the elbow is fully flexed at the top of the movement is an essential facet of the exercise, not just a way to change grips. Rotate under control to get the most out of this arm builder.
This section provides an overview of the anatomy of the muscles trained during the Zottman curl. This information will help explain why Zottman curls are such an excellent exercise.
The biceps brachii is biarticular - crossing two joints - and has two heads, both originating near the humerus and clavicle. The long head runs between the ridges on the outside of the shoulder, between the greater and lesser tuberosities, taking the long way around the joint. The short head makes its way straight for the humerus, cutting the corner. They merge into one muscle belly before attaching to the upper portion of the inside of the radius. Because of its attachments, contracting the biceps brings the forearm and upper arm together. It also causes supination as the inside of the radius is pulled on. The bicep is also a weak shoulder flexor but acts mainly in shoulder stabilization.
The brachioradialis sits atop the forearm when pronated and has two main functions. Its primary function is elbow flexion, which makes sense considering it originates two-thirds of the way down the humerus and inserts by the wrist. Its contraction also rotates the forearm to neutral from pronated and supinated positions. Interestingly, the muscle elongates the further from neutral you get, regardless of direction.
The brachialis muscle sits beneath the biceps brachii, originating halfway down the humerus and inserting just below the elbow on the ulna. This muscle is involved exclusively in elbow flexion, and in the absence of supination, is the strongest elbow flexor.
Other Muscles Worked: Muscles located in the forearm involved in wrist flexion and extension, as well as finger flexion, are targeted by this variation.
General principles of exercise selection:
Before diving into the specifics of the Zottman curl, it’s key to remember two exercise selection principles.
Firstly, the target muscle should be taken through as great a range of motion as possible (safely).
Secondly, this should be combined with ensuring the muscle you’re training is the limiting factor during the exercise.
For example, when training your lats you don’t want your biceps to fatigue before your lats during lat pulldowns.
Range of motion, eccentric loading, and balancing muscle fatigue:
The first stage of Zottman curls, elbow flexion with forearm supination, heavily favors the bicep brachii. The brachioradialis works very hard during elbow flexion, regardless of forearm position. However, its long lever length - in comparison with the biceps brachii - means a stronger contraction is required to elicit the same force. Additionally, the brachialis contribution to elbow flexion is limited when accompanied by supination. This all adds up to the bicep brachii taking the reins as the prime mover during this phase.
Rotation from supination to pronation only adds to the effectiveness of this movement. At the top of the movement - elbow fully flexed, and forearm supinated - the bicep brachii is as short as it will get during this exercise. Twisting the wrist from supinated to pronated begins the eccentric portion of the lift for the biceps brachii, lengthening under load. This also fully contracts brachioradialis, shortening it as you go from supinated to neutral. Twisting from neutral to pronated begins the eccentric action of the brachioradialis, lengthening the muscle before elbow extension. This twist at the top not only impacts the elbow extension portion of the lift but increases the range of motion.
The next phase - pronated elbow extension - is where Zottman curls really excel. During pronation, the bicep tendon is wrapped by its insertion, putting the biceps brachii in a biomechanically disadvantaged position. This reduces torque production without decreasing activity.
Simply put, when pronated, your biceps can move less weight but remain just as active. This is essential for the brachioradialis and brachialis to shine. Picking up the slack the brachioradialis and brachialis increase their contributions to elbow flexion. Importantly this all occurs during eccentric action and elbow extension. Muscles are less active and able to move more weight eccentrically than concentrically.
Zottman curls are effective as they bias the stronger muscle - biceps brachii - during the concentric phase, which is the most challenging stage. They then bias weaker muscles during eccentric action where they handle more weight. This means you can train all the muscles simultaneously without changing weight or exercise.
Pronation also targets wrist extensors and finger flexors in the forearm isometrically. With regular curls, the dumbbell sits in the palm of the hand, so fingers do not need to remain tightly closed. Pronation forces you to fight against the dumbbell, trying to keep your wrist neutral and hand closed. This phase of the lift really targets all facets of forearm function.
The final stage is once the elbow is extended and the forearm twists from pronated to supinated. This portion is the least impactful in terms of muscle contraction and activation. It does begin the concentric contraction of the biceps brachii - however, this is primarily to get the dumbbells ready to be curled again.
Zottman curls take the best of traditional supinated curls and reverse curls, marrying them together. By biasing weaker muscles during eccentric and stronger during concentric contraction and increasing range of motion, Zottman curls are an efficient way to work your forearms and biceps in equal, killer measure.
1. Reverse Zottman Curls:
A reverse version of this curl means flexing the elbow with a pronated grip and extending supinated. This places greater stress on the brachioradialis and brachialis during more difficult concentric contraction, making up for reduced output from the disadvantaged biceps brachii. The biceps brachii just as short and contracted as with the traditional Zottman curl, supinating at the top of the movement. This variation would be great to add in if your biceps brachii are already fatigued from other bicep isolation exercises.
2. Seated Zottman Curls:
As with most seated variations of curls, this reduces the amount of momentum that can be used by taking the legs out of the equation. If you’re prone to a cheat curl, knackered at the end of a session or too sore to stand after leg day sitting might be the best option for you.
3. Incline Zottman Curls:
Incline curls are a great way to extend the shoulder, increasing the stretch put on the bicep. Adding an incline bench to a Zottman curl does the same. You’ll get all the benefits of the standing version, just at longer muscle lengths, really taking the muscle to the end of its range.
4. Preacher Zottman Curls:
Using a preacher bench does two things, it stops any cheating (jerky movements) as your elbows are pinned to the pad AND it gives a little extra emphasis on your short head of the bicep which is responsible for a thick aesthetic of your biceps. The downside to greater isolation from the inability to use body English (aka cheat) is that you will have slightly less range of motion on the preacher bench.
Note: If you do not have access to a preacher bench, you can use an incline bench to the same effect, but you'll have to do just unilateral preacher Zottman curls. To do this, just set the bench at a high incline and place your elbow/triceps on the back rest.
5. Unilateral (or Alternating) Zottman Curls:
Unilateral means one arm at a time, which is great as you can really hone in on the working arm to iron out muscle imbalances. With this, you have two options, alternating zottman curls, which is sort of like a seesaw effect (one arm comes up as the other comes down), or just one dumbbell at a time.
Sets: This can be an efficient way to build volume for both biceps and forearms in one go. As the forearms are used frequently in back and lower body training it makes sense to start with a lower volume and frequency, building your way up so not to hamper the rest of your training. Start out by training this once per week, with 2-3 sets in place of a regular bicep and forearm exercise. Provided you’re getting a good stimulus and are recovering well this could extend up to 4-5 sets in a session over time. You can add a second session, however for sake of variety and a slightly different stimulus it would be a good idea to use one of the variations listed. It is important to remember that biceps are forearms recover and are stressed differently across different sessions. Your biceps might be able to take some added volume from another session, but your forearms might not, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on how your forearms and biceps are recovering separately.
Reps: It is best to avoid extremely low repetitions with this exercise as it seems unlikely 4-5 reps would be an adequate stimulus and heavy eccentrics on a new exercise could be a recipe for disaster. With that in mind aiming for 12-15 reps is a good place to start, giving you wiggle room as you fatigue to drop the reps lower.
Placement: You have a couple of options for when in your workout you place Zottman curls. They tend to work best at either the start or end of a workout. Done early in your session they can help to warm-up your arms, drive blood to your biceps, and prepare your elbows for heavier work. At the other extreme, they can also be used at the end of a training session to maximize your pump and create a powerful muscle building finisher. Regardless of when you choose to do them, they are an exceptional arm builder that are also extremely time-efficient.
Overall, the Zottman curl is a fantastic exercise to fill out your forearms and build both thickness and peak in your biceps. Avoid your ego and lift with an appropriate weight to avoid using momentum and to ensure a full range of motion. Moreover, you'll be able to slow down the eccentric phase, which is going to be a game change for those bi's. Start out with 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps once a week and work up in volume (sets) and frequency as needed from there. Remember, this is just one of many great dumbbell biceps exercises.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
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