How Idrise Ward-El Built Balanced, Championship Arms
“My biceps always grew pretty easily, but my triceps were a different story altogether. There was a time when I did as many as seventeen sets to get them to match my biceps. It took a lot to wear them out. I actually feel like I had to overtrain them to get them to grow. Now that they are in line with my biceps, I maintain the balance between the two bodyparts by giving my triceps 9-10 sets, whereas I only do six sets for biceps. The tris do make up 2/3 of the upper arm, so it makes sense that they need to get a bit more work.”
If there is one word that Idrise used in the quote you just read that absolutely applies to both his physique and life, it’s “balance”. Idrise turned pro at the 2002 USA Championships on the power of the balance in his physique. Now, in 2005, as a competitive pro bodybuilder, he also appears five days per week on an NBC affiliate in Palms Springs, California in a segment called “Todays Fitness with Mr. USA” where he covers a myriad of topics germane to fitness, nutrition and overall health. He is also a sought after personal trainer, an avid golfer, having won several tournaments, and takes his role as a father very seriously. Balance, in and out of the gym.
As he mentioned, however, his arms were not always balanced. Now, that’s a different story. Let’s take a look at the balanced arm development of USA champ, Idrise Ward-El.
Idrise Ward-El Balanced Arms Workout
Exercise 1: Rope Cable Extensions
Idrise begins his tricep work by grabbing a rope and attaching it to a high cable. The starting position will see him face away from the cable and lean forward at the waist. The front leg is bent in a lunge position and his upper body is parallel to the floor. From there, he extends the rope forward to a fully contracted position and pulls his hands outward to take advantage of the flexibility of the rope. He keeps his elbows close to his head throughout each repetition.
“The key here is to really make sure that you get a strong contraction at the end of each repetition. Without that strong lock at the end of each rep, you are depriving yourself of a large portion of the benefit of the movement, or any tricep movement for that matter.”
Idrise will do three sets of 8-12 reps.
Exercise 2: Straight Bar Pushdowns
Now it’s time to move on to the most popular tricep movement in the gym, pushdowns with a straight bar. Idrise starts with the bar at chest height and makes sure to pin his elbows against his sides throughout the movement.
“The critical thing here is that you don’t go crazy with the weight at the expense of your form. If your elbows flare out from your body the stress of the exercise on your triceps becomes much less.”
As with the rope extensions he just finished, Idrise makes sure to hold the repetition for a second in the bottom position and forcibly contract the tricep. Again there is no point in the pushdown more important than the fully contracted position. Idrise will do three sets of 8-12 reps before moving to his final tricep exercise.
Exercise 3: One Arm Cable Extensions
Using a single handle on the overhead cable pulley, Idrise will take an underhanded grip to start the movement. Keeping his elbow close to the body throughout the exercise, he pulls the handle down and back until the arm is completely extended and the tricep is fully and forcibly contracted. The handle is brought back up to shoulder level to complete the repetition. He’ll perform 8-12 reps with one arm before moving to the other side. Three sets are the plan for this exercise as well.
Idrise has a unique, well-thought out approach to his bicep training. Surprise, surprise, balance is at the heart of the plan.
“While I never had to do much to get my biceps to grow, I noticed that the brachialis muscle lagged behind a bit and was hurting the overall symmetry of my arm development. So, I devised a workout that I still do today to keep everything in balance. I start each bicep workout with an exercise that hits the bicep directly and then do a movement that targets the brachialis for my second movement. I’m very pleased with the results of doing it this way.”
Exercise 1: Seated Alternate Dumbbell Curls, Cable Curls or Machine Preacher Curls
As he mentioned, Idrise chooses his first movement from several different exercises. Regardless of which movement he chooses, he will perform three sets of 8-12 reps. Let’s take a look at the choices for exercise one and the proper form for each.
Seated Alternate Dumbbell Curls
Sitting at the end of a flat bench, Idrise begins the movement with his arms in a full hanging position. From that position, he will curl the dumbbell up to his shoulder and twist his hand outward at the top of the movement to supinate and further contract the bicep. The weight is then lowered in a controlled manner as Idrise makes sure to keep the palms up. This way, his bicep stays contracted throughout the entire range of motion of the movement. Once he does a full repetition with one arm, he starts the next rep with the other arm. Idrise will do three sets of 8-12 reps.
Standing Cable Curl
With a slight bend in his knees to reduce any undue strain on his lower back, Idrise takes a shoulder width grip on a straight bar and curls the bar toward his upper chest/chin area. Once he reaches the ending point of the movement, he will lower the bar in a controlled fashion back to the starting position just below his waist. Idrise will sometimes do his cable curls one arm at a time. The form is basically the same, except that there is a little more freedom to supinate the hand at the top of the movement.
Preacher Curls on the Hammer Strength Machine
Another option for Idrise are Machine Preacher Curls.
“The form here is pretty hard to screw up because you are basically going to just grab the handles and curl. However, it is very important to watch the speed of your reps and really control the weight. If you let the weight drop or go too far down on this movement, you will place a lot of stress on your elbows and risk serious injury. Once you get to the bottom point of the exercise where there is a slight bend in the elbow, it’s time to curl back to the top position.”
Exercise 2: Reverse Rope Curls
Now that Idrise has completed his direct bicep movement, he turns to his stubborn brachialis muscle. The brachialis is most significantly stimulated with curling movements that are performed with the palms facing each other. These include hammer curls with dumbbells as well as hammer rope curls. While he has done more than his share of the former movement, the hammer rope curl is his current movement of choice. Idrise will attach the rope to the low cable pulley and grab each side right under the handles so that his palms face each other. He will then curl the handles up to his shoulders before lowering the rope back to the starting position.
“I will make sure to keep a slight bend in the knees and not use any body momentum, just as with the cable curls I often do for my biceps.”
Idrise will do another three sets of 8-12 reps to complete the workout.
How Important Are Biceps On Stage?
When I asked Idrise that very question at the end of our interview, he paused and said,
“I never really thought about that. They are very evident in the front and rear double bicep. They definitely add something to both lat spreads as well as the side chest, and when you do the ab/thigh they’re pretty tough to miss as well. I guess they are actually a much bigger impact muscle than a lot of people think they are.”
Add in the importance of the tricep in the one mandatory that Idrise didn’t mention, the side tricep pose, and the importance of balanced, complete arm development becomes clear. Take it from a guy who knows!