When someone has a visible cephalic vein, the one that runs vertically over the biceps, you can usually assume they're fit as hell. But it takes more than a few sets of dumbbell curls to get that wayward road map look. Of course, genetics play a role, but since you can’t choose your parents, you have to be smart about training. Vascularity comes down to a few key factors: strength, leanness, and “pump.” Here’s how to make those veins pop.
Watch What You Eat
You could be the strongest, most genetically vascular guy on Earth, but if your veins are buried under a layer of fat, nobody’s going to see them. Losing the excess fat will unearth your veins and muscles, giving you that bodybuilder physique.
Here’s the bad news: Cutting body fat means changing your diet. “If you want the veins in your arms to pop, you need to keep your portions in check,” says Paul Salter, a registered dietitian, strength coach, and the nutrition editor at Bodybuilding.com. “Men can expect to display a significantly enhanced web of veins when entering single-digit body fat.”
Salter suggests a fat-loss phase with the aim of losing 0.5 to 1.0 percent body weight each week for 10 to 14 weeks. For instance, if you’re 200 pounds, you’d need to restrict calories enough to lose one to two pounds a week — a significant cut if you’re already reasonably lean.
Aside from watching portion sizes and eating “clean,” cut back on carbs and sodium. These nutrients play a role in fluid retention, and if you’re retaining fluids, your skin “plumps,” giving you a bloated look — something you probably want to avoid.
Don’t Overlook Cardio
As you develop your cardiovascular capacity, your body creates a more efficient structure of veins and arteries to deliver oxygenated blood to your working muscles. Thus, you become more veiny. But instead of hitting the treadmill for a long, steady-state jog, focus on HIIT work. “Bodyweight, boot camp-style exercises that place more demand on the muscular system than the cardiovascular system work well here,” says Brandon Mentore, a strength coach and nutritionist. For instance, try a Tabata workout consisting of burpees, mountain climbers, skaters, and jumping lunges. Rest one minute after each full Tabata, and repeat five to six times.
Strength Train for Size
The more muscle you develop, the more vascular you become, so size should be your primary goal. Follow a rep scheme between eight to 12 reps for multiple sets, with no more than 30 seconds between sets. “This triggers a massive pump, taxes the vascular system, and increases lactic acid in the muscles,” Mentore says. “All three of these components are triggers for increasing vascular density.”
But don’t spend all day cranking out curls — the biceps are a smaller muscle group than pretty much all of your major upper body muscles, including your triceps and shoulders. Focus on compound exercises that hit all your major muscles, like pull-ups, bench press, rows, dips, and push-ups. Then, use isolation exercises to take each muscle group to task. And because your biceps is smaller overall, training it should be a smaller component of your overall routine.
Just remember, load is important. Push yourself to failure by the end of each set to maximize hypertrophy. And don’t forget about grip: According to Mentore, exercises where grip is a limiting factor, such as pull-ups or farmer’s walks, are a trigger for the vascular system of the arms.
Finish Your Routine With a “Pump”
“Chasing the pump” is basically a form of training that pushes as much blood as possible to a muscle or group of muscles to “fill out” your veins and maximize a vascular appearance. While this type of training can facilitate the development of a stronger vascular system, the immediate appearance of bulging veins doesn’t last, but it’s a good, temporary fix for looking stronger. There are different methods for “chasing the pump,” but here’s one quick arm-assault finisher from personal trainer Jimmy Minardi of Minardi Training:
Complete the entire interval three times through, using the max weight you can for your skill level. Perform 10 reps of each exercise the first round, 15 reps the second round, and 20 reps the third round. Only allow 15 seconds of rest between sets.