June 2018 - Ageless In Shape

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What Are The Biceps Muscles

What Are The Biceps? How They Work And How To Train Them

What Are The Biceps Muscles

In this series of articles about the different muscle groups, we first look at the biceps. One of the favorite muscles to exercise are the biceps. For many people nothing say "strong and in shape" more than a pair of well developed biceps. It should come as no surprise that it is also one the most popular exercises to train, but I have a suspicion you already knew that. But what exactly are the biceps and how exactly do they function?

Biceps Muscles

The biceps (biceps brachii) muscles are located on the front part of the upper arm. Although seen as one muscle, they contain both a long and short head. It is atteched via connective tissue called tendons to the shoulder joint at the top, and the forearm bone at the bottom. The main function of the biceps is to move the forearm up and rotate it outwards when the muscle is contracted.

Like most other muscle groups, biceps do not work in isolation. They normally work in conjunction with other muscles groups to perform a certain function or movement. To better understand this we first need to take a closer look at how exactly the biceps function. 

What Is The Function Of The Biceps?

The biceps brachii (for the technically inclined among you) is seen as a single muscle, but have two heads that connect to the rest of the body at multiple locations at the shoulder and elbow. (Also known as a double-headed muscle.)

The long head of the muscle is connected at a point just above the shoulder joint (the supraglenoid tubercle), while the short head is connected to the shoulder at the top of the scapula. Both heads are connected at the same point on the elbow.

The biceps is what is called a bi-articular muscle. This simply means that it helps to control movement at two different joints, in this case the elbow and shoulder.

As already mentioned, the main function of the biceps is to move the forearm up by contracting the muscle at the elbow. It also plays a less important role with certain movements of the shoulder. It supports the shoulder with smaller upward, forward and sideways movements of the arm.

All right, enough technical stuff. Let's move on to the exercises.

Exercises To Train The Muscles

1) Compound/Mass Building Exercises

These exercises are your "bread and butter" exercises. Normally if you have only one exercise to choose to train a muscle, this will the ones you choose. This is usually also the exercise you can move the most amount of weight with and involve compound (multiple-joint) movements.

Your biceps are rather unique in this aspect, as the best basic exercises do not involve multiple-joint movements. Movements like chin-ups and lat pull-downs both exercise the back muscles and biceps. Unfortunately, these exercises do not place enough emphasis and stress on the biceps themselves though. Too much of your back mudcles gets involved as well.

The simplest form of bicep exercises that you can put the biggest amount of weight on, are 2 exercise that can also be seen as types of isolation exercises.

Standing Barbell Curls 

Standing Barbell Curl

Standing upright while holding a barbell (straight or EZ bar) in front of you with your arms fully extended, you perform a simple curl while holding the rest of your body as still as possible. It is a very basic movement that is not difficult to master, but still remains one of your best muscle builders.

The advantage of barbell curls is that you can use a slightly heavier weight, and use a little bit of momentum through some hip movement to assist in a lifting a heavier weight. Needless to say, you should keep this body movement to a minimum and only use it to assist you while your biceps are doing the majority of the work.

Standing Dumbbell Curls​

Also performed while standing, but holding a dumbbell in each hand. The advantage of standing dumbbell curls is that you can alternate between your left and right arm. (Lift and lower the one arm first before performing the other side.) In this way you can focus on each individual bicep and put the maximum amount of stress on each one.

standing dumbbell curl

As with standing barbell curls, you can also use some assistance from a slight arching of the back while producing some swinging of the weights through hip movement to enable you to lift a slightly heavier weight. Again, I cannot stress enough that the hip movement (or swing) should be kept to a minimum and only used to help the biceps lift that extra bit of weight. Make sure your biceps are doing the vast majority of the work.     

2) Isolation Exercises

Many trainers or "gurus" like to refer to isolation exercises as shaping exercises. Many believe that you can "develop or shape" a muscle by putting emphasis on certain areas by using isolation exercises among others. Other experts in the field believe this is completely incorrect and a muscle's shape is already determined by genetics and only the size of a muscle can be increased. 

Obviously this is a very controversial and much debated issue. Through years of personal experience and extensive research, I learned that both arguments are only partially true. (Yes, chances are pretty good that you may have a completely different take on the matter. No problem, like I said it, is a very controversial subject where no-one is probably a 100% right or wrong.)

As much as the fundamental shape of a muscle cannot be changed, by putting emphasis on a certain part of a muscle through training, you will be able to obtain a much fuller muscle development (which yes, can also lead to a generally more shapely look). And this is exactly where isolation exercises come in.

An isolation exercises can be defined as a movement where the target muscle do all of the work, and supporting muscles groups used during other exercises are not involved at all during isolation movements. This way you place all the tension and focus on the target muscle, allowing you much more control over the muscle group and how it is trained.

(An isolation exercise can normally be performed with much lighter weights as your muscles are already exhausted from the big compound sets you performed. Using a higher rep range during these movements also helps to completely exhaust your muscles and achieve that "burn" that signals muscle hypertrophy. I will recommend a  8-12 rep range.)

To best understand how this works in practice, let's take a look at 2 of the best isolation exercises for biceps.  

Seated Dumbbell Isolation Curl

By sitting on the edge of the bench with your knees apart, you rest your upper arm against the inside of your thigh. Let the dumbbell hang between your legs with your arm fully extended. Just by moving your forearm while keeping the rest of your body completely still, you curl the weight upwards until your bicep is completely contracted. Repeat with the other arm once you finished all your repetitions.

Seated Concentration Curl

This way you make your biceps do all the work. This is an excellent exercise for training the peak of you muscles and create symmetry between your biceps, as the same load and form is applied to both muscles separately.

As you curl the weight upward, make sure you squeeze your biceps hard at the top of the movement before lowering it down until your arm is fully extended. After a few repetitions you will start feeling a burning sensation on the upper and outer side of your biceps. This is what you want and  know you are putting enough emphasis on the "peak" of your biceps. Combined with exercises that put emphasis on the lower part of the biceps where it joins the elbow joint, helps to create fuller looking biceps.  

Barbell Preacher Curls​

By using a preacher bench and an EZ-bar, make sure you find the right seating height where you upper arms are resting firmly and straight on the padded slope of the bench. Start lowering the weight until you arms are fully extended, then lift it by just bending your arms at the elbows until your biceps are fully contracted.

Preacher Curls

This a another great isolation which is very effective at exercising your whole muscle, but especially emphasize the part where both heads of the biceps connect at the elbow joint. When performed in a slow and controlled function, you will actually start feeling the muscles pull at the elbow joint at the bottom of the movement.

(Because this exercise helps with full biceps development, as it works from the joint at the elbows to the full contraction at the top of the movement, some trainers like to use it as the ideal finishing exercise for their biceps workout. When performed at the end of the workout, you don't need a lot of weight to fully exhaust your muscles. Just remember to focus on keeping good form at this stage of your workout.)

3) Exercises For Maximum Stretch

A whole book can be written about why including an exercise that fully stretches your muscles should be included in every workout for every muscle group. I will not go into too much detail as a result, but just know that no muscle group can be considered fully trained without one of these exercises included. Yes, it is my personal opinion, but I believe a very valid one.

For one, allowing the muscle to stretch while under tension, you promote more micro tears in your muscle fibers which will lead to much great muscle atrophy. A further benefit of fully stretching your muscle while exercising, is the strengthening of your muscles where they tie in with your tendons, which allows for much greater mobility and increased joint strength. (More on the numerous advantages of in another article.)

As the title already indicates, exercises for maximum strength is where you allow the weight to extend and stretch the muscle beyond its normal extended position, until you reach position of maximum stretch (without placing stress on the joint by forcing the muscle past its natural range of movement!)

Please note, care should be taken when performing a "exercise for maximum strength". Especially when starting out, only allow a small amount of stretch at the extended position. As you progress over weeks you can increase the amount of stress. Never ever go beyond the point where your joints' natural range of movement are exceeded. (Remember you can stretch a muscle, but not a joint. This will we one guaranteed way of causing long term joint and tendon damage.)    

Again, to best understand how these "stretching exercises" work, we will look at 2 of the best exercises to fully stretch your biceps. 

Incline Dumbbell Curls​

Using and adjustable bench with the back angled back at about 45 degrees, lie down against the back while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Allow your arms to hang straight down. In this position you will already feel your biceps stretching. (You can adjust the angle to what is comfortable for you and lower it over the course of time to allow more stretch.)

Incline Dumbbell Curls

In a slow and controlled motion curl the weight up just by bending your elbows until your biceps are full contacted. Lower it in a slow and controlled motion until it is fully extended. Do NOT use momentum or swing of your arms to help you lift the weight at the bottom of the movements. You can seriously damage your shoulder joints and overextend your biceps.

(Two important things to remember is to not use momentum like I just mentioned, and also to keep your shoulders completely still during this movement to allow your biceps to do all the work.)

This exercise is one of my favorite exercise for the biceps, as it not only allows you to get as much stretch as your biceps allow you to, but allow you an extended range of movement from beyond the normal extended position to a fully contracted one. (It can also be used to completely exhaust your muscles by performing 2 or three more half reps if you are unable to perform another full curl, and that in a stretching position. You will feel like you need a fire extinguisher after such a set and is not recommended for the faint at heart. But it works!)  

Standing Low Pulley Cable Curls​

By holding the handles of the pulley cables next to your sides (with the cable connected at the bottom pulleys), stand in the center of the machine. Now take a step or two forward until you feel a stretch in your biceps.

low pulley bicep curls

In this position your arms will be pulled into a position slightly behind your sides. From this position, curl your forearms up just by bending your elbows until your biceps are fully contracted. Lower it again in a controlled way until your arms end up back in the extended position slightly behind you sides. (Remember to use your shoulders to only move your upper arms until next to your side and keep them there for the remainder of the curl.)

This exercise is effective not just because of the stretch your biceps get at the bottom of the movement, but also the continuous tension that is applied to it. Even in the "rested" position at the bottom of the movement, the weights are still pulling at your muscles. Continuous tension allow your muscles to be fully exhausted in a shorter period of time which will also lead to much more muscle fiber recruitment in the process.

As this exercise puts a lot of continuous stress on the muscle, you will reach muscle fatigue quite rapidly. As a result, start with a small enough weight you can perform at least 8 repetitions with. It may be a very light weight, especially after already exhausting your biceps with other movement. For his movement though, leave your ego at the door, start small and reap the benefits in the long run.


You now should have a much better understanding of what your biceps are, how exactly they work and which exercises are used to train them effectively. 

Once you understand what the function of a muscle is and how it is used by the body to perform certain movements, it will become much easier to see how different exercises make use of the muscle movements in different ways to produce a specific result.

(Many trainees develop variations of existing exercises, or even invent their own to best suit their specific body structure and the unique way their muscles react to exercise - with great success!)

I trust this post helped you to look at your biceps in a whole new light, and inspired you to approach your next biceps workout with renewed enthusiasm.

As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my  mailing list  to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.

Until next time, take care and don't quit!


Home Workout With Bench

Can I Work Out From Home? – Using Just A Bench And Set Of Dumbbells To Train From Home

Home Workout With Bench

Elsewhere on this site, I already discussed training from home using your own body weight. It will just be that much more effective if you can afford & accommodate a bench and set of barbells. In this article I look at how you can use this equipment to give your entire body a thorough workout without leaving home

As I already mentioned in previous articles, nothing beats the the versatility and variety that a fully equipped gym provides for exercising every muscle group to their full potential. Not only do you have access to every possible piece of equipment you will need, the atmosphere and energy present in a gym will keep you motivated and help giving your best.

Like most you, I also realize there are some times when it is just not possible to make it to the gym. Especially if this is for an extended period of time it great to know that you can still workout from home. I already discussed working out from home using your own body weight in this article.

As effective as a home workout can be using just your body weight, it is still not ideal. If you are able in any way to afford and accommodate an adjustable bench and set of dumbbells, you can really take your home workout to the next level. The flexibility of an adjustable bench, combined with set of dumbbells to which you can add weight, allows you to exercise each muscle group from every angle to complete failure.

Performed correctly with an adequate amount of weight I will go as far as to say you can achieve 70 percent or more of the results you would be able to get from a real gym environment. Provided you perform your home workouts with the same drive, discipline and consistency.

Required Equipment

Let's start with the bench. I would strongly recommend investing in an adjustable bench, with the back being able to be adjusted up to an angle of about 90 degrees. If the seated part can be adjusted to about 45 degrees, that will be great, as it will support you in the seated position when lying at an angle. (It will prevent you from potentially sliding off or relying on your legs to keep you in position.)

Not all dumbbells are created the same. Make sure you invest in a pair of dumbbells with a solid clamp or threaded collar to keep the weights solidly and safely in place. Also make sure your dumbbells are able to accept additional plates.

As your strength grows, you will need to add additional weight to your dumbbells to keep making progress. (It may be a bit more expensive when starting out, but nothing is more frustrating than outgrowing your dumbbell set and not being able to add additional plates to your existing set. The extra expense of acquiring a new heavier set can be a very expensive learning experience.)

The Program

The program I am recommending for your home workout follows the same principles as the ones I described in my article, "Your First Workout Plan". Since each workout is a full body workout with short rest periods and only one exercise per muscle group, it can easily and quickly be performed at home where your time will probably be limited. 

There is probably a reason why you are working from home which is stopping you from getting to gym in the first place. A full body workout means that even if you can't stick to working out 3 times a week, you still get a full body workout in each week, even if you have to cut it down to twice or even once a week.  

The steps on how to follow the program are exactly the same as in the "Your First Workout Plan" article which you can find by following this link. Please make sure to follow these steps.

The program below are also based on the same exercises to train the same specific muscle groups, with the only difference being that all exercises using barbells or machines, have been substituted with dumbbell exercises that can easily be performed with the help of a bench in the comfort of your home.

Please make sure to consult your physician before attempting any of the exercises described in this article.

Find the program below Follow it in chronological order:




Dumbbell Step Ups



Stiff-Legged Deadlifts



Bent Over Dumbbell Rows



Incline Dumbbell Bench Press



Seated  Dumbbell Shoulder Press



Lying Triceps Extensions



Standing Dumbbell Curl



Standing Calf Raise






The reason for following the exercises in chronological order from top to bottom, is to train each muscle group with the most amount of strength. You start with the biggest muscle group, your legs, for which you require the biggest amount of energy and strength.

The muscle groups are then organised according to size and effort, required to effectively be trained, as you go down the list. The smallest groups requiring the least amount of energy is at the bottom of the list. As your strength and energy starts diminishing, the muscle groups you are training start getting smaller, making it easier for you to train with the maximum amount of efficiency.

As described in the "How To Follow.." Section, try and stick to three full body workouts per week, with at least a one day's rest in between. Let's move on to having a look at the exercise themselves. 

The Exercises

Dumbbell Step Ups

Dumbbell Step Ups

Muscles Exercised: Quadtriceps & Glutes

Very effective for training the whole upper leg region. Be sure to keep strict form and keep your movements smooth. As this is your biggest muscle group, perform this exercise first. 

1. While standing about the length of your upper leg away from the bench, make sure you are holding the dumbbells with your palms facing your sides. 

2. Step onto the bench with your right foot as indicated, while leaning slightly forward to keep your balance as you are stepping on the bench. Breath out as you are stepping up.

3. Step down in a controlled way with your left foot until you are standing in the same position and distance from the bench.

4. Repeat this same movement with your right leg for the full 10 repetitions, then switch to your left leg and repeat the whole exercise.

5. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

Dumbbell Deadlifts

Stiff-Legged Dumbbell Deadlifts

Muscles Exercised: Hamstrings & Lower Back

Hamstrings are often neglected when training your upper legs, which exercises like squats, leg presses and step ups don't fully address. These deadlift exercises give your hamstrings a thorough workout, while exercises your lower back as well which is very important for strengthening your core muscles. 

1. While standing up straight, with your arms hanging straight down, rest the dumbbells on the front of your thighs with the back of your arms facing forward and away from you as illustrated.   

2. Start bending forward at you hips while keeping your back straight (make sure you don't arch your back to prevent injury.) Continue bending as far as you can until you feel your hamstrings stretching and don't allow any further movement. 

3. Slowly return to the upright position in the same way, and make sure your back stays straight.

4. Briefly pause at the top of the movement before repeating the exercise. Do this for the full ten repetitions.

5. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Muscles Exercised: Back

Next to your legs, your back consists of the largest group of muscles in your body. This is also why you are exercising this muscle group next. One of the most effective exercises to perform with dumbbells are dumbbell rows.

Although normally performed while standing in a bent-over stance, I recommend the convenience and safety of using a bench to perform this back exercise. The standing version places a tremendous amount of stress on the spine, and can lead to injury. It may also lead to premature fatigue in the lower back and spine long before the back muscles themselves are sufficiently trained.     

1. Adjust the back of the bench to an angle of about 30-45 degrees. (If your seat is adjustable, adjust it to an angle of about 30 degrees or more to keep you in position and prevent you from sliding down.)  

2. While lying face down with your torso against the back of the bench, allow your arms to hang straight down with the back of your palms facing forward as illustrated.

3. Start lifting the dumbbells up by bending your elbows while keeping them at a 90 degree to your angle. (Using different angles target different areas of the muscle group, but let's just concentrate on this 90 degree angle to start with as a good overall back exercise.)

4. Lift the dumbbells to the level of your torso, or as close to it as possible. At the top of the movement try and squeeze your shoulder blades together for maximum contraction and development of the muscle.

5. Briefly pause at the top as you are contracting your muscles before lowering it in a controlled fashion until your arm are fully extended. Repeat for the full 10 repetitions.

6. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

Incline Dumbbell Press

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Muscles Exercised: Chest

Yep I know, nothing is more important to any lifter than an impressive fully developed chest. (Except for those all important biceps that is any gym goer's ultimate goal). Personally I believe that they just round off a body where all muscles should be given given equal attention and also fully developed. Having said that, I acknowledge its importance, and as a good overall exercise to start with, it will be hard to fault the incline dumbbell press.

With the versatility to be performed at any angle (from completely flat to 45 degrees) to target different areas of the pectoral muscle, it can be the greatest contributor to a fully developed chest.   

1. Adjust the back of the bench to an angle of no more than around 30 degrees. If you angle your back seat any more, too much of your shoulder will be doing the work, taking the load off the pectoral muscle. (If your seat is adjustable, adjust it to an angle of about 30 degrees or more to keep you in position and prevent you from sliding down.)  

2. Use your knees to help "launch" the dumbbells in position next to your shoulders as you lay back against the bench.

3. With your dumbbells at shoulder height and arms at a 90 degree angle to your body, make sure your palms are facing forward as illustrated. Start pushing up with your elbows while keeping the space between your body and arms at 90 degrees. 

4. As you reach the top of the movement, start bringing the weights together until they touch at the top of the movement.  

5. Briefly pause at the top before lowering the weights in the same arch that you lifted them. Make sure you feel your pectorals stretch at the bottom of the movement in order to get a full range of movement to recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers. Repeat for the full 10 repetitions. 

6. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

seated shoulder press

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Muscles Exercised: Shoulders (Deltoids) 

Shoulders are the one muscle group that often gets neglected. This is a big mistake, as especially the deltoids are giving your shoulders that pleasing "capped look". Shoulder presses are one of the best exercises for overall shoulder development. 

Although not shown in the illustration, please use some back support. Preferably use a bench with an adjustable back, set at close to 90 degrees. This will not just provide vital support for your spine, but also the stability to perform the exercise effectively. (A training belt to support your spine is also highly recommended.)

1. Hold the dumbbells just above shoulder height, elbows all the way out and parallel with your body, with your palms facing forward as illustrated. 

2. Push the weights straight up and towards each other,  letting them touch at the top of the movement, while making sure your elbows stay out throughout the movement.

3. Lower weights slowly to the starting position, keeping elbows out. Repeat this for 10 repetitions.

4. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

Lying Triceps Extensions

Lying Triceps Extensions

Muscles Exercised: Triceps 

Nothing gets more attention then impressive looking biceps. It is also one of the most popular muscle groups to exercise. What most people fail to realize is that the triceps make up 2/3 of your arm size. It's only with fully developed triceps that your biceps will really stand out.

There are literally more than dozens of triceps exercises available. The lying triceps extension is a very good starting point, providing a full range of movement and targeting the whole muscle group.

1. Start by lying down on a flat bench with your head right at the edge of the bench. 

2. Start with your arms fully extended above your head with the dumbbells about shoulder width apart from each other, while making sure the palms of you hands are facing inwards as illustrated.

3. Start lowering the dumbbells backwards and down by bending your elbows, while keeping the distance between the weights the same.  

4. Keep lowering the weight until it reaches a point just above your face and just above the top of the bench, while making sure you feel a thorough stretch in your muscles. (See illustration.)

5. After a brief pause, extend your arms back up again in the same arch, while keeping the distance between the dumbbells the same, until your arms are fully extended. Repeat this for 10 repetitions.

6. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

Standing Dumbbell Curl

Standing Dumbbell Curls

Muscles Exercised: Biceps 

By far the most popular muscle group to work out, and to show off. Even for the non-weight trainer, the biggest validation of someones build and power is a fully developed flexed bicep. Ironically this can be a stubborn muscle to get growing for some trainees. With enough persistence and given enough time though, you will get there.

One of the best staple exercises to start growing your biceps is the standing barbell curl. It proves a full range of movement, with a full stretch at the bottom of the movement, and good peak contraction at the top.

1. Stand upright with your legs planted slightly wider than shoulder width for complete stability, while letting your arms hang straight down next to your sides. Allow the dumbbells to rest against the front of your outer thighs, with your palms facing forward.  

2. While keeping your upper arms completely still, start lifting the weight up and forward by bending your elbows until your biceps are fully contracted. Make sure you keep the rest of your body completely still during this movement and don't use any momentum to assist the exercise. 

3. At the top of the movement, briefly contract/squeeze your biceps for maximum muscle fiber activation, before lowering it back down in the same arch until you arms are are fully extended. Repeat this for 10 repetition.

4. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.    

Standing Calve Raises

Standing Calve Raises

Muscles Exercised: Calves 

Even though its one of the smallest muscle groups in your body, don't neglect them.

Well developed calves don't get that much attention, but the absence of calf development stands out like a sore thumb. Like biceps, calves can also be notoriously stubborn to develop. Just keep working on them and stay consistent. In the long term it will work out. 

1. A bench may be too high, so rather use a solid step to stand on, allowing the heels of your feet to hang over the edge as illustrated. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with the palms of your hands facing inwards.

2. While keeping your legs straight, let your heels drop slowly until you feel your hamstrings stretching. Go down as far as you feel comfortable in the beginning.

3. A the bottom, pause briefly before lifting yourself up by raising your heels up as far as you can until you feel your calve muscles fully contracted. Repeat this for the full 10 repetitions.

4. After a 40 second rest, continue with the second set.

abdominal crunches

Abdominal Crunches

Muscles Exercised: Abdominals 

Although you are already training your abdominal indirectly while exercising other muscle groups, focusing on dedicated abdominal training should never be avoided. Along with your lower back muscles it forms part of your core muscles. A strong core helps with balance, supporting the spine, and also assist in the effectiveness with which other muscle groups are exercised.  

1. While laying on a flat surface, raise your upper body until your shoulders are lifted off the ground. (Imagine trying to pull your shoulders towards your pelvis.)

2. Pause briefly at the top before lowering back to starting position. Repeat for the full 15 repetitions (or more if you are able to.)

3. After resting for 40 seconds, proceed with the following 2 sets.


And there you have it. A complete full body workout with the help of a bench and a set of dumbbells, right from the comfort of your own home. Also remember, I just used what I considered to be the best exercises to start with for each muscle group. There are at least a dozen different dumbbell exercises to use as substitute for each one of these exercises mentioned in this article.

So, no more excuses. You now have all the tools and means to keep in shape from home. Even if you don't have a set of dumbbells or a bench, you can use just your own body weight for a complete as well. (Find it in this article.)

I will start expanding the workouts and break it into different muscle groups per day, for those of you who want to take it to the next level, and start training each muscle group more intensely for better results.  

As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my  mailing list  to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.

Until next time, take care and let me know if there a specific new topic you would like me to discuss.