When someone asks you to flex, what do you do? You immediately roll up your sleeve and flex a Bi. A lot of the attention that was formerly on shoulders may have shifted to chest, but none of that has taken away from the enormous fascination we have with the biceps. No other muscle swells that much when flexed as opposed to resting condition as the biceps. It’s also one of the few muscles we can put on display rather easily, even when fully clothed. Even with long sleeves it’s easier and more decent to roll up a sleeve than it is to drop your trousers to flex quad or take off your shirt to show your abs or chest. And nobody wants to see your calves anyway…
So naturally a lot of young beginners associate bodybuilding with large arms and often mistakenly equalize big arms with big biceps. But still, the triceps may be the larger portion of the equation, it is the biceps that gives the arm its bulging shape. To any bodybuilder his biceps are important, at least as important as the other parts, but to non-competitors often the things that matter most are the chest and – the Biceps.
The problem with bicep training is its lack of variation in many ways. Lots of exercises, but basically they come down to the very same thing, curl the arm. This may be a problem to some, but it is easily overcome by looking at different kinds of curls as different kinds of exercises. You’ll feel a difference as the pressure shifts from one end to the other anyway, so the next step isn’t far away.
That is often the problem with many trainers, because they think one curl is the same as the next, they often think that as long as they do some kind of curling motion, they will sprout full thick and complete biceps which is of course not true. If it doesn’t hold true for muscles like forearms, calves and traps, what would make it true for a muscle that is as shapely and obvious as the biceps? These amateuristic practices lead to incomplete development, one head dwarfs the other, there is a huge gap between the end of the bi and the elbow and so forth, all things that cost a lot of time to repair and rectify and a trap most young bodybuilders fall into. I myself am no exception, and though my arms grew rather fast, having to correct matters while building them did take some of the fun out of it.
Physiology of the Muscle
As the name suggests the biceps have two heads, that is literally what bicep stands for. They can be divided into the biceps brachii inner head and the biceps brachii outer head (brachii means of the arm). To get a muscle that looks both big, proportionate and allocated in the right place you’ll need to make sure you put the proper amount of work into training both of these heads. This is no big secret, but what people do tend to forget is that the muscle-group has a third muscle as well: The brachialis, which is the small egg-shaped muscle on the side of your arms that is situated between the bulk of the outer head of the biceps and the outer head of the triceps. It’s what adds the shape to your arms when you view them from the front or back instead of the side and therefore becomes an important part of the equation in creating full and thick arms.
Furthermore the muscle can be long or short genetically, but a lot of beginners create a problem in the area that shouldn’t be there because of incomplete range of motion. Granted that the bottom half of the rep is harder, but not doing it will not make it go away. It will only create a huge ugly gap between the biceps and the elbow, a condition dubbed “midgety biceps” that is no fun to look at and no fun to hear commentary about from everybody in the gym, including the girls. So pay attention to the complete development of this muscle as you would for any other muscle. That means on ALL CURLS use a FULL RANGE OF MOTION. Lower until arms are fully stretched and pause before going up again so you are sure you hit the full biceps.
Training the Biceps
If you want to hit it full on from day one, this means you’ll need at least three exercises that hit the three muscles specifically. On the other hand, compounding some of it can cut down on exercises and increase the number of sets per exercise. Either way you need to make a choice. When beginning you’ll need to do some compound work anyhow and take it from me that it can’t hurt as an intermediate or advanced lifter either, so that may be the best way to go. On the other hand, I now do 4-5 exercises for biceps every week and I still hit it with one or two compounds, so the choice is all yours.
The first exercise in any biceps-repertoire has to be the standing barbell curl. Many people advocate you do this with an EZ-curl bar, to save the wrists and put the hands into a more ergonomically correct position. Bullshit I say. By doing this you bring the hands into more of a hammer grip which shifts the focus outwards more. To do a correct barbell curl you need a straight bar because this will twist the hands in in the point of contraction and ensure more fiber is stimulated in the inner head. Since the inner head is the bulk of the biceps this makes perfect sense. Whichever way you do it (you may not wish to accentuate the inner head and opt for the EZ way out) you’ll need to be standing straight up and stay that way throughout the movement. The barbell should be held shoulder-width apart and resting comfortably against the upper legs. Your elbows are by your side. Your hands face forward naturally. As you curl the weight up you have to watch two things.
The first is that you keep the elbows pinned to the side and that they under no circumstances move behind the body which takes the pressure off and involves the traps and lats. The second thing to watch is that your back stays straight, it shouldn’t move forward or backward to create a more advantageous position. If you find that you cannot avoid this, you are using too much weight. If need be stand against a wall and make sure you keep your back against it. I’d like to think you have enough self-control to manage it without the wall. Curl the weight up as far as you can, then and only then let the elbows move forward to create an even bigger contraction, hold for a count, lower the elbows to the side and then lower the arms gently so you feel the negative portion of the exercise. Elbows should never flare out and when you move them forward be sure that the forearms never reach a perpendicular position which will take pressure off as well.
If you mention barbells you have to mention dumbbell alternatives. If you are going to use dumbbells, don’t just do a regular dumbbell curl since this has no added benefit over the barbell curl. You’ll handle less weight and you have more chance of cheating. If you feel one arm needs more stimulation than the other simply focus on that arm in the barbell curl. Or you can do alternate dumbbell curls. I like these because they increase the rest times per arm creating more endurance and forearm strength. They accentuate less of the inner head, but you can fix that by twisting the inside of the dumbbell even further inward as you reach the shoulder.
A little swing towards one end is natural in one-arm variations but you should be suspicious of something that looks like you were auditioning for the Backstreet Boys. This one requires more reps overall, but less reps per arm than the barbell curl. The downside is that it does allow for more cheating and stimulates less directly. You can use these and alternate them with barbell curls, but for intermediate and advanced lifters I see no problem with including both in the workout since they stimulate the same head in a much different way. Remember, on both these exercises, emphasize full ROM.
Other great exercises for the inner head mostly are barbell preacher curls and barbell spider curls. To do Barbell Preacher curls (also known as Scott Curls after the first Mr. Olympia Larry Scott who used this to put peak on his bi’s) you need a preacher bench. Sit down in front of it and rest your armpits on the edge, which leaves you arms in 45 degree or slightly higher angle across the pad in front of you. With a grip shoulder width or just inside of it we curl the weight up past perpendicular to the floor and lower it ALL the way.
These two exercises are the best for creating short biceps if you don’t use full ROM and the best way for curing the problem if you do perform full ROM. Spider curls can be done on a table, a very high flat bench or the other side of the preacher bench. Lay down on the table or on the incline part of the preacher bench (other side) and let your arms hang down, straight down, off the edge. Because your armpits are now locked into place you rule out any chance of bringing in the help of other muscles. You guessed it, this is going to be hard, so don’t go overboard with the weight. Simply curl the weight up as far as you can go, hold for a count and lower again. Arms are always stretched when in starting position, and you never swing arms to create momentum if you are in a position to do this. Never.
Of course we haven’t discussed the outer head yet. Some great ways of training this part of the biceps are hammer curls, alternate hammer curls and French bar curls. In all three your hands should be in a hammer grip and for hammers and French bars hands will move up together and in alternates they will move separately. The hands stay in hammer grip and remain at an equal distance from each other (usually shoulder width) throughout the movement. Accentuate the contraction, let elbows move forward a bit and hold the contraction to do this. This will really hit the outer head of the biceps.
But for me what packed the most meat on the outer biceps was doing 1-arm dumbbell preacher curls. Because of the position of the body in this one, you will hit more outer than inner areas. Do them much the same way as regular barbell preacher curls, but one arm at a time of course. So do one set for one arm, then a set for the other, then rest a few seconds and start again. To get really intense you can drop rest time since you get rest on one arm while the other is working. I can honestly say that in my biggest growth spurt (165 lbs -195 lbs approximately) this is what got the most mass on my arms overall. That’s not an easy feat for a bicep exercise. But it worked very well. I don’t use it all the time like I used to to, but I try to include at least some of the time.
Another great way of not just hitting the outer head, but also the brachialis and a way of improving the top end of the biceps are reverse barbell curls and drag curls. Reverse curls are best done with a barbell because with dumbbells the elbows flare and so on, and it is really hard to feel where you are supposed to feel it. Simply grab the bar as you would for upright rows, palms facing the body , shoulder width apart. Keep elbows by the side and back straight, just like a regular barbell curl. And curl the weight up.
This is a good exercise for the upper, outer biceps and the brachialis as well. Drag curls are very similar and were popularized by the late great Vince Gironda. You do them in the same way, same grip, but this is more of a compound exercise because you will let the elbows move back. You move the bar up in a curl, but the bar is never further than an inch from the body, so you stop with the bar just below the chest and the elbows all the way back. Be careful to lock the shoulders as low as possible, because if you let the shoulders move up you involve the traps and do a sort of armpit row or upright row. So stay strict, but ask some of the old pros who did this, this is one of the few exercises that really hits the upper biceps.
Naturally you are wondering if you have great outer and upper biceps, how do you isolate the brachialis, because that looks good on anyone. Well, cross-body, alternate hammer curls work best for me. You simply move the dumbbell in a hammer grip across the body and elevate the elbow a bit at the top so the bottom of the dumbbell reaches the opposite shoulder. Emphasize contraction because if you can’t make it to the top you won’t hit the brachialis, so stay strict and don’t go too heavy on this.
You need to alternate since you can’t cross both arms over the body. This totally isolates them. You can do so even more by holding contraction for a count or a two-count and tilting the dumbbell a bit so its more of a reverse grip than a hammer grip, but not all the way reverse. More like slanted. The other way of doing it but not as effective is the rope hammer curl. Attach the rope to a low pulley on the cable station and hold both ends of the rope, one in each hand and hold hands together in front of the groin. Keeping hands together and in hammer grip curl the weight up. This allows you to go heavier and you’ll feel it better which may be a plus to beginners especially. I really found that the quality of my brachialis improved a lot by doing these exercises.
That’s a lot of exercises already, I’m sure you have plenty of inspiration to make your first biceps program and I hope it will pay off the first time around, but you still have a lot of choices to make and combinations to try. Here are a few exercises that may be of use as well:
Cable variations of curls, be it with a bar or a single handle, have the added benefit of constant tension. Because of that tension they do put a bit of undue stress on the elbows which in turn can bring the shoulders and lower back into play and may lead to excessive cheating. The positive side is that they really allow you to apply the pressure to a muscle near the end of a workout. Handles really hit the designated head because of the immovable position, whether it is one-arm curls for inner head mass or reverse 1-arms for outer head mass. And cable bar curls are a great variation to barbell curls, if you need a change of scenery.
An exercise, or exercises that I would have liked to include in the main paragraph up above, but I didn’t know where to put them. Mostly for the inner head but also to tweak the upper biceps and the peak of the bi’s a bit, incline and flat bench curls are an excellent choice. To do Incline curls sit on a 45-degree or lower incline bench with arms hanging straight down and a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping upper arms perpendicular to the floor you curl the weights, in hammer grip, up and twist them in so the palm faces you as you reach the shoulder. Elbow work here too can emphasize the contraction. This will give you more isolation.
Some people add a twist to the wrist in the stretch point to hit the forearms a bit too. The flat Bench version is practically the same. You’ll need to raise the bench up on some plates so you don’t touch the ground with your dumbbells. Lots of people prefer the incline version because this one puts undue stress on the front delts, but I assure this will hit nothing but biceps. Keeping upper arms perpendicular, just curl the weight up, don’t bother with the elbows, this is hard enough as it is. A real must for anyone who doesn’t know how to combine the word intensity with biceps training. This will kill you. Definitely something you’ll want to try.
Another one of my favorites that I didn’t manage to include is the concentration curl. This is a favorite of many people, perhaps too much so, which is why I didn’t mention it. Too many people start with this in their program and do it wrong, when they could be doing something else right. But to give credit where credit is due, this can pack on a lot of size and really detail the peak of the biceps adding many an admiring glance to your physique. Together with the 1-arm preacher curls to pack on the mass, this is the exercise that gave me the contest-winning biceps I have today. You start off by learning it, and this is the version most people do.
Not only does this version not do a whole lot in terms of stimulation, often times people can’t even do this one right. You sit down on the edge of a bench, legs spread, dumbbell in one hand, place the elbow in the knee joint which forms a 90 degree angle. Now curl the weight. Seems easy, but lets have a closer look at what people do wrong : First of all both feet have to stay flat on the ground, otherwise the point you hinge on isn’t stable, its higher and to make a long story short : you cheat. So both feet flat on the floor at ALL times. The second mistake is to move the shoulder. From the shoulder to the elbow the upper arm is always perpendicular to the floor.
Too many times people pull back the shoulder creating an incline in the upper arm to provide more leverage, but also to provide less stimulation and more incomplete development. The last mistake you see people make is to put the elbow closer to the groin. Again this is a more advantageous position that allows you to handle more weight than you need to do it correctly. Keep the elbow in the knee-joint. You can also do this standing up with one leg on a bench and then put the arm in the knee-joint. Do your reps for one arm, then alternate, then the first arm again and so on. On tip, start with the weaker arm and duplicate the number of reps with the stronger arm so you don’t create imbalances.
But this still isn’t the most effective version. The proper version is also known as the Arnold-style concentration curl. Stand up, one dumbbell in the arm you want to work. Bend over , lean on the opposite knee, back is almost parallel to the floor. Let the arm you want to work hang straight down. Keeping feet flat on the floor and arm perpendicular to it curl the weight to your opposite shoulder. That means up and forward a bit or otherwise you will stop the motion half way against your chest. So the elbow and shoulder don’t move. Now, after a lot of hard work and sweat you have learned the proper way to do concentration curls. By simple virtue of time, you are now probably an intermediate already anyway, so this exercise is not for beginners as many trainers would have you believe. Though it can add a lot of size and peak, it is not a true mass exercise like the barbell curl anyway.
Overhead cable curls are in an inadvantageous position to stimulate much mass but they are great to get a pump going in the bi’s before a workout, to stimulate some detail after a workout or more of that stuff. They are hard to do with any real weight so don’t include them as mass-exercise. Attach two handles to overhead pulleys. Stand with one in each hand in a crucifix (like for cable crossovers but with the hands facing up) and keeping upper arms as parallel to the ground as possible, curl the weight in towards your head as if you were flexing a front double biceps pose. Not the best exercise, but I thought it worth mentioning.
If your form isn’t all that on the dumbbell or alternate curls and you really can’t help it, lower the weight a bit and attempt doing them seated, preferably with something to support the back. In either case it will prevent you from swinging the back excessively and cheating beyond reason.
Overcoming a Weak Spot
It’s necessary to spend time working weak spots pretty much as soon as they pop up, because nothing is as hard as having to work on weak spots on a muscle that is so visible to everyone. Work the lower bi’s with strict spider and preacher curls, focusing on the lower part of the rep because midgety biceps look ridiculous in an otherwise proportionate physique. A gap between bi’s and elbows may lead to nicknames as the armless wonder and so on. Hit the upper part of the biceps with reverse and drag curls. Though the lower part should be bigger, there is nothing funny about a bulge near the elbows on an otherwise flat arm.
Though this is not often a weak point for many people. A lack of outer biceps can be critical. You can always see the biceps in front poses, but from the rear a lacking in this area may hide your biceps all together from the view of the judges. As if they were tilted in. A lack of Inner biceps may prove difficult to hide in most front poses because they leave a huge blank width between biceps and triceps. So take care to do your barbell and preacher curls in due time. Much in the same manner that lack of size in the brachialis leaves a gap on the other side of the arm or reduces the thickness and look of the biceps in relaxed poses. To avoid this do the cross-body hammer curls and the reverse curls. Each area of a muscle adds its own dimension, so its important to avoid if possible, overcome if need be, any difficulties you may encounter in disproportionate arms.
Progression of Training
A beginner should take care to focus on barbell and/or dumbbell curls to stimulate as much mass as possible and add in the 1-arm preacher curl to hit the outer head and ensure complete development. The occasional work on the brachialis can’t hurt either. An intermediate should definitely make sure he hits both heads and the brachialis every weak and in a proportionate manner. Later on he may choose to focus on isolative work, add or drop exercises for specific functions and so on, but every week he will take care to hit each area of the muscle at least once.
In competition phases I find that giving the brachialis enough attention adds definition and will separate the bi’s from the tri’s creating another dimension to your arms. Don’t go overboard on sets in the beginning, since the bicep is a weak muscle. Even now I don’t go over 16-18 sets, so when you start out 6-8 will be enough and 10-14 as you progress.
Biceps form the crown to any physique, they detract attention from weaknesses in other muscles and are one of the high-profile muscles everyone pays attention to. So while they do not add as much size as, say, the triceps, it’s well worth the effort you put into training them.