Biceps are among the most famous muscles in the body. When somebody asks you to “make a muscle” or “flex”, they aren’t asking you to flex your hamstrings. They want to see your biceps!
This whole notion of flexing the biceps as a measure of anything, is completely ludicrous to me, but it is a reality. When someone asks me to flex, I ask them if they’d much rather discuss max effort PRs, perhaps dynamic powerlifting strategies, or better yet how to put together the most effective HIIT complexes. Most folks walk away thus. But I digress…
Of course, to have big arms one must work the triceps twice as hard as the biceps. For this, you may refer to my post on the top 5 best triceps exercises.
The next thing you should know, is that compound back exercises build biceps mass best. Sure, you can perform isolated curls until the cows come home, but chances are if you are just curling, your biceps aren’t growing. For this, you may refer to my post on the top 5 best back exercises.
Now we must examine how the biceps work so that we can better target them for growth.
The biceps brachii is attached to a forearm bone called the radius and originates at the scapula in two places. In fact the bicep gets its name from this two headed structure; we refer to it as the long head and the short head of the biceps.
The biceps brachii runs down the front, or anterior, side of the humerus and makes up approximately 1/3 of the muscle mass of the upper arm. As I mentioned before, the 3 standards heads of the tricep make up the other 2/3 of your upper arm mass.
Two additional parts of the bicep are called brachialis and brachioradialis. These are a little muscles on the outside of the bicep that contribute to elbow flexion. Typically there is no need to train these specifically, unless you are a bodybuilder.
The primary function of the bicep muscle is to flex the elbow, which moves the forearm towards the shoulder. The explains the standard bicep “curl”.
The secondary function of the bicep is supination of the forearm, which means turning the hand from a palms-down position to a palms-up position. This is why a a rotational type of curl is always good to add to your bicep training arsenal.
I thought about avoiding all compound exercises that exist in the top 5 best exercises for any other muscle group. But I can’t. The reality is that the top 5 best biceps exercises include a form of rowing and a form of chin-up/pull-down. Therefore I will present the top 3 best direct biceps exercises and the top 2 compound exercises that you should use if you want big biceps.
Never should your workout program contain an ‘arm day’ where you focus only on biceps. There’s no need to do more than two biceps exercises in any given workout, and those two exercises better be two totally different movements.
To set up: load a standard 45 lb barbell with some weights, and pick it up. Your hands should be supinated (palms up), about shoulder width apart. Arms should hang down beside/in front of your body, the bar in front of your hips. Tuck your elbows into your sides and DON’T move them throughout the exercise.
To curl: keeping your elbows tucked in place at your sides, curl the bar up to your chin, but not so far that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Always keep tension on the biceps throughout the motion. Do not let the biceps relax at the bottom of the rep, but also don’t bounce the bar off your hips or quads in order to start the next rep. Keep tension on the biceps.
Variations: wide grip, medium grip, narrow grip; standing ez curls with a 20-25 lb ez curl bar. Do reverse curl to work your forearms.
WARNING: The following video depicts perfect technique for the barbell curl, except for one small detail – he is curling in the power rack. Please, for your own safety do not curl in the power rack or the squat rack, otherwise you may find your barbell stuffed where the sun don’t never shine.
To set up: grab two dumbbells and hold them down at your sides, arms straight, palms facing your body. Again, keep your elbows tucked into your sides as soon as you start curling.
To curl: start the movement with a hammer curl, then as the dumbbell clears your body, begin to rotate it so that at the end of the movement, your palms are facing your head. Once you lower the dumbbell back to the starting position, start curling with the next arm.
Here is an example, but this guy is definitely swaying and cheating. I couldn’t really find a good video for standing alternating bicep curls. Basically take this principle and instead of swaying, keep your elbows locked at your sides and just stand still while you curl.
When you get to the last rep, you may feel free to apply a cheat principle by either swaying a bit or by raising the elbows away from the body, but this should only be on the last rep of the set.
To set up: grab two dumbbells and hold them down at your sides, arms straight, palms facing your body. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides as soon as you start curling.
To hammer curl: you are basically curling the dumbbell up as high as it can go without moving the elbows. Ideally, the flat side of the dumbbell, at the top of the rep, should come close to touching the shoulder of the lifting arm. We call this a hammer curl because it looks like you are swinging a hammer. This means the palms face towards your body throughout the whole exercise.
This guy here is doing his hammer curls close to his body. This is one way you can alter the plane of motion in order to lift a bit more weight. Notice how he still keeps his elbows stationary though? That is the point you should away from this vid.
To set up: you will be grabbing the bar with a supinated grip (palms up/away) with your hands about shoulder width apart. You will need to either unrack the bar from a rack or stand, or deadlift the weight into a standing position.
It is important to bent over so that your upper body is close to parallel to the floor, but not so much that your lower back rounds over. By pushing your butt back, you will be able to maintain a stronger core while getting lower to the floor.
To row: the row itself is simply bringing the bar up to touch your abdomen, and lowering it down so that your arms are just short of fully extended. As always, keep your elbows in, as opposed to flared out to the side.
There is a big difference between pull ups and chin ups though. While pull ups are good for your arms and back, close grip chin ups bring that whole movement to a whole new bicep-mass-building-level.
To set up: find a straight bar that you can comfortably reach from a standing position. Grip the bar with an underhand/supinated grip (your palms should be facing you). Keep the hands about 4-6 inches apart; they should be right outside your chin on either side.
If you are strong enough to do weighted pull ups or chin ups, add some weight either by crossing your feet and placing a dumbbell between your ankles, or hanging a couple plates from a weighted belt. A weighted belt should have a chain on one end and a loop on the other end, to which you should hook the chain. Put the chain through the hole in the middle of the plates and clasp the chain to the loop. Good stuff.
To chin up: an important aspect of chin ups, is getting your chin up over the bar. While this isn’t a dire necessity, if you don’t at least get your chin up to touch the bar, you can’t call the rep complete.
The girl in the following video has better form than most of the male pull up videos I found on YouTube.
Honorable mentions: preacher curls, concentration curls, seated incline curls
Just real quick I’d like to show a preacher curl video. Bodybuilders love these, so they must work pretty well. When you do these, you don’t want to bring your forearms perpendicular to the floor, as this take tension off the biceps. Here you go:
To integrate these exercises into a full body workout program, you should choose either #4 or #5 as your main back exercise, and follow it up with any one of the first 3 exercises. This will allow you to lift maximal weight on the compound movement, and burn the biceps out with a direct biceps movement. Even consider breaking up the back and biceps exercise with something else entirely (legs or chest perhaps) in order to give the biceps some additional recovery time.
To integrate these exercises into a training program that splits the body amongst different days, you can do exercise #4 and #5 on back day, and follow it up with any one of the first 3 exercises. I still recommend not using a dedicated bicep day, or an arms day that focuses on the bis.
If you focus too much directly on biceps, you will just be spinning your wheels. They are more of a secondary muscle group, and for them to really grow and get stronger, all the large muscle around them (shoulders, triceps, back, and chest) need to get stronger first.