When people say they want bigger arms, usually what they mean is they want bigger biceps. For whatever reason, thirty percent of your arms’ mass seems to get ninety percent of the attention. Arms are maybe the most prioritized muscle group by men, along with the chest. I attribute this to the fact that you can’t check yourself out while benching, but if you walk into any commercial gym, you’ll see gym bros lined shoulder-to-shoulder staring at their muscle pumps in the mirror doing bicep curls.
Bicep training isn’t only for guys, though. Plenty of women are interested in building their arms, and the fact is strong, well-defined arms look badass on everyone.
Your biceps are triarticular, which means they perform three functions (besides protecting your second amendment rights, being a place to put baby oil, and showing the girls which way the beach is):
Elbow flexion (curling).
Forearm supination (turning your palms up).
Shoulder flexion (lifting your arms up).
All these movements must be incorporated into your training if you want fully developed arms.
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Elbow Flexion and Curls
Elbow flexion, or the ability to curl the weight up with our arm, is primarily driven by the brachialis muscle. The brachialis lies beneath the short and long heads of the bicep. Even though you cannot see this muscle at the surface, increasing its size will push the rest of the arm muscles up and out more, making them appear bigger.
The best way to train your brachialis is to perform exercises with elbow flexion. This basically means you should do curls. Easier said than done though, since there are about 500 different curl variations. To name a few there’s: preacher curls, drag curl, incline curls, barbell curls, zottman curls, machine curls, Spanish curls, bent-over curls, cable curls (with all the different attachments), reverse curls, hammer curls, stiff curls, concentration curls, overhead curls, spider curls, and lying curls. By the way, I just made two of those up, can you guess which ones they are?
No need to stress over the endless variations of curls since debating their pros and cons is for the most part, pointless. The difference between barbell, ez bar, and a hammer curl is marginal at best. No one ever lost a bodybuilding show because they used an ez bar instead of a barbell. So pick a curling variation that you like, feels good, and that you can progress on.
That being said, there are a few general rules we want to follow when performing any of the aforementioned variations. Let’s use the most classic of the curling variation, the barbell curl, as an example.
How to do a Barbell Bicep Curl
Keep your chest up and shoulders back with a retracted scapula.
Breathe low and brace your core while holding the bar with your palms facing away from you. Squeeze your armpits and imagine trying to not get tickled.
Curl the weight in a semicircle, raising the weight to about mouth level before retracing the bar back down with control to your starting position.
Apply pressure more in your pinky than in your thumb.
Training the Short Head of the Bicep
The short head of the bicep, which is on the inside, is mostly in charge of forearm supination, or the ability to rotate your palms facing out. For this reason, curl variations that involve rotation, will help better stimulate this part of the muscle.
The classic dumbbell curl with rotation is a good example.
How to do a Dumbbell Rotation Curl
This exercise can be done standing or seated.
Grip your barbells and start with your palms facing each other.
As you curl the weight up, rotate your hands until you reach the top of the movement. At this point your palms should be facing your face.
Narrower grips will stimulate the short head more, but only to a degree. Any grip much narrower than shoulder width can actually decrease stimulation to the bicep, so don’t go too narrow with your curls.
Training the Long Head of the Bicep
If the short head of the bicep is on the inside, then we can deduce that the long head is on the outside. The long head is mostly responsible for shoulder flexion, which means lifting your arm up. That said, despite popular belief, when doing a curl, you should allow your elbow to rise slightly in order to fully stimulate the long head of your bicep. Raising the weight to your mouth, or even eye level is a good idea, provided you are doing it under control.
Curling variations like barbell, dumbbell, and cable are best suited for this. Curling variations like spider, preacher, and seated incline are more poorly suited for stimulating this part of the bicep.
How to do a Cable Rope Bicep Curl
Take one step away from the machine.
Grip the cables slightly wider than shoulder width. Careful not to go too wide though, as that will decrease the amount of weight you are able to curl, and also put you at a greater risk for hurting yourself while training.
Sit into your hips with your knees slightly bent.
Make sure your shoulders are close to your obliques and you’re looking straight ahead.
Compound Exercises for Biceps
Isolation exercises like the ones described above are great, but we shouldn’t forget about our compound pulls, both horizontal and vertical. Exercises like pullups, chinups, and rows all stimulate our biceps.
Most Fitplans inclue a degree of pulling exercises in them, and the bicep plays a crucial accessory role in those movements. In fact, a beginner may not need any other movements besides basic pulls in order to grow their biceps.
How to Do a Pullup
Grab the bar with your palms facing away from you, hands positioned a little more than shoulder width apart.
Keep your elbows rotated forward with a slight lean-back and make sure to push your shoulders back and down before you start the pull.
Hang from the bar, then pull yourself up using your back muscles until your chin is above the bar.
A good rule to follow is when you are at the top of the movement, you want to make sure your elbows are directly underneath your hands.
If you are unable to do a pullup, using an assisted pull-up machine for a time while gradually taking away assistance over the course of a program is a good progression to get you on the right path. If you don’t have access to an assisted pullup machine, using different strength resistance bands tied to the bar with your feet or knees inside the band (as shown in the video above) can also help you progress into doing your first pullup. You’ll get there, just stay consistent and don’t throw in the towel. I promise you, it’s worth it.
Compound Exercises are primarily back-builders, so adding in some isolation bicep movements into your program, especially if big biceps are your goal, is important. At the same time, bicep movements should not be done so much that they start to take away from these bigger compound movements.
If you do so many curls on Monday that it takes away from your pullups on Tuesday, that’s not a good thing. It may lead you to restructure your workout, or dial it down on the curls, which can affect your results. Like everything in life, it’s all about balance.