There’s no shortage of arms exercises and training routines that promise inches on your biceps, or some unrealistic expectation in a short time. They’re everywhere, and like many other exercises their value ranges from relatively worthless to darn right stupid. So what are some good biceps mass builders?
Before getting in to the exercises, consider the function and make-up of the biceps.
For the purpose of the aesthetics and size of your upper arms you should consider three primary areas: The Biceps Brachii (both Long Head and Short Head), and Brachialis.
The Biceps Brachii
The long head of the Biceps Brachii is situated on the lateral aspect of the upper arm, while the short head on the medial aspect. You can think of the long head as the “outer” bicep, and the short head as the “inner”.
Because the muscle has two distinct heads, it’s possible to emphasise (but not completely isolate) different areas during exercises. As an example, doing Preacher Curls with a narrow grip and elbows out can emphasise the long-head more, whilst a wide grip can emphasise the short-head.
As the long-head crosses the shoulder joint, exercises where the elbows stay behind the torso can emphasise the long head too. Performing dumbbell biceps curls on a bench set to 60 degrees is a good example of where this occurs.
Since the biceps long-head also plays a role in shoulder flexion, instead of keeping your humerus along your side during an entire curl, by bringing your elbows up a little as you approach the top you’ll take the muscle through a bigger range of motion also.
A neat trick with a standing barbell curl is to keep your elbows back (similar to a drag-curl) for the bottom half of the movement, whilst the top half finishes with a little shoulder flexion and curling towards your nose.
When it comes to building muscle and strength it’s not just about what exercises you do, but also how you do them.
The Forgotten Brachialis
The long-head of the biceps are responsible for a lot of the biceps “peak”, whilst the short head has a bigger visual difference to the inner arm when flexing. If you want to maximise the overall peak and thickness of your upper arms however, it’s essential that you train the Brachialis.
Like the biceps the brachialis is also an elbow flexor, and due to its position underneath the biceps it literally pushes the biceps up. You must be lean for it to be superficially visible, but even if you can’t see it, trust that it’s there making your biceps look thicker.
One key to recruiting the brachialis is to perform elbow flexion exercises with a neutral or “hammer” grip. Doing this shifts the emphasis away from the biceps brachii and on to the brachialis. Reverse (pronated) grip positions are also effective at targeting the brachialis.
An effective biceps building program should target each of these areas using a variety of techniques and grip positions. Because of the muscle-fibre make-up of the upper arms a variety of repetition ranges and tempos should be used also, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Now you know this let’s take a brief look at a range of exercises that effectively recruit different areas of the biceps.
60-Degree Hammer Curl
This Hammer Curl variation is an effective movement that targets the brachialis. Using a bench set to around 60 degrees minimises the momentum you often see when performing curls with a hammer grip, it also loads the stretch position greater at the bottom of the movement making it a more ‘complete’ biceps exercise.
Jettison Barbell Curl
The Jettison technique can be incorporated in many an exercise and is simply a form of drop-set where the purpose is to take you beyond failure. Because of this you should use it sparingly. You begin with a weight combined with a resistance band, in this case a barbell biceps curl with an added band and perform reps to near-failure. You then let the band go and continue with just the bar. Once you reach near-failure you then finish with just the band.
Strength bands provide an extra resistance and encourage greater loading at the top of the movement. The Jettison Barbell Curl is a good biceps “finisher” to encourage metabolic stress within the muscle, which can be a potent hypertrophy stimulus.
Close Grip Barbell Preacher Curl
Using a Preacher bench helps to isolate elbow flexion. Using a close grip focuses a little more on the biceps long-head we spoke of previously, just be sure to have the elbows a little wider in relation to the wrists. An EZ bar may be used, but from experience doesn’t always provide an optimal wrist and elbow position for this movement.
Constant Tension Dumbbell Curl
The clue is in the name, as this exercise is all about keeping a long time under tension. This creates some blood occlusion and some metabolic stress, alongside being a good one for those seeking a biceps pump at the end of a workout. Flex your biceps hard throughout to help maintain that tension.
Low Rope Supinating Curl
Cables are an excellent choice for biceps, as when set-up correctly they help maintain tension throughout as well as often being a little easier on the elbows. This exercise can be done with a neutral grip used throughout, or by adding in a supination at the top (as shown) to increase forearm and biceps brachii activation even further.
1-Arm Leaning Rope Curl
Like the above, cables make an excellent choice for this one. On top of the type of tension provided they can also be used to direct resistance and change a point of maximal loading (PML); the angle where the muscle is subject to the most load based on leverage factors. For example, a cable set in front of your body for these would load more in the top position but lose tension in the bottom.
A cable set from behind will encourage greater loading in the mid-range position, whilst maintaining greater tension in the bottom and stretched positions. That’s not to say a cable behind is better than a cable in front here, but it can provide a new type of training stimulus, and bring new growth to your upper arms.
EZ Bar Reverse Curl
Utilising the reverse grip (pronated) position can effectively target the brachialis, but more importantly for this purpose the wrist extensors too. When we talk about wrist extension, we’re talking forearms. Weak and undertrained forearms can often limit biceps growth since they can be the “break in the chain” between the resistance you’re using and the upper arms.
By using a reverse grip you’re not only targeting the brachialis but the neglected forearms too. These combined are some of the most overlooked aspects of upper arms growth, so by combining them like in this exercise you’ll be winning the arms race!
Known for his impressive arm strength, George Zottman was a 19th century strongman from Philadelphia and inventor of the Zottman Curl. As the strongest man in the United States during the 1890’s he set a number of records, including a 175lb Dumbbell Clean and Press whilst sat in a chair! The Zottman Curl doesn’t just have history, it has massive value as an arms builder too.
Not only does the Zottman Curl help target the forearms and brachialis, but helps to load them eccentrically too. In short, the upward portion is a supinated (underhand) curl where more weight can typically be handled. The eccentric lowering portion uses a weaker pronated wrist position with the same weight, causing an eccentric overload. This is what makes the Zottman Curl one of THE best biceps builders in existence.
Bicep Curl 28’s
You’ve heard of 21’s right? Well these take them one step further with a 7-second mid-range pause to finish. Typically, 21’s are performed with the full range reps last, but this is incorrect since this means doing the hardest movement first. By performing full reps first (7 reps) followed by partial-range (7 and 7), then an isometric pause (7 seconds), you can use a little more weight and train the muscle more effectively. Break traditions and choose to train smarter.
3/6/12 Biceps Builder
Here’s a bonus biceps builder that’s good on several levels. We could look at each movement, but let’s look at things a little more globally. You begin with a heavy compound movement that targets a large amount of muscle tissue, including the brachialis in the top position. You then follow that with an isolation movement that focuses on loading the biceps in a stretched position, for low-moderate reps. You then chase that with a banded curl applying tension in the top position for a moderate amount of reps.
The 3/6/12 Biceps Builder targets several areas of the upper arms, different rep ranges and types of loading, and builds size through multiple hypertrophy mechanisms (mechanical tension, tissue breakdown and metabolic damage).
Each of these exercises deserves an article in itself, and I can’t emphasise enough the importance of a good progressive weights program that might incorporate some of them. Training smart using the most effective exercises is just one thing to consider, and these biceps builders will get you one step closer to winning the arms race!