Build Killer Biceps

Who knew the smallest of muscles can summon some of the greatest workouts? Try these killer sessions and watch your biceps grow by bounds.

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS | February 21, 2014

Shock and awe. For most major muscle groups, crushing the bodypart with heavy weight is enough to spark serious change. But when it comes to the smaller muscles like the biceps, load will only get you so far down the road of progress. After all, we’re talking pretty small muscles compared to the “majors.” It’s for that reason that we’ve designed this month’s killer series. We take load seriously, no doubt, but we deliver it with techniques and tactics you’ve never tried. Elements of training that when combined with intensity actually produce better results than you imagined. We’ve even taken methods that sound familiar to you into uncharted territory. And “uncharted territory” is exactly how you’ll describe your arms when you’re done.

Killer Biceps “Buddy Style” Workout No. 1

Getting creative with biceps can serve as a rude awakening for one of the smaller muscles in the body. But since it’s a muscle that has such a huge impact on your overall physique, let’s allow creativity to do its work. Grab your training partner and get started. Our first killer workout is steeped in an old-school tactic: buddy style.

If you’ve never done buddy curls before, it basically has you perform a 1:1 ratio of reps to rest. For example, on a standard buddy set of barbell curls, you’ll select a weight with which you’ll reach failure at around 10 reps. Do one rep, then pass the bar to your training partner. He’ll do his rep, then hand the bar back to you for two reps. Hand it back to him for two reps, then it’s back to you for three reps, and so on and so forth, until you reach 10 reps on your last set. After a brief rest period, you then work backward, starting with a set of 10 and working downward to one rep. If you do the math, that’s a lot of work. Probably more work for biceps than you’ve done in quite some time, if ever.

Similar to the rest-pause method, the buddy system is a simple (and brutal) concept that takes advantage of your body’s rapid-recovery energy systems. When you start a heavy set of curls, you rely primarily on phospho-creatine (PC), the primary energy source stored in skeletal muscle that fuels short, powerful bursts of activity. PC depletes rapidly, but fortunately it also replenishes rapidly, usually in 10 to 20 seconds. The main benefit of employing the buddy system is that you’ll have lifted more total pounds in a given set simply by mixing in these calculated rest periods.

Now, for most of the moves in this killer workout, you don’t have to hand over the weight to your partner. You can be on one bench and your partner can be on another. Verbal and nonverbal cues can be used to initiate or signal when it’s your turn to go.

For this buddy-system biceps blitz, each exercise will only be performed up to 10 reps each and then back down to one. After you’ve both arrived back at one rep, it’s time to switch exercises after a two- to three-minute — and well-deserved — rest. Finally, because of the number of killer reps you’re hitting, select a weight that equals roughly 50 percent of your 10 RM.

Workout 1

Killer Biceps “Are You 21 Material?” Workout No. 2

The first exercise in this next killer workout has you taking 21s to a whole new level. As you know, 21s have you working half of the range of motion for seven reps, then the other half for seven more reps, and then finishing with seven full reps. But we’re adding a few brutal twists. First of all, while you can use any exercise for 21s, we’re going with the standard barbell curl because it’s not only the best biceps builder, it lets you alter your grip width on the bar to hit each head differently. A close-grip hits the peak (long head) to a great degree, while a wide-grip targets the short, inner head with better accuracy. The shoulder-width (standard) grip hits both rather evenly.

With those truths in mind, what you’re going to do is 21 reps for the upper half of the curl, the lower half and then 21 full reps. Here’s how: You’ll work the top half of the curl (from 90 degrees up) with the seven close-grip reps, seven wide-grip reps and seven shoulder-width reps. You’ll then lower the bar and hit all three grips for the lower portion of the ROM before finally ending with seven full ROM reps using each grip. Because you’re doing so many partial and full reps, select a weight that corresponds to about 50 percent of your 10 RM. You’ll know pretty quickly if you chose a weight that’s either too heavy or too light. Once you’ve done all of your full-range reps, rest two minutes and repeat the sequence from the top (literally).

As you’re resting, head over to the seated row and attach a straight bar to the cable. The lying cable curl is one of those oft-neglected moves that just can’t be duplicated. By lying down, you remove momentum from the equation because your back is pressed against the bench (or floor, if you don’t have a seated row). Moreover, the constant tension of the cable not only blisters your biceps but even the delt/bi tie-in gets a lot of work just holding the bar. NOTE: Your partner needs to stay close to the stack because when you reach failure at the first rep range, you’ll drop the weight a few plates (roughly 25 percent lighter) and hit failure again.

You finish this brutal biceps routine on the high cable curl for three sets of 20 to flush and pump the muscle.

Workout 2

Killer Biceps “Giant” Workout No. 3

If you want great arms, you have to go to extremes, and this workout does exactly that. Because the angle of your arm plays such a key role in working both the inner and outer biceps musculature, you’re going to work the entire spectrum in tri-set fashion, starting with the exercise that targets the short (inner head) better than any other, and then finishing with a move that arguably isolates the long (outer head) without equal. Your arms will literally travel from straight in front of you to a point as far behind you as possible. You’re about to work through the most complete biceps spectrum possible in one giant set.

To begin, head to the preacher curl, but approach it in reverse to hit the great Scott curl. The Scott curl has you reversed on the preacher bench to allow your arms to hang straight down in front of you. No other move in the gym allows such emphasis on the short head, because it removes the tension on the long outer head and puts the onus of the work on its counterpart.

After your set of Scott curls — without rest — turn around on the bench and hit a set of EZ-bar preacher curls to failure. The preacher curl, while still primarily a short head move, places a bit of tension on the long head. Upon failure and resting only as long as it takes to get into position, attack a set of seated dumbbell curls with your arms directly at your sides, which will hit both heads evenly. To end the giant set, sit back on the incline bench for a set of incline curls, which really help you focus attention on the long head. Upon failure on the incline curl, rest one to two minutes and repeat the sequence.

After all that, can you visualize the travel radius of your arms? From directly in front of your body in the Scott curl to directly behind you during incline curls? That’s the key to the giant set. In addition to these angle-specifics, you’ll also be using forced reps at each point of failure on a couple moves. That’s why an attentive partner is so critical on this arm day.
Following the giant set, perform a few peak-specific sets of drag curls on the Smith machine. On each rep, hold the peak contraction for at least three seconds. Finish this routine by bombarding your forearms (and biceps) with the reverse barbell curl performed in negative fashion.

Workout 3

About the Author

Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS