The Best Moves for Bigger Biceps – Revealed!

March 21, 2012

By Mike Carlson “Leave your ego at the door.” This sage advice should be printed above the entrance of every gym, but never is it more appropriate than when training biceps. Too many guys pick up a monster set of dumbbells when it’s time for curls, because they think it looks cool, even if they have to use every muscle in their back and traps to actually lift the weight. The fact is, your biceps can’t see the weight to be impressed by it. The muscles just feel stress and tension — as long as it’s applied appropriately.
We interviewed a panel of five experts and at some point in the conversation they all said the same thing: massive weights don’t equal huge guns. Stimulating your biceps is a finesse game of body position and mind-muscle connection. Read what they have to say, try out their ideas, and then figure out what works the best for your biceps.

Our Panel of Experts

Doug Balzarini, CSCS, MMA-CC
Brandon Curry, IFBB Pro
Craig Richardson, IFBB Pro
Dave Hawk, Retired IFBB Pro
Guillermo Escalante, PhD (ABD), CSCS, PTA, ATC

Doug Balzarini

Background: Doug Balzarini, CSCS, MMA-CC, is the strength and conditioning coach for the Alliance Training Center fight team in San Diego, where he trains UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and light-heavyweight contender Phil Davis. He’s also a trainer at Fitness Quest 10, recently named one of the 10 best gyms in the country, where he consults with professional football players, hockey players and strongman competitors.
Hometown: San Diego, CA

Most Underrated Biceps Move: Weighted Chin-Ups

Why is the weighted chin-up the most effective for your clients?
There is research that used electromyography — where they attach electrodes to muscles — that shows you get more biceps activation from a weighted chin-up than from pumping out dumbbell curls. A chin-up (underhand grip) is probably my favorite upper-body exercise. I think a lot of the benefit comes down to the hormone response you get from a compound move. Most biceps exercises are isolation moves, and you’re not recruiting as many muscle fibers so there isn’t as much going on hormonally or neurologically.

How do your clients perform a weighted chin-up?
I like to use a weighted vest. That is the easiest way and it’s quicker with transitioning from exercise to exercise. A belt is not as comfortable or as easy. I do chin-ups with every single client I train, but not all of my clients can do weighted chin-ups. Honestly, they can’t all do 8–10 reps with good form using just their bodyweight. So I’ll have them use a gravity machine or an elastic band to do an assisted chin-up until they work up to it.

What is an overrated biceps exercise?
I don’t like the machine biceps curl. Your everyday client has been sitting for eight hours, then they drive to the gym, and then they sit down in the gym? I don’t like isolation exercises in general. You get more bang for your buck with compound movements. You burn more calories with them and if your client is trying to look better at the beach or in the mirror, you want more calories burned.

How often do you have clients train their biceps?
I have my clients train their arms twice a week, three at most. I train my fighters twice a week. We do total-body training, so we’ll do pulling movements every workout. I break workouts down to a vertical pull and then a horizontal pull. A chin-up would be a vertical pull and a row would be a horizontal pull. Chin-ups and rows are first and foremost.

What kind of sets and reps do you use?
If we’re talking hypertrophy then the range is 8–10 reps and we usually perform 4–5 sets. For weighted chin-ups, you won’t get much more than 10 reps. And 4–5 sets of 10 means you’re busting ass.

Any special techniques or tricks for training biceps?
With my fighters we’ll do some isometric work, because that’s specific to their sport. When they’re grappling they might have to hold someone in a position for a minute or more. So we’ll do some isometric work where they hold a partial rep for time. Isometrics don’t necessarily elicit hypertrophy but it’ll benefit activities of daily living, like unloading a bunch of bricks from your car.

Brandon Curry

Age: 29
Weight: 255 pounds (contest)
Hometown: Nashville, TN
Best Placing: 2011 Toronto Pro, 3rd

Most Underrated Biceps Move: Pose Curl [Standing One-Arm Cable Curl]

What’s a pose curl and why is it so effective?
You get a high pulley and you curl like your doing a front biceps pose. You start the move with your arm rotated out, as in the old-school way that Arnold would pose with his weak arm. As you curl, you rotate it all the way in to get that muscle to peak as far as possible. Instead of using a D-handle I use the triceps rope — both rope ends in one hand — because when I rotate my thumbs around it creates more tension in the lower biceps tie-in. It’s a really hard contraction when you have to rotate that wrist around. The tension is pulling your wrist the opposite direction, and you really feel it hard in the biceps. It’s more of a technique move, a feel-the-squeeze move. There’s no reason to go heavy in a pose curl.

What’s an overrated biceps exercise?
I’m not a big dumbbell hammer curl person. Typically when I see guys doing hammer curls they’re more focused on the load than the actual movement. And when you do it cross-body, and the dumbbells get bigger, it puts the dumbbells in an uncomfortable position. If I do perform a hammer curl, I like to use a cable with a rope attachment because I can get a better squeeze and more range of motion than I can with a dumbbell. I really prefer cables when it comes to biceps. I like the constant tension the cables provide. I use dumbbells, of course, but most of my routine revolves around cables.

How often do you train your biceps?
I train biceps once a week. In the past I’ve done bi’s with my back, but recently I’ve been doing them with triceps and calves.

What kind of sets and reps do you use?
I normally do 3–4 exercises, with pretty much 2–3 sets of each exercise. I keep to a pretty high rep range. I typically just go to failure for each set and that can be anywhere from 12–30 reps per set. It’s not a ton of volume. I spend enough time, but not too much time on them. I get a lot of cramping and a lot of discomfort when I train biceps because I have a really good connection with them. I think my biceps come from my gymnastics background growing up. My arms haven’t been a problem since.

Any special techniques or tricks for training biceps?
The only technique I use with biceps is warming up with 21s using an EZ-bar. I’ve been doing that regularly. And later on, if I’m really fatigued, I’ll use more of a partial range for reps.

Craig Richardson

Age: 37
Height: 5´8˝
Weight: 214 pounds (contest) 245 pounds (offseason)
Hometown: Patterson, NJ
Best Placing: 2011 Toronto Pro, 1st; 2011 IFBB New York Pro, 3rd; 2009 IFBB Sacramento Pro, 2nd; 2008 Houston Pro Am Championship, 2nd

Most Underrated Biceps Move: Machine Preacher Curl

Why is the machine preacher curl so effective for you?
I’m able to go a little heavier since I’m locked into the machine, which means I can’t really cheat; also there’s less room for injury. I don’t really use the free-weight preacher as much because I keep straining tendons in my biceps and forearms. The lower you get in bodyfat the easier it is to get injured, because even though your mind and your muscles say, “I can pull more weight,” your ligaments and tendons don’t always agree.

What’s an overrated biceps exercise?
I don’t feel much from reverse curls. Also, my lower biceps are developed pretty well and my forearms aren’t bad for someone who doesn’t train them. My bi’s and tri’s are a little stubborn, but my forearms will take off if I train them. So I don’t train my forearms because they’ll make my biceps and triceps look small. By not training my forearms it gives the illusion that my bi’s and tri’s are bigger than they are.

How often do you train your biceps?
I train them once a week. I overtrain very easy, so once a week is perfect for me. They get used to doing other exercises as well. When you train your back, your biceps are the secondary muscle group used. I’ve tried shoulders and bi’s, back and bi’s, and chest and bi’s, but doing bi’s and tri’s together works the best for me. I like to hit one big bodypart per day.

What kind of sets and reps do you use?
In the offseason I’ll go a little bit heavier, between 8–12 reps. On the first set I might get 12, but the second it tapers down to 10, then the last two are about eight reps each. The weight goes up slightly as the reps go down. I see a lot of guys who do a set of 10 reps, then add weight and try to do another set of 10 reps. If you went all out on your first set you shouldn’t be able to add more weight and get the same number of reps. I bring it every single set. I try not to put the weight down until I can’t move it anymore. I’ll probably do three biceps exercises and four sets apiece. My theory is that it’s always a little better to undertrain than overtrain because if you undertrain it still gives your body a chance to grow.

Any special techniques or tricks for training biceps?
On some exercises I’ll squeeze and contract my biceps after every set. I’ll keep flexing them until my partner has done his set and it’s my time to go again. The squeezing and flexing actually help create some separation and I’ll begin to see all these little lines and creases that I don’t usually see. It’s quite grueling when I do it, and I’m not able to go as heavy since my muscles don’t really get a chance to rest. But when it gets down to that last two weeks before a contest, and I start seeing lines in those places where they didn’t exist before, then it’s all worth it.

Dave Hawk

Background: Dave Hawk is a former Mr. USA and Mr. World and was a top 10 IFBB pro in a career that spanned more than three decades. He’s currently a health-and-fitness consultant for a number of major corporations and has trained professional athletes from the NFL, WWE, NHL, UFC and NASCAR. He’s organized several documented physique-transformation contests, which helped more than 300 participants lose countless pounds of fat while adding valuable muscle.
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA

Most Underrated Biceps Move: Incline Dumbbell Curl

Why do you think the incline-bench dumbbell curl is so effective?
Years ago I asked Arnold how he got his biceps so big. They were like rocks! And they had such a peak. He told me that one of the best exercises he did for his biceps were seated incline curls. When he’d do a seated incline curl he wouldn’t use much weight. He would just let his arms hang and curl them up. Biceps have always been one of the bodyparts that lacked for me, mostly because I have a tendency to use my front delts and my forearms during biceps curls. The incline dumbbell curl really lets me extend my arm without pulling my shoulders and forearms into the movement.

What’s an overrated biceps exercise?
The seated concentration curl, where you put your elbow against your quad, does nothing for me. I’ve tried to do concentration curls my whole life, but in that position — sitting on the edge of a bench with my feet on the floor — it feels like it’s all forearm and shoulder. I still do concentration curls in an effort to change up my training, but they’re not my favorite. Guys have to realize that genetics have everything to do with how you train. Just because it looks like a bench press works for one guy doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.

How often do you train your biceps?
I train biceps two days one week and then one day the next week. I do that because sometimes the weaker body units need to be hit more often. I do bi’s and tri’s on the one day and then I do bi’s completely by themselves on the other days. On the day I do just biceps I’m not in the gym very long. If you train intensely with the right selection of exercises you can be in and out in 25 minutes and have a great workout.

What kind of sets and reps do you use?
My rep range is pretty high. I try to go anywhere between 20 and 25 reps. I’ll perform at least three exercises and 3–4 sets per exercise. I’ve had people get better results with moderate weight, a good focus on form and higher reps to expand and blow out the muscle, as compared to using heavy weight.

Any special techniques or tricks for training biceps?
I love drop sets. On my heavy day, I’ll do three good sets of barbell curls, and after my last set I’ll go over to the dumbbell rack and grab the 40s. I’ll do two-armed hammer curls where I take them all the way up and all the way down in a strict motion. Once the burning becomes too much I drop the weight and rest for 15 seconds. Then I grab the 30s. I knock those out, rest 20 seconds and pick up the 20-pounders and bang them out to failure.

Guillermo Escalante, PhD (ABD), CSCS, PTA, ATC

Background: Nearing completion of his doctorate in athletic training with an emphasis in rehabilitation, Guillermo Escalante is the owner of Sports Pros, a private-training facility where he puts several amateur and pro physique athletes through the paces. Escalante competes as an amateur bodybuilder and took third place at the 2010 NPC Tournament of Champions. He currently trains IFBB pros Bola Ojex and Monica Mark-Escalante as well as 2010 USA lightweight champion Kelly Bautista.
Hometown: Claremont, CA

Most Underrated Biceps Move: Standing Barbell Curl

How do you make this bread-and-butter exercise so effective for you?
I’ll start with a neutral hand placement, but I’ll vary the grips, as an outer grip will hit the short head and going inward will hit more of the long head. I also like to alternate between the EZ-bar and the straight bar. You can usually go a little heavier with a straight bar but the benefit of using the EZ-bar is that it reduces wrist discomfort. I usually do it in the squat rack or romanian deadlift station, because I like to get a full range of motion. I make sure my elbows are back and in. When doing the biceps curl, a lot of guys flex the elbows forward, which recruits the anterior deltoids. I like to keep my shoulders in that retracted position so that I get pure biceps isolation.

What’s an overrated biceps exercise?
The seated preacher curl is overrated because I think it’s all-too-often used incorrectly. Too many guys sit way forward with their shoulders rounded so that the long head of the biceps is shortened. I also see guys put so much weight on the bar that they have to use the leverage of their body to bring the weight up rather than their biceps. They end up moving it only about 40–50 degrees instead of a full 90–100 degrees. If you cut the weight in half, get your butt down, keep your shoulders retracted and use a full range of motion then you’ll be able to effectively perform the exercise.

How often do you recommend training biceps?
At the most I’d train them twice a week. The reason they’re stubborn is because people overtrain them. It’s a small muscle group. You can’t train your biceps three days a week with 16 sets per workout. They can’t recover that quickly. Biceps are one of those muscles where less is more.

What kind of sets and reps do you use?
The low end would be 6–8 reps and the high would be 12–15 reps. Sometimes I’ll throw in a set of six or 15, but usually I’m in the 8–12 range. If I’m doing bi’s and tri’s together, I’ll do anywhere from 10–14 sets per muscle and go a little heavier. If I’m pairing it with my back workout, then I’m already doing a lot of pulling so I’ll do only 6–10 sets and go a little lighter on the weight, like the 12-rep range.

Any special techniques or tricks for training biceps?
On my last set of barbell curls I’ll do one huge set of 55 reps. You start with a weight you can do for 10 reps. You do one rep and rest for a second. Then you do two reps and rest for two seconds. Then you do three reps and rest for three seconds. You do that all the way to 10. Usually I’ll do it in a squat rack so that I can set the bar right at full extension. I won’t do that every week though, because it’s a pretty intense technique.