Second place is the first loser.
That ruthless mantra leaves no room for runners-up. After all, why settle for any less than the best?
And when it comes to our ranking of biceps exercises, we admit it: You could skip right to No. 1 on this list (spoiler alert: it’s the barbell curl) and do that move as your sole biceps workout every week. And guess what? You’d likely build some pretty impressive peaks. It’s really that good.
That said, there’s also a persuasive case for variety in your training. For one, the deviations in movement — no matter how slight they may seem in some instances — stimulates the muscle fibers in different ways, which can prompt more balanced development throughout the biceps complex (made up of the two-headed biceps brachii and the underlying brachialis). And second, having multiple exercises in your arsenal staves off the boredom that can reduce your focus and intensity.
See Also10 Best Shoulder Exercises
So here we present not just the best exercise for biceps, but 10; there’s plenty to choose from to fuel years of development and progress. The list includes an array of cable and free-weight options, each of which has its own distinct advantages. They can’t all be No. 1, but they’re all winners in our book.
One-Arm High-Cable Curl
“That’s just a showboat exercise.” So it has been said about the high-cable curl, and indeed, it essentially mimics the standard-bearer of bodybuilding poses, the front double biceps. But dig deeper and you’ll find the benefits, in both its continuous tension and its unique positioning of the elbows compared to most biceps moves. And the single-arm variation is a strong alternative with unique rewards of its own.
Main Area Targeted: Biceps brachii, with emphasis on the peak
Strengths: As with any cable-based movement, a primary benefit here is the continuous tension maintained throughout, from the arm fully extended to the elbow fully flexed position. This means there’s no respite, with the muscle under tension throughout each set. Also, elevating the elbow out to the side varies the stress of a typical biceps exercise and helps remove the body English that can be applied via the hips during an arms-at-your-sides curl. Performing this move unilaterally allows you to further sharpen your focus on each arm.
How-To: Stand with your feet just inside shoulder-width apart, off hand on your hip, holding a D-handle attached to a high-pulley cable. You can also use a staggered stance for balance if you prefer. Keeping your upper arm elevated so it’s parallel to the floor throughout, curl the D-handle toward your ear and squeeze your biceps hard for a one-count. Then slowly extend your elbow, stopping when it’s just slightly bent to protect against hyperextension, without letting the weight stack touch down. Alternate between this version and the two-arm move for variety.
Standing Cable Curl
You’ll notice a decided pattern in this list. Truth is, when it comes to biceps, the only way to directly engage them is to bend your elbows. So outside of compound moves such as rows and pulldowns for your back that also engage your bi’s, and isometric exercise in which you simply hold a contraction, training biceps is all about curling. This particular curl involves a cable and your choice of attachment, from a straight or cambered bar to a rope or even a D-handle if you train one arm at a time.
Main Area Targeted: Biceps brachii, with brachialis activation if using a rope
Strengths: This exercise boasts the same primary benefit as high-cable curls: the constant tension provided by the cable. However, it gains a slight edge because it offers the ability to work against more total resistance and your elbows are in a mechanically stronger position at your sides.
How-To: Stand holding a bar attached to a low-pulley cable with an underhand grip, elbows extended. Keep your abs tight, chest up and head straight as you contract your biceps to curl the bar toward your chest, keeping your elbows at your sides throughout. Hold and squeeze the contraction at the top, then slowly return the bar along the same path. Repeat for reps without letting the weight stack touch down between reps.
Smith-Machine Drag Curl
The Smith machine isn’t often associated with curling. The fixed straight-up-and-down path of the bar makes a typical curl awkward, since the proper range of motion involves a natural arc. However, this particular variation calls for a direct line of pull along your body.
Main Areas Targeted: Biceps and brachialis, with emphasis on strength
Strengths: The Smith machine is much maligned by some exercise experts because it eliminates many advantages of the free-weight barbell. By placing the bar on a smooth, lubricated track and removing any need to balance the weight as you lift, you automatically deduct some benefit from the motion. Yet that subtraction can also be a plus, as it allows you to concentrate solely on working the intended muscle — in this case, the biceps — while likely handling a touch more poundage overall.
How-To: Stand inside a Smith machine holding the bar in front of your upper thighs, with your chest up, shoulders back and eyes focused straight ahead. Begin by shifting your elbows back and bending them to curl the bar toward your upper abs. As the name suggests, you’ll actually drag the bar up your torso, keeping your elbows behind you the entire time. Upon full contraction, return the bar along the same path and repeat.
Seated Alternating Dumbbell Curl
The first free-weight move on our list has been a gym favorite for decades, from both standing and seated positions. The latter wins out for the purposes of this list, as we explain below.
Main Areas Targeted: Biceps and brachialis, emphasizing the full length of the muscle
Strengths:The rhythmic nature of alternating dumbbell curls — curling one weight up as you lower the other, switching back and forth for reps — makes it a great companion with barbell and EZ-bar curls. Here, a stronger side can’t compensate for a weaker one as it can when using a bar. Doing them seated instantly knocks potential momentum out of the move, preventing you from rocking your body to help swing the dumbbells upward.
How-To: Sit on a low-back bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Keeping your chest up, curl one weight toward the same-side shoulder, squeezing your biceps hard at the top, then lower to the start. Repeat with the other arm. You can either condense the set by lowering one dumbbell as you lift the other, or take it slower by moving through one full rep per side, going all the way up and down with one arm before switching to the other.
Dumbbell Concentration Curl
It may be only No. 6 in this ranking, but it can be argued that there’s no more satisfying biceps exercise than the concentration curl. Working one arm at a time, curling under full control, tends to really inflate your muscle pump, flushing the fibers with nutrient-rich blood.
Main Area Targeted: Biceps, with emphasis on the peak
Strengths: This exercise, like any full-range-of-motion curl, stimulates the biceps from each end to the peak in the center. But the positioning of the resistance against gravity and the ability to really zero in on one arm at a time allows for extra emphasis on the short, inner head of the biceps. Arnold Schwarzenegger has famously suggested imagining that your bi’s are huge mountains as you flex, and such mental imagery can help accentuate the contraction.
How-To: Sit at the end of a flat bench or use a short-back chair. Bend over and grasp a dumbbell with an underhand grip, locking your working arm against your same-side inner thigh. Place your nonworking hand on your leg for balance. Moving only at your elbow, curl the weight as high as you can toward your torso. Squeeze your biceps at the top before lowering the dumbbell back to the start, but don’t let it rest on the floor between reps.
While the preacher bench was designed to put your upper arms on the angled side of the pad, bodybuilders soon discovered that reversing that action — leaning over the pad and placing the upper arms along the flat side — allows you to work directly against gravity’s direction of pull.
Main Area Targeted: Biceps, with emphasis on the short, inner head
Strengths: The Scott curl is similar to a barbell curl in that you bring the bar from a position where your arms are pointed straight toward the floor to fully flexed at the top. But with your armpits tucked tight against the top of the preacher bench and your chest resting against the pad, cheating via a swing of the hips is impossible. That makes it you against the weight, with no momentum to lend an assist.
How-To: Grasp a barbell or EZ-bar and lean your chest against the angled side of a preacher bench, keeping your back tight and knees slightly bent. (You can also use a dumbbell and train one arm at a time.) Make sure your armpits fit securely against the top of the pad, with your triceps pressed into the flat side of the bench. Hold the bar straight toward the floor with a supinated (palms-up) grip. With your head neutral and eyes focused forward, curl the weight in a smooth arc, squeeze your biceps hard for a one-count, and slowly lower back to the nearly elbows-straight position.
Barbell Preacher Curl
What’s the one exercise that’s slightly better than a Scott curl using the flat side of a preacher bench? Using the preacher bench as it was intended, with your upper arms placed on the angle as you sit in the seat.
Main Area Targeted: Biceps, with emphasis on the stretch
Strengths: While it’s a paper-thin margin between Scott and preacher curls, the difference comes at the very start of each rep, when your arms are extended. During a Scott curl, you tend to lose some muscle tension at that point, versus the muscular engagement maintained in a traditional preacher curl.
How-To: Set up a preacher bench so the top of the pad fits securely under your armpits. Take a shoulder-width, underhand grip on a straight bar or EZ-bar and position your arms parallel to each other on the pad. Keep your feet flat on the floor and your head straight as you flex your biceps to bring the bar as high as possible. Don’t allow your elbows to flare out or come off the bench. Flex strongly at the top before slowly returning the bar along the same path, stopping just short of full elbow extension before starting the next rep. You can also do this exercise one arm at a time with a dumbbell.
Incline Dumbbell Curl
Even though we put it third, you could make a pretty compelling case for giving the incline dumbbell curl the top spot on this list. It’s a hardcore free-weight movement that puts the biceps under stretch, thus activating the stretch shortening cycle. More on that in a moment.
Main Areas Targeted: Biceps and brachialis, emphasizing the full length of the muscle
Strengths: When your arms are down at the start of the incline curl, they’re actually slightly behind your body, a unique position not achieved in other traditional biceps moves. This activates the aforementioned stretch shortening cycle, or SSC for short. In this lowermost position the biceps are still under load and contracting eccentrically, and studies have found that this can lead to a more powerful concentric contraction via the release of stored elastic energy. This exercise also emphasizes the long, outer head of the biceps because it’s placed in a pre-stretch in the start position.
How-To: Adjust an incline bench to about 45 degrees and sit back squarely against the pad, feet flat on the floor. Your arms should hang straight down by your sides, palms up. With your shoulders shifted back and upper arms in a fixed position perpendicular to the floor, curl the weights so they approach your shoulders, either one at a time or both arms simultaneously. Squeeze your biceps hard at the top before slowly returning to the start position.
This is perhaps one of the more controversial entries on the list; after all, it targets the back first and foremost, most notably the latissimus dorsi muscles. Nevertheless, the close-grip chin-up is a devastating biceps molder as well.
Main Area Targeted: Brachialis mainly, with biceps brachii activation
Strengths: There’s no question that you need a strong back to pull your chin up over the bar, but the movement also requires a hefty dose of biceps strength to bend your elbows as you hoist your bodyweight. Turning your grip so your palms face you in a shoulder-width or closer grip and using a full range of motion really hits the biceps brachii.
How-To: Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a close underhand grip. Hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended and ankles crossed behind you. Contract your lats and bi’s to bring your body upward, concentrating on keeping your elbows tight to your sides. Hold momentarily as your chin crosses the level of the bar, then lower yourself to return to the dead-hang position.
Yes, just like your hopelessly clueless Facebook friend who posts comments on the movie you had planned to see tomorrow, we’ve already given away this ending. But we doubt you’d be surprised even if we hadn’t already told you the barbell curl’s placing. It’s one of the most popular exercises on the planet, and richly deserving of that status.
Main Area Targeted: Biceps brachii from origin to insertion and peak
Strengths: The barbell curl doesn’t offer the continuous tension of a cable, nor the ability to focus on one arm at a time. What it does offer is sheer primal power: the chance to lift a profound amount of weight, putting the bi’s under maximal tension and (when done with perfect form) pushing them into the growth zone unlike any other biceps movement ever devised. As usual, the most basic approach is often the best.
How-To: Stand holding a barbell with a shoulder-width underhand grip, arms extended. Keep your abs tight, chest up and head straight as you contract your biceps to curl the bar from your hip area toward your upper chest, keeping your elbows stitched to your sides throughout. Pause and squeeze your biceps at the top, then slowly return the weight along the same path. Noting the obvious, you could also use an EZ-bar instead of a straight bar here.