Let me apologize in advance if you thought these four biceps exercises were going to somehow deliver magical results. They won’t. But allow me to fill you in on a secret that longtime bodybuilders know that few newcomers care to believe: It’s more than just the exercises you do that matter most. That’s right, selecting the best exercises is just one variable that affects your overall success in building big arms. You want to know the others? Here’s a summary:
1. Get the order right
Perform the best mass-building movement early in your workout when fatigue levels are low, those with which you can push around the most weight and generate just enough momentum to get you over a sticking point.
2. Load up the volume
Not doing enough heavy sets won’t provide the muscle-building stimulus you need, let alone trigger the hormonal bath that’s conducive to building bigger arms. Though you can certainly overdo it — as many beginners mistakenly do — aim for at least 8–10 working sets on biceps day.
3. Work in a rep range that actually builds muscle
You may not be acquainted with the scientific research in the field of exercise science, but you should know that not all sets are created equally, at least when it comes to building muscle. A tough set of eight reps may be just as hard as doing a tough set of 20, but you’d have to use a much lighter weight on the set of 20, and that weight won’t be sufficient to maximally build muscle. You want to reach muscle failure between 8–12 reps.
4. Bump up the intensity
Reaching the point of muscle failure is critical in the growth equation as opposed to simply ending the set when discomfort sets in. While you don’t want to take every set past muscle failure, strategically taking 1–2 sets of every exercise beyond failure can speed growth if you can withstand the intense pain that comes with this type of training. With each of the biceps exercises listed we recommend a strategy for working past failure, although there are certainly plenty of others to choose from that range from forced reps to negatives, drop sets and partials.
5. Get out of your comfort zone
While a workout may at first seem like it really works, after a while your body grows accustomed to it and any changes in muscle strength and growth begin to slow down. Rather than doing the same workout again, it’s time to introduce some changes into your routine. Here, we recommend several alternatives to each move to reduce your chance of hitting a training plateau and ensuring those gains continue.
6. Don’t expect results overnight
Good bodybuilders have been training hard for many years; guys with pretty good physiques probably a year or two. Be in it for the long haul; consistency matters and skipped workouts add up. If you really want big arms you’re going to have to pay the price. We all have to pay it.
You need to realize that the road to bigger biceps consists of a lot more than just a list of exercises, and maximizing all those factors puts you on the fast track to growth. Stay hungry to learn more and try new ideas and you’ll quickly separate yourself from the dozens of others in your gym who may be training hard, but not making near the progress that you are.
Seated Dumbbell Curl
THE LOWDOWN: Supinate your hands by turning your wrists up from the neutral position as you complete the movement, which actually gives you a stronger biceps contraction.
GET SET: Sit erect on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing inward. Keep your elbows by your sides and try to keep them there throughout the set.
DO IT RIGHT: Contract both arms to curl the weights up, slowly rotating your wrists and turning them up as you raise the weights. Squeeze the muscle hard at the top and lower the weights under control, turning your wrists back to the neutral position on the way down.
TRY THIS: To put more emphasis on the long head, which forms the biceps peak, do the same move on an incline bench set at about 60 degrees, remembering to keep your elbows back as you curl the weight.
AMP IT UP: Doing both arms at the same time is harder than alternating because you eliminate the short rest period each arm gets while the opposite side is working, and since you’re working both arms simultaneously, you can’t use body english by leaning to one side or the other. To really boost the intensity, start with the dual arm version; once fatigue starts to set in, alternate sides to muscle failure.
POWER POINTER: Start with your palms facing in and turn them up as you do the move for a stronger contraction.
THE LOWDOWN: Very much an isolation move because it’s difficult to use any sort of momentum to keep the weight moving.
GET SET: Sit on the end of a flat bench with your legs spread wide apart and your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in one hand, palm facing up, and bend forward from the hips. Allow your arm to hang straight down from your shoulder and press your triceps into your inner thigh.
DO IT RIGHT: Curl the dumbbell straight up, keeping your upper arm perpendicular to the floor and your thigh steady. Hold the peak-contracted position for a count before lowering the weight under control.
TRY THIS: A number of old-time bodybuilders did this move without a bench in a bent-over position. It’s a slight variation to try when you want to change your workout a bit.
AMP IT UP: Don’t just stop when you can’t do any more reps; use your free hand to provide just enough assistance to keep the weight moving for 2–3 additional reps. Focus on the negative, too, as you’re stronger when lowering a weight than raising it.
POWER POINTER: Don’t roll your upper arm up your thigh, which makes the movement easier; keep your arm perpendicular to the floor.
Alternating Hammer Curl
THE LOWDOWN: With the neutral (palms facing in) grip, the smaller brachialis is also called into play along with the biceps long head, and targeting it can help maximize thickness in the upper arms. This move also works the brachioradialis, the major muscle of the forearm.
GET SET: Stand erect with your knees unlocked and feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand near the forward plate with your palms facing in (neutral grip).
DO IT RIGHT: Maintaining the neutral grip, slowly curl one arm in an arc up toward the opposite-side shoulder, keeping your elbow back and locked by your side. Don’t turn your wrist up as you would a curl; keep it neutral throughout. Hold the peak contraction for a count, and then slowly lower to the start position, repeating the movement with the opposite arm.
TRY THIS: You’ll find it quite challenging, but do this move on a preacher bench, which will make it hard to cheat.
AMP IT UP: With dumbbells you can go from a dual movement to one arm at a time. This way you can introduce a brief rest at the bottom position while the opposite side is working and lean slightly into the movement to generate some momentum. Try doing a few extra reps this way at the end of your set.
POWER POINTER: Hammers are best done at the end of your workout. Once your forearm muscles are fatigued, you’ll have trouble holding onto a bar.
THE LOWDOWN: Considered an excellent mass builder because you can add so much weight to the bar. If the barbell version is uncomfortable on the wrists, opt for the EZ-bar.
GET SET: Stand erect with your chest out and shoulders back and grasp the bar with an underhand grip about shoulder-width apart, allowing it to hang freely in front of your thighs.
DO IT RIGHT: Contract your biceps to curl the bar up to about shoulder height, squeezing your biceps hard at the top and keeping your elbows locked by your sides throughout. Lower under control to just short of full-arm extension.
TRY THIS: It looks a lot like regular curls, but the drag curl instead has you pulling your elbows back behind the plane of your body as you bring the bar up, actually dragging it up your torso. You might find this variation even more effective on the Smith machine.
AMP IT UP: Forget about the one-hand-grip-for-all-sets mentality and start doing close-grip (just inside hip width) and wide-grip (hands spaced just outside shoulder width) curls. The close-grip version better emphasizes the long head (which forms the peak); the wide grip better targets the short (inner) head.
POWER POINTER: Fight the tendency to want to raise the bar higher by allowing your elbows to drift forward, which engages the front delts.