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Your Best Guide to Building Biceps

Reading Time: 6 minutes 30 seconds


DATE: 2023-04-06

Most fitness programs consist of compound and isolation exercises. As a personal trainer, you know compound exercises use multiple muscle groups and joints. Whereas isolation exercises are exactly what the name suggests—they isolate only one muscle at a time through single-joint movements. 

Contrary to popular belief, biceps curls alone are not the best strength and muscle building exercise. Let’s look into the secrets behind how to build bigger biceps and increase arm muscle mass.

Biceps Anatomy

To effectively train the biceps brachii you must understand the makeup of the muscle. Understanding the anatomy and muscle functions helps you prescribe result-driven programs.

The biceps brachii is one of the two arm muscles. The other being the triceps. Two main parts of the biceps muscle are the short head and long head. They both originate on the scapula and insert on the radius.

Since both parts extend beyond the shoulder joint and insert on the forearm bone, the muscle supports shoulder flexion. However, the main muscle action of the biceps is flexion at the elbow joint and supination of the forearm. 

The short head and long head of the biceps contract to help the arm flex or bend. The short head of the biceps is responsible for arm adduction. As this occurs, the long head performs arm abduction. This creates muscle contraction.

Now that you have more of an idea of the anatomy and how the biceps function, let's figure out why your clients don’t already have bigger arms.

Reasons Your Biceps May Not Be Getting Bigger

To build stronger and bigger muscles you must consistently overload them with resistance for a long period of time. This creates muscle breakdown and forces biological change and adaptation. Strength training for type II muscle fibers helps produce greater amounts of hypertrophy. But many clients still end up complicating biceps training with these two obstacles:

1. Overtraining

This occurs more often than not when training the biceps. The biceps muscle is a small muscle group and limited to elbow flexion only. Clients can experience issues when trying to build bigger biceps because they simply do too much. This happens as a result of adding too many isolation exercises on top of the main compound exercises of each workout.

Always review your client’s entire workout program and not just the specific biceps routine. A client should perform compound movements first. Then add further stress to the muscle through isolation exercises.

The biceps are a secondary muscle in compound exercises like underhand grip rows or chin-ups, therefore they are still working. As a secondary muscle in a compound lift, the biceps encounter even more volume and muscle breakdown than during a biceps curl.

Avoid overtraining the biceps after an entire workout. Especially if the workout involves compound pulling exercises.

2. Limited Exercise Options

As a fitness professional, you know the many different biceps curl variations. Though most trainers end up trying to incorporate too many of these options leading to minimal arm muscle gain.

Consider the following list of exercises:

  • Dumbbell curls

  • Barbell curls

  • Preacher curls

  • Concentration curls

  • Incline dumbbell curls

  • Cable curls

The list goes on and on, but the point is that each exercise is still a curl. The elbow hinge joint can only perform this movement. Leaving no room for true exercise variety.

With limited exercise options, clients still try to add different variations of the same movement to build their biceps. This negates the progressive overload principle. Instead, choose a couple of biceps exercises and pair them with compound pulling exercises to grow bigger biceps. 

Aim to improve technique and increase strength within certain lifts. If you switch exercises up too often, your body uses many different types of weights. With this there is no consistent overload and your clients will not encounter an increase in muscle mass. 

Biceps Building Techniques

There may be a limited number of exercise options when training the biceps. But, by using these training techniques, can you get the most out of your biceps training.

Eccentric Training

Eccentric training involves focusing on the lowering portion of an exercise. An eccentric muscle contraction occurs when a muscle elongates or lengthens.

During a biceps curl, the eccentric contraction happens when a client lowers the weight back down to the starting position. The most force can be produced at this point in the exercise.

Emphasizing a 3-second eccentric contraction helps overload the biceps without having to add more resistance. Slow eccentric tempos paired with heavy weights induce strength and muscle gains for the biceps.

Time Under Tension

This refers to how long a muscle is under stress. Keeping a muscle under stress for a long period of time maximizes hypertrophy. Slow tempos or repetitions help increase the number of muscle contractions and the amount of blood flow. 

The longer a muscle is under tension, the greater the number of muscle fibers activated. This happens as a result of achieving volitional fatigue. A client may not be able to increase the amount of weight they curl, but they can still push their biceps to complete failure. 

Drop Sets

Drop sets are another technique to help clients reach volitional fatigue. This technique involves performing back to back sets while reducing the amount of weight each set. Reducing the weight allows you to continue beyond the point of failure and increase the reps performed.

Performing consecutive sets to failure forces the biceps to recruit more muscle fibers. 

Try this with clients:

  • Set # 1: “very heavy weight” x 6-8 reps

  • Set # 2: “heavy weight” x 8-10 reps

  • Set # 3: “moderate weight” x 10-12 reps

  • Set # 4: “low weight” x 12-15 reps

For optimal biceps gains choose just four biceps exercises. Focus on increasing the intensity, duration, type, or time of the workout.

Best Exercises for Getting Bigger Biceps Fast 

The type of compound and isolation exercises you choose is vital to helping clients build bigger biceps. To build biceps fast you must overload them as much as possible without overtraining. Combining too many pulling compound exercises with more isolation exercises is where most go wrong.

Aim to prescribe clients with 2-3 days per week of biceps training. Choose just four exercises for them to complete each time. Since the biceps is a smaller muscle, you can train it more frequently. Though this does not mean every day.

To avoid overtraining, rest 1-2 days between each biceps workout. Schedule workouts with compound back or shoulder exercises like chin-ups, rows, and front raises on separate days. If your client is more advanced, then pairing the compound and isolation exercises may be beneficial.

The biceps are a secondary muscle in many workouts. By adding more biceps workouts, you risk not giving them enough time to recover. 

These four biceps exercises help target each part for overall muscle development:

Barbell Curls

The barbell allows you to overload the muscle more than a dumbbell. Using a straight bar will help target the long head of the biceps and forearms. Using a curvy or EZ bar will target the short head. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell with an underhand grip (palms facing up). 

Begin with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your elbows close to your body and upper arms stationary throughout the movement. Slowly curl the barbell toward your shoulders while keeping the wrists straight and elbows stationary. Pause for a moment at the top of the movement, then slowly lower the barbell back down to the starting position. 

Preacher Curls

Use a bench or preacher bench to rest the back of your arms on. Hold a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell. Start with your arms flexed and the barbell close to your shoulders. Keep your arms on the bench and lower the weight down. Once your arms are fully extended, curl the weight back up towards your shoulders. Focus on slow and controlled movement during the preacher curl. 

The biceps are most active during the eccentric or lowering portion of the movement. This exercise allows a greater range of motion compared to a regular barbell curl. The long head is still targeted. With your elbows having to remain out in front of the body, the short head is highly active.

Concentration Curls

Provide support for the upper arm to prevent swinging and use of other muscles.

To perform the concentration curl, first sit on a bench with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Place a dumbbell in your right hand and rest the back of your arm on the inner part of your right thigh. With your arm straight down towards the ground, hold the dumbbell off the floor. 

Curl the weight up towards your shoulder while keeping the back of your arm on your thigh. Squeeze the biceps throughout and pause at the top. Control the weight back to the starting position. The position of the concentration curl promotes a strict movement. Therefore it limits swinging, which isolates the biceps.

Zottman Curls

This exercise targets the biceps long head as well as the brachioradialis and the forearm muscles. Hold a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing up and your arms hanging straight down. Curl the dumbbells up towards your shoulders, then rotate your palms so that they are facing downwards as you lower the weights back down.

Additional Tips on Training to Get Bigger Biceps

To emphasize the short head bicep:

  • Curl with elbows in front of the body

  • Curl with a wide grip

  • Curl with a supinated grip

To emphasize the long head bicep:

  1. Curl with a close grip

  2. Curl with a neutral grip

  3. Curl with elbows at your side

  4. Curl with elbows behind you

Also consider using other exercise methods or equipment, such as cables or pulleys. These too can help improve muscle strength, especially in the elbow flexor muscle (1).

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  1. Kang, T., Seo, Y., Park, J., Dong, E., Seo, B., & Han, D. (2013). The effects of elbow joint angle change on the elbow flexor muscle activation in pulley with weight exercise. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 25(9), 1133–1136. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.25.1133

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