The biceps are without doubt the most trained muscle among average joe gym goers. Chances are when you walk into your local gym, at least half of the people in there, whether male, female, in great shape or not, will perform some variation of a bicep curl during their session. There is a fitness industry wide obsession with this muscle group. Why? Because your upper arm is probably one of the most frequently exposed areas of your body (particularly in the summer months), and seems to have gained the reputation, wrongly I might add, as a legitimate indication of an individual’s strength!
Whatever your views, there is little doubting that well shaped and appropriately sized biceps (i.e in proportion to the rest of your body) are an integral component of the perfectly balanced physique. So how do you go about building bigger biceps?
- Common Pitfalls
- Top Tips
- Global Movements
- Isolation exercises
There are a number of training mistakes that you’re going to want to avoid to give your body the best possible chance of building size in the bicep department.
Curls curls curls:
Whilst there is obviously a place for isolated exercises when you’re looking to add size to the biceps,there is little point in performing bicep curl after bicep curl if you are just starting out with gym based training. It doesn’t matter how many you do, you need to build overall body muscle mass in order to gain size in the arms.
The best way of doing this is by lifting heavy weights, which is pretty difficult to do using exercises which train a single muscle in isolation. Consequently, it’s vital to incorporate at least a couple of compound lifts into your sessions. Exercises like the back squat and deadlift, which recruit a number of different muscle groups across multiple joints are proven to be the most effective type of exercises when it comes to building muscle fast.
The biceps are a relatively small muscle group, even if you are completely jacked. Consequently it doesn’t take much to heavily fatigue them, especially when you consider that the vast majority of exercises will work your arms in some way shape or form, whether your gripping the bar on a deadlift or working through your sets of hanging core exercises.
Given that most muscle growth occurs during periods of rest, it is vitally important you don’t over work your biceps if you want to see meaningful growth and development over time.
In order to put muscle mass on in any part of the body, you have to be consuming more calories than you are burning, in particular through good sources of protein. Increasing size in your biceps is no different, so make sure your nutrition is on point for your hypertrophy needs!
When you are engaging in bicep specific exercises (which certainly do have their place) it is important to master correct form and technique before the resistance is increased at gradual intervals. There is little point in trying to bicep curl a dumbbell which is so heavy that it requires a full body effort to complete the range of movement.
Pick a manageable weight to start and focus on performing the movement with good form and real focus on the muscle group which should be under stress.
In order to sculpt well shaped and proportionate arms, it is essential that you balance any bicep work you do by training the triceps and forearms.
The most effective way of achieving this is to combine heavy challenging movements which involve multiple muscle groups (obviously including those in the arms) with more isolated exercises which really focus on the muscle groups in question (the biceps and triceps in particular).
Any resistance based exercise which involves you pulling a bar, or cable with your arms or supporting you weight hanging from a bar will involve the muscles in your biceps to a varying degree.
Whether it be barbell rows, pull ups, seated cable rows, or supine pulls, your biceps are heavily involved as your arms move in a very similar way to an isolated curl during all of these exercises. The big difference, however, is that your shifting considerably more weight during these movements than you are whilst performing a bicep curl as more muscles are involved.
Consequently, these types of exercises are a great way of building the overall muscles mass you require to add meaningful size to your biceps with more isolated movements.
Much like with the above pull exercises, any resistance based movement which requires to push your arms away from your body will recruit the muscles in your arms. Rather than your biceps, like above, however, these movements will make use of your triceps.
Why do I want to work my triceps when I’m trying to build size in my biceps I hear you yelp…?! If you want well shaped and proportionally sized arms which are actually functional, then you need to make sure you’re balancing your bicep work by hitting the triceps too.
There are plenty of appropriate exercises to choose from including the bench press (both barbell and dumbbell), overhead press, push ups, and dips, all of which involve a similar arm movement to the isolated tricep extension but involve significantly more weight as they recruit multiple muscle groups as opposed to just one.
Whilst all of the above exercises will involve your forearms to a certain extent, particularly those involving the pulling of or hanging from a bar, there is one compound movement which places a great deal of strain on the lower arm whilst also helping to you stimulate the general increase in muscle mass required to help you build the arms you really desire. That exercise is the Barbell Deadlift.
Whilst placing slightly less emphasis on the arms than the deadlift, the back squat should also form an integral of your workout. Not only will your arms really squeeze the bar during heavy squats, but the multi joint nature of the movement means it is one of the most effective exercises for stimulating overall muscle hypertrophy. This will come in handy when you start to focus more directly on isolated arm specific exercises to build bicep size.
Once you have ticked off some of the more challenging, heavier lifts which often involve movement across multiple joints, it’s time to focus more specifically on the muscle group we are really seeking growth in.
Top 5 Bicep Exercises
With the understanding that the main function of the biceps muscle group is flexion (bending) at the elbow, it makes sense that the most effective isolation exercises to work the bicep is a curl. The most fundamental of all the curling movements? The barbell curl.
Hold a barbell with an underhand grip (palms facing forward) around shoulder width apart, with your arms straight so that the bar hangs somewhere between hip and knee height and your elbows are tucked in tight to the sides of your body.
Lift the weight towards your chest by bending at the elbows, concentrating on minimal movement in your back and hips so that only the bicep muscles are being worked. When your forearms come into contact with your biceps, return the bar slowly to the start position. The slower this eccentric phase, the more stress you are putting the muscle under and the greater the hypertrophic stimulation will be. This should hopefully translate into bigger size more quickly.
One Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl
Arguably one of the best movements for enhancing overall bicep size.
Using a regular preacher bench, take hold of the dumbbell in an underhand grip (palm facing the ceiling). Lock the elbow firmly in and extend the arm fully so that the lower half of your arm overhangs the lower edge of the bench.
Lift the dumbbell towards the shoulder of the same arm by flexing at the elbow, keeping your tricep in contact with the bench at all times. When the dumbbell comes into contact with the shoulder (or as close as you are capable), lower it slowly back towards the ground by extending at the elbow until the arm is fully straight.
Incline Dumbbell Negative Curl
Adjust the bench to a moderate incline position and lay back with dumbbells in either hand with an underhand grip.
Unlike the two exercises already explained, start with the dumbbells at the top of the range with the arms bent at the elbow and the dumbbell almost in contact with each shoulder. Lower both dumbbells towards the ground as slowly as possible by extending at the elbow. This will generate significant eccentric stress on the biceps. When you reach the bottom of the range, return the dumbbells towards the top of the range in the most energy efficient way possible (use your body weight to get them there rather than working your biceps too much). The working phase of this movement is the lowering of the dumbbell, NOT the curl.
Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Holding a dumbbell in either hand with a neutral grip (i.e. the head of the dumbbell facing forwards and your palms facing inwards), with the elbows in a fixed position close to the side of your body (as with the barbell curl), lift the dumbbells towards each shoulder by flexing at the elbow. When the weight comes into contact with the shoulder of the same arm, lower slowly back towards the ground by straightening the arms and extending fully at the elbow.
Seated Concentration Curls
Sit on a bench and hold a dumbbell with an underhand grip. With your feet wider than shoulder width apart, position the elbow of your working arm (which should be straight) on the inside of the same knee so that your palm is facing slightly inwards. Curl the dumbbell towards your chest, between your legs, keeping your elbow in contact with the inside of your knee at all times. When you reach the top of the range (when the dumbbell is almost in contact with your chest) lower it slowly back towards the ground by extending the elbow and straightening your arm.
This is a really effective exercise at isolating the bicep muscles as the anchoring of your elbow against the inside of your knee really cuts out any momentum you are able to generate for the movement with other parts of your body!
Top 5 Tricep Exercises
This is one of the most fundamental tricep isolation exercises out there, which is why no arm workout is complete without it.
Lay flat on your back on a bench gripping an EZ barbell with an overhand grip, hands narrower than hip width and arms straight, so that the bar is directly above your face. Lower the bar towards your face by flexing at the elbow and bending your arms. When the bar is lowered to just above the top of your head, return to the start position by extending the elbows and engaging the triceps.
Dips (bodyweight or weighted)
With a neutral grip and straight arms (elbows locked out) hold yourself up on parallel bars, with your body between the bars. Lower your body towards the ground by flexing at the elbows and bending the arms. When you reach 90 degree bend (so that your upper arms are now parallel with the ground) push your palms into the bars and extend the arms by engaging your triceps, lifting your body back to the start position. Depending on your levels of training experience and strength, you can add weight using a belt. Weighted dips are particularly effective at building muscle mass in the triceps.
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Extension
Sit on a bench and grip a dumbbell with both hands directly above your head with straight arms. Lower the dumbbell behind your head by flexing at the elbow and bending the arms until you have achieved approximately 90 degree bend. Once you reach the bottom of the range, return the dumbbell to the start position by engaging your triceps and and straightening your arms.
Standing Cable Tricep Extensions
Attach a rope to the cable machine and adjust the anchor point of the cable to the highest position available. Standing perpendicular to the cable machine, grip the rope at either end with the sides of your hands locked against the plastic capped end of the rope. At this stage your arms should be bent so that your forearms and biceps are in contact with one another and your hands out in front of your body. Keeping your elbows in a fixed position by really tucking them in to the side of your body, pull the rope with your both hands so that your elbow extends and your arms straighten. Once fully extended, slowly return the cable to the start position making sure that throughout the movement, your elbows remained fixed.
Diamond grip push up
Set up in a standard press up position, palms directly under the shoulders and toes in contact with the ground. Rather than shoulder width apart, bring your hands in towards the centre of the body so that your thumbs and forefingers are touching (creating a diamond shape)
Lower your body towards the ground by bending at the arms whilst keeping your elbows tucked in to the side of the body. Be sure to keep your hips in a nice neutral position throughout the movement. One you make slight contact with the floor through your chest, push through your palms and extend at the elbow until your arms are straight and you have reached the top of the range.
This is a great way of slightly altering the normal press up movement to place more emphasis on the triceps as opposed the chest.