Massive, well-peaked, muscular and separated biceps are the goal of so many trainers.
By Brad Borland, MA, CSCS
Hours upon hours of blood, sweat and tears go into training and torturing this often stubborn body part. We look up to our “brothers in arms” over the years such as Larry Scott, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Matarazzo, and Phil Heath in hopes to find some kind of “secret” or magic program that we can put into practice. These guys have what we want; shapely, well-defined, huge biceps!
Who can blame us? When you hear, “make a muscle” we instantly think of our biceps. It is the quintessential beach muscle that instantly raises eyebrows when flexed to its extreme. Many in the power lifting arena see very little use for impressively built biceps, but in bodybuilding it is vital to a balanced and proportionate physique. Even if you never find yourself on the stage you still want to fill out those sleeves. What use is it to have a barrel chest and a wide back if your arms are tiny, little noodles?
One of the biggest mistakes made in gyms is overtraining and biceps are the most abused receiver. Trainers will toil for up to an hour at times performing set after set of barbell curls, dumbbell curls, and machine and cable curls in order to reach their goals. Many of these routines are put into practice without rhyme or reason – just a haphazard effort at best. Programs are thrown together with blind faith and without much thought or strategy hoping that the muscle will develop. This article will define what it takes to build some impressive guns. Exercise selection, reps schemes, volume regulation, order of movements and rest intervals all have a profound effect on the outcome of your progress. So gulp down your protein shake and let’s get busy!
Quick Anatomy Lesson
Although the biceps may seem like a simple muscle to understand it is composed of two muscles that actually have dual functions (hence the name biceps).
Biceps Brachii: This muscle makes up the major portion of the two muscles both originating in different places on the shoulder blade. The heads unite on the radius which has the ability to rotate. The main function of the biceps brachii is to flex the elbow and supinate (rotate out) the forearm. It is assisted by the brachialis and the brachioradialis (primarily a forearm muscle).
Brachialis: It originates near the middle of the front upper arm (known as the humerus). It connects at the top of the ulna just after it crosses the shoulder joint. Its main function is elbow flexion. Since it’s connected to the ulna, which doesn’t rotate, it’s involved only in flexion of the elbow, not supination.
Biceps Peaks in Action!
Now that you know a little about anatomy and function, let’s delve into what makes outstanding biceps. The movements and routines presented are designed to get the most out of each trip to the gym. Remember to always use good form and not to use too much weight to compromise your safety.
Barbell and Dumbbell Curls: For overall biceps mass and strength nothing beats good ole fashion barbell and dumbbell curls. With a shoulder-width grip on barbell curls remember to keep your elbows by your sides and allow for a firm grip – don’t squeeze the bar too hard as it will take away your focus from the biceps. Curl the bar up in a full range of motion and avoid resting the bar at the top of the movement. Curl up and squeeze hard then return to the starting position.
For dumbbell curls (which will additionally work the brachialis) start with the dumbbells by your side with your thumb side facing forward. Curl them up while simultaneously supinating your forearms – twisting until your thumbs are facing out at the top of the movement and your palms are facing up. Squeeze at the top and reverse the motion on the way down.
The standard cable curl (standing in front of a cable apparatus and mimicking a barbell curl) is a good way to mix up a routine. Due to its mechanics, the pulley action stresses the top portion of the movement for a more intense contraction.
Quick hit: Try different grips on the barbell curls to stress a different area of the muscle. For example: A narrow grip will build the outside portion of the biceps making them appear thicker from the front and a wide grip will stress the inside of the biceps making the front double biceps pose that much more impressive.
Barbell, EZ Bar and Dumbbell Preacher Curls: To really get at the lower biceps area preacher curls are a must. Be sure to use a full range of motion; all the way up to peak contraction and all the way down for a full extension. Pay close attention to the top portion of the movement – too many trainers like to rest the bar at the top. Avoid this. Instead, squeeze at the top without letting the tension decrease and immediately lower the weight. Try not to go too heavy as preacher curls can be a bit dangerous due to their strict nature. Also, if the straight bar tends to hurt your forearms try using the EZ bar for better wrist comfort.
For dumbbell preacher curls sit a little sideways on the bench for comfort as you perform this movement. Be sure to get an intense contraction at the top as with barbell preacher curls. The added bonus of the dumbbell version is that you are able to slightly twist the dumbbell with your pinky closer to your shoulder for a more intense contraction.
Many gyms are also equipped with a curl machine that mimics the barbell preacher curl. These are a great addition near the end of a routine when you want to “burn out” the biceps.
Quick hit: For an intense finisher to a biceps workout do this: After reaching failure on full range reps try doing partial pumps near the top third of the movement until you absolutely cannot move the weight. Your biceps will get be screaming for mercy!
Barbell and Dumbbell Spider Curls: Similar to preacher curls is the spider curl. Simply stand resting your chest on the pad where you would normally put your elbows. Your arms will be dangling straight down on the opposite side of the pad. Grab a barbell of light to moderate weight with a shoulder grip and curl up feeling an intense contraction. Return the weight until your arms are completely perpendicular to the floor. The advantage of spider curls as opposed to preacher curls is the constant tension especially at the top of the movement. Spider curls allow absolutely no rest when the bar is curled to the top.
With dumbbell spider curls perform them in the same fashion as dumbbell preacher curls. Remember to keep the tension on the muscle and try not to rest at the bottom of the motion. A light to moderate weight is all that is needed to get maximum benefit from this movement.
Quick hit: This is the perfect opportunity to put a new spin on an old trick – 21s! With a lighter weight than normal perform seven reps from the bottom to the half way point, then perform seven reps from the mid point to the top half of the motion, and finally do seven full range reps to finish off the set. Your biceps are guaranteed to be blitzed!
Incline Dumbbell Curls: As an old favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger, incline dumbbell curls are unmatched at stretching out the biceps and creating a full muscle belly with peak. Adjust a weight bench to about 45 degrees (or a little higher if you are new to the movement). Lay back on the bench with your shoulders touching the pad (many trainers make the mistake of leaning forward while doing these) and your arms straight down with dumbbells of moderate weight. Again, some of these movements are a bit isolated in nature so this is no time to throw around heavy weights and risk injury.
Start with your thumbs forward and supinate the dumbbells as you curl up as in standing dumbbell curls. Be sure to curl the weight along your sides and keep your shoulders on the pad. Come up to the top position and squeeze and then return to the starting position by reversing the motion.
Quick hit: For an intense burn try doing incline curls with cables. Attach a “D” handle to a floor pulley and position the bench in front of the apparatus facing away. Curl with one arm then the other. The continuous tension will surely torch those biceps!
Concentration Curls: Normally reserved near the end of a biceps routine, concentration curls are a great movement when you need peak. Sit on the edge of a bench leaning over with a dumbbell and your elbow braced against your inner thigh. Curl the weight up to your shoulder and squeeze. Again, do not use a ton of weight. This is not the time to grab a big dumbbell and start swinging. Use a weight you can handle and control for moderate reps. Also, avoid heaving the weight up with your shoulder – it should be steady while the biceps is doing the work.
Quick hit: Although a bit more technical and with more skill involved you can alternately do standing concentration curls. Bend over at the waste holding a dumbbell straight down just a few inches off of the floor. Curl the weight up toward your shoulder while keeping your upper arm stationary. Resist bringing your elbow toward your body and keep it pointing straight down. Feel the biceps “knot up” at the top and then reverse the motion.
Hammer Curls: This dual functioning movement is great for both forearm mass and biceps peak. Hold the dumbbells with a thumb-forward grip by your sides. Without supinating the wrist, curl the weight up while keeping your wrist in a fixed position (this is the hammer motion). Curl up, squeeze and return. These can be performed either simultaneously or alternately.
Quick hit: You may see many trainers do these with a slight variation. Begin in the same position, but as you curl the weight up move the dumbbell across your upper body toward your opposite shoulder keeping your upper arm stable. Alternate each side for all reps. Many claim a greater contraction and more comfort for the wrist area.
Mountain Peak Biceps Schedules
Overall Biceps Mass
Barbell curls 3 x 8-12
Seated dumbbell curls 3 x 8-12
Preacher bench curls 3 x 8-12
Incline dumbbell curls 3 x 8-12
Concentration curls 3 x 8-12
Hammer curls 3 x 8-12
Biceps Separation and Muscularity
One-arm dumbbell preacher bench curls 3 x 10-15
Concentration curls 3 x 10-15
Barbell spider curls 3 x 10-15
Strength and Power
Standing dumbbell curls 5 x 3-6
Standing barbell curls 5 x 3-6