The internet is awash with bicep training tips. Whenever I log on to my favourite training websites, I see headlines like “10 Curl Variations for Bigger Arms” or “2 Weeks of Curls for 2 Inches of Muscle.” But are these popular articles missing something? I think so. If you want bigger biceps and greater arm strength, you need to be doing more than just curls.
I’m Joseph Maxwell, 2x All-American athlete for the University of Tennessee and I’ll be sharing some tips for bigger, more muscular biceps. I’ll start with some of the best bicep exercises, why I like them, and how you can incorporate them into your workouts.
While pull-ups don’t immediately come to mind when you think of bicep blasting exercises, they are incredibly effective at building more muscular arms. They work both heads of the bicep in a range of motion that curls can’t replicate.
In addition to the arm benefits, pull-ups will strengthen your upper back and help prevent shoulder injuries. Most of us do a lot of pressing exercises when we work out, so it’s important to balance that out with pulling movements. If you’re looking to maximize the arm benefit with pull-ups, I recommend you use an underhand or hammer grip. The underhand grip works both bicep heads equally, while the hammer grip targets the outer side.
If you’re like me and struggle with bodyweight pull-ups, wrap a band (green or purple work best) around the pull-up bar and then around your knees. The band tension will take some of the weight and allow you to hit higher rep ranges without sacrificing any benefits of the exercise.
Dumbbell Single-Arm Rows
Again, this is another movement traditionally thought of as a back exercise, but it has substantial bicep benefits as well. To perform the exercises, grab a dumbbell. You then bend over and brace your body against a bench or box with your knee and hand on the side not doing the movement.
Using the hammer grip, pull the dumbbell up to your chest and back down again. You’ll notice upper back engagement on these, but if you’re doing them correctly, you will feel a nice burn in your biceps, too.
If you’re still unsure how to do this exercise correctly, this video will show you how:
Don’t go too heavy on this exercise. It’s easy to grab a heavy dumbbell and cheat your way through the reps, but you’ll get the most arm benefit with a lighter weight that you can control. Ego lifting usually gets in the way of results, so I suggest you avoid it. It’s important to remember that not every exercise is about how much weight you can move. How you’re moving the weight is much more critical.
Hammer Grip Dumbbell Curls
You might be thinking differently by this point, but I don’t have anything against curls. They’re a great way to exercise your biceps, but they are just not the only way to do it. I believe hammer grip curls to be one of the best dumbbell arm exercises. They work both heads of the bicep and avoid the unnecessary wrist stress of regular grip curls.
I like to do these standing, with a reasonably light dumbbell. Lighter weight and higher reps makes more sense with this exercise. With a straight back, and elbows tucked in to your sides. Slowly raise the dumbbell up and then control it on the way down.
Through the top half of the rep on this exercise, try turning your wrist slightly inward. Hammer grip curls will emphasize the outer head so by turning your wrist at the end, and you will be working the inner head as well.
EZ Bar Curls
EZ bar curls are my all-time favourite bicep exercise. They provide all the great benefits of straight bar curls without putting your wrists in an unhealthy position. For years I used to do regular barbell curls, but I consistently had pain on the outside of my wrists.
The shape of an EZ bar automatically puts your wrists and elbows in a much more natural position. Besides this, the exercise emphasizes the inner bicep head, making it a great compliment to hammer grip curls which work the outer head.
To further isolate your biceps, try performing these with your back against a wall or with a preacher curl bench. Both will take your hips out of the movement and allow more bicep engagement.
Cable Curls is another significant curl variation. I particularly like this one because the cable allows for a more natural range of motion. When using a barbell, you are committed to a specific movement path which is not always ideal for joint health. Cable curls allow you to move in whatever pattern feels most natural.
Focus on controlling the eccentric portion of the rep on cable curls. If you curl the weight up and then allow it to fall back down, you’re missing out on half the benefit on the exercise. Controlling the eccentric helps build more muscle size and maintain tendon health.
I want to start this section by saying this is not a full, upper-body program. It is just some extra bicep work that you can add on to your upper body training days. I recommend you train biceps twice per week, with at least two days off between workouts. If you work a muscle group more than twice per week, you won’t be getting enough recovery.
Band assisted (purple) pull-ups: 3x10 reps
DB hammer grip curls: 3x12 (each arm) reps * last set to failure
DB rows 3x10 (each arm) reps
EZ bar curls 3x12
Cable curls 3x12 * last set to failure
Band assisted (purple) pull-ups: 3x8 reps
DB hammer grip curls: 3x10 reps * last set to failure
DB rows 3x8 reps
EZ bar curls 3x10
Cable curls 3x10 * last set to failure
Band assisted (purple) pull-ups: 3x8 reps
DB hammer grip curls: 3x8 reps * last set to failure
DB rows 3x8 reps
EZ bar curls 3x8
Cable curls 3x8 * last set to failure
BW Pull-ups: 3x6 reps
DB hammer grip curls: 3x6 reps * last set to failure
DB rows 3x6 reps
EZ bar curls 3x6
Cable curls 3x6 * last set to failure
A Few More Thoughts on Biceps Training
As you can see in the program, I recommend you slowly increase the weight and lower the reps over a 4-week cycle. On the 5th week go back to lower weights and higher reps. I like to keep the reps on the pulling movements a little lower because they’re generally more challenging to perform than curls.
You need to adjust the exercises every 4th week as well. Your body quickly adapts to exercise. If you want continued progress, it is essential to keep things fresh. You don’t need to make massive changes, just a little something to keep your body guessing. Please don’t feel limited to the exercises I have listed. With so many curl and pull variations out there, the possibilities are endless.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful and that you’re able to incorporate some of these exercises into your training program. What did you think of my picks? Let us know in the comments below!