A quick Google search for the term ‘biceps’ pulls up a revealing result from Encyclopedia Britannica. “The size of the biceps brachii is a conventional symbol of bodily strength.”
But that superficial line doesn’t even begin to cover the extent of our societal – okay, mainly men’s – obsession with this particular piece of anatomy, or explain it.
Perhaps the reason is simply that the biceps brachii is, thanks to its position on the front of the upper arm, one of the most “prominent” muscles, as the entry points out. Certainly far fewer of us fetishise the biceps femoris on the back of our thigh.
Whatever its primitive, possibly evolutionary origin, the belief exists that, to borrow a phrase from Ron Burgundy, the only way to bag a classy lady is to give her two tickets to the gun show. Curls for the girls, as the gym bro saying goes – or bis for the guys.
Biceps are also important for pulling in a more literal sense. So if you want bigger, stronger arms, incorporate more pulling exercises into your workout routine. “Movements like rows, deadlifts or loaded carries will make a cumulative difference,” says Artur Zolkiewicz, manager of Workshop Gymnasium at the Bulgari Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge, and a fitness model who has bared his arms on magazine covers.
Before you start hitting the heavy hammer curls, size and strength don’t necessarily go hand in hand like Dutch and Dillon. “Using lighter weights and practising intense contraction can be more beneficial for your aesthetic goals,” says Zolkiewicz. Plus you’ll mitigate the risk of inflamed joints (the bad kind of swole), pain and injury.
While any pulling movement will employ your biceps, you still need to focus on them – in the sense of exercise selection and mind-muscle connection. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously thought of his biceps as mountains, which he believed helped them grow to Himalayan proportions, and non-bro science backs up his assertion. “Be conscious of the movement throughout and maximally contract the muscle at the peak point,” says Zolkiewicz.
With that in mind, perform this bicep workout from Zolkiewicz once a week if you typically lift three times. Maybe don’t plan on washing your hair afterwards.
The Best Bicep Workouts For Building Big Arms
Bicep Exercise 1: Supinated-Grip Pull-Ups
Or more catchily, ‘chin-ups’. As well as pulling, the biceps also ‘supinate’ your forearms, or turn them, so your palms are facing upwards. But you don’t typically curl with your bodyweight, or hit your lats and traps in the process. And you have to lay foundations to build big arms: they can’t exist in isolation, or come solely from isolation exercises.
Five sets of five reps at a controlled pace.
Hang from the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing you and elbows locked. Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades down. Then pull your elbows down to your hips until your chin is over the bar. Take one second to lift and three seconds to lower in a controlled fashion – the latter actually elicits more gains than the former.
Bicep Exercise 2: Supinated-Grip Lat Pulldown
You can only do so many pull-ups. (Unless you’re David Goggins, former Navy SEAL and one-time holder of a world record for doing 4,030 in 24 hours.) The lat pulldown enables you to recruit the same muscle groups to do more work and with greater control than when you’re hanging from a bar.
Three sets of 12 reps at a controlled pace.
Make sure the hold-down pad is snug against your thighs so you don’t get pulled up, then reach up and grab the bar with a shoulder-width, underarm grip. As with the chin-up, pull your elbows down to your hips so that the bar ends up under your chin, then return it under control. Don’t lean back and jerk it down – if you find yourself needing to, reduce the weight.
Bicep Exercise 3: Prowler Rope Pull
As the name suggests, your biceps have two ‘heads’. The prowler rope pull targets the short head, which ‘adducts’ or moves your upper arm towards your body and stabilises your shoulder, plus your pecs (surprisingly) and teres major, which runs along the side of your shoulder blade. Think of it as like arm wrestling.
Set up with your feet wide apart and legs slightly bent so that your glutes and hamstrings are under tension, then lean forward so your upper body is parallel to the ground. Pull the rope toward you hand over hand as quickly as possible, being careful not to reach too far or stand up, which will tip you into external torque and activate your lats and traps.
Bicep Exercise 4: Incline Fat Gripz DB Curls
Performing curls on an incline bench means that your arms go behind your body, stretching the long head of the biceps, which makes up the peak. The addition of Fat Gripz, which increase the width of the bar, also forces your hands and forearms to work harder, unlocking potential chained by these weak links and triggering ‘irradiation’ or activation of surrounding muscles.
Three sets of 12-15 reps.
Sit on a bench that’s set to 45 degrees with your arms by your sides and dumbbells in your hands. In a curling motion, bring both hands at the same time as close to your upper arms as possible in a controlled tempo and without your elbows moving forwards, or anywhere else. Squeeze at the top for two to three seconds then lower slowly.
Bicep Exercise 5: Iso Dynamic-Contrast Bicep Curls
As in ‘isometric’, or static hold. Banging out countless reps isn’t the quickest route to Gainsville: overall time under tension is a key factor in hypertrophy. Zolkiewicz suggests timing your sets and slowing down. “You’ll probably have to use lighter weights, but you’ll ‘feel’ your arms more and a few weeks will bring noticeable changes.”
Three sets of 12-15 reps.
Seated on a bench, hold the dumbbells with your arms by your sides and elbows bent at 90 degrees so that your forearms are parallel to the ground for 15-20 seconds. Then proceed as normal by curling both dumbbells simultaneously, squeezing each time they come to the top. What’s the matter? The CIA got you pushing too many pencils?
Best Bicep Workout Tips
Zolkiewicz has a few bonus tips for getting ripped, starting with how often you alter your workout. “I recommend changing your programme every 6-8 weeks to avoid hitting a plateau,” he says. “There are a few variables you can change – you can use different ranges of motion, vary your tempo or add bands or Fat Gripz to make the exercises more challenging.”
“One piece of advice I got from a successful bodybuilder friend is to warm up your biceps with a lot of reps using very light weights,” says Zolkiewicz. “Grab a pair of, say, 4kg dumbbells and do sets of 40, 30 and 20 reps in quick succession, with short breaks in between. This will help you to engage your biceps better during the actual exercise you’re about to perform. I’ve been trying this method in my own training, as well as with some of my clients, and it’s been working very effectively.”
A Final Rule Of Thumb
“One coaching cue I use a lot with clients is to twist your thumbs out as if you were twisting a doorknob, which causes more activation in the biceps, and squeeze as hard as possible with your little fingers, which results in more overall irradiation [muscle engagement].”