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best dumbbell exercises for biceps

BEST DUMBBELL EXERCISES FOR BICEPS

Can you build bigger biceps if dumbbells are the only equipment you’ve got available to you?

The answer is YES.

The ‘how’ depends on what goal you’re training for.

I’m going to show you the best arm exercises for biceps, whether you’re training for hypertrophy, strength, power or are just plain short on time!

We’ll make sure you’re hitting both heads of the biceps, I’ll also include the best way to train the brachialis muscle of the upper arm, which supports the size and appearance of the biceps.

No stone left unturned.

As you’ll see, restricting our equipment to only dumbbells doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice anything in our arms workout!

bicep muscle anatomy, long and short head of biceps, brachialis muscle

STRENGTH

When looking at strength, some of our best exercise options for biceps are barbell exercises.

Unfortunately, we often run into a problem with our at home arm workouts when we try to convert a barbell strength exercise into a dumbbell exercise.

As I explained in Best Dumbbell Exercises for Chest, when we move from a fixed hand position on a barbell, such as in a standing barbell curl, to separate hands controlling two dumbbells, we lose stability which greatly undercuts our strength.

In other words, you can’t just take the weight of the barbell you can lift and split that weight equally between two dumbbells.  Your arms individually won’t be strong enough to lift it because of that instability.

When we move from a fixed hand position on a barbell to separate hands controlling two dumbbells, we lose stability which greatly undercuts our strength.

If I had a barbell at my disposal, I’d go right to the barbell curl, as you see me doing here. It allows us to add the most weight to the bar to get the most strength benefits.

barbell curl exercise
The barbell curl would be my top choice for a strength exercise for biceps, but you need access to a barbell for it.

I also really like the weighted chin up for biceps strength. It allows me to overload the biceps muscle not only because of the weight hanging from my waist, but also because of my own bodyweight.

weighted chin up exercise
The weighted chin up is excellent for overloading the biceps, but it’s not a dumbbell exercise.

Here’s the good news!

We can make a couple of small tweaks to each of these exercises to make it possible to reap their benefits using dumbbells only.

As I mentioned before, we can’t take a 300lb bench press and split it into a 150lb dumbbell in each hand because the stability required at the shoulder becomes compromised and this undercuts your strength.

You have to use your core to stabilize the weight because of the posterior driven force of the dumbbells coming up and back.

dumbbell biceps curl exercise
You can see that it’s necessary to use the abs to stabilize the weight of the dumbbells when you do a dumbbell biceps curl.

There’s an easy fix for this though!

You can alternate arms.

Here your core doesn’t have to work as hard to stabilize the upward motion of the dumbbells, and you can handle more weight for an easier progressive overload.

To do this, hold one dumbbell in each hand and perform alternating single arm curls. Lift the dumbbell with one arm at a time squeezing the biceps at the top of the movement.

1.) ALTERNATING DUMBBELL BICEPS CURL

alternating dumbbell biceps curl exercise

In doing an alternating version, we’ve halved the requirements of our core for having to stabilize that weight coming up and backward. You’ll notice you can maximize your strength lifting one dumbbell with one arm at a time.

Guess what?

We’re not going to abandon the weighted chin-up either, because we don’t have to!

Instead of using plates as my form of resistance, all I have to do is wrap a dog leash around a single dumbbell, and then wrap it around my waist. Start with your feet shoulder width apart and your  hands about shoulder width apart on the bar with hand palm facing toward you, and then bend your elbows and pull yourself up.

dog leash dumbbell trick weighted chinups at home
You can to secure a dog leash around your waist with the handle attached to the dumbbell to perform the weighted chin up.

I haven’t had to sacrifice the load that I’ve been using with plates thanks to this dog leash trick!

2.) DUMBBELL WEIGHTED CHIN UP

dumbbell weighted chinup

The fact is, when we’re trying to train for strength, overload is the key. These two exercises give you the best opportunity to do just that!

POWER

If you want to develop power, you not only need to move some weight, but you want to be able to move that weight quickly.

To get that velocity component for the biceps, you have to try to find an exercise in which you can release the load during the repetition so you can realize true power development.

There’s one exercise that I love that includes this function for the biceps.

If you want to develop power, you not only need to move some weight, but you want to be able to move that weight quickly.

That is the Weighted Plyometric Chin Up.

3.) DUMBBELL WEIGHTED PLYOMETRIC CHIN UP

dumbbell weighted plyometric chinup exercise

The dog leash trick comes in handy here too.  We don’t have to weight this as heavy as we did with the regular Weighted Chin Up because our goal is velocity.

You want to explode your body up and over the bar with a quick catch and release of the cross bar.

You actually don’t have to use any weight here!  You can use just your bodyweight with the dumbbell as a stepping stool up to the bar.

Remember that the goal with power training is to stay submaximal in your effort and focus on moving as much weight as you can control with an increased rep velocity.  If you find that the weight you select is so heavy that you have to either cheat the form too much or you can’t maintain proper speed, use lighter weights and start again.

You’ll see that the Plyometric Chin Up is one of the best and most explosive ways to train for power when you’re trying to focus on your biceps.

HYPERTROPHY

When it comes to hypertrophy for the biceps there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Progressive overload is an option, but we will eventually dry up on it because we can’t continually add weight to the exercise. Eventually we’re going to hit a wall, so we need more options.

That’s where eccentric overload comes in!

Eccentric muscle damage is a great stimulator for protein synthesis.

When performed with a couple of additional techniques, the Dumbbell Incline Curl can be great for this.

The first thing we want to do is try to accentuate the stretch on the biceps. We can do that by actively contracting the muscle on the opposite side the biceps, which is the triceps.

You can see me doing that in the bottom of every rep.

Start position for this exercise is to sit on an incline bench with a steep incline, and grab a pair of dumbbells with an underhand grip. Begin to lift the weights and curl the dumbbells bringing them to shoulders height. Then slowly lower the weight and straight the arm, squeeze with your triceps and then return to the starting position.

4.) DUMBELL INCLINE CURL W/TRICEPS CONTRACTION

dumbbell incline curl with triceps contraction exercise

Next, when we reach concentric failure we’re not done.

If you’re trying to create hypertrophy, you’ve got to take your exercises not just to failure, but through failure using a drop set.

To do this, sit up at the end of the bench and then slowly lower both your body and curl the weights back down.  The cheat on the way up is going to be easier from this position and the sinking of the body into the bench as you lower down accentuates that stretch once again.

5.) SEATED LOWERING DUMBBELL CURL

seated lowering dumbbell curl exercise

This combination employs a couple of specific techniques in the incline curl that will greatly amplify the results you see from this exercise.

METABOLIC

We’re going to continue on the theme of metabolic stress with a mechanical drop set.

When we get to the burn, the exercise is only just beginning! We’ve got to revel in that burn and keep it going long after we thought we’d have to quit.

There’s no way you can perform this and not burn like hell by the time you’re done.

I promise you that!

Begin by doing an Incline Curl to failure, which really isolates the biceps.

6.) INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL

incline dumbbell curl exercise

Then, keeping the same weight, sit up and change the position of the dumbbells relative to gravity to change up the strength curve and take it to failure again.

7.) SEATED DUMBBELL CURL

seated dumbbell curl exercise

Your biceps should be burning like hell at this point.

This is where you test yourself. How far can I go with the burn?

When you get to failure, then lean forward and perform a drag curl.

8.) DRAG CURL

drag curl exercise

In this movement, the moment arm of the dumbbells is no longer far away from my shoulder. Now I can get my elbows way back and keep those dumbbells in close, which is going to make the exercise easier.

This should allow you to crank out a few more reps.

This mechanical drop set is such a great option for creating an intense and effective burn!

TOTAL BODY

Yes, total body options do exist for your biceps using dumbbells only! 

I’ll give you an option that covers multiple joints and demands synchronization of the ankles, knees, hips, elbows and even shoulders.

It’s the Dumbbell Underhand Dead Row.

9.) DUMBBELL UNDERHAND DEAD ROW

dumbbell underhand dead row exercise

When we look at this exercise from all angles you can see that it’s working the back as we go into the row portion of it.  As we come back around there’s no doubt the biceps are doing the heavy workload, especially because of the supinated grip with palms facing forward.

dumbbell underhand dead row muscles worked
You can see that this total body exercise works the back, the biceps and multiple other muscle groups.

This exercise is great if you’re short on time, doing a pull workout or if you’re just looking for one of those ‘big-bang-for-your-buck’ exercises.

I promise you, your biceps are going to benefit from this great exercise selection.

CORRECTIVE

Just because correctives are the more rehab-based exercises, it doesn’t make them less important.

The truth is, they’re going to help you need less rehabilitation when done preemptively!

In the case of the biceps, we want to focus on maintaining the health of the elbow.

The shoulder has an attachment to the biceps, but I prefer to focus my correctives on strengthening the forearms for when you’re gripping in those biceps exercises.

Why is that?

When you grab a dumbbell or barbell too far down into the distal fingertips of your hand, it puts a lot of stress on the medial elbow and makes it almost impossible for you to do biceps exercises.

We’ve got two choices to fix this issue.

If you can’t handle a heavy load, I would choose this wrist curl variation.

10.) MEDIAL ELBOW WRIST CURL

medial elbow wrist curl exercise

This is a normal forearm wrist curl, but you have to grab the dumbbell deep in your hand.

When you grab a dumbbell or barbell too far down into the distal fingertips of your hand, it puts a lot of stress on the medial elbow.

Don’t grab it in the distal fingers because overloading these tendons is what causes the issues with the medial elbow. Also be sure that your hand doesn’t go beyond parallel to the floor at the bottom part of the movement.

stress on medial elbow tendon with wrist curls
When the dumbbell is held too distally in the fingers it creates a lot of stress on the medial elbow tendon.

If you’re strong enough to handle a heavier weight, I’ve got another option for you which will have even better carryover when you go back to your strength exercises.

You can try this variation of a carry.

11.) GRIP STRENGTH FARMER’S CARRY

grip strength farmers carry exercise

In this variation you’re not trying to walk around the gym with the heaviest dumbbells you possibly can hold until they drop out of your hands.

Instead, you want to choose a weight that you can grip deep in your hand so you are working on forearm strength and proper form without letting the dumbbells start to fall into the distal fingers.

If I begin to fatigue and I have to put the dumbbells down, so be it.

Remember, this is a corrective exercise!

Both of these are great options to help you build the forearm strength necessary to improve your grip strength without sacrificing your elbow joint.

BRACHIALIS

The brachialis muscle lies underneath the biceps and is responsible for greater biceps width and overall upper arm size. 

The best dumbbell exercise for training the brachialis is a version of the dumbbell hammer curl called the Crossbody Hammer Curl done with a pronated forearm.

12.) PRONATED FOREARM CROSSBODY HAMMER CURL

pronated forearm crossbody hammer curl exercise

Why the pronated forearm?

One of the main functions of the biceps is to supinate the forearm, so we can take away some of its influence by pronating the forearm.  This will emphasize activation of the brachialis.

Also, research has shown that there’s a rate dependency on how fast you move through the concentric curl portion of the lift. When we go slower, the brachialis has more activation.

Of course, you still want to load this as heavy as you can to try to get more of that size and development. But don’t allow the load to cause you to swing the weight up, because you’re going to defeat the purpose of what we’re trying to do here.

I’ve given you my best dumbbell exercise selections for your biceps, regardless of which goal you’re training for. The fact is, you can still build massive arms and a strong upper body, even if you don’t have a full gym at your disposal.

athleanx
THE HIGHLIGHT REEL:
The BEST Dumbbell Exercises for BICEPS

  1. If you’ve only got dumbbells to work with, what would be the best exercises for biceps? It depends on your training goal. I’ve shown you the best dumbbell biceps exercises for strength, power, hypertrophy, corrective, total body and a special focused exercise for the brachialis.
  2. For strength I’ve got two favorites: the Alternating Dumbbell Curl which keeps you from having to sacrifice weight selection and the Dumbbell Weighted Chin Up which you can set up with my dog leash trick.
  3. For power I chose the Dumbbell Weighted Plyo Chin Up because it allows you to release the weight you’re accelerating which is our goal.
  4. For hypertrophy we need to explore an eccentrically overloaded exercise, and the Dumbbell Incline Curl W/Triceps Contraction followed by the Seated Lowering Dumbbell Curl allow us to take the muscles not only to, but through failure.
  5. For a metabolic challenge, you can employ a mechanical drop set using the Incline Dumbbell Curl, Seated Dumbbell Curl and Drag Curl to find the burn and revel in it.
  6. If you’re short on time and looking for a total body move that also includes the biceps, the Dumbbell Underhand Dead Row is an ideal option.
  7. As a physical therapist I like to include corrective movements, and the Medial Elbow Wrist Curl or the Grip Strength Farmer’s Carry are great for working grip strength and forearm strength without allowing the weight to fall into the distal fingers which causes elbow tendon issues.
  8. Finally, I’ve chosen the Forearm Crossbody Hammer for the brachialis muscle, which tends to be the arm muscle most associated with increased upper arm size and biceps width.

All of my exercise selections are based on science to arm you with the best of the best, no matter the purpose or goal you have in your training. We call it ‘putting the science back in strength’. I do that in every one my ATHLEAN programs. To get the best workouts, exercise videos and pro tips, use our Program Selector to see which program is best for your current training goals!

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