THE ULTIMATE BICEP WORKOUT GUIDE
Are biceps specific exercises really necessary in your training? If so, are curls enough?
A lot of people skip bicep training, thinking that they’ll get enough biceps activation in their back workouts.
Other people do arm workouts, but they think a few sets of a conventional dumbbell curl will help them increase arm size.
In both cases, they are missing the mark!
If you really want to take your biceps development to the next level, you’re going to need to stimulate the bicep muscle in some intense and highly effective ways.
In this comprehensive guide to bicep workouts, I’ll teach you biceps muscle anatomy, the most important factors to include in your biceps training, and the best exercises and workouts to stimulate biceps muscle growth!
Here are the things I’ll cover in this biceps training guide:
Before we start talking about how to train the biceps or go into specific biceps workouts and a bicep exercise list, let me show you the anatomy of the biceps muscles so that you’ll be familiar as we target each area.
1) BICEPS MUSCLE ANATOMY
Using my handy Muscles Markers I’ll show you the different major muscles and areas that make up the biceps muscle.
First, the biceps are two-headed upper arm muscles with two separate regions referred to as the long head and the short head.
SHORT HEAD (INNER BICEPS)
LONG HEAD (OUTER BICEPS)
2) WHY ARE BICEP WORKOUTS IMPORTANT?
Stimulating the biceps muscle with specific targeted exercises is important if you want to improve your biceps development.
But to really boost development, there are two elements you need to be sure to include in your biceps routine. These are to makes sure that you’re training all three functions of the biceps and choosing exercises that emphasize different areas of the strength curve.
3 FUNCTIONS OF THE BICEPS
There are three main functions of the biceps: elbow supination, elbow flexion and shoulder flexion.
The first primary function of the biceps is elbow supination. The biceps supinate the elbow joint thanks to the large tendon that runs from the bottom of your biceps around to the radius of the elbow.
Elbow flexion is the primary function that the bicep muscles perform, and it’s the only function that a biceps curl works.
When your biceps contracts fully, it can also flex the shoulder because it crosses the shoulder joint.
THE STRENGTH CURVE OF THE BICEPS
Biceps exercises differ in their strength curve, which is the part of the range of motion where the contraction is the strongest.
Here is an example of 3 exercises and their differing strength curves.
As you can see, in a regular Barbell Curl, the strength curve is fairly easy in the beginning of the movement, most difficult in the middle, and easiest toward the end.
STRONGEST CONTRACTION IN THE MIDDLE: REGULAR BARBELL CURL
When you add a resistance band to a curl with dumbbells, the beginning is easiest and the strength curve becomes more difficult toward the end because the band is maximally stretched and causes peak tension.
STRONGEST CONTRACTION AT THE END: BANDED DUMBBELL CURL
The Incline Dumbbell Curl is most difficult in the early portion of the range of motion and eases up toward the middle and the end.
STRONGEST CONTRACTION AT THE BEGINNING: INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL
3) WHAT IS THE BEST BICEPS WORKOUT?
The best biceps workout will work the long head and the short head of the biceps as well as the brachialis muscle.
It will also include exercises that work all three functions of the biceps, and that emphasize all three portions of the strength curve.
Below are the elements of the ideal biceps routine and an example exercise selection for each.
THE BIG EXERCISE
We always want to start off our training session with the ‘big exercise’ and move that heavier weight while we have the most energy.
One of the best big exercises for biceps is the Barbell Cheat Curl because the ‘cheat’ during the concentric portion of this curling exercise allows us to create great eccentric overload. This simple movement is just a standing bar curl with a cheat built into the movement.
BARBELL CHEAT CURL
HOW TO DO IT: Start position is standing with feet shoulder width apart. Hands should take an underhand or supinated grip on the barbell grabbing the bar with hands shoulder width apart, and keeping elbows tucked into your sides throughout the entire movement, use momentum to curl the bar, squeezing your biceps at the top of the movement. Slowly lower to return to the starting position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Cheating through the concentric curling portion of this exercise gives us a great opportunity to increase time under tension and create eccentric overload with heavier weight when we lower.
HITTING ALL 3 FUNCTIONS WITH OVERLOAD
The best biceps exercise for hitting all three functions of the biceps with overload is the Weighted Chin Up. Put quite simply, we are taking one of the best body weight exercises and adding weight to it.
The supinated forearm position of the underhand grip, the flexion of the elbow as we grab the bar and pull, and the shoulder flexion required to get the biceps to peak contraction combine to help us work all three of the biceps’ core functions.
WEIGHTED CHIN UP
HOW TO DO IT: Start with feet hip width apart, shoulder-width grip on the bar with palms facing toward you and a weight plate affixed to you. Bend the elbows and pull your body upward until your chin clears the chin-up bar. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: We take a classic body weight exercise and add weight to it to achieve overload in all three functions of the biceps.
The Barbell Curl and the Weighted Chin Up are great exercises, but neither involves any active supination against resistance.
We can address that by adding in some resistance bands to a conventional dumbbell curl to create constant tension with a Banded Dumbbell Curl.
The resistance bands also give us the opportunity to increase peak tension throughout the entire range of motion of the exercise.
BANDED DUMBBELL CURL
HOW TO DO IT: Anchor a band to a low stable object and stand in front of it about 3 feet away or whatever amount of resistance feels challenging. Grab a section of the band in each hand along with a pair of dumbbells, and slowly lift and curl the dumbbells to shoulder height, pausing at the top before returning to the starting position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise works active supination in a way other exercises do not, and it allows us to increase peak muscular tension throughout the entire range of motion of the movement.
STRETCH REFLEX – BEGINNING OF RANGE OF MOTION
We want to ensure we are adequately hitting the beginning portion off the biceps’ range of motion. The Incline Dumbbell Curl is a great way to achieve peak muscular tension there.
However, we can achieve another purpose with this exercise. When the position of the arm falls back behind the body, we place a bit more stretch and stress on the long head of the biceps. Then we can actively contract the triceps here to give us a stronger biceps contraction coming out of the bottom of the movement.
INCLINE DUMMBELL CURL
HOW TO DO IT: Sit in an incline bench with the seat angled back and a dumbbell in each hand. Lift the weights squeezing the biceps when they reach the top of the movement at shoulder level, and then lower the dumbbells, squeezing the triceps at the bottom portion of the movement.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is the best exercise for hitting the biceps in the beginning portion of the strength curve, and it has the added benefit of taking advantage of the long head of the biceps being on stretch.
INTENSITY, SHOULDER ROTATION AND BRACHIALIS
Next up I’ve got a combo of three curl variations that will accomplish three goals: intensity, working the rotation of the shoulder, and hitting the brachialis muscle.
You’ll alternate these three positions in a single set to accomplish intensity.
The first position is the Supinated Cross Body Curl which allows us to preferentially hit the long head of the biceps. This is followed by the Pronated Cross Body Curl which emphasizes the brachialis. Then we will work the outward rotation of the shoulder with the No Money Curl.
BICEPS CURL TRIFECTA
HOW TO DO IT: For the Supinated Cross Body Curl, supinate the forearm with palms facing toward the ceiling and forearms coming across the body. For the Pronated Cross Body Curl, pronate the forearm with palms facing toward the floor (overhand grip) and forearms coming across the body. For the No Money Curl, you’ll curl the dumbbell as you outwardly rotate the shoulder.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: You alternate between three curl variations that each accomplish different goals, and you’ll keep the set going beyond the usual 8-12 repetitions which gives us that intensity.
To see more of the best biceps exercises that hit these functions and how to organize them into an entire biceps workout, check out the article Best Bicep Workout.
4) WHAT BICEP EXERCISES WORK THE LONG HEAD?
Two of my favorite arms exercises for hitting the long head of the biceps are the Incline Dumbbell Curl and the Drag Curl.
The Incline Dumbbell Curl was mentioned in the previous section. The long head of the biceps is put on stretch at the bottom of the range of motion, and we can emphasize that even further by contracting the triceps at the bottom of the movement before we resume the biceps contraction.
INCLINE DUMMBELL CURL
One of the best bicep curl movements for hitting the long head is the Drag Curl. The positioning of the elbows back behind the body allows us to hit the long head preferentially.
HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is standing with feet shoulder width apart with hands holding a barbell at shoulder width with an underhand grip. Begin by dragging the barbell up the thighs until about hip height, and then bring the elbows back behind the body as you perform a small but powerful bicep curl to only about chest height.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The positioning of the elbows back behind the body in the curl portion of this movement helps us preferentially hit the long head of the biceps.
5) WHAT BICEP EXERCISES WORK THE SHORT HEAD?
One of the best biceps moves for hitting the short head of the biceps is the No Money Curl.
Because of the external rotation of the shoulder in this movement, you also preferentially hit the inner portion of the biceps, which is the inner head.
NO MONEY CURL
HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is standing with feet hip width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your elbow and curl the weight toward your outer shoulder as you rotate your wrist. Alternate sides.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Unlike other bicep curl variations including the conventional dumbbell curl, as you externally rotate the shoulder in this exercise, you are preferentially hitting the interior of the biceps muscle, or the short head.
6) WHAT IS THE BEST DUMBBELL BICEP WORKOUT?
If you only have access to a set of dumbbells and not a full gym, you can accomplish any biceps workout goal.
In fact, using dumbbells you can create very effective bicep workouts that train the biceps for strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic, or even total body.
Let’s look at a dumbbell biceps exercise list with an example exercise selection for each.
ALTERNATING DUMBBELL BICEPS CURL – STRENGTH
HOW TO DO IT: Choose a challenging weight, hold a dumbbell in each hand and alternate bicep curling, squeezing the biceps at the top of the movement.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Because you are alternating, your core doesn’t have to work as hard to stabilize the upward motion of the dumbbells, allowing you to keep increasingly heavy weight under control for progressive overload to build arm strength and size.
DUMBBELL WEIGHTED PLYOMETRIC CHIN UP – POWER
HOW TO DO IT: Perform an explosive chin up with arms shoulder width apart incorporating a catch and release, either using body weight or by attaching a weight plate to your waist. Focus on moving as much weight as you can with an increased rep velocity. If you are cheating the form or can’t maintain speed, use lighter weight.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Allows you to move the weight explosively and release the load during the repetition so you can realize true power development.
INCLINE CURL W/TRICEPS CONTRACTION –> SEATED LOWERING DUMBBELL CURL – HYPERTROPHY
HOW TO DO IT: We’ll begin with the Dumbbell Incline Curl to accentuate the stretch on the biceps by actively contracting the triceps. When we reach concentric failure with this exercise, we’ll take no rest and keep going to eccentric failure by performing a drop set of the Seated Lowering Dumbbell Curl. Without taking any rest after your set of Dumbbell Incline Curls, perform the Seated Lowering Dumbbell Curl by sitting at the end of the incline bench. Then slowly lower both your body and the dumbbells simultaneously, keeping the weight under control. Sit back up and cheat the dumbbells to the top of the curl before repeating again.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a great combination to push past concentric failure and achieve eccentric overload of the biceps.
INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL –> SEATED DUMBBELL CURL –> DRAG CURL – METABOLIC
HOW TO DO IT: Perform an Incline Dumbbell Curl to failure to really isolate the biceps. Then using the same weight sit up on the bench to change the position of the dumbbells relative to gravity and hit a different part of the strength curve. Perform this Seated Dumbbell Curl to failure as well. Then lean forward and perform Drag Curl. Here the elbows are kept way back and dumbbells are tucked in close. Rep out here as well.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This effective three-move routine is a mechanical drop set that helps you to work through the burn way past failure to create an intense metabolic stress.
DUMBBELL UNDERHAND DEAD ROW – TOTAL BODY
HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is with feet hip width apart, bending forward with hands grabbing two dumbbells on the floor with an underhand grip. Perform a deadlift movement into a row as you straighten the knees.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The biceps are doing the hardest work in this movement, but you are also hitting multiple joints and muscle groups.
This definitive list gives beginner to advanced lifters plenty of exercises to add to your biceps training arsenal regardless of what your training goals are and what equipment you have at your disposal.
As you’ve learned, there’s a lot more to a biceps training session than just a couple sets of curls. If you want to force biceps growth you need to employ some unique techniques to push them beyond what those standard curls can accomplish.
Give the exercises and techniques in this guide a try to create much more efficient bicep workouts and you’ll start to quickly see results.
If you’re looking for a plan with complete workouts to build lean muscle and strength in every upper body and lower body muscle group, see which of our ATHLEAN-X programs best suits your goals and equipment possibilities:
Program Selector ==> See which program best fits your goals
AX1 ==> Train at Home With Dumbbells and Minimal Equipment
XERO ==> Train at Home With No Equipment