If you are trying to build big biceps, you need to figure out what role lifting heavy weights and light weights plays in your growth. I will tell you right now, you need to find a way to lift both heavy and light if you want to build your biggest biceps possible. Here’s why.
To start, it is important to define what we are talking about when we refer to lifting heavy or light. In general, the heavier lifts are the compound movements that incorporate multiple muscle groups into the performance of the exercise. In the case of the biceps this would be a weighted chin up as a perfect example, or even a heavy barbell cheat curl. In both, the biceps are certainly not the only muscles working to execute that lift. Your back, lower back, abs, and traps are contributing heavily to getting this done.
On the other side, doing exercises like spider curls and strict dumbbell curls with lighter weights are more isolated movements and involve a more focused attack on developing the mind muscle connection with the muscle you are working.
Now, it’s important to point out that research has strongly shown that even in a compound movement, it is possible for you to activate a component muscle of a lift by focusing more heavily on it when doing the exercise. For example, even though the weighted chin up is a compound movement for many muscles as just shown you can more heavily target the biceps if you focus hard on their contraction during the movement.
So where does this leave you specifically?
Well, you first want to determine if you are someone who does or does not have a good mind muscle connection with your biceps and then act accordingly. The two ways to quickly determine this is to assess how your biceps feel when you train them. If you never feel curls, chinups, or any other biceps exercise in your biceps but rather feel them in your forearms, shoulders and lower back then you likely do not have a good connection with that muscle.
Secondly, if you contract your biceps in their most shortened position (which is elbow flexion, shoulder flexion and a supinated forearm) and cannot do so with enough force to cause discomfort when you squeeze as hard as you can, then you very likely do not have a good mind muscle connection with your biceps.
So here, you would want to dial back the use of heavier biceps work in favor of the lighter more focused exercises. Of course, you wouldn’t want to abandon the weighted chin up all together since it has many other benefits for you as one of the best pulling exercises you can do. You simply wouldn’t rely on it as the biceps building exercise in your arsenal given how it is being undermined by your lack of biceps recruitment capabilities.
Build up your connection with the lighter weights and leave your ego at the door. As you improve this, your performance in the big lifts will not only improve but your ability to feel the muscle on these lifts will be greatly enhanced. If you already have this in place, then a reliance on the lighter exercises should diminish but not be abandoned completely since the reinforcement is important for maximizing both the athleticism and aesthetics of your arms.
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Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.