ARE YOUR BICEPS LACKING WIDTH?
So you’ve been working the ‘bicep peak’ and are starting to see some progress, but your arms till look a little scrawny when your biceps are viewed from the front?
If this sounds like you believe me, you’re not alone! Lots of guys (and hardgainers especially) have difficulty building wide biceps.
You may even think you know the solution to this bicep training problem?
Not so fast!
Hammer curls need to be done using a specific technique in order to build wider biceps, and they’re definitely not the only bicep exercise to help you widen the arms. I’m going to show you the best way to get broader arms, start filling up those shirt sleeves, and get bigger, thicker biceps in the process!
BRACHIALIS: THE KEY TO BICEPS WIDTH
Many people focus on the height of their arms by working on building up the bicep peak. While this is a sound approach, it’s neglecting the arm muscles that have the greatest effect on bicep width.
You can build those bicep peak muscle mass up to Mt. Everest height, but they’ll never be as impressive as if they were also trained for nice solid width!
The brachialis is the muscle that is most responsible for bicep width…
And it’s often sorely neglected in our bicep training routine!
The brachialis muscle sits up on the upper arm, crosses the elbow, and its only job is to control flexion of the arm at the elbow. The biceps muscle shares this function, but it also is responsible for the additional functions of supination of the forearm and flexion of the humerus at the shoulder.
Let’s find your brachialis muscle so you can get the lay of the land to be aware of what we’re trying to target for muscle development. The brachialis is situated beneath the bicep muscles and is slightly visible if you flex the arm and palpate on the outside of it.
Just underneath the long head of the biceps is a muscle that might be popping out a bit that is located between the biceps and triceps.
That is your brachialis!
You may find that this muscle is a little sore, because it’s a common area of a trigger point for anyone that does upper body training.
The biceps and the brachialis share the common function of flexion at the elbow, so it’s not possible to isolate the brachialis. However there is a key difference between how the brachialis and the biceps prefer to work that can help us favor the brachialis by using a specific strength training technique.
Since the brachialis is strongest in the midrange of the movement, it has a greater contribution to elbow flexion in the beginning third to half of an elbow bend range of motion, whereas the biceps will kick in more strongly from the midpoint up.
This means that we can hinder the contribution of the biceps by impairing its preferred action. This can be achieved by pronating the forearm in some of our biceps exercises, which I will show you how to do below.
WHY HAMMER CURLS AREN’T THE PERFECT ANSWER…
You’ve probably heard that the hammer curl is a great exercise for building up the brachialis to help push it outward and give you more arm size?
That is true, BUT…
Many times people don’t perform the exercise properly and so it doesn’t help with real growth to create wider thicker arms!
A regular hammer curl exercise for biceps is inadequate for hitting the brachialis because if you involve any sort of supination while bending the elbow you’re going to shift the focus over to the bicep heads and away from the brachialis.
The hammer curl puts you in a neutral grip position halfway between supinated and pronated with knuckles pointing straight ahead. You still get a little bit of bicep activation in terms flexing the elbow meaning that your brachialis isn’t kicking in as much as it could.
What can we do to turn the biceps muscle activation off a little bit more?
We want to take ourselves out of supination and put us into pronation to turn on and fire up that brachialis.
To get the most out of the hammer curl, the key is changing that position of the forearm and elbow during the movement. Instead of just keeping your hand in neutral with your knuckles pointed straight ahead, fold the arm against the chest and pronate the forearm into a Crossbody Hammer Curl.
From here, simply flex and extend the elbow to lift and lower the dumbbell. This will really ignite the brachialis while minimizing the contribution of the bicep muscles to the movement.
This is the absolute best way to focus much of the effort on the brachialis and help really create that muscle growth over time!
BRACHIALIS WITH BODYWEIGHT
What about a body weight exercise for biceps for building width? You probably already know that I love the chin up, and we can use a specific variation of it to home in on building brachialis muscle size!
Regular chin ups receive a large contribution from the biceps because of the supinated forearm required to do the exercise, so instead you would want to do an overhand grip pullup to get those arms into pronation.
But we’re not talking about just any pullup!
You’re going to want to take a very narrow grip on the bar and aim to close down the angle of the elbow joint as you pull, rather than worrying about getting your elbows behind your body.
NARROW GRIP PULL UP
We’re using our entire body weight for this pull up, which is a fantastic way to overload for muscle growth.
This pull up variation is a hard bicep exercise, and it may be too difficult right now depending on your fitness level.
If that’s the case, don’t think you’re getting off so easy!
I’ve got a great modification for you.
You can apply the same concept in a Narrow Grip Inverted Row by lying on your back and hanging from a bar.
NARROW GRIP INVERTED ROW
To do this, you take a very narrow overhand grip, and when you pull your body up you’re NOT trying to row your elbows back behind your body. That wouldn’t close the angle down enough to hit the brachialis as much as you could.
What you want to do instead is try to pull your body up by pulling the back of your forearms up into your chest. This will light up this brachialis more than you’ve ever experienced before, and trust me, over time it’s going to be a great muscle builder!
GETTING THE BRACHIALIS TO RESPOND!
I’ve got one final piece of advice for you when it comes to training the brachialis for muscle mass. This little tweak could make all the difference when it comes to developing wider, sleeve busting, huge biceps!
We know that muscles will be recruited in a sequential pattern in the order of demand. So that means if you go really hard, really heavy weights, and accelerate your reps on the exercises I’ve shown you, you’re actually doing your brachialis a disservice!
The biceps are going to be called into action because elbow flexion is one of their three functions and they’ll take over, leaving your brachialis in the dust!
The best way to try to taper that down is by going a little slower with our movements.
It’s also helpful to know that the lower portion to midrange of the curling motion on any of these exercises is going to be handled more by the brachialis. From the midrange up, the biceps will take over a little bit more especially as we get shoulder flexion involved.
So this means if you go a little bit slower on the reps and are more deliberate about the movement as you’re coming up, you can ensure that more of that work is being done by the brachialis.
As you can see, since the biceps and the brachialis share the function of elbow flexion, we have to employ any muscle building techniques we can in our training routine to try to minimize the recruitment of the biceps and call the brachialis to attention instead.
Remember, if you can build wider biceps, your arms will look more imposing from EVERY angle.
You’ll be busting the seams of those sleeves, because not only are you creating an impressive set of peaks, you’re training the biceps in all dimensions!
If you’re looking for a step by step workout muscle building plan with exercise selection based on science that helps you build muscle mass by getting the most out of every exercise you do, check out our ATHLEAN-X Training Programs.
- It’s a common bicep training issue to begin adding vertical height in the biceps peaks while the width of the biceps lags behind. The key to biceps width is a frequently neglected muscle called the brachialis.
- The brachialis and the biceps muscles share the common function of arm flexion at the elbow, so it is impossible to isolate the brachialis and all too easy for the biceps to take over, even in a bicep exercise like the hammer curl.
- There are a few key exercises like the Crossbody Hammer Curl, Narrow Grip Pull Up, and Narrow Grip Inverted Row that help us to pronate the forearm and close down the angle into our chest, therefore emphasizing the action of the brachialis and minimizing the biceps’ involvement.
- Taking your reps slowly and deliberately will help you focus on activating the brachialis in the lower to middle portion of the range of motion in these movements to ensure that the brachialis is as engaged as possible.
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.