If there’s one muscle group that gets lots of exposure in the summer, it’s your biceps. Firm, defined biceps show the world you’re strong and that you take care of yourself. There’s a fringe benefit too. With well-toned arms, you can really “rock” that summer tank top. You might think the best way to build biceps definition is to do lots of biceps curls. No doubt curls build biceps, but to maximize growth, you need a combination of isolation and compound movements. Read on and discover six ways to get the most out of a biceps workout.
Compound Movements: Why You Need Them for Biceps Growth
Compound movements, exercises that target more than one muscle group simultaneously, deliver the metabolic stimulus your biceps muscles need to grow. Simply put, working more than one muscle group places more stress on your body and leads to a greater release of anabolic hormones that stimulate muscle growth. Plus, targeting your biceps with too many isolation exercises like curls can lead to strength imbalances that put you at greater risk for injury. Remember, isolation exercises work a single muscle group in isolation and won’t improve your functional fitness either.
Some people structure their workouts around isolation exercises. Why? Because they’re easier to do. Unfortunately, easy doesn’t build muscle or strength. In fact, women have a harder time getting defined upper body muscles than they do lower body ones. Compound exercises give you an “edge” when it comes to building muscle definition. Rather than focusing your biceps workout exclusively around curls, add more horizontal rows and bent-over rows that work your upper back and your arms. These movements work all the muscles in your arms and back and have a greater anabolic effect. Another compound exercise that works your entire upper body including your biceps are pull-ups. If you can’t do them yet, start with supported push-ups until you can build up more strength.
To boost biceps growth, make sure you’re focusing on squats too. It might seem counterintuitive that working your lower body would help to grow your biceps – but it’s the anabolic effect again. Working the large muscles in your lower body against heavy resistance maximizes the release of growth hormone and testosterone. (Yes, women produce testosterone but less than men do)
If your main goal is to build biceps definition and you work the upper and lower body on the same day, begin your workout with upper body exercises when you’re still feeling fresh. Focus on compound movements first and then isolation exercises like curls.
Get Out of the Comfort Zone
If you’re female, you have to work hard to build defined biceps. Take one or two of the biceps sets you do to failure, to the point that you simply can’t do another rep. Pushing every set to failure is too taxing on your muscles, but taking even a few sets to failure provides a stronger stimulus for growth. If you’re trying to build muscle, choose a weight you can lift 8 to 12 times and plan on doing 3 or 4 sets. Most importantly, increase the weight as the exercise becomes less challenging to progressively overload your biceps – but don’t sacrifice form to lift more weight. If you’re doing these things and still not making gains, try a more advanced resistance-training technique on your last set or two such as negatives, supersets or drop sets.
Work Your Biceps at a Variety of Angles
Adjust the position of your wrist when holding the dumbbell to work your biceps at different angles. With a classic biceps curl, your palms are pointed up. Hammer curls, where your palms are facing inwards work your biceps at a different angle. Target your biceps from as many different angles as possible to stimulate growth. Rather than using only dumbbells, alternate between dumbbells, barbells and resistance bands to work your biceps in a different way.
Add Concentration Curls to Your Routine
Remember how we said compound exercises are better than isolation movements for muscle growth? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do isolation exercises like curls. In a study published on the ACE Fitness website, researchers measured muscle activation while participants performed seven different biceps exercises. The exercises were: barbell curls, concentration curls, cable curls, EZ curls, chip-ups, incline curls, and preacher curls.
Which one was best? The most effective biceps activator was the concentration curls. Researchers believe concentration curls are so beneficial because other muscles, like the deltoids, aren’t recruited during this biceps isolation exercise. Your biceps are forced to bear the entire load. As you can see, isolation exercises have their place in a well-rounded biceps workout. Just make sure you aren’t doing them exclusively.
Get Your Nutrition in Order
Another reason your biceps may not be responding is you’re skimping on nutrition. You need a slight calorie excess, above what your body needs for maintenance, to build lean muscle tissue. If you’re calorie restricting to lose body fat or not consuming enough protein, you’re not creating ideal conditions for muscle growth. In fact, your muscles probably may not grow at all. Focus on nutrition. Eat a source of lean protein at every meal and get 20 to 30 grams of protein along with a carb source right after a workout to support muscle growth. Starving muscles won’t grow.
Building defined biceps takes good nutrition, high-intensity lifting and a combination of both compound and isolation exercises that target the biceps and back. If you’re over the age of 50, you’ll have to work harder since hormones are working against you. Be consistent with your workouts but not so consistent that you do the same exercises in the same order every time you exercise. Periodizing your workouts where you cycle between heavy weights and lighter weights will help you avoid a plateau and give your muscles a chance to recover.
The Bottom Line
Building biceps definition takes time, hard work and patience but when you put on a tank top come summer and you like what you see, it’ll all be worth it.
ACE Fitness. “ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises” July 14, 2014.
Women’s Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Jan 1, 2001.
Int J Sports Med. 2010 Nov;31(11):810-7. doi: 10.1055/s-0030-1262808. Epub 2010 Aug 11.
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