What’s your go-to biceps exercise? If you’re like most people, it’s the standard biceps curl. However, as you know, you need variety to continue to see gains in biceps strength and development. Yes, you’ll get growth with progressive overload, but you also need to work your biceps at different angles and train using a variety of exercises to maximize your gains. Doing the same old biceps curls using the same weight, which many people do, will get you nothing but stagnation. Time to break out of a biceps rut and give your biceps a boost by varying your arm workout!
Anatomy of Your Biceps
Your biceps muscle, the muscle that runs along the anterior surface of your upper arm, has two parts or heads – the long head of the biceps and the short head. The two components contract together as a unit. The long head begins at your shoulder joint while the short head begins at the top of your scapula. Both biceps heads attach at your elbow.
Although most people have two heads to their biceps, some people actually have three or more! Your biceps attach to your humerus in your upper arm and the two bones in your lower arm, the ulna and radius, by tendons. When you contract your biceps, it flexes your arm and moves it outward. Although the biceps are the main flexors of the forearm, another muscle called the brachialis, a muscle that lies beneath the biceps helps the biceps out by acting as a synergist.
Why is it so important to have strong, defined biceps? For one, people SEE your biceps and when they’re firm and defined, it shows you’re strong and fit. Also, when you have strong biceps, you’re able to move more weight when you do other exercises.
Shake Up Your Biceps Routine
It’s easy to get into a biceps curl slump – but don’t let it happen. If you’re like most people, you grab a pair of dumbbells and eke out sets of standard curls – but why not work your biceps differently by reaching for barbells instead?. Barbells offer increased stability, giving you the ability to lift more and maximize your strength development.
This doesn’t mean you should switch exclusively to barbells. Barbells have limitations as well. For example, you can’t work your biceps at a variety of angles using barbells, but you can with dumbbells. With dumbbells, you can do concentration curls, hammer curls, alternating biceps curls, standing inner biceps curls (where you turn your arms out at an angle), seated incline biceps bench curls, all of which are hard to do using a barbell.
The big advantage of barbells is you can lift heavier. You can also alter the stimulus on your biceps slightly by varying the grip – close grip versus standard grip. Watch your form. If you use momentum, you’re reducing the benefits of the exercise. Keep your back straight without leaning backward as you lift.
Another option: work your biceps curls differently using resistance bands. Using bands has the advantage of eliminating momentum, a common problem when most people do biceps curls. If you’ve always used dumbbells, resistance bands offer a novel stimulus your biceps aren’t accustomed to. This gives your biceps the unexpected stimulus they need to grow.
The Most Effective Biceps Exercises
Although you should do a variety of curl variations, there’s one you definitely shouldn’t ignore. The American Council on Exercise used EMG to measure activation of the biceps with different forms of biceps exercise. The types of curls they looked at included: barbell curls, concentration curls, cable curls, EZ curls, incline curls, and preacher curls.
The clear winner in terms of biceps activation was the concentration curl followed closely by cable curls. Some types of curls recruit the deltoids and take some of the load off the biceps. Concentration curls recruit the anterior deltoids less than other types of curls, making them a very effective exercise for targeting the biceps. If you’re not doing them, it might be time to reconsider.
Beyond Biceps Curls
Don’t forget you’re also working your biceps when you do compound exercises like upright rows, horizontal rows, and chin-ups. Some trainers will argue you don’t need to do isolation exercises like biceps curls to get strong, defined biceps since you’re working these muscles when you do compound movements. If you have difficulty building arm definition, you need both. Women, in particular, have difficulty building biceps strength and definition and need a combination of compound AND isolation exercises to get biceps definition. Nutrition plays into the equation as well, so make sure you’re eating cleanly and getting enough protein.
Keep Your Workout Balanced
Even though we’ve emphasized biceps work in this article, keep your training balanced by working the opposing muscle group equally – your triceps. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a muscle imbalance.
The Bottom Line
If you aren’t getting stronger or gaining more biceps definition, first make sure you’re gradually increasing the amount of weight you use over time. Progressive overload is at the very core of strength training. Without it, you won’t make consistent gains. Then, make sure you’re working your biceps from different angles and approaches. Don’t get too comfortable with standard biceps curls. Your biceps will quickly adapt to doing the same movement over and over. Finally, don’t be afraid to give the dumbbells a rest and try barbells.
It’s not easy to build biceps strength and definition, particularly for women. Be consistent with your training and with your nutrition – and be patient. It takes time to build definition and strength – but it’s worth it.
American Council on Exercise. “ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises”
Healthline. “Biceps Brachii”
Biomedical Research 2011; 22 (3): 387-389.
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