Are biceps curls your “go to” arm exercise? If you’re like most people, it is. Don’t give up curls! You need them in your routine as they’re a focused exercise for the biceps muscles, the muscles that make the front of your arms look strong and firm. Biceps curls are an isolation exercise that work a single muscle – the biceps muscle. How’s that for precision? But they aren’t the only exercise that will help you grow shapelier biceps and arms. Is it time to think outside the biceps box and do a more balanced workout for your “guns?”
Biceps Curls and Variations
To maximize your biceps training, make sure you’re doing more than the standard biceps curls. This exercise and its variations belong in your routine, but curls alone won’t maximize your biceps development. Instead, think about working your biceps muscles from different angles by using varying hand grips and doing them sitting and standing.
Curious about which bicep variations offer the most potential benefits? The American Council on Exercise did a study on biceps curls and which types of curls activated the biceps muscles best. To answer the burning question of which variations hit the biceps hardest, researchers used EMG to measure muscle activation. They asked sixteen volunteers to do eight biceps curls variations as they measured muscle activation. The exercises that activated the biceps most from top to bottom were:
· Concentration curls
· Cable curls
· Barbell curls
· EZ curls using a wide grip
· EZ curls using a narrow grip
· Incline curls
· Preacher curls
As you can see, they included a non-curl exercise, the chin-up in the study. This exercise, based on EMG activity, activated the biceps more than most of the curls on the list. So, biceps curls aren’t the only exercise that strengthens and hypertrophies your biceps! Not everyone can do a chin-up, but you can do a modified chin-up that also works the biceps using a table or desk. Here’s how:
Chin-Ups Work Your Biceps Too
Slide your body underneath a sturdy table or the underneath portion of a desk as you grasp the edge of the table with your palms pointing upward and your hands about shoulder length apart. Your face should be just under the table’s edge. Pull your body upward using your arms until your chest almost touches the bottom of the table. Then lower yourself back down. Repeat. Our Fit Tower makes this supine exercise even easier and more comfortable to do.
Although this exercise is easier than a chin-up, it’s still challenging. You may not be able to go up all the way at first. This chin-up variation also works the posterior part of the deltoids and the rhomboids and trapezius muscles. Performing this variation is a good way to build up the strength to do a standard chin-up. If you have access to machines, machine-assisted chin-ups are another option.
Chin-ups have another advantage over biceps curls. They’re a compound exercise that burns more calories than curls, an isolation exercise. Plus, mastering chin-ups will make you stronger and more functional in the upper body since you’re working multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
A Variation on Rows
Another compound exercise that works the biceps is a reverse row, sometimes called the Yates row. Named after Dorian Yates, a Mr. Olympia who won six titles, this exercise places more emphasis on the biceps than traditional rows. To do a Yates row, you’ll need a barbell. Start by mastering the form using only the barbell without added weight. You can always add more resistance after you master the movement and gain strength. Here’s how to do it:
· Stand in front of the barbell with your toes pointing slightly outward.
· Pick up the barbell using a supinated grip. (palms pointing upward) That’s the key to hitting the biceps – a supinated grip.
· Lean forward about 20 degrees with your knees bent. Keep your back in a neutral position throughout the exercise.
· Row the barbell toward your hips to the level of just above your belly button.
· Reverse the motion so the weight ends up in the starting position.
The Yates row is also an effective exercise for building strength in your upper back and it works the muscles in your core since your abs have to stabilize as you row. Don’t go heavy on this exercise. Good form is vital for avoiding injury.
Other Exercises for Shapely Arms
Despite the abundance of curl variations, you’ll get more balanced arm development if you think out of the biceps box on some sets and do exercises that create a more balanced arm development.
Dips are more of a triceps-focused exercise than an exercise that targets the biceps. But when you dip, the biceps act as dynamic stabilizers. You also need effective exercises that target the triceps for balance. Too often, people focus on the muscles in the front of the body, the so-called “mirror” muscles, and don’t share enough love with the muscles in the back of the body, like the triceps. Dips are an ideal triceps exercise because they’re a compound exercise that works other muscles, including the anterior deltoids and muscles in the upper back. Because they’re a compound exercise, you get more bang for your buck than with triceps kickbacks and other triceps isolation exercises.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know how to add variety to your biceps routine. It’ll also help you bust out of a “curls” rut and work your biceps in a different way. Of course, curls should still be part of your routine. When choosing curl variations, don’t forget about the concentration curl! It topped the list in terms of muscle activation in the ACE study. Based on the study, you shouldn’t focus a great deal of time on the preacher curl since it was dead last. Try doing a variety of biceps variations though to keep your biceps growing, and don’t forget to balance your training by working the triceps equally as much as your biceps. The muscles in the back count too!
· American Council on Exercise. “ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises”
· StrengthandConditioningResearch.com. “Biceps”
· J Sports Sci Med. 2009 Mar; 8(1): 24–29.