We’ve all wondered how to get bigger arms at one point or another. It’s the reason a lot of us started training in the first place and continues to be a driving force and focal point. Though as you may have experienced, building bigger arms is hard work. The biceps, in particular, can be stubborn and as you’ll learn today, likely need special attention. Read on to learn more about the best way to train your biceps for optimal growth and overall arm mass.
The biceps play a role in virtually every upper body compound exercise like rows, pull ups, and presses. And while this involvement is significant enough to stimulate muscle growth, it could come at the expense of your targeted muscle group. Too much biceps activation during chin ups, for example, could mean your lats and back won’t receive enough attention. This might be why coaches suggest thumbless grips during pulling exercises and other tactics for de-emphasizing the arms during compound movements.
To simplify things, compound movements are a must for overall development, but you’ll likely need to add isolation exercises to achieve optimal levels of training volume. That said, studies show two compound exercises that stand above the rest in terms of biceps activation.
Despite their superior biceps activation when compared to other compound exercises, it’s best to treat your compound movements primarily as developers for back, chest, or larger muscle groups. Sure, you could hammer out endless chin ups, inverted rows, and other pulling movements to achieve adequate training volume for every muscle, but we’re after what’s most optimal. And as you’ll see below, exercise selection, grip variations, and tempo all play important roles in optimal biceps development.
Okay, so if compound exercises aren’t enough for optimal growth, that makes isolation exercises a necessity. In the case of the biceps, that means curling or flexing at the elbow joint under load in its simplest form. But which curl exercise should you choose? What about the grip and tempos I mentioned above? Let’s take a look.
Since the biceps cross the shoulder joint, manipulating your shoulder position will affect biceps activation. The behind the back cable curl or incline dumbbell curl, for example, put the shoulder in an extended (rolled back) position. Curling in this extended state should create maximum tension at the top of the movement or contraction. On the other hand, the concentration curl is performed with a flexed shoulder (shoulders forward), placing more of an emphasis on the bottom portion of the curl.
Another variant that affects biceps activation is grip width. A wider grip slightly outside shoulder-width may activate more of the outer, long head of the biceps. While a more narrow, shoulder-width or slightly inside shoulder-width grip should target more of the inner, short head. You should, however, avoid going too narrow with your grip as it’s been shown to decrease biceps activation and may cause unnecessary wrist strain.
Lastly, the type of grip you use during curl variations matters as well. A supinated (palms up) grip seems to be the best grip variation for biceps isolation and activation. We’ll talk more on the neutral grip below, but you should know it’s also a viable grip option for activating the biceps. The only suboptimal grip for biceps activation seems to be the pronated (palms down) grip, though this grip may have better training applications for different muscles.
The takeaway on exercise selection: For optimal biceps stimulation, you should train your biceps using a variety of shoulder angles, grip widths, and wrist positioning.
When you flex your biceps, there’s actually another muscle lying deeper in your upper arm whose sole purpose is to assist with elbow flexion. Let’s skip the anatomy lesson and get to the important stuff. As the brachialis increases in size, it may actually push the biceps out more and add to overall arm girth.
To train the brachialis, using neutral and pronated grips has been shown to elicit higher muscle activation. Like I mentioned above, using a pronated grip seems to have the least amount of biceps activation. So, if we’re looking at the biggest bang for your buck to target both the brachialis and biceps, neutral grip exercises like hammer curls and cross body hammer curls take the cake.
One final anatomy-related note that matters for brachialis development. Since the brachialis doesn’t play a role in supination or pronation (palms down) of the forearm and is primarily a slow-twitch muscle, using slow and controlled contractions and eccentrics will ensure the brachialis gets most of the work in these exercises.
Speaking of tempo, the biceps, unlike the brachialis, is a slightly fast-twitch muscle. Meaning, heavier loads in lower rep ranges may better stimulate the biceps. We’re not advising you to work up to a one rep max on curls but occasionally working in the 6-8 rep range may elicit a positive training adaptation.
One pitfall of training in lower rep ranges on curls could be excessive strain on the wrists, elbows, and connective tissues surround both. Be sure to select an exercise that is joint-friendly and can be progressed without injury or wear and tear. Using the supinating bicep curl where you start each rep with a hammer grip and finish the contraction with a supinated grip, for instance, is probably better suited for lower loads and higher rep ranges. A straight bar cable curl with a shoulder-width grip, on the other hand, may serve you well.
In addition to rep ranges and load, tempo matters for biceps growth. Studies have shown controlled eccentrics (negatives or lowering the weight) to play an important role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, a marker for muscle growth. Explosive contractions may be optimal for stimulating fast-twitch muscle fibers, but slow and controlled eccentrics should definitely have a place in your arm training. This could come in the form of cheat reps at the end of your final working set or through 2-3 second eccentrics throughout the entire set.
One final thing to consider here is training fatigue. If you always train biceps at the end of a workout, it may be a good idea to occasionally move your biceps training to the beginning of a workout or train them on an arm-specific day. Doing this should allow you to lift heavier loads and stimulate more muscle growth.
The takeaway for load and tempo: Train biceps in all rep ranges with moderate to heavy loads and don’t neglect the eccentric portion of any lift. And if you’re typically training biceps when fatigued at the end of workouts, consider moving it to the front or implementing stand-alone biceps training.
With individual training experience and genetic differences, it’s nearly impossible to give specific recommendations for the optimal amount of training volume. Similar to calorie and macronutrient recommendations, you’ll have to experiment to find what works best for you. However, it’s fairly safe to say somewhere between 10-20 sets/week is optimal for most. While the biceps will get indirect work from compound exercises, this would be an additional 10-20 sets in the form of direct, isolation exercises performed each week.
If you’re performing 3 sets of 8-12 reps for each exercise, then you may need 4-6 exercises spread throughout your week. With the minimum threshold for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (growth) being surprisingly low, it would be wise to space this training volume as evenly as possible across your training week. If muscle protein synthesis is elevated for 48-72 hours post-training session, then directly training biceps every 2-3 days might be most optimal.
Something we didn’t cover in this article is the use of advanced rep schemes like drop sets, supersets, or giant sets. These strategies could be used just the same with the exercises above. You should aim to achieve a similar total time under tension and volume, as it remains the most important factor. If using a triple dropset keeps training fun, the differences in your training response might even be outweighed by the increased effort and/or physiological benefit.
That’s it for biceps training for bigger arms. Keep training hard, be patient, and make sure your nutrition is locked in for maximizing your response to training.
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