Developing Both Heads of the Biceps
Depending on how you train the arms, it is possible to overdevelop one head of the bicep and under develop the other.
As a result, the arms may not look full. It is not uncommon to come across individuals whose biceps look great from the side, but flat when viewed from the front.
Similarly, it is possible to build the biceps so that they look large from the front but formless from the side. The reason that this asymmetry occurs is because the two heads of the biceps are not being trained equally.
Everybody knows that the biceps brachii can be found in the upper arm, but few people are aware of the fact that the muscle has two-heads. The biceps consist of both a short and long head which, when contracted, cause flexion to occur at the elbow joint (1).
While the heads run parallel with each other, the short head runs along the inside of the upper arm. By building size in the short head, the arm will look fuller when observed from the front.
The long head meanwhile can be found on the outside of the upper arm and is most clearly seen when flexing the bicep. Considering that there is often asymmetry between the two, is it actually possible to work the heads individually and improve the balance between bicep heads?
While it is certainly possible to place more stress on a specific head, there does appear to be a certain degree of confusion as to which method is best.
There is some evidence to suggest that the type of grip used, grip width (2) and elbow positioning (3), amongst other factors, can determine which head is activated most. However, while these factors may contribute towards bicep development, often genetics will play the biggest role (4).
If you find that one bicep head is severely lagging behind and refusing to adapt, it may come down to genetics. As a result, the best method that you can adopt is to trial a number of different bicep resistance exercises and training techniques to see what brings the best results.
Resistance Exercises for Maximal Bicep Development
When it comes to bicep training, the bicep curl is the obvious, go-to exercise. However, there are a multitude of variations that can be used in order to build bicep head size.
Here are a number of powerful and effective bicep exercises for increasing mass in both the long and short head.
1) Long Head Exercise 1 – Alternating Incline Dumbbell Curl
Seen as one of the best long head exercises, the alternating incline dumbbell curl is an excellent place to start.
To safely and effectively perform this exercise, start by setting a bench on a 30 degree angle and select two dumbbells which are slightly lighter than normal.
The incline position will place more demand on the biceps and therefore you will quickly find that you cannot lift the same kind of load as you can with a standard dumbbell curl.
Lie back on the bench and start with the arms extended and hanging by the sides. This will ensure that the exercise begins with the biceps being fully stretched out.
The grip you use is entirely up to you however, it is recommended to start by using a hammer grip (palms facing each other) and switching to a supinated grip as you curl the weight up.
When using this method, think about pressing the thumb against the inner plate of the dumbbell which will make supinating the hand more challenging.
If using a supinated grip throughout, press the pinky against the inside plate of the dumbbell which will place more force through the thumb side of the bell and facilitate a greater bicep stretch.
The biggest error that is often made with this exercise (and many bicep orientated exercises in general) is moving the elbow away from the side of the body as the weight is lifted.
Imagine screwing the elbow in tightly to the ribcage as you perform this exercise to prevent this from occurring.
To add intensity, complete max incline reps before sitting upright and continuing to failure again. Finish off by standing and working to failure once more.
2) Long Head Exercise 2 – Standing Barbell Curl
Providing a narrow grip is assumed and the elbows are kept tight to the body, the barbell curl is an excellent long head isolator.
To properly perform this exercise, using a narrow grip grab a barbell and stand up tall. Push the chest up, pull the shoulders back and pin the elbows tightly to the sides.
From this position, flex at the elbow only, drive the weight upward and squeeze. Maintaining a slight forward lean from the trunk to maximize the tension going through the biceps.
Those who curl the weight up while maintaining a 90 degree angle at the elbow will fail to apply maximal stress to the biceps.
Again, thinking about the elbows, those who allow them to travel back and forth will also reduce stress from the biceps and move it on to the front delts (shoulders).
A final error often seen in the barbell curl is to keep the wrists flexed throughout the duration of the exercise or at to flex at the top of the movement.
In the same way that moving the elbow reduces bicep tension, flexing the wrists will shift the stress of the biceps and onto the forearm musculature instead.
If you struggle with this, think about letting the wrists “sag” when you grip the barbell which will prevent any wrist flexion.
3) Long Head Exercise 3 – Barbell Drag Curl
This exercise involves using either a barbell or the Smith’s machine.
From a standing position, grip the bar with the hands just outside the hips. From this position, look to drag the barbell up the body by pushing the elbows back. Continue dragging until the bar reaches the upper chest.
Because this exercise involves a restricted range of motion you may not find it to be highly effective for bicep development. However, many claim that it targets the long head effectively.
4) Short Head Exercise 1 – Preacher Curl
It is believed that to target the short head of the bicep, the elbows must be placed in front of the body.
This therefore makes the preacher curl the ideal exercise for short head development. Unfortunately, it is an exercise which is commonly performed incorrectly.
Many individuals drive their chest against the pad and place the full arm in direct contact. From there, they grab the bar with a narrow grip and allow the elbows to flair out.
As they drive the bar upward, they flex the wrists and lean backwards to facilitate the drive.
The issue with performing the preacher curl in this manner is that it once again fails to maximally activate the biceps and place a large amount of stress on the muscle.
For an efficient preacher curl, start by standing – this means raising the pad to chest height. Place only the lower portion of the tricep on the pad rather than the full upper arm.
The elbows should be approximately shoulder width apart but the hands should grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width. Additionally, a slight backward trunk lean should be established.
As you contract the biceps, lean forward with the trunk to maintain bicep tension. As with the previous exercise, utilize a wrist “sag” if necessary to prevent the wrists from flexing excessively.
A number of individuals prefer to stop slightly short of full extension, however, working to a full range of motion is highly recommended to maximize the amount of stress placed on the muscle (5).
5) Short Head Exercise 2 – Spider Curl
Finally, the spider curl is an excellent exercise, not only for short head development, but also to ensure that you use a full range of motion. It is also practically impossible to “cheat” with the spider curl.
For the exercise, set up facing a preacher bench. Adjust the pad so that the supports of the bench don’t restrict movement. Lean over the top of the bench and let the arms hang down.
From that position, the movement is then exactly the same as the preacher curl.
As with the incline dumbbell curl, the body position means that you are likely to lift a lighter load than normal.
To add intensity to the spider curl, have a training buddy who can help you complete a number of forced repetitions after you have reached absolute muscular failure.
At the end of the day, it makes very little difference knowing whether or not it is possible to fully isolate either bicep head. For optimal development, it makes sense to hit the biceps from a multitude of angles anyway.
Therefore, to grow full looking arms, consider using a number of the aforementioned bicep exercises while taking care to develop both the long and short head equally.
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1-Tiwana, Manpreet S.; Varacallo, Matthew (2019), “Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Biceps Muscle”, StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, PMID 30137823
2-Marcolin, Giuseppe; Panizzolo, Fausto Antonio; Petrone, Nicola; Moro, Tatiana; Grigoletto, Davide; Piccolo, Davide; Paoli, Antonio (July 13, 2018). “Differences in electromyographic activity of biceps brachii and brachioradialis while performing three variants of curl”. PeerJ. 6. doi:10.7717/peerj.5165. ISSN 2167-8359. PMC 6047503. PMID 30013836.
3-Oliveira, Liliam F.; Matta, Thiago T.; Alves, Daniel S.; Garcia, Marco A.C.; Vieira, Taian M.M. (March 1, 2009). “Effect of the shoulder position on the biceps brachii emg in different dumbbell curls”. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 8 (1): 24–29. ISSN 1303-2968. PMC 3737788. PMID 24150552.
4-“Genes critical for muscle development and function in Caenorhabditis elegans identified through lethal mutations”. The Journal of Cell Biology. 124 (4): 475–490. February 2, 1994. ISSN 0021-9525. PMC 2119919. PMID 8106547.
5-Baroni, Bruno M.; Pompermayer, Marcelo G.; Cini, Anelize; Peruzzolo, Amanda S.; Radaelli, Régis; Brusco, Clarissa M.; Pinto, Ronei S. (2017-8). “Full Range of Motion Induces Greater Muscle Damage Than Partial Range of Motion in Elbow Flexion Exercise With Free Weights”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31 (8): 2223–2230. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001562. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 27398917.