Top 10 Exercises For Increasing Bicep Size
Everyone wants have some impressive guns to show off when they rip off their shirt at the beach. In order to get extraordinary looking biceps it requires hard work, dedication, and the right programming for ultimate success. This article breaks down all the requirements needed to build some awesome biceps!
Isolation Exercises for The Biceps
While the biceps are a relatively small muscle, many look to improve their appearance by increasing the size of their biceps. This is most commonly done by incorporating a number of bicep “isolation” exercises which place a maximal stress on the muscle and force it to adapt.
The biceps are a muscle found in the upper arm which are primarily responsible for flexing the elbow. It is a two headed muscle which means that the muscle originates from two different points on the scapula (shoulder blade). This therefore means that, along with flexing the elbow, the biceps assist in generating and controlling movement of the shoulder too.
With this understanding, in order to properly perform bicep isolation exercises, the movements involved with each exercise must revolve around elbow flexion, extension and shoulder rotation.
Muscular Growth Requirements
Before assessing 10 of the best bicep exercises, we must consider two major influencers in the muscle building process. To optimize the rate of muscle growth, it is essential to increase the number of calories and protein consumed in the daily diet. Failing to do so will not allow significant changes in muscle mass to be made.
Consuming more calories is the first requirement of muscle building. Calories are a unit of measurement for energy and therefore, the higher the amount of calories consumed, the greater amount of energy available for the body.
This additional energy is needed by the body to speed up the recovery process after resistance training sessions. The amount of calories required will vary from person to person as a result of sex, physical characteristics and activity levels.
Increasing the amount of protein consumed daily should also be considered when looking to enhance muscle size. Protein is the macronutrient responsible for all growth and repair within the body and therefore, it also plays a crucial role in building muscle size. For those aiming to increase muscle size, the recommendation for daily protein consumption is to consume between 1.0 – 1.6 grams per kilogram of Bodyweight (1).
Only once these two factors have been put in place can physical training be considered. For building size in the biceps, a combination of compound and bicep isolation exercises should be used. Compound exercises are “big” movements which utilize many muscles whereas isolation exercises focus on just one muscle group. As suggested previously, isolation exercises are highly important for maximizing bicep development.
When it comes to strength training there are a number of factors that need to be considered, such as training frequency and training volume. Research suggests that for optimal muscle growth, each muscle group should be trained multiple times per week. By repeatedly placing a demand on the muscles of the body, they must adapt rapidly which leads to an increase in muscle strength and size (2).
Lastly, training volume is a topic that has been rigorously researched over the years – specifically the impact of heavy weight, low reps and light weight, high reps training on hypertrophy. While there are a number of differing opinions on this topic, studies indicate that both methods are equally as effective for building muscle (3). Providing training is kept regular, the method that is used to elicit hypertrophy is of little consequence.
The Top 10 Bicep Builders
As will soon be apparent, there is a lot more to bicep training than just the simple bicep curl. The following list includes exercises which manipulate the hand position and use different pieces of gym equipment to apply a stimulus to the bicep in a different way. Training doesn’t have to be boring and I hope that the following list will provide a bank of interesting and diverse bicep exercises that can be added to workouts.
Let’s begin with some barbell-based exercises…
1) Conventional Barbell Curl
Probably the most common bicep builder in the list. This barbell curl will allow the greatest amount of weight to be lifted in comparison to any other exercise. This is because a barbell forces the body into a fixed position and therefore stability becomes enhanced. Being more stable while moving through the range of any exercise will have a positive impact on performance and allow for heavier loads to be lifted.
A recent study reviewed the EMG levels during three bicep exercises and found that the barbell brought about a greater activation of the muscle than dumbbells. EMG simply refers to the electrical activity present within the muscle. Therefore, the barbell curl is extremely effective at targeting the biceps (4).
To perform the barbell curl, grab the barbell with hands approximately shoulder-width apart and stand tall with the chest up. From that position, with arms extended, pin the elbows in tight to the ribcage and focus on hinging only at the elbow. By doing so, the forearm should rise up until the hands are approximately in line with the shoulder before lowering the bar back to the starting position.
It is thought that by adjusting the width of the grip, it is possible to target different parts of the bicep. By narrowing the grip the demand will be placed more on the long head of the bicep whereas a wider grip will shift the demand onto the short head.
2) Wide-Grip Barbell Curl
Leading directly on from this, we have the wide-grip barbell curl. For comprehensive bicep development, it’s important to target the different heads equally and, as mentioned, this is a superb variation that can be used to target the short head of the bicep.
The reason the wide-grip is so effective for short head activation comes down to the biceps control over shoulder movement. By gripping the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width, external rotation of the shoulder occurs. This external rotation changes the position of the upper arm which has a direct impact on the activity of the short head.
3) EZ-Bar Curl
The final barbell-based bicep exercise is the EZ-bar curl. The EZ bar is an undulating barbell which allows the user to grasp the bar with a greater degree of comfort. The bends in the bar take away some of the tension in the wrists and forearm which can be a great help, especially when lifting heavy loads.
In the same bicep study (4), the EZ-bar was also found to activate the biceps brachii to a greater extent when compared to a dumbbell curl. Small, insignificant differences were found between the conventional and EZ curl and therefore, personal preference should dictate which variation to use.
With all barbell exercises and heavy loads, it can be tempting to use other body parts in order to get the bar up. One of the more common ways of doing this is to drive the hips through powerfully to get the barbell moving. Remember, that the bicep curl is an isolation exercise with the purpose of stressing only the biceps and, as a result, the only joint that should move is the elbow.
4) Dumbbell Bicep Curl
Next, we have dumbbell-based bicep exercises. Although the previous study suggested that the bicep curl with dumbbells may not be as effective for bicep activation, it should certainly not be disregarded. As stated earlier, dumbbells are far less stable than barbells; one of the benefits of this is that the surrounding stabilizing musculature is forced to engage in order to facilitate form.
Another positive regarding dumbbells, is their versatility. With the barbell curl, there is a limit to the number of variations that can be performed; not so with the dumbbells, as will soon become clear.
Furthermore, the dynamic of the curl can be altered by adjusting the grip used. With the dumbbell, it is possible to apply a load to the biceps in many different ways by using different grips or by manipulating the arm position. By using two individual weights, shoulder rotation can take place with exercises such as the dumbbell bicep curl. The barbell, on the other hand, only allows for a limited number of different grips and does not allow for any rotation to take place.
5) Dumbbell Hammer Curl
One final benefit that the dumbbells have over the barbell is that the dumbbells may allow for a slightly greater range of motion. With the barbell, as soon as the bar touches the hips, it can go no further. With dumbbells however, the arms can fully extend so that the weight is held by the side of the hips. This stretches out the bicep to its maximum potential prior to contracting.
The hammer position involves holding the dumbbells with a neutral grip (palms facing the hips) and requires a great deal of work from all elbow flexing muscles. This grip may allow for a more powerful contraction from the biceps and therefore, some individuals may find this variation easier to perform than the conventional curl.
6) Zottman Curl
This is potentially a new exercise for many however, it’s an extremely effective bicep developer. This is one exercise that effectively combines dumbbells and rotation. The biceps assist in the action of rotating of the forearm which explains why rotation is utilized in this exercise.
With the Zottman curl, the arms start extended down by the hips with the palms facing away from the body. A standard curl is performed until the dumbbells are elevated in line with the shoulders. A short pause is taken at that point of peak bicep contraction to allow a rotation through the shoulder to take place. Once this full rotation has occurred, the dumbbells are then lowered back to the original position and the movement repeated for the desired number of reps.
7) Dumbbell Concentration Curl
The concentration curl is an important exercise for anyone who is struggling to move only through the elbow. The technique required for this exercise involves using the knee to support the arm thus preventing the upper arm from moving back or forth. By preventing this from occurring, it is impossible to “cheat” and therefore, the biceps must complete all the work.
To complete the concentration curl, either from a standing or seated position, place the elbow on the inside of the knee. Starting with the arm fully extended, drive the dumbbell up to the shoulders and return in a controlled manner.
8) Incline Dumbbell Curl
By placing a bench on an incline and lying back on it, the elbows moves away from the side of the ribcage to behind the body. Research indicates that this change in position increases the stretch placed on the long head of the biceps (5). Additionally, the bench can be considered a useful addition as it minimizes movement from the trunk of the body and therefore may facilitate better form.
As a consequence of both of these, the incline curl is likely to be more challenging to complete in comparison to free-standing bicep curl exercises.
9) Incline Dumbbell Inner-Biceps Curl
This exercise is almost identical to the aforementioned incline bicep curl and also stretches the long head maximally. The only difference between the two exercises is the position that the dumbbells are held. For the inner-bicep curl, the dumbbells should start wider than the hips and that angle should then be maintained throughout the duration of the movement.
10) Overhead Cable Curl
The final bicep exercise moves away from dumbbells and barbells and instead uses the cables. The overhead cable curl involves adjusting the pulleys so that they are approximately in line with the shoulders. From that position, grasp the handles and ensure that the wrist, elbow and shoulder are all in a straight line, parallel to the floor. From that position, brace hard to enhance stability, and focus on powerfully contracting the biceps so that the hands come in towards the side of the head.
Providing a calorie deficit, high protein diet and adequate resistance training are all implemented, muscles will begin to grow. Now, this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all bicep exercises, rather the purpose was to provide a number of options to keep training interesting and the bicep growing!
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1- Food Funct. 2016 Mar;7(3):1251-65. doi: 10.1039/c5fo01530h. PMID: 26797090 DOI: 10.1039/c5fo01530h
2- Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Ratamess, Nicholas A.; Peterson, Mark D.; Contreras, Bret; Tiryaki-Sonmez, Gul (2015-7). “Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29 (7): 1821–1829. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000970. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 25932981.
3- Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Peterson, Mark D.; Ogborn, Dan; Contreras, Bret; Sonmez, Gul T. (2015-10). “Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29 (10): 2954–2963. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 25853914.
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5- 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 PMCPMC3737788. PMID 24150552.