When kids want to show you their muscle, it’s their automatic pose. It’s almost an ingrained appreciation when we see a dense bowling ball of a bicep with a defined peak. Having big guns is also probably the most obvious way to show the outside world how hard you work on your physique.
While the rest of your body is likely to be hidden, the muscularity and vascularity of your arms will be apparent to everyone around. So it’s no surprise that obtaining muscular and defined biceps is one of the most sought after goals by men. These three tricks can help grow your bicep muscles whether you’re just starting or at a plateau.
If you want to sport awe-inspiring biceps, you need to understand the muscle and its functions.
The main function of the bicep is to flex the elbow and supinate the wrist. The brachialis aids in flexing the elbow and contributes to upper arm thickness as well.
As you can see, the bicep brachii are split into two heads. The long head runs along the outer part of the bicep and can be thought of as the peak. The short head runs underneath the long head on the inside of the arm and contributes to the thickness of the bicep. To recruit more of the long head, you should perform bicep exercises with a slightly extended shoulder position (elbows behind your torso). To recruit more of the short head, perform exercises with a slightly flexed shoulder position (elbows to the front of the torso). For complete bicep development, you must perform a variety of exercises that ensure you fully fatigue both heads.
Unless you have already developed an imbalance by over training one head of the bicep, it’s best to use an exercise selection that places equal emphasis on both heads:
Emphasis on long head: Incline Curls, Drag Curls
Emphasis on short head: Preacher Curls, Concentration Curls, Spider Curls
Relatively equal recruitment: Dumbbell, Barbell, and cable curls
When trying to decide what versions of the above exercises to try, studies using EMG to measure muscle activity can provide some direction. In 2014, a study from ACE measured muscle activity in the biceps using eight different exercises.(1)
When looking at the above graph (and listening to the advice of Arnold and other golden era bodybuilders), it becomes apparent that concentration curls should be a staple in your bicep routine. They elicit the largest maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) for the biceps and place a large emphasis on the short bicep head. The rest of the exercises are all much closer together in terms of muscle activation. It seem curls have a slightly higher percent of MWC (%MWC) when done with a cable than barbells. Not surprisingly, the chin-up also ranked very high since this has long been used as a major mass builder of biceps. All of these movements recruit both heads relatively evenly so incline curls should be included as they target the long head.
Even though preacher curls ranked last on activation, it’s important to understand that %MVC are just averages for a certain exercise from a selection of people. There is huge individual variation in motor control skill which dictates time under tension and muscle activation. So while EMG studies can serve as a starting point remember, you must feel the muscle working, and you may get better activation out of one exercise than somebody else.
The best exercises selection should focus equally on both heads and include concentration curls, chin-ups, traditional curls, and incline curls.
If growing the biceps is a top priority, then you should not always perform back and bicep workouts together. There is a conventional view that during a heavy back-workout the biceps are fired up from their involvement as an accessory muscle so they should be fully fatigued as well. One problem with that view is your biceps recover at a faster rate than your back, which is a much larger muscle group. So while your biceps may be ready for another workout, they are overlooked until the back fully recovers. You must train your biceps more frequently than your back, at least two times a week.
Another problem with always doing back and bi’s together is the difficulty in fully loading the bicep as required to stimulate growth because of the volume of work done by the accessory muscles involved in elbow flexion. Just about every back exercise involves some flexion at the elbow. While the biceps assist in this, so do the brachialis and the brachioradialis. These muscles are small and easily fatigued when performing heavy compound back exercises followed by biceps. Instead, biceps should be worked with a muscle group not involving heavy elbow flexion so biceps can be fully loaded.
Perhaps the best option is to choose a body part that does not involve elbow flexion, but instead the opposite, elbow extension. When agonist and antagonist muscles are worked together, you may be able to increase strength and motor unit recruitment in the second exercise. Studies show that supersetting opposing muscle groups causes no loss in strength and that when an antagonist action is performed prior to an exercise, strength is increased.(2)(3) If you want to grow your biceps make sure to include an “arms only” day where you perform a bicep exercise 1-3 minutes after a tricep exercise. This works both sides of the joint evenly preventing imbalances, help increase blood flow leading to an unreal pump, and allow for maximum strength and motor recruitment of the biceps.
You might also be surprised at the role nitric oxide plays in muscle growth. Supplements like Sheer Strength Labs NO2 boost nitric oxide production for fast muscle building. Nitric oxide not only relaxes the smooth muscles promoting greater blood flow, it increases the length of time you experience the “pump” from a work-out. The ingredients also promote a healthy heart, increase workout performance, increases blood flow and gives you the best pump you’ve ever had. If that weren’t all, these supplements have been known to increase the blood flow to ALL areas, which means along with better long term results for your workout, you may even be ready to “work out” all night long.
One last way to prioritize biceps is to consume your largest caloric surplus on the days you workout your biceps. This puts your body in the most anabolic state promoting the largest amount of protein synthesis. Since you are going to be hitting your biceps a minimum of two times a week, make sure to allow for a caloric surplus if you are eating close to or below maintenance levels.
The last trick is to optimize your technique to get maximum muscle recruitment. There are a couple common mistakes that lifters make when performing bicep exercises. These mistakes lessen the time under tension and the hypertrophy induced, which not only takes away from the bi’s but leads to overactive and tight muscles in the traps and shoulders.
This is only acceptable as a cheat when you are at near failure, you should not be rocking your body to reach end range of motion. Some people don’t rock their whole body and instead flex and extend at the spine to help aid the movement. To stop this, maintain a braced neutral core by squeezing your glutes, quads and abdominals if you are performing the exercise standing. If seated flatten back completely against support without letting your back arch.
Often when someone is using a heavy weight they fail to keep tension on the biceps and start to over involve the anterior delts and traps. This is characterized by the shoulders rolling forward, elbows flaring out, and head usually being thrust forward as well. This takes away the biceps role as the prime mover and negatively affects all the mechanics of this exercise. In order to keep tension on the targeted area try to focus on not letting the shoulders roll forward and keeping them instead in a neutral position. Practice generating external rotation on the bar when curling and go into as much supination as possible. This will maximize the involvement of the biceps and help keep the shoulders back.
Intensity techniques push your muscles to new limits when implemented correctly. Once you perfect your form, begin to implement the following techniques:
This is when you perform an isolation movement immediately after a compound exercise and allows you to fully fatigue the targeted muscle. An example would be chin-ups followed immediately by incline curls.
This is a very intense technique that creates tons of microtrauma. This is done with the assistance of a partner typically using a preacher curl. Perform the curling action on your own and at the top of the range of motion, hold an isometric contraction. Your partner will force the weight down for a count of 4 while you pull in the other direction. After two sets your biceps will be wanting to pop out of your skin.
This technique is very similar to the forced negative except you can do it without a partner by performing it with one hand. Pick a weight that you can only perform for 1-3 reps. Once you are at failure, maintain a controlled eccentric portion but use the other hand to help the concentric part of the curl for a total of 10-15 reps.
Lifters using this technique would benefit from a well-known industry staple – creatine. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied supplement in the industry and shows the most evidence of enhancing muscle growth and strength. Creatine supplements like Sheer Strength Labs Creatine are 100% pure and help to increase power and muscle mass while reducing recovery times. These supplements just let you hit the gym harder, more often, making progress towards those bar bending lifts fast and easy. When you combine creatine with the right exercises, a caloric surplus, and an intense workout, your biceps will grow quickly, and you won’t shrivel like a raisin if you ever need to take some time off. Long-term results last.
If you want to grow your biceps, you need to pick the right selection of exercises. These should hit both heads of the bicep, and you should feel connected to the muscle during the exercises. You also need to prioritize your biceps and not let them be simply an afterthought at the end of a back workout. Work them with triceps and hit them at least two times each week for optimal growth while consuming a caloric surplus on your arm days.
Make sure to practice proper form and don’t fall into the common trap of using too much momentum and help from accessory muscles. After your form is mastered look at incorporating some intensity techniques to push yourself past muscle failure and force those arms to grow.
Also keep in mind that combining these techniques with the right supplements are the only “short-cuts” that can actually make a difference, especially in the long run. If you are serious about your technique creatine will reliably maximize growth and power, while cutting down on fatigue. When stacking creatine with NO2, your workouts will result in some serious pumps and strength increases. Increased blood flow and muscle growth, and a longer lasting pump mean efficient workouts. Once you have a solid program and diet, these are the icing on the cake to take you to the next level. Implement these tricks and protocols in your training and let me know how it works out or if you have any questions.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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