Building bigger biceps is top of many men’s gym wish list. But you only need to look around the next time you’re in the weights room to realise that their wishes haven’t come true. One of the main reasons is that sticking to simple dumbbell biceps curls every time you work out just won’t get the job done. Your body is very good at adapting quickly to what you ask it to do, so to force your biceps to grow bigger and stronger you need to push them outside of their comfort zone and shock them into growth. Read on for four moves that promise faster gains, world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin’s advanced exercises that build bigger biceps, followed by top advice on how to make your biceps training more effective. But first…
Daniel Venture Explains How To Build Bigger Biceps
The fitness model, personal trainer and WBFF Pro, pictured above, knows how to train his biceps and triceps.
“So many men always fall into the trap of picking up a pair of too-heavy dumbbells and attempting to do three sets of ten badly-performed biceps curls hoping for bigger arms,” Ventura says. “But to build bigger biceps and triceps you have to focus on perfect form, moving through a full range of motion and, crucially, never lifting too heavy. The key to adding arm size is to getting a good pump through lifting lighter for longer – and executing every rep as perfectly as possible.”
Don’t go too heavy
“Your arms take a beating when you go heavy on back and chest days, so you don’t need to lift heavy weights when training the biceps or triceps directly,” says Ventura. “In fact, I like to go light but do a lot of reps. Take biceps curl – at the end of a session I use a pair of light dumbbells to do 60 biceps curls without rest to get a huge pump. You can do it with cable rope triceps press-downs too – it’s a great arms-building finisher to end a workout.”
High reps for starters
“You can also start your session with one of these very high-rep sets to pre-fatigue your biceps and triceps before the main workout. It’s a great way to get the muscle full of blood, and can help reduce elbow pain by ensuring the muscles and tendons are thoroughly warmed up ahead of the session.”
Hold the position
“A slow eccentric [lowering] part of the lift, taking three to four seconds to return to the start, is a great way to increase the time under tension on your biceps or triceps. I also like to add a long isometric hold, where you hold for four to ten seconds at the peak contraction of each rep. You might have to reduce the weight to be able to do these, but it forces your muscles to work overtime to manage and control the weight, and that’s what gets results.”
Get the range right
“A common mistake is failing to move the biceps or triceps through a full range of motion: it’s essential for building the biggest possible muscles. Partial reps can be great - I often superset a set of full biceps curls with a set of half-reps to really fatigue the muscle – but full-range reps done under control must be your priority.”
4 Biceps Exercises To Sub In For Dumbbell Curls
Using an underhand grip is a better way to recruit the biceps, which is good news for your arm size. Do three to four sets of six to eight reps, with each one slow and controlled.
Get into the start position for a barbell bent-over row but with a hip-width underhand grip to shift focus and activation to your biceps. Row the bar to your sternum, then pause and squeeze your biceps for extra time under tension. Do three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
3. EZ-bar curls
The curved bar reduces strain on your wrists, allowing you to lift heavier and through a greater range of motion than with dumbbells or barbells. Squeeze your biceps at the top of each rep and fully straighten your arms at the bottom. Do three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
4. Spider curls
The increased range of motion in this curl variation boosts the benefits for your biceps, as does keeping them under tension for longer periods than with the classic curl. You can perform the move with a barbell or an EZ-bar, and you’ll need a bench set at a 45° angle. If you have access to one, you can use a preacher bench, approaching it from the opposite side than you would for preacher curls so your arms rest on the flat pad which would otherwise support your chest.
Lie face down on the 45° bench and hold the bar so it hangs underneath you with your palms facing up. Slowly curl it up, squeeze your biceps at the top of the move, then lower back to the start. Having the bar hanging beneath you is what gives the spider curl the greater range of motion, but it also means you have to be especially vigilant with your form to avoid using muscles other than the biceps. Make sure your upper arms stay perpendicular to the ground throughout and that you lift the bar moving only your forearms.
Charles Poliquin’s Key Moves for Bigger Biceps
Few people knew more about strength training than distinguished coach Charles Poliquin. Here are his five favourite biceps exercises.
“There are dozens of biceps exercises,” says Poliquin. “The trouble is, unless you’re involved in this business full-time, you tend to adopt a few exercises and do them over and over again to the exclusion of all others.
“This is simply a list of five of my favourites. Obviously, many of them will be familiar to you. However, you may want to read the descriptions anyway because you might discover a new way to do that particular movement or you might find that you’ve been doing it incorrectly.”
1. One-arm dumbbell preacher curl
“Most biceps exercises require some assistance and stabilisation work by other muscle groups, but the preacher bench was designed to isolate the biceps,” says Poliquin. “Most gyms have standing and sitting preacher benches. I prefer the seated version because it minimises cheating.
“Sit on the bench with one arm fully extended. Use your free hand to lock your triceps in position. As you curl the weight, keep your neck aligned by looking straight ahead. You want to keep tension on the muscle throughout each rep, so don’t curl the weight up until your forearm touches your biceps, but make sure you do lower the weight all the way back to the start.”
2. Incline dumbbell curl
“This is a simple, common exercise and the most effective for isolating the long head of the biceps, but I see it done incorrectly time and again,” says Poliquin.
“Recline on an incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms fully stretched out. Curl the dumbbells up together while keeping your elbows still, at least through the first 90˚. Keep your palms facing up at all times so your elbow flexors are well stretched. Here’s a tip: if your head comes off the bench no matter how hard you try to keep it down, roll up a towel and place it between your neck and the bench. You’ll find it increases your strength.
“I recommend the incline dumbbell curl as a staple of your arm workouts, especially if you want to do specialised work for the long head of the biceps. Just make sure you change the angle of the bench every six workouts so your muscles don’t adapt.”
3. Dumbbell concentration curl
“The concentration curl can be performed in a standing or a sitting position but I prefer the latter,” says Poliquin. “When you’re standing, your nervous system has other responsibilities such as maintaining balance, but if you sit down it has its full attention on the movement.
“Sit on a bench, lean over and grab your dumbbell. Sit back and rest your triceps against your inner thigh. Keep a slight arch in your back while leaning over the dumbbell. Make sure to curl the dumbbell slowly and deliberately until full range is completed – the dumbbell should be near your pectoral muscle. It’s crucial that you lower the dumbbell until your arm is fully extended.”
4. Close-grip chin-up
“If your arms haven’t grown for a while, you might want to consider doing this move more often,” says Poliquin. “It’s a surefire mass builder. Grasp the chin-up bar with a close grip. The palms of your hands should be facing you about 8-12cm apart. Pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Do this very slowly – it should take about 15 seconds or so. Then, slowly lower yourself to the start position.
“You won’t get many reps in the bag, but that doesn’t matter because you want to expose your muscles to the maximum amount of tension. And don’t short-change yourself by not coming all the way down. Range of motion is critical.”
5. Seated Zottman curl
“This is one of the best upper-arm builders,” says Poliquin. “It feels uncomfortable at first, so it may take a few workouts to get used to this movement.
“Grasp two dumbbells and sit on a flat bench. Fully extend your arms downward and keep your palms facing forward. Begin curling the weight, but keep your palms extended away from your body – the tendency is to curl the wrist upwards, but I’m asking you to extend the hand backwards. Once you reach the top, rotate your hands so your palms are now facing downwards and straighten the wrists so, in effect, you’re ready to do the eccentric portion of a reverse dumbbell curl. Slowly lower the dumbbells, keeping your elbows glued to your sides throughout the entire exercise.”
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How To Get The Most Out Of Biceps Exercises
Put it on lockdown
Sure, you want to use big weights, but wrenching every rep up with a back spasm does nothing for your arms. “Lock everything else down,” says strength and conditioning coach Joel Dowey. “If you’re standing, keep your back to a wall – this will minimise use of your legs and hips. Doing preacher curls? Lock down your shoulder blades by squeezing them together before you start the set. Any movement from anywhere else takes the focus away from your target muscles.”
Think in angles
Endless curls won’t cut it. “Isolate your biceps muscles from different angles,” says Dowey. “When targeting your biceps brachii, for instance, shoulder position – whether they’re extended or flexed – comes into play for shortening or lengthening the muscle fully. To work the muscle hard through a full range of motion, you need to mix your moves up – do incline bench curls as well as standing, preacher and high cable curls.” You don’t have to do them all in one session.
“Thick-handled training is the best thing that most people aren’t doing,” says Dowey. “Use Fat Gripz or something similar on virtually any bit of kit to thicken the bar. The added motor unit recruitment from the forearms increases recruitment in the biceps. Also, you won’t ever get a pump like it.” If you forget yours, one of the gym’s mini-sweat towels wrapped around the dumbbell handle works almost as well – though it’s even more taxing when your sets go long.
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Joe Warner is a highly experienced journalist and editor who began working in fitness media in 2008. He has featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness UK twice and has co-authored Amazon best-sellers including 12-Week Body Plan. He was the editor of Men’s Fitness UK magazine between 2016 and 2019, when that title shared a website with Coach.
- Sam RiderContributor