Biceps are among the most famous muscles in the body. When somebody asks you to “make a muscle” or “flex”, they aren’t asking you to flex your hamstrings. They want to see your biceps!
This whole notion of flexing the biceps as a measure of anything, is completely ludicrous, but it is a reality.
The next thing you should know, is that compound back exercises build biceps mass best. Sure, you can perform isolated curls until the cows come home, but chances are if you are just curling, your biceps aren’t growing.
Never should your workout program contain an ‘arm day’ where you focus only on biceps. There’s no need to do more than two biceps exercises in any given workout, and those two exercises better be two totally different movements.
Standing barbell curl
If there was ever a ‘compound biceps exercise’, this would be it. This is the only direct bicep exercise that you can just pile weight on and use all the muscle of the biceps and forearms to get the weight up. Standing barbell curls are the only must-use exercise if you want tank arms.
To set up: load a standard 45 lb barbell with some weights, and pick it up. Your hands should be supinated (palms up), about shoulder width apart. Arms should hang down beside/in front of your body, the bar in front of your hips. Tuck your elbows into your sides and DON’T move them throughout the exercise.
To curl: keeping your elbows tucked in place at your sides, curl the bar up to your chin, but not so far that your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Always keep tension on the biceps throughout the motion. Do not let the biceps relax at the bottom of the rep, but also don’t bounce the bar off your hips or quads in order to start the next rep. Keep tension on the biceps.
Variations: wide grip, medium grip, narrow grip; standing ez curls with a 20-25 lb ez curl bar. Do reverse curl to work your forearms.
Alternating rotating dumbbell curl
This is a simple exercise, that feels natural in its plane of motion. By alternating, you can focus maximal intensity on each arm separately.
To set up: grab two dumbbells and hold them down at your sides, arms straight, palms facing your body. Again, keep your elbows tucked into your sides as soon as you start curling.
To curl: start the movement with a hammer curl, then as the dumbbell clears your body, begin to rotate it so that at the end of the movement, your palms are facing your head. Once you lower the dumbbell back to the starting position, start curling with the next arm.
The hammer curl is great for developing the forearms, brachialis, and brachioradialis. I’m not sure about you, but I can hammer curl more than I can traditional curl, and lifting more with good form is always better than lifting less.
To set up: grab two dumbbells and hold them down at your sides, arms straight, palms facing your body. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides as soon as you start curling.
To hammer curl: you are basically curling the dumbbell up as high as it can go without moving the elbows. Ideally, the flat side of the dumbbell, at the top of the rep, should come close to touching the shoulder of the lifting arm. We call this a hammer curl because it looks like you are swinging a hammer. This means the palms face towards your body throughout the whole exercise.
Supinated bent over rows
OK, now we get into the real biceps mass gainers.
To set up: you will be grabbing the bar with a supinated grip (palms up/away) with your hands about shoulder width apart. You will need to either unrack the bar from a rack or stand, or deadlift the weight into a standing position.
It is important to bent over so that your upper body is close to parallel to the floor, but not so much that your lower back rounds over. By pushing your butt back, you will be able to maintain a stronger core while getting lower to the floor.
To row: the row itself is simply bringing the bar up to touch your abdomen, and lowering it down so that your arms are just short of fully extended. As always, keep your elbows in, as opposed to flared out to the side.
Close grip chin ups
Biceps mass will be well on its way once you master this exercise. By keeping your hands close together and focusing on your biceps to lift your body, you will be essentially doing bodyweight curls. How much do you weigh? 150? 180? 220? Can you straight bar curl that much? I didn’t think so.
There is a big difference between pull ups and chin ups though. While pull ups are good for your arms and back, close grip chin ups bring that whole movement to a whole new bicep-mass-building-level.
To set up: find a straight bar that you can comfortably reach from a standing position. Grip the bar with an underhand/supinated grip (your palms should be facing you). Keep the hands about 4-6 inches apart; they should be right outside your chin on either side.
If you are strong enough to do weighted pull ups or chin ups, add some weight either by crossing your feet and placing a dumbbell between your ankles, or hanging a couple plates from a weighted belt. A weighted belt should have a chain on one end and a loop on the other end, to which you should hook the chain. Put the chain through the hole in the middle of the plates and clasp the chain to the loop. Good stuff.
To chin up: an important aspect of chin ups, is getting your chin up over the bar. While this isn’t a dire necessity, if you don’t at least get your chin up to touch the bar, you can’t call the rep complete.
Honorable mentions: pull ups, deadlifts, concentration curls, seated incline curls
To integrate these exercises into a full body workout program, you should choose either #4 or #5 as your main back exercise, and follow it up with any one of the first 3 exercises. This will allow you to lift maximal weight on the compound movement, and burn the biceps out with a direct biceps movement. Even consider breaking up the back and biceps exercise with something else entirely (legs or chest perhaps) in order to give the biceps some additional recovery time.
If you focus too much directly on biceps, you will just be spinning your wheels. They are more of a secondary muscle group, and for them to really grow and get stronger, all the large muscle around them (shoulders, triceps, back, and chest) need to get stronger first.