Want to build bigger biceps? These simple tips and techniques I’ve acquired during my 10+ years of weightlifting will help you access parts of your arms you didn’t even know existed!
If you’re tired of slugging it out in the gym, session after session and you feel like you aren’t really making the progress you set out to, you aren’t alone.
You Vs. You
Usually, it’s our ego that prevents us from making any real progress. We’ve all fallen victim to lifting with our ego at some point, like we are returning to our primal instincts, banging our chest as a show of dominance in the gym, going heavier and heavier without realising we are barely activating the working muscle anymore!
You see at times, the heavier we go the more likely we are threatening technique which generally leads to activation of other joints or muscle groups in support. This results in less stimulation of the working muscle and is a regular occurrence among gym-goers which makes for more effort and less reward. Lifting smarter instead of lifting heavier can yield exponential results.
A fine example of this common show of dominance happens so often when training biceps. If the weight is too heavy it forces you to bounce through the knees, rock back and forwards, raise your shoulders or traps to initiate the lift, reduce the range of motion and the list goes on.
To get the most out of your bicep training and build full, well balanced biceps you simply need to become strategic. It’s important to start off by acknowledging areas of each bicep that need attention. Not to bore you with excepted anatomical terms I will keep it simple.
Let’s start with the peak, which is closer to the shoulder end of your bicep. The peak is prominent when you flex or contract and represents the height of your bicep. The “peak” is mostly being stimulated throughout the top half of a bicep curl or while contracting.
Moving down to the tip of the long head which represents the length of your bicep. This area stands out when your arm is extended and is most commonly missed while training arms. To grow a lengthy bicep head, one must push the boundaries of the excepted range of motion while learning to control the eccentric part of the exercise. A full range of motion becomes difficult to execute for reps when the weight is too heavy and it’s only when you negate the ego, use a lighter weight and allow the selected weight to stretch your bicep extension to capacity, with control, will you realise noticeable benefits.
The third and fourth areas to focus on when planning a bicep session are smaller in comparison to the above mentioned and will provide thickness to your arms once developed. The “brachialis”, which can be found on the outer face of your upper arm and the “brachioradialis”, which runs down to help forge your forearm. These areas respond well to hammer grip and reverse (over-hand) grip exercises.
The Game Plan
Now that you have a general understanding of multiple components which make up your bicep you can approach sessions strategically.
First things first. Go lighter. Always focus on form before you increase weight. Going lighter will allow you to properly complete a full range of motion and control the movement through the bicep.
A full range of motion means you will stretch your biceps by completely extending your arm then contract your bicep to pull the weight up. Tightly squeeze when fully contracted as if you’re flexing. The next part is crucial. Don’t just drop the weight, slowly release from the contracted state and control the motion back down to full extension – this is called the negative or eccentric section. I’ve found biceps react extremely well when put under stress through slow and controlled negatives. The bicep becomes fully exerted which promotes micro-tears in muscle fibres and leads to growth.
When I reach full extension it’s as if I imagine I’m pushing up from under my elbows to try to (safely and not literally) hyperextend my elbows. The idea is to exaggerate the stretch and increase the length of each bicep. It is extremely common to see people stopping 5+ centimetres from full extension which leads to a shorter bicep head that stops well before the elbow joint.
If the above technique is slightly hard to grasp then the next one will be a no-brainer and can easily be incorporated for most bicep exercises.
Chances are, like most people, your elbows start right next to your torso when you attempt most bicep curl exercises. It’s likely they also tuck behind your torso when curling and may even stay behind your body for the whole set or at least when your bi’s become fatigued. Your range of motion is greatly decreased when your elbows disappear behind your torso. You are unable to fully extend because the bar hits your quads first before full extension and then your concentric range is shortened.
Try setting your elbows close-to-and-slightly-in-front-of your torso. Keep your upper arms and elbows in that exact position for the whole movement and only pivot through your elbow joints. Retract your shoulder blades so your shoulders aren’t dropping forward and your back is nice and sturdy. Setting your elbows close-to-and-slightly-in-front-of your torso allows you to drastically improve the range of motion to actively stretch the bicep out for length then contract and squeeze your peak.
Another valuable component I incorporate when training biceps is the elimination of my forearm activation. I allow the weight to drop my wrist (or bend my wrist back) and aim to hold the handle mostly with my fingers, instead of in my palm. A sturdy conventional grip is primarily carried through the forearm which removes a percentage of the load off the bicep.
This is a rather unorthodox concept and not the text book approach. By removing forearm activation as much as possible you will notice more load being carried by the bicep, which is exactly what you want. This principle is exactly what works for me, especially with slow, controlled negatives and should be attempted with lighter weight than you are used to and only if you have healthy wrists and can manage this idea safely to prevent injury.
Now that you have gained insight into how I naturally built well developed biceps that are often criticised for being “unnatural”, you can attempt each component by trying my bicep routine below.
The exercises incorporate all my concepts and target all areas of the bicep as mentioned above.
Nick – nickknows.com.au
Nick is the founder and director of Nick Knows Pty Ltd. A brand dedicated to helping individuals create positive lifestyle changes with ease and enjoyment. The brands identity started with Nick Knows Food & Training Programs. Nick closely works with his clients and creates educational programs designed to help them achieve their optimal health and fitness targets including weight loss, building muscle or general wellbeing, using sustainable approaches that Nick has incorporated in his 10+ years of training & nutrition protocols.
My Bicep Routine
Exercise: Standing over-head cable curls
Non-negotiables: 5 sets x 8 reps each arm. Select a weight that is challenging but not compromising.
2 second negative, 1 second hold at full extension, 1 second concentric, 2 second squeeze and hold contraction
Targets: Bicep length and peak
How-to (refer to pictures): Cable start point is around head height. Stand directly side on to the machine, grab the handle and step away from the machine so you’re now supporting the weight. Slightly lean away from the start point so your arm is now forcefully extended and retract shoulder blades down to help minimise movement through the shoulder. Get a feel for safely and slightly pushing your elbow up with the intention of stretching your bicep head at the very tip. Let the handle sit primarily in your fingers instead of having a conventional grip in your palm. Always try to keep your upper arm, shoulder and body in a cemented position. Keep your upper arm angled in the same position and only move your elbow joint. As you contract your bicep let your wrist slightly bend, reducing tension through your forearm. Aim for your ear and squeeze hard when fully contracted for 2 seconds. Slowly release from the pause and control your negative with your bicep back to start position for 2 seconds. At full extension keep tension in your bicep, push up through your elbow again to force every little stretch out of the tip of your bicep and repeat for a total of 8 reps each arm.
Exercise: Standing alternating dumbbell hammer curls drop set with Ez-bar overhand grip curls
Targets: Outer bicep and forearm
Non-negotiables: 4 sets x 8 each arm drop set x 10 reps. Select a weight that is challenging but not compromising.
How-to (refer to pictures): (Hammer curls) Retract your shoulder blades down so your shoulders don’t roll forward and your back isn’t in a compromising position. Pick a weight that allows you to move through the rep with effort but you are not bouncing with your knees, rocking back and forth or ripping your shoulders back or up to help you. There is absolutely no movement in any body part except for your elbows. Don’t allow your elbow to kink out and push away from your body. Keep your upper arms as cemented and close to your torso as possible and only move through your elbow joint. I aim the handle of the dumbbell for the middle of my chest so I’m actually coming across my body. This small change from standard hammer curls, which move in front of your body, not across your body, allows you to focus more on the outer face of your bicep with less activation from your long and short heads. Hammer curl the dumbbells alternating 8 times each arm. Have an Ez-bar (or straight barbell) ready because as soon as you finish 8 hammer curls each arm you will drop the dumbbells and pick up the barbell.
(Over-hand grip Ez-bar curls) Grab the bar with your palms facing the ground, not facing the ceiling. Retract your shoulder blades down. Move your elbows forward slightly and tuck them into your torso. Do not move your upper arm from this position. Curl up without rocking, bouncing your knees or moving any other body part except for your elbows. Control the weight with your forearms/biceps back down towards full extension. Keep tension in the tip of your bicep towards the forearm and imagine you’re (safely and slightly) forcing your elbows up when you’re fully extended to really stretch out and accentuate the long head. Repeat for a total of 10 reps.
Exercise: Preacher curls using a plate (or dumbbells)
Targets: Bicep length and peak
Non-negotiables: 6 x 6-8. Select a weight that is challenging but not compromising.
4 second negative, 2 second concentric, 1 second squeeze and hold contraction
How-to (refer to pictures): Adjust the height of the preacher pad so you’re comfortable with a slight bend in your knees. I like to use a plate for this exercise because the weight distribution compared to a dumbbell feels more interactive with my biceps. If your plates do not have holes in them to grip simply use dumbbells. Put the corner of the preacher pad hard up under your arm pit and your torso hard up against the back of the pad. Your arm should rest perfectly on the pad and be parallel to the sides of the pad, not running across. Turn you rear shoulder back slightly. There are to be no gaps between your body, your underarm or your arm anywhere on the pad. Being properly anchored in the preacher curl greatly reduces the inclusion of any other muscle or joint. As previously mentioned, hold the handle primarily in your fingers and not in your palm to help relieve tension in the forearm for more bicep activation. As I begin to curl I allow the weight to drop my wrist (safely & sensibly) which also allows more bicep stimulation and less tension through my forearm. Curl for a 2 second concentric, really getting your mind into the muscle. Squeeze really hard at complete contraction for 1 second then slowly extend back down for a 4 second negative. Keep tension in the bicep throughout the rep and really extend all the way down for a complete range of motion. When you get to full extension, imagine you’re forcing your elbow up again, as previously discussed in other exercises. Repeat for a total of 6-8 reps.
Exercise: Standing Ez-bar 21’s
Targets: Bicep length and peak
Non-negotiables: 3 x 21
7 bottom half reps, 7 top half reps, 7 full range of motion reps equals 1 set
How-to (refer to pictures): Repeat the same foundation as mentioned in previous exercises. Retract shoulder blades down. Elbows close-to-and-slightly-infront-of your torso. Hold the bar primarily in your fingers instead of your palms. Keep your entire body and upper arms cemented where they are and only move through your elbows. Carefully and safely force your elbows up when extended with the intent to increase the stretch in the tip of your bicep. Drop your wrists as you begin to curl. STOP at the half way point. The half way point is when your forearms are parallel to the floor. Return to full extension repeating the instructions and curl back up to half way 7 times focusing on using the tip/length of your bicep. Your start point then begins at half way. Keep the same technique except this time you’re curling 7 times from half way up to full contraction focusing on the peak of the bicep. When you complete the second lot of 7 reps return to full extension as mentioned above and complete another 7 reps using the full range of motion from total extension to total contraction, effectively destroying what’s left of your biceps for a total of 21 reps. Repeat for a total of 3 sets of 21 reps.