Whether you're just getting in the gym for the first time or you're an experienced lifter, I'm guessing you share at least one thing with every other guy in your gym: You want bigger arms!
In high school, I was no exception. I trained arms three times a week, which in retrospect was a little much, and probably counterproductive to my goal. But desire has to count for something, right?
Over the ensuing years, I've tried just about every arm exercise imaginable for at least a couple workouts. Gradually, I found the biceps exercises I like the most, and I'm going to share my top five with you today!
Bullet Points For Big Guns
Before I share these exercises with you, I want to give a couple tips for arm training in general that can be applied to any exercise, not just the ones listed here:
Biceps are a relatively small muscle group, so it doesn't take a 20-set workout to blast them. In fact, if anyone asks me, I recommend that they keep their biceps training to 9-12 sets. Any more than that, I believe, is overkill.
Speaking of overkill, have you been to the gym lately and seen that guy curling three times as much weight as he should, using everything but his biceps to get the weight up? Yeah, don't be that guy. Make sure you are using a weight that you're able to control during the eccentric and concentric portions of the exercise, for the entire rep range. I like to try to lower the weight at the same speed I lift it.
Do 12-15 reps per set, taken to failure. This is the rep range I have found to stimulate the most hypertrophy, or muscle growth, and studies have backed up my personal experience.
Now that I've given you some general tips for training biceps, let's get to my favorite bicep exercises!
1. Seated Dumbbell Curl
First on the list is a standard exercise. Unfortunately, a lot of people do it wrong and hence never receive the full benefit they could.
Whenever you do an exercise seated, the purpose is to take away instability and lessen the ability to cheat. That being said, I often see people in the gym leaning way over to the side they're curling, swinging with all of their might to raise the dumbbell up. Unfortunately, you're not receiving nearly the benefit you could get from this exercise by cheating like that, and that dynamic motion is a very good way to injure a biceps.
If you're guilty of this, start by lightening up on the weight! Also, supinate your wrist as you curl the dumbbell. This turning of the wrist will allow you to achieve the maximal contraction and activation of your biceps. Another tip: Keep your elbow frozen, if possible, and close to your body. This will ensure you do not activate your anterior deltoid to help muscle the dumbbell up. That's important because it keeps all the stress on the biceps. Finally, be sure to keep your shoulders back by retracting your scapula with your rhomboids and traps. This will further isolate the biceps and keep the shoulder from coming into play.
Some guys do one arm, then the other; other guys alternate arms with each rep. I prefer to do a hybrid: 3-5 reps per side before alternating to the other side, for the extra time under tension the muscle receives and the ability to get a better pump. Try it different ways, and decide for yourself what you like best!
2. Reverse Ez-Bar Curl
This exercise is a great one for developing thick forearms and brachialis muscles. The brachialis is the muscle responsible for flexing the elbow joint, in addition to the biceps brachii (the muscle you typically think of when someone says biceps). The brachialis is deeper than the biceps brachii, so having a well-developed brachialis can actually push out your biceps, making them look fuller with more of a peak. Having bigger arms is never a bad thing, right?
I prefer performing reverse curls with an EZ bar because it allows for a more natural path of motion, due to the ability to turn your wrists in slightly. I feel like it allows for a better contraction of the target muscle, and it takes a lot of strain off of the wrist at the bottom of the rep for me. (Maybe I just need to work on wrist flexibility...)
You'll see in the video that I choose to do these with a false grip (thumbs not around the bar), which allows me to flex my wrists more and achieve a harder contraction. Give a normal grip a try, as well as a false grip, and go with whichever one feels better for your body!
Just like with the seated alternating dumbbell curls, be sure to keep your elbows frozen and close to your body, and your shoulders back.
3. Dumbbell Preacher Curl
This is a great isolation exercise for the biceps. I typically use it toward the end of my biceps workout—or at least, after they're warmed up and have a pump. There are two reasons I choose to do this. First, this is a vulnerable position for your biceps to be in, so it's easy to tear a biceps performing this exercise if you haven't warmed up sufficiently or you try to go too heavy.
By doing them at the end, I am able to avoid this, due to the fact that I have a huge pump, which means a ton of blood flow. Also, my biceps are fatigued to the point where I can't handle that much weight if I want to hit my desired rep range.
The second reason I like doing the preacher curl toward the end of the workout is that I feel it's an exercise that works my biceps the best when I have a significant pump, due to the fact that I'm able to contract the muscle so hard using this exercise.
I prefer not to sit in the preacher-curl bench in the traditional manner, instead opting to side-saddle it. This elongates the biceps and takes away the ability to use the shoulder or back to help "muscle" the weight up. When performing this exercise, be sure to keep your elbow pressed into the bench, and be sure the bench stays pressed into your armpit. To force the greatest contraction possible, supinate your wrist as your curl the dumbbell up.
Take extra care not to hyperextend your elbow at the bottom of the rep; doing so will make you prone to both biceps and elbow injuries. It will also take the tension off the biceps.
4. Hanging Isolation Curl
Also known as a concentration curl, this exercise is great for finishing up your biceps workout. I typically finish my workouts with either these or seated dumbbell preacher curls for many of the same reasons. I like how it hits the biceps from a different angle than normal, as well as how hard of a contraction you can force when you do the exercise properly.
As with all the other dumbbell exercises on this list, be sure to supinate your wrist as you curl the weight up to get the most out of the exercise. It's important to make sure you keep your shoulder and elbow as stationary as possible when doing hanging isolation curls.
The goal should be to keep your humerus, or upper-arm bone, as still as possible.
5. Cable Rope Hammer Curl
This is one of my favorite biceps exercises. It keeps continuous tension on the muscle throughout the whole range of motion, and it allows me to tax both my biceps and brachialis with one movement. When I do this exercise, I like to grab the rope with a thumbs-up technique. I do it with this exercise for the same reason I do it on the reverse curls; it allows me to flex my wrist more and get a better contraction.
As with the other exercises, do your best to keep your shoulders back and your elbows at your sides, and turn your wrists out toward the top of the rep. With this exercise, I also like to make sure my heels are firmly planted, so I'm almost leaning back against the weight. Doing so provides a little more range of motion and helps keep my body more stable.