6 Ways To Build The Biceps Short Head
Target the biceps short head and you'll be long on gains.
Targeting a lagging body part is as easy as devoting a few more exercises to it. If your upper pecs are weak, simply do a few more incline bench presses. Got weak middle delts? Add some lateral raises and overhead shoulder presses. Poor quad development? Front squats, sissy squats, and leg extensions can help.
But what if you want to focus on the short head of the biceps? That's trickier.
The short head lies underneath the long head, which is why it's sometimes called the inner head. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean you can ignore it. Beefing up the short head as well as the long head, in addition to the brachialis, can go a long way toward your goal of bigger arms.
So how exactly do you focus on the short head? In their book, "Stronger Arms & Upper Body," Joe Wuebben and Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., note: "Because the long head of the biceps is located outside of the short head, using a narrow grip (inside shoulder width) when doing barbell curls emphasizes development of the long head. Taking a grip that is outside of shoulder width, on the other hand, will target the short head."
There's your first clue.
While curling, elbow position and grip affect which head—or both; biceps means "two heads"—is recruited most strongly. Typically, those movements in which the long head is incapable of being fully stretched better target the short head, and vice versa.
Nowhere is that distinction more clear than when comparing incline dumbbell curls (arms hanging straight down behind the plane of your body) with preacher curls (arms well in front of the plane of your body). In the first movement, the long head is fully stretched in the bottom position; in the second, it's hardly stretched at all.
Selecting the right exercises that focus on the short head is just one aspect of a larger strategy to bring it up. Here are six sound ways to target the short head of your biceps in your pursuit of bigger arms.
1 Train Your Biceps Twice Over The Course Of Your Split
A smaller muscle group like the biceps recovers from a hard workout more quickly than a larger one like legs or back. You can train it more frequently over the course of your split, especially if your training split lasts five or more days.
That being said, how you construct that split becomes crucial. In a worst-case scenario, you wouldn't want to train biceps on Mondays, back on Tuesdays, and biceps again on Wednesdays. Your arm flexors wouldn't be given sufficient recovery time to grow. Nor would you want to train biceps the day before or after a back workout. Strategically working in other upper-body workouts, leg days, or rest days between biceps workouts can help pace your pull-day routines.
Just because you're training your biceps twice over the course of your split doesn't mean you simply have to repeat the same workout. Consider the first workout to be a general mass-building biceps routine that includes movement for both the long and short heads, and the second workout to be one that emphasizes the short head with a variety of moves, grips, and rep ranges.
You can even consider alternate techniques to use—negatives instead of forced reps, partials instead of dropsets—to work the biceps in very different ways as well.
2 Add A Biceps Workouts After Back Training
By taking a grip a few inches outside shoulder width on your standing curls, you can better emphasize the biceps short head, building more overall size on your arms.
One easy remedy for the problem of training the biceps is to do your biceps immediately after your back workout. (Never train biceps before back; it would adversely affect your strength on many of your back movements, as well as your ability to hold on to the bar or handle.) Most back-day movements are multijoint exercises, so the biceps are already carrying a significant load. It makes sense, then, to just finish them off because they're already highly fatigued.
Training a smaller muscle group immediately after a larger one is familiar terrain to most bodybuilders, but usually you're not able to generate the same degree of intensity after you've just finished a bunch of heavy pulls.
That's one reason the second biceps workout should be done on an arms-only day. Here, the biceps won't be prefatigued so you'll be able to hit them with more energy—and more weight—a great combination for maximal stimulus.
3 Start With A Mass-Builder That Focuses On The Short Head
Since curling movements for the biceps are almost exclusively single-joint exercises, the usual advice to start with a multijoint movement just doesn't cut it here. Choose a movement with which you can move the most weight. For most people, that's standing curls. Standing movements allow you to generate a bit of momentum through your lower body and thus are better leadoff hitters, if you will, in your arm workout.
As noted above, a slightly wider grip on the bar (or EZ-bar if your prefer) can shift some of the emphasis to the short head. One approach I've used is to do 2 sets with a slightly closer grip and 2 more with a slightly wider grip (or 3 and 1) rather than 4 sets with the same shoulder-width grip. That allows you to better emphasize both the short and long heads on your different sets right at the start of your arm workout.
Further, don't be shy about putting some challenging weight on the bar at the start of your workout, when your energy levels are highest. After a few warm-up sets, use a weight that causes you to fail at 6-8 reps, the lower end of the muscle-building rep spectrum. If you can do more than 8 reps, add more weight.
4 Emphasize The Short Head In Your Workout
YOU SHOULD KNOW
You can never totally isolate a particular muscle within a muscle group (like the short head in the biceps), but you can emphasize it so it's recruited more strongly over others by changing body position, angles, and grips.
We spoke about prioritizing a lagging body part in the first paragraph of this article, so by all means add another 1-2 movements that focus on the short head. Your best bet is to target it early in your workout when your energy levels are a little higher. Assuming you did some wide-grip barbell curls as your first movement, consider adding other short-head-focused movements next. Good options: preacher curls, lying cable concentration curls, and high cable curls.
Hitting the short head with a different relative intensity—that is, instead of choosing a weight that causes failure at 6-8 reps, choose one that causes failure at 8-10 or 10-12—also allows you to target the short head in new ways.
Adding a second movement from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different relative intensity is the best way to work the short head for better overall gains.
5 Try "New" Short-Head-Focused Movements
Since preacher curls focus on the short head of the biceps more than the long head, they're obviously a good choice to include in your workout. But preachers can be done any number of ways: the one-arm dumbbell version, the EZ-bar version, or curling off the steep side of the bench (sometimes called a Scott curl, with a barbell, EZ-bar, or dumbbell). Doing your preacher curls standing rather than seated can even allow you to use just a bit more momentum, allowing you to do a few cheat reps as well.
Standing upper cable curls are another short-head movement. You can alternately try them one arm at a time, or even slightly change the angle of pull coming from the sides by positioning the pulleys higher—or slightly lower—than you normally would.
You can find more short-head exercises in the Bodybuilding.com Exercise Database. When you find a movement you like, stick with it for 6-8 weeks, at which point it might be a good idea to change things up again as progress starts to stall and a new stimulus is required for continued adaptation.
6 Work Past Failure
Choosing the right variations of exercises with the right loads is a good start, but you still have to do the work. When it comes to initiating growth processes at the cellular level, you won't get away with stopping your sets short of muscle failure. In fact, taking 1-2 sets of each exercise past failure is superior for building maximal muscle. Hence, combining the move with an intensity-boosting training technique can elicit greater overall growth.
When training arms, here are a few advanced techniques that work especially well:
Forced Reps: If you have a workout partner, taking 1-2 of your heaviest sets past muscle failure is pretty easy to do with preacher curls. The spotter simply has to provide just enough help to get you over the sticking point. If you're doing one-arm preacher curls, use your free hand to self-spot for a few extra reps.
Rep-and-a-Halves: This technique works well with biceps, but probably toward the end of your workout so you don't compromise your strength right off the bat. Do a full contraction, then release the weight just a few inches and strongly contract the biceps again before lowering to full arm extension. This technique focuses on the peak contraction.
Dropsets: This is really easy to do with cable movements in which changing the weight is fast. Instead of ending your set quickly once you reach muscle failure, reduce the weight by about 25 percent and resume to a second point of muscle failure.
Go for the Pump: Toward the end of your workout when fatigue has set in, do a few short-head sets for higher reps (and cut your rest time in half) to pump the muscle, which brings in fluids, pushes on the muscle fascia that encapsulates the muscle fibers, and stimulates the release of growth hormone. The pump you feel is hard to miss—and good luck taking off that sweaty T-shirt!