Yesterday, we published a post about a study that found that bench pressing is not enough for maximal triceps growth.
In today’s post, I’d like to take a look at the other side of your upper arm, and look into a few interesting studies on how compound exercises such as rows or lat pull-downs affect your biceps growth.
If compound lifts are found to train your biceps just as well as for example bicep curls do, then that could be a major time-saver.
Before we get started, a word on definitions: what we commonly call “biceps”, is actually two muscles on the front of the arm. Closest to your bone is the brachialis muscle, and on top of that comes the biceps brachii muscle. These two muscles are equally big and have overlapping functions, but should correctly be termed as arm flexors. As “biceps” is the more common term, and what people typically searches for information about, I’ll mostly stick to using that term.
How Effective Are Lat Pulldowns For Training The Biceps?
One study examined exactly that.1
Twenty-nine untrained young men trained either only lat pulldowns or barbell curls, twice a week for ten weeks. They did 3 set x 8–12 reps until failure, and increased the weight when they could do more than 12 reps. The training was supervised.
The lat pulldowns was done with a pronated grip (palms away from the body), and a grip width twice their shoulder width. The barbell curls was performed standing.
Before and after the training, the muscle thickness of their biceps was measured by ultra-sound, and the biceps strength was assessed in a dynamometer.
No statistically significant differences in either muscle growth or strength gains between the groups.
- The lat pulldown group increased their bicep thickness by 6.10% and their strength by 10.40%.
- The bicep curl group increased their bicep thickness by 5.83% and their strength by 11.83%.
But What If You Do Both Lat Pulldowns and Bicep Curls?
The same research group did another study, very similar in design.2
In this study, twenty-nine other untrained young men got to train either:
- Only lat pulldowns
- Lat pulldowns + barbell bicep curls
They also trained bench press and triceps, but as only the bicep thickness was measured, I’ll only cover that.
The two groups trained twice a week for ten weeks, doing 3 sets per exercise x 8–12 reps until failure. This means that the training volume for the biceps was twice as big for the group training both lat pulldowns and bicep curls, compared to the group training only lat pulldowns.
And the Results This Time?
Yet again, no statistically significant differences between the two groups.
- The group training only lat pulldowns increased their bicep thickness by 6.46% and their strength by 10.40%.
- The group training both lat pulldowns and barbell curls increased their bicep thickness by 7.04% and their strength by 12.85%.
So, a small trend towards greater gains in the group that basically did twice the training by adding in curls, but nothing significant.
Here, the fact that they where untrained might have come into effect: Six sets (3 set x 2 workouts) per week might have been enough for these men, but as you become more accustomed to training, more volume is probably beneficial. However, that is really here nor there regarding the question at hand: adding in bicep curls didn’t really do anything for the bicep growth in untrained men that already were training lat pulldowns. At least not for the first ten weeks of training.
So – based on these studies alone, lat pulldowns with a wide, pronated grip seem to be pretty effective for growing your biceps. At least equally good as barbell curls. This probably means that other variations of lat pulldowns (supinated grip, and narrower grip width) and also pull-ups are good for training your biceps.
Keep in mind that both of these studies came from the same research group, and I would love to see them replicated by another team.
Still, lat pulldowns seems to be a pretty great bicep exercise.
But how about another popular type of pulling exercise, namely rows?
How Effective Are Rows For Training The Biceps?
The method in this study differed slightly from the previous studies, however. The researchers recruited just ten untrained young men, but instead of dividing them into two different groups training one exercise each, each participant trained dumbbell rows with one arm and dumbbell curls with the other one. And voilà – suddenly you’ve “doubled” your group size, and simultaneously gotten rid off a bunch of confounding variables, such as genetics and diet.
So, the participants trained dumbell rows with one arm and curls with the other. They did this twice a week for eight weeks, doing 4–6 sets per arm x 8–12 reps until failure.
Before and after the training period, the muscle thickness of the biceps was assessed by ultra-sound, and the strength (in terms of 10RM) was tested in both exercises in both arms.
In contrast to lat pulldowns, rows doesn’t seem to be as effective for biceps growth as curls are. The bicep thickness increased with 11.06% in the arms that had trained dumbbell curls, but only by about half (5.16%) in the arms that had trained dumbbell rows.
The strength gains turned out to be specific to the training: the arm that had trained rows got stronger in rows, and vice versa for the curls. Nothing strange about that, we already now that strength gains tend to be very specific to the training done.
Conclusions and Take-Aways
So, can compound pulling exercises completely replace barbell and dumbbell curls in the quest for big guns?
Well, it depends.
- Lat pulldown does indeed seem promising for bicep growth, yielding the same gains as the gold standard barbell curl.
- Dumbbell rows on the other hand, only yielded about half the growth compared to dumbbell curls.
Several things can be said about this.
Untrained young men might be able to maximize their bicep growth by training only lat pulldowns initially. This could be a benefit, as it enables the workouts to be short in time initially, as the trainee builds the habit of working out.
But what about in the long run? This study was only ten weeks long, so we cannot make conclusions about what the optimal training is over a much larger time span. I don’t find it unlikely at all that curls might provide a benefit in the longer run. Not in the least in the form of either variation (for less monotony, and maybe lower injury risk), and because curling generally is a less taxing kind of movement than pull-downs, since you use less muscles simultaneously. Maybe you have an easier time focusing on your biceps while curling, thus getting a greater training effect?
When it comes to rows, they definately seem to be less effective for bicep growth compared to curls, and this mimics what I’ve personally felt and seen in my own training. I would not write them off completely however, since as you get more experienced, it is possible to direct the work to different muscles. When you have established a good mind-muscle connection, you can probably consciously choose how much you want to include or exclude your biceps while doing both pulldowns and rows, and thus you can influence and shape the training effect.
Why Not Do Them All?
The safest bet for not only well-developed biceps, but the upper-body overall, might simply be to do them all.
An example of a “Back & Bicep” workout could be to start with lat pulldowns, move on to rows, and then finish with one or two bicep exercises. And why not vary the load and reps while you’re at it.
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets x 4–6 reps
- Barbell Row: 3 sets x 5–8 reps
- Barbell Curl: 3 sets x 8–12 reps
- Preacher Curl: 3 sets x 10–20 reps
Another alternative could be to do your compound lifts on a “back day” (for example after your deadlifts), and then do your curls on a separate “arm day”.
- Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy.
- Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2012-0176. Epub 2013 Mar 18. Effect of Adding Single-Joint Exercises to a Multi-Joint Exercise Resistance-Training Program on Strength and Hypertrophy in Untrained Subjects.
- The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: July 01, 2019. Single-Joint Exercise Results in Higher Hypertrophy of Elbow Flexors Than Multijoint Exercise.