Your biceps are one of the most visually striking muscles, and has been an icon of bodybuilding for decades. Few muscles garner more training attention than these, and given how they are always visible when you are in short sleeves, that is understandable. A pair of well-developed biceps are hard to ignore, given how they are positioned like on display.
As if being the prize of your arms wasn’t enough, your biceps are a sometimes overlooked muscle when it comes to physical activities like sports or manual labor. Whether you are pulling, carrying or trying to move something (or someone), chances are that your biceps are in on the work.
In this article, you will learn how to train your biceps effectively. From biceps muscle anatomy, to the best exercises for increasing your biceps muscle mass and strength. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective biceps workout.
Biceps Muscle Anatomy
When we refer to the biceps muscle in everyday speech, we are usually referring to the front of your upper arm. But if we are to be specific, there are actually two (equally large) muscles making up that bulk: the biceps brachii and the brachialis.1
- Biceps brachii is the most superficial of the two, and has thus garnered the most attention. As the name states, it has two heads (bi = two, ceps = head). The long head originates from your humerus (the bone in your upper arm), and the short head originates from the front of your shoulder blade. The two heads join together into a single muscle belly, which inserts on two places in your forearm: the radius and the forearm fascia. Thus, the biceps crosses two joints: the shoulder and the elbow.
- The brachialis is of the same muscle volume as biceps brachii but is located underneath it, closest to the bone. It originates from the second half of your humerus and inserts into the ulna. The brachialis’ function is to flex (bend) your elbow, and it is actually a more powerful elbow flexor than the biceps brachii.
Because of how your biceps brachii inserts on your radius in your forearm, it is also a powerful supinator. That is, it turns your palm up. Biceps brachii is at its strongest when your forearm is supinated, and at its weakest when your forearm is pronated (palm turned down).
Because the short head of the biceps originates from the shoulder blade, its muscle length is determined by the position of your upper arm: It is at a long muscle length when your arm is hanging by your side, but at a short muscle length when your arm is in front of your body. It also means that your biceps doesn’t only flex your elbow, but can also lift your arm forward.
In contrast, brachialis is a simple muscle, which crosses only one joint and is a pure elbow flexor.
How Fast Can Your Biceps Grow?
The biceps is a very trainable muscle, that responds quickly to strength training in the form of both muscle and strength increases.
In one massive training study, a whopping 1 300 participants (who where previously untrained) trained their biceps twice a week for 12 weeks. The average gain in bicep muscle area was 15–20% in men and women alike.2
Bicep Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Biceps
In this section, we’ll take a look at three bicep exercises with slightly different benefits and training effects, that complement each other in terms of how they target your biceps and brachialis.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great biceps workout.
1. Barbell Curl
The barbell curl is the most classic of all bicep exercises, and for good reason: if all you did for your biceps was to train barbell curls, you would still be very well off.
The barbell curl checks of several points for good biceps training:
- It works your biceps and brachialis in a long range of motion, and at a long muscle length for the biceps’ short head.
- Your forearm is supinated, putting biceps brachii in its strongest position.
- You can lift your upper arm slightly forward in the top of the motion, to involve the short head’s shoulder flexing function.
To make the most of barbell curls, avoid letting your elbows move back during the lift, and focus on squeezing your biceps. One study found that focusing on squeezing the muscles in the barbell curl led to 80% greater muscle growth than focusing on just lifting the weight up, over 8 weeks of biceps training.3
Also, don’t swing the bar up using your back, except maybe occasionally towards the end in some sets.
2. Dumbbell Preacher Curl
The dumbbell preacher curl differs from the regular barbell curl in several ways. For one, the bench and the position of your upper arm shifts the force curve slightly, moving the point of peak force slightly closer to your end range of motion.
Secondly, since you’re performing this exercise with one arm at a time, you have a great opportunity to identify and correct any side to side strength differences.
The dumbbell preacher curl is a great exercise to really focus on your biceps and brachialis. Just be careful the first few times you try it, since you might be unused to the high load at such a long muscle length.
3. Cable Curl
The cable curl closely resembles the barbell curl, with the difference that you might find it easier to keep constant tension in your biceps with this exercise.
Because of the direction of pull, your biceps will still be loaded in the top position. Keep your arms tensed in the bottom as well, and you might find that this exercise makes it easy for you to really pump up your biceps.
Biceps Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective biceps workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises target both biceps brachii and brachialis, at slightly different muscle lengths or positions, which means a majority of their different muscle fibers will be targeted.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from medium reps with moderate weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Biceps Workout
This biceps workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
This biceps workout begins with three working sets of barbell curls. These medium-heavy sets will lay the foundation of your biceps training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”
If you hit three sets of eight reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 8.
You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 8, 7, 7 instead of 8, 7, 6 last time) until you get all 3 x 8. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance. Of course, don’t increase the weight at the cost of your technique.
If you start cheating by swinging the bar up, you haven’t really gotten stronger in your biceps and brachialis. Maintain good technique, and get stronger with that.
After the barbell curls, you’ll move on to dumbbell preacher curls. These will hit your elbow flexors with peak force at a slightly longer muscle length, and they will allow you to really focus on your muscles. Make use of the opportunity to even out side-to-side strength imbalances, either by leading with your weaker side and mimicking that with your stronger side. Or, by leading with your stronger side, and then playing catch-up with your weaker side, not stopping until you have replicated the same number of work.
Finally, you’ll finish up with cable curls. In this exercise, you have the opportunity to really pump out the last of your biceps and brachialis. Focus on constant muscle tension and try to pump as much blood as possible into your muscle using a higher rep number.
How often can you train this same biceps workout?
For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 2–3 times per week is probably enough. Twice a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you can beat your previous weights, you could repeat it almost every other day.
An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do one or two lighter workouts in between. In the lighter workouts, you can reduce both volume and weights, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden. Or, you could do a back workout in between, which will hit your biceps indirectly and thus function as something of a light biceps workout.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your biceps muscle anatomy, what some effective bicep exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome biceps workout.
Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2017, 39(5). Large and small muscles in resistance training: Is it time for a better definition?
- BioMed Research International. Volume 2013, Article ID 643575. Highlights from the Functional Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms Associated with Human Muscle Size and Strength or FAMuSS Study.
- Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jun;18(5):705-712. Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.