This biceps training guide contains all you need to know to build bigger biceps. Learn useful tips and avoid common mistakes when training your biceps.
The biceps can be a stubborn muscle group, but I’ll teach you how to force them to grow.
Despite being one of the smallest muscle groups, the biceps are the most likely of all muscle groups to be obsessed over by the average gym-goer…
…Which makes sense, really. I mean, what kind of guy doesn’t want to build bigger biceps and tote guns with peaks higher than Mt. Everest?
Developed biceps are like an exclamation point on your physique! They add a “wow” factor; plus they draw attention to the triceps, shoulders and chest.
Read on to find out exactly how to realize your goal of having bigger biceps.
The Best Biceps Exercises
Here are my picks for 5 best biceps training exercises:
- Barbell Curl
- Hammer Curl
- Dumbbell Curl
- Chin Up
- Underhand Barbell Row
Read my article on the best biceps exercises to find out the how-tos and benefits of each of these movements.
Biceps Anatomy Guide
In order to best understand how to train the biceps, you should have a good grasp on their functional anatomy. I suggest reading through this biceps anatomy guide, as well as the links below.
The biceps includes two different muscles, which work together to flex your arm by bending at the elbow joint. These two muscles are:
- The biceps brachii, which is the main biceps muscle. It consists of two heads: the short (inner) head and the long (outer) head. It gets worked hard in any curling motion. But if you want to emphasize the inner head more, then a wide grip barbell curl is best. Conversely, a close grip barbell curl is best if you want to target the outer head more.
- The brachialis, which runs under the biceps brachii. When developed, it is visible on the outside of the biceps. These get worked somewhat in any direct biceps movements. However, dumbbell hammer curls or reverse curls will emphasize them more. Also, isostatic holds at the top of the hammer curl or reverse curl range of motion will further isolate this muscle.
Why Do Your Biceps Suck?
I distinctly remember a certain floormate of mine saying, “Yo brah I’m doin the south beach workout…chest and bi’s 5 times a week!” After I laughed my nuts off, I realized just how seriously some people take biceps.
As my little story exemplifies, many trainees (especially beginners) overemphasize weight lifting exercises that isolate the biceps.
Nine times out of ten, though, the best approach for most individuals is to limit direct (i.e. isolation) biceps exercises.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the fact remains that a disproportionate focus on getting “HYOOGE” biceps will only lead to poor training and, in the best case scenario, slightly bigger biceps.
Instead, your primary objective should be to focus on performing heavy compound lifts that indirectly stimulate the biceps.
Biceps Training Tips & Mistakes to Avoid
Form Comes First. You can train your biceps using the perfect weight lifting routine with all the right exercises, but they won’t grow one bit unless you perform the exercises with proper technique.
The following technique tips are relevant to all biceps and “biceps-friendly” compound exercises, unless otherwise noted:
Don’t Swing. This form flaw takes the cake when it comes to totally butchering an exercise. It’s all too common to see inexperienced trainees cheat by swinging their bodies to complete reps, while looking like a complete goon in the process.
- Lift With Your Biceps to Work Out the Biceps?! The guys you see at the gym doing this are just swinging their lives away. They are getting no closer to their goal of bigger arm muscles. The only thing that is accomplished is lifting a weight from point A to point B, with minimum work from the designated muscle group(s).
- Put Your Ego Away. I believe that the main cause for this form faux pas is the ego. Take barbell curls, for example. Although they take a close second place to the bench press, they are a classic “ego lift” for many misguided trainees. For whatever reasons, people have a strong internal urge to show the world how much weight they can curl. And so, you see them piling on so much weight that they can only “lift” it by moving their body in a way that resembles an epileptic seizure! Sorry to rant, but the point is just to do it right. 😀
Slow Negative Repetition. You must be able to control the weight on the way down. Try for a ~2 second tempo when lowering the weight on all isolation exercises. However, it can be less for heavy compounds (especially deadlifts) as long as you are able to maintain control of the weight.
- Don’t Shortchange Yourself. If you can’t sufficiently control the weight, it detracts from the muscle stimulation – not to mention that your form on the positive rep would be even worse. This does nothing other than rob you of your time and would-be muscle and strength gains for those guns of yours.
- Decrease Weight If Necessary. If you are unable to control the weight at a reasonable tempo, then stop your set and go use a lighter weight. Then start the set over with the confidence that you’re performing a much more productive biceps-building set.
Fast(ish) Positive Repetition. The lifting portion should ideally be done faster than the lowering portion. Aim for a ~1 second positive rep on isolation biceps exercises. For “biceps-friendly” compounds, you should explode upwards, meaning that you lift it as fast as possible.
- Tempo Can Vary for Compounds. The actual time will vary significantly based on the weight used and which rep you are on. For compounds, the point is to aim for zero seconds (even if it ends up taking 4 seconds).
- Keep Isolation Tempo Constant. However, the positive rep tempo for isolation exercises should usually be more or less 1 second; they require less total weight and are typically used for moderate to higher reps. But don’t sweat it if the latter reps of set take longer than a second.
- Fast Lifting = Fast Strength and Muscle Gains. My main reasoning for recommending a ~1 second positive rep tempo for isolation exercises (as opposed to the “exploding upwards” advice for compound lifts) is that you may injure yourself. Since these exercises are done with less weight, it would be too easy to move the weight so fast that you lose control or maybe tear a biceps from flexing too hard. So, let me restate the message: “Always lift as fast as possible, while still keeping control of the weight.”
Squeeze the Biceps When Approaching the Top of a Rep. Try squeezing the biceps muscles just before reaching the top of a rep, as well as when you are at the top. No, this won’t make a world of difference, but it can provide the following benefits.
- Feel the Biceps Working. We’re talking about exercises that hit the biceps. So you want to ensure that your biceps are actually doing the work; by flexing at the top of a rep, you are able to physically feel whether you are working that muscle.
- Maximize Muscle Fiber Stimulation. Not only does squeezing your biceps ensure that you’re lifting correctly, it also allows you to optimally target the muscle group when it is at the point of most resistance. Squeezing the muscle at this point can be likened to adding a little more intensity (i.e., more weight).
What’s the Best Biceps Training Strategy for You?
Keep It Simple, Stupid. Keep in mind that the simpler a workout, the better it usually is. And it doesn’t get much simpler than a few of the major compound exercises. Let me explain:
- Since biceps are such a small muscle group, they are able to grow appreciable muscle mass and strength indirectly. That is, you are able to grow beastly biceps just by performing good ol’ fashioned compound exercises.
- Don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that isolation biceps exercises are useless….
- …What I am saying is that many people are better off doing fewer direct biceps exercises, and some are better off doing none at all.
Biceps Training Strategy for Beginners
Biceps Training in a Nutshell. To generalize, beginners should limit or avoid direct biceps training altogether. But, as I’ll explain later, more advanced trainees can benefit from isolation arm exercises.
If you’re a beginner and wondering why you can’t, or at least shouldn’t do isolation biceps training (i.e. any type of curl), then you’re in luck because I’m about to tell you :-D.
Avoid Direct Biceps Training. The reasons why beginners should avoid isolation exercises for the biceps:
- Don’t Underestimate Indirect Work. Assuming you’re using a proven weight lifting routine, your biceps receive more than enough stimulation to build muscle mass from major compound exercises. Since you utilize your arms in so many compound movements, isolation biceps exercises will only interfere with how quickly and effectively you can add weight to the bar and muscle mass to your body.
- The “Pump” Doesn’t Matter. I don’t care what Arnold said about the pump that you get from training. A pump does not (necessarily) mean that the muscles are growing, it only means they are filled with blood. You could curl 2-lb pink dumbbells for a few hundred reps and get a decent pump, but you sure as hell won’t be getting bigger biceps.
- The Exception to the Rule. The only time I believe it’s okay (even productive) for beginners to do direct biceps training is when its kept to a minimum and done “for fun.” When you’re having fun working out, you’re more likely to keep going the gym consistently. Something like 3 sets, once (maybe twice) per week will do the trick. Nothing more.
Now, I’ll be more proactive and tell you what you can do to ensure you realize your maximum biceps muscle growth:
Focus on Compound Exercises. Think of it like this: major compound exercises will build lots of strength and pack muscle on your body, which includes big biceps. Isolation exercises will build really big biceps, but only after you have built a base.
- Build Your Foundation. If you want to maximize your potential for short-term and long-term muscle and strength gains, your main goal as a beginner is to build a base of strength (don’t worry, you will add muscle, too). And so, your only focus should be the major compound weight lifting exercises (i.e., presses, squats, deadlifts, cleans, etc.).
- Icing on the Cake… To use the age-old “icing on the cake” metaphor: you need the compound lifts to make the cake, and the isolation lifts to put the “icing on the cake.” Otherwise, you’ll just be a tub of frosting. 😀
Do More Pull Exercises. If there were to be anything that might give a beginner the edge for building guns, it would be to choose a weight lifting routine with slightly more compound pull movements.
- Mechanical Function of Biceps. As mentioned earlier, the biceps are built for pull movements, so they would receive a little extra attention (but not so much that they become “overtrained.”)
- Posture Benefits. If you take this advice, you’ll likely get the added side benefit of better posture. This is because the modern lifestyle (e.g., a lot of sitting and hunching over a computer) tends to underemphasize these muscles groups, causing a muscular imbalance that makes you look like a Geico caveman!
Perform “Biceps-Friendly” Compounds First. “Biceps-friendly” refers to the compound pull exercises that target the biceps the best. In my opinion, the best example is chin-ups.
- Ability to Lift Heavier. The idea is to perform this exercise earlier in your workout so that you can lift the most and maximally overload the muscles used (which obviously includes the biceps).
Sometimes, Less Is More. Believe me, there are plenty of guys out there who focus solely on strength training or powerlifting and have never even done a set of biceps curls in their lives. Yet they still have massive arms. And, there is certainly such a thing as too much biceps training. The following advice might be of help to many struggling in “the arms race.”
- Work Your Biceps Less. If you’ve already been doing direct biceps training exercises, the problem may actually be that you’re doing too much. Remember that the biceps are a tiny muscle group that plays an active role in some of the most intense compound lifts.
- Get Enough Recovery. A major mistake in your goal for muscle growth is not allowing biceps to heal properly. Don’t go to failure on every (or any) set and be sure to get enough rest between biceps training sessions (the number of rest days depends on your routine).
Biceps Training Strategy for Intermediate and Advanced Lifters
But what if you’re past the beginner stage, and realize that your arms a lagging body part? Consider the following:
First, Try the Beginner’s Tips. Even if you’re not a beginner, any of the tips outlined in the beginner’s section could be all that you need to amplify your biceps size.
If, of course, you’re already using all those techniques, check the other tips below.
Rep Range. Since your aim is muscle growth, I’d recommend an 8-12 rep range if you’re not doing that already.
- 5-15 Reps. Although I recommend about 8-12 to start with, I find that anywhere from ~5-15 reps can work well. But much of it will depend on your individual response.
- Switch It Up. If whatever you’re doing now isn’t working so well, try changing the rep range. For example, if you’re doing 10-12 reps, try switching to 5-8 rep range, and see how that works for you.
Do More Biceps Work. After a certain point, you may need to work the biceps more.
- Add Isolation Exercises. If you haven’t started adding isolation biceps exercises to your workout routine yet, now could be a great time to do that.
- Increase Volume. And if you have already been doing direct biceps exercises, then consider increasing the number of sets and/or exercises.
Dedicate a Workout to Arms Only. The final tip is to add a day that is dedicated to arms. It’s most common to have an arm specialization day that combines triceps and biceps training.
- Avoid Fatigue. This way, you can train the biceps directly and with maximal weight, because your arms are not fatigued from compound exercises.
- Ensure Sufficient Recovery Time. Just make sure that you have enough recovery time before and after your arm workout – you don’t want to interfere with your arm muscle gains or your progress with other lifts and muscle groups.
Summary of Biceps Training Strategies
My two most important points in this guide are:
- Keep it simple.
- Consider your experience level.
Isolation biceps exercises can be very effective, but only when used properly by the right type of trainee.
If you are a beginner, do not waste your time with direct, isolation biceps training. That is, unless you’re doing just a minimal amount to make your workouts more fun so you’re motivated to go to the gym.
If you’re past the beginner stage, then you are a good candidate for direct biceps exercises.