When it comes to body parts that we associate strength and masculinity with, one may argue that arms and specifically biceps are among the top three. Arms that are large, muscular and chiselled arms are seen as a sign of strength and authority. People tend to prioritize them over other muscles that we see less of because they are one of the muscle groups we notice more often. Training them most effectively varies from person to person. What works for one individual may not work for the next. However, anyone can use some basic training principles to help grow, shape, and define their biceps.
The “Bicep” Muscles
First off, most people don’t realize that multiple muscle groups make up the bicep region and they all need to be prioritized instead of just focusing on the “biceps.” The bicep has two heads (long and short heads). Both can be seen when body fat is low enough to see the muscles’ separation. Curling a weight with your hands in the supinated position (underhanded) specifically targets the biceps.
TRAINING TIP: In addition to curling with this hand position, you can try to exclude the forearm flexors and concentrate on the peak of the biceps head by curling the limp wristed. Instead of squeezing the weight in your hand, you allow your wrists to hyperextend, which decreases the forearm flexors’ assistance to the movement and allows you to focus more on the peak of the bicep. Curling this way causes your biceps to develop a mountainous peak that truly separates a decent set of biceps from a fantastic set.
Under the biceps is a less commonly known muscle, the brachialis. Again, this muscle can be best seen in individuals with a low body fat percentage. To appropriately target this muscle, you need to curl your hands in the neutral position (i.e. hammer curl). The neutral grip also happens to be our most vital hand position biomechanically. This is great for performing heavy hammer curls, rope curls, and even neutral grip pull-ups.
The last muscle that rounds out the bicep group of muscles is the brachioradialis. This muscle originates under the bicep and crosses over the elbow over to the upper portion of the forearm. This muscle gets utilized when you use a pronated (overhand) grip. This happens to generally be our weakest curling position, as we’re at a mechanical disadvantage with forearms pronated. However, this variation should not be avoided as you will neglect to grow your forearms properly. Reverse curls with an EZ Bar are my go-to for the brachioradialis muscles.
Exercises, Sets, Reps, Tempo & Periodization
Personally, I like to train my biceps with triceps, as I find I get a better all-around arm pump when I hit both groups in the same session. But with all training, you need to mix it up continually so your body doesn’t get a chance to plateau. I occasionally hit my biceps with my chest or back to keep things interesting. Keep in mind, that an asymmetrically aesthetic arm should be made up of ⅓ bicep and ⅔ tricep. So by prioritizing your biceps, you are limiting the overall size of your arms, as your triceps should be rough twice the size of your biceps. But tricep training is for a different blog article altogether.
TRAINING TIP: Shock your muscles. Try never to let your body get used to your training routine. This tip is contradictory to many trainers’ training philosophies, and it isn’t ideal for making incremental gains for those who monitor the metrics of every workout. For those looking to never plateau, continue to grow, even at an elite level, you need to continue to shock your body by changing up your routine.
I usually do 3-4 exercises for my biceps. I’ll start with a warm-up exercise to get the blood circulating through the muscle tissue, lubricate the joints, get my central nervous system firing, and get ready for some intensive lifting. Alternating dumbbell curls are a good starter, and I’ll execute 2 progressive warm-up sets and 2 heavier working sets. Never rush through a set; focus on the perfect execution of every single rep.
The Four Portions of Any Repetition
- The concentric (push/pull)- The muscle’s fibres contract and shorten on a pulling exercise. Conversely, on a pushing exercise, the muscle fibres extend. Curling a barbell up from the beginning position with arms outstretched is the concentric portion of the rep. Executing this portion of the rep quickly and controlling will help build explosive power and strength.
- The peak contraction- When you are no longer able to contract/or extend, you are at the peak contraction of the rep. Squeezing the engaged muscles as hard as possible in this portion of the rep can lead to enhancing your mind-muscle connection, and in turn, hypertrophy and the shaping of the muscle body.
- The eccentric (negative)- The descent or negative portion of the rep is known as the eccentric. Focusing on slowing down this portion of the rep can lead to maximal hypertrophy and strength gains.
- The transition (resetting back to the concentric) – The transition period from deceleration to acceleration into the next rep is the final portion of a repetition. Minimizing this portion of the rep can enhance athleticism, and pausing this portion can improve strength.
The tempo of a rep is the speed at which you perform each portion of the rep. Play around with your tempo, and utilize one that aligns with your training goals. For example, an explosive concentric, a one-one thousand squeezed peak contraction, a three-second eccentric, and a quick pause at the bottom would look like 1:1:3:1. An explosive concentric will primarily target your Type-2 muscle fibres, which have the most significant potential for hypertrophy and speed. Squeezing the peak will help shape and form the related muscles. A slow negative will enhance hypertrophy more so than the concentric as you are stronger in this portion and can lift more weight. Pausing before recontracting eliminates momentum and makes the exercise harder and the muscles work harder.
Changing the angle of your arms relative to your torso can also put more of a stretch on your biceps and allow a fuller range of motion. Try to do one exercise in each bicep training session that uses a preacher bench or an incline bench to get a full stretch at the end of each rep.
Utilize drop sets, partner-assisted reps, rest-pause sets, supersets, cluster sets, monster sets, isometric holds/stretches, etc., to push yourself to train past failure.
Your muscles won’t be able to adapt to your training routine and plateau if you break it down into weekly mesocycles and even daily microcycles of varying intensity/volume. For example, for one session, you could do pyramid sets of 8-12 reps for 4 sets, then high volume/lower intensity of 10 reps for 4 sets, followed by high intensity/low volume of 5 reps for 5 sets, and finally a deload cycle of low intensity/high volume of 20-50 sets for 3 sets.
The principles of building big muscular biceps that work for every muscle group: be consistent, train hard, eat healthily and enough to grow, rest and recover optimally, supplement to make up for lacking nutrients, and change things up when you seem to be plateauing.
Your body is very efficient; it is continuously working to recover from training by becoming somewhat stronger and larger so that you can train again without putting your body under as much strain as before. It works to maintain homeostasis (your baseline metabolism). I started training as a preteen. There is no miracle pill. It requires proper training and years of muscle maturity to develop next-level muscular shape and definition. Remember that everybody is different. Bicep training at a higher volume and decreased intensity helps to save my joints and enhances growth more than heavy lifting does, compared to the rest of my body. Heavier is not always better, particularly with arm training. Focus on the perfect execution of each rep, and follow your ideal tempo to maximize your gains.