When people want to train their biceps, they don’t realize the upper arm is actually a combination of a group of muscles. When you say the word ‘biceps’ you must specify which set of “biceps.” There are two sets of biceps and both sets of muscles have two “heads.” When someone says “nice guns”, they are referring to the biceps brachii, which is a shoulder muscle and an elbow muscle. There is another set however, called the biceps femoris, which is a hip and knee muscle. Both muscles have a long head and a short head.
To maximize the “look” of your biceps brachii it is important to train the other two muscles in that region of the body. There are the brachioradialis which is an elbow and wrist muscle and the brachialis which is sometimes referred to as the “work horse” of the elbow flexors (muscles that bend the arm in a curl).
The muscle we forget is the corachobrachialis. This muscle doesn’t bend the elbow directly. It starts or originates at the shoulder next to where the short head of the biceps brachii originates. It then inserts or attaches to the inside (medial side) of the upper arm half way down the humerus. When a bodybuilder does a biceps pose they always rotate the upper arm towards the outside (called external rotation) so the inside or the medial aspect or the corachobrachialis is now lying right on top. If you look closely you’ll notice the arm has rotated and shortened the biceps on top of the coracobrahialis muscle making your biceps look massive! Anytime you perform presses over your head, lateral raises, front raises, bench presses or flyes you train the corachobrachialis.
The biceps brachii originates in two different places: the long head starts at the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula, and the short head at the apex of the coracoid process. Both heads insert at the radial tuberosity (the forearm) with an indirect attachment to an aponeurosis (thick fascia or connective tissue). Because the biceps brachii crosses both the shoulder and the elbow it is considered a two-joint muscle.
The brachioradialis also is a prime mover at the elbow, but is emphasized more in a “hammer” curl or a neutral position of the wrist. It originates at the proximal two thirds of the lateral suprachondylar ridge of the humerus and the lateral intermuscular septum.
It inserts on the lateral side of the styloid process of the radius (1) or the top of your wrist by the thumb. Because the brachioradialis crosses both the elbow and the wrist it is considered a two-joint muscle.
The brachialis is emphasized more when doing a reverse curl. The muscle originates at the distal one half of the anterior surface of the humerus and the medial and lateral intermuscular septa. Since the brachialis only crosses the elbow it isn’t affected by the shoulder position.
The biceps brachii, brachioradialis and brachialis are all prime movers in a curl or elbow flexion. All three of these elbow flexors are involved in any pulling motion as well. It’s almost impossible to work your lats and not affect you biceps. Some might refer to the biceps as a secondary mover at the shoulder; however, it is still the prime mover at the elbow in almost every pulling motion. For this reason, it is not necessary to do as many isolated exercises. You only need to perform two isolated biceps exercises.
Some muscles are considered fast twitch and others are considered slow twitch. Slow twitch muscles react to endurance activities while the fast twitch muscles react to more powerful or explosive activities. All muscles in the body have qualities of both fast and slow twitch muscles. Elbow flexors like shorter more intense sets. The biceps brachii responds better to heavier weight and lower reps. Although, the biceps can perform a rowing motion for long periods of time, this activity is cyclical without constant tension. If your goal is to grow your biceps it is important to train both longer sets for the slow twitch fiber to be affected and shorter intense sets for the fast twitch fiber to grow.
Let’s get started. Each routine should be performed for at least 6-8 weeks, not more than twice a week or performed more than 16 times total before moving to the next level. All sets should be performed to failure. You shouldn’t be able to perform another rep.
If you perform curls on one day then rest a day before you train your lats. If you’re performing a push-pull routine then train legs between the pull and push days.
Perform all sets as a pyramid with each set progressively getting heavier (1ST set is 25 reps, 2nd set is 20 reps, 3rd set is 15 reps)
Straight bar curls – 2-3 sets of 25 to15 reps
Preacher curls with a cable or machine – 2-3 sets of 25 to 15 reps
Hammer curls – 2-3 sets of 25 to 15 reps
Perform all sets as a pyramid with each set progressively getting heavier (1ST set is 15 reps, 2nd set is 12 reps, 3rd set is 10 reps and the 4th set is 8 reps)
Straight bar curls – 3-4 sets of 15 to 8 reps
Preacher curls with a cable or machine – 3-4 sets of 15 to 8 reps
Incline bench dumbbell curls – 3-4 sets of 15 to 8 reps
Concentration curls – 3-4 sets of 15 to 8 reps
Reverse curls with an E-Z curl bar – 3-4 sets of 15 to 8 reps
No longer pyramid. Add 3 – 5 reps to the last set of each exercise as negatives. If the exercise asks for 4 sets of 8 reps then the last set will actually consist of 11-13 reps with the added negative reps. A negative rep is when someone helps you lift the weight (the positive or concentric motion) but you resist the downward motion. Always do one light set of 15 reps to warm up. After the first exercise sets there is no need to perform another warm up set.
Straight bar curls – 3-4 sets of 8 to 6 reps
Preacher curls with a cable or machine – 3-4 sets of 8 to 6 reps
Incline bench alternate dumbbell curls – 3-4 sets of 8 to 6 reps
Hammer curls – 3-4 sets of 8 to 6 reps
High cable curls – 3-4 sets of 8 to 6 reps
On all exercises inhale as the weight goes down (eccentric or lengthening phase) and exhale as you lift the weight.
Straight bar curls
Stand straight with your chest up, shoulders back, feet at shoulder width and a soft bend in your knees. Let your hands hang normally at your side and just rotate your palms forward. This is how you determine where you should grab the bar. The angle between the long axis of the humerus and the long axis of the forearm form a “carrying angle.”(3) This angle can vary from 10-25 degrees.(4) If you have a large carrying angle and you want to avoid excessive pressure to the medial or inside of the elbow, then it would be advisable to use dumbbells.
If you use a selecterized machine then make sure your elbow lines up with the axis of the machine. There is normally a little red dot or circle on the machine. If you don’t have a machine then just carry the preacher curl bench over to a low cable and use a straight bar. It’s important to not use the normal preacher bench with a free weight because the resistance profile is the exact opposite of a human’s strength profile. In other words, when the weight is heaviest the biceps is weakest and visa-versa. That’s why you see so many people cheat and rock the weight when they go heavy on a preacher curl using a free weight. Although people say this exercise hits the “peak” it’s just because the biceps has been shortened or balled up. The peak is genetic and has to do with the size of the muscle belly and the length of the tendon.
Incline bench curls
Use dumbbells and an incline bench for this exercise. You can incline the bench to a maximum of 30 degrees. Keep your feet on the floor, chest up and your head against the bench. Be careful, because you’ve put your biceps on a stretch, this can make you sore at the tendinous junction at the radius. Keep your palms facing forwards in a supinated position at all times. Once you get to the advanced routine and the weights become heavy alternate with each hand. This exercise emphasizes the biceps brachii.
Stand and hold the dumbbells and lift them up and down like you would a hammer. This exercise emphasizes the brachioradialis.
You must perform this one arm at a time. Sit on the edge of a bench and grab a dumbbell with one hand. Place the elbow of the hand with the dumbbell on the inside of your thigh just above the knee. Keep the palms facing outwards in a supinated position. This exercise emphasizes the biceps brachii.
High cable curls
Stand in between two high cables. Lift your arms until they are 90 degrees or parallel to the ground. Grab a handle connected to a cable with each hand and curl them as if you were performing a double biceps pose. This exercise emphasizes the biceps brachii.
Because some people have a problem going into full pronation while holding a straight bar, I recommend using an E-Z curl bar for this exercise and grabbing the bar at the widest position. Try and keep the elbows from flaring out to the sides. This exercise emphasizes the brachialis.
Follow these workouts for three months and you should now have great biceps brachii muscles.
- Kendall, McCreary, Provance: Muscles Testing and Function. p.268, 4th edition
- Kendall, McCreary, Provance: Muscles Testing and Function. p.268, 4th edition
- Norkin, Levangie: Joint Structure & Function. P. 246, 2nd edition
- Hamill, Knutzen: Biomechanical Basis of Human Movement, 1995 p.169