If you want the best exercise for building bigger biceps then look no further than the classic curl
There’s a scene in the original 1987 Predator film where Major Alan “Dutch” Schafer (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) affectionately greets an old pal, Dillon (played by Carl Weathers), with the immortal line “Dillon, you son of a bitch!”.
The pair then grasp hands and the camera cuts to a close up of their biceps. They flex for a second before starting a playful arm-wrestle.
Now, if you’re a man of a certain age, there’s a fair chance that scene (consciously or subliminally) made you want to increase the size of your arms. It was the perfect action movie moment, capturing the banter and the body shape that, as a kid, made you think, “I want some of that.”
The trouble is, 30-odd years later, there’s a good chance that you haven’t quite nailed the action hero biceps look.
There’s an equally high chance that the reason you haven’t added size to your biceps is because you’ve been making some simple but fatal errors in how you execute the move. Follow the advice below, however, and you’ll sculpt a set of guns that even Arnold in his pomp would be proud of.
What’s the biggest biceps-building mistake people make?
The single biggest mistake that you’ll see in gyms up and down the land is guys trying to lift a weight that is too heavy and, as a result, failing to apply sufficient tension to the target muscle. Put simply, it is your ability to effectively isolate and contract the biceps muscles that will determine the effectiveness of your arms workouts. When you go too heavy, you start to use momentum, by swinging the weight up, and gravity, by letting the weight fall back down. When you do that, your biceps muscle fibres aren’t contracting optimally. When you reduce the weight you can properly control the movement.
What weight should I lift?
Saying that you shouldn’t got too heavy isn’t an excuse to go light or go easy. You should push yourself to your maximum capacity. You just need to be able to control the entire rep. So select a weight that only just allows you to complete the final rep of the final set with perfect form.
Are curls the best biceps move?
Curls are great when done well, but you’ll need a range of direct biceps exercise in your plan if you want to maximise your growth potential and we’ll go into more detail on that below. You should also adjust the key variables at your disposal. You could do 3 sets of 10 reps one week then do 4 sets of 8 reps the next, for example. Or you could play with the tempo (speed of the lift) or the rest period to give your muscles a fresh challenge. You don’t need to change everything every session but you should probably change at least one thing each week.
What rep range should I use?
Generally speaking, 10-12 reps is going to be the sweet spot for hypertrophy (muscle growth), but if adding biceps size is your aim then you could work within the 6-15 rep range. There’s not a lot of value in doing 5 reps or fewer for your biceps. You’re better off using that strength-focused rep range for compound (multi-joint) exercises that also include your biceps, such as chin-ups and bent-over barbell rows. Unless there is a specific reason, you don’t want to do much work in the 15+ rep range because you’ll mainly be training muscle endurance.
When should I do direct biceps exercises?
They are best done towards the end of your session. You want to do your big compound exercises early in the workout when you’re fresh. If you do your direct biceps work first and then try to do a compound move such as a barbell bent-over row, your capacity to lift in the latter move will be significantly reduced. You’ll have to lift a lighter weight in the row and your big back muscles won’t get much of a workout.
What else do I need to know?
Your arms will look bigger if you do an equal amount of direct biceps and triceps (the muscles on the back of your arms) work. They will also appear bigger if you are leaner because lower body fat levels will help to give your muscles a more defined look. That’s why you’ll need to do big compound exercises and high intensity work to complement your direct arms training. You shouldn’t just do endless biceps exercises, basically. But when you do train your arms, you really want to make it count. Here’s how you can get the most out of the classic biceps move.
Anatomy of the perfect biceps curl
Step 1: Initiate the movement by drawing your elbow back
Before you start to curl the weight, move your elbow back a few centimetres to initiate the lift. The reason for doing this is that it discourages you from bringing your upper arm forwards as you lift the weight. It’s worth doing because when you bring your upper arm forwards that takes the emphasis away from the biceps muscle and moves it onto the front shoulders.
Step 2: Curl with purpose
We don’t want you to lift a weight you can’t control but we do want you to maximise your potential. That means you need to curl with purpose. Lift like you mean it and put everything into getting the weight from the starting position up to your shoulder.
Step 3: Keep your elbows in
Try to keep your elbows tucked in to your sides throughout the rep. When they flare out to the sides that’s because your middle delts (shoulders) are trying to take over. It’s a classic sign that you aren’t isolating the biceps effectively.
Step 4: Squeeze at the top
When the weight is at the top of the move, squeeze your biceps as hard as you possibly can before starting to lower the weight. This is called a ‘peak contraction’ and will help you to get more out of every rep.
Step 5: Lower under control
The lowering phase is an overlooked portion of the move. People tend to think that the key part is lifting the weight up so they let gravity take over on the way down. That’s a big mistake. You have to control the negative (lowering phase) of the lift and you should lower each rep to a count of three or four to exploit the maximum muscle-building potential of the exercise.
Step 6: Squeeze the triceps at the bottom
This is something that hardly anyone does but it is so effective. At the bottom of the move, fully straighten your arms and squeeze the triceps muscles before starting the next rep. This is called ‘reciprocal innervation’ and will prime your body to activate as many biceps muscle fibres as possible when you perform the next rep.
Advanced biceps-building tactics
Your first job is to master all of the advice above and make sure that you can perform the perfect biceps curl. Once you’re confident that you’ve nailed the technique, you can start to develop the way that you incorporate biceps exercises into your workouts.
Do supersets and tri-sets
Direct biceps exercises lend themselves to being done as supersets (two exercises done back-to-back with minimal rest) or tri-sets (three exercises done back-to-back with minimal rest). A classic way to do this might be to pair a traditional curl with a hammer curl, where your wrists are in a neutral position (facing in). If you’re doing a tri-set, it makes a lot of sense to do it while also using the tip below.
Change the starting angle
One of the key variables with biceps exercises is the position of flexion, which is a fancy way of describing your upper arm angle when you perform the lift. When you change your upper arm angle, you give your body with a different training stimulus and, when you do that, you’ll accelerate your growth. As an example, you could do an incline biceps curl (where your upper arms are behind the line of your body), a standing hammer curl (where your upper arms are in line with your body) and a preacher curl (where your upper arms are in front of your body).
Use a rest-pause technique
Working to failure is a sign that you are properly challenging your muscles. But you don’t have to stop the set just because you reach fatigue. You could use a rest/pause technique where you reach failure before taking three deep breaths before trying to do as many extra reps as you can, even if you can only manage one or two. You don’t want to do this every workout because it is very taxing but it is a useful tool to throw in every now and again.
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