Most guys are so obsessed with getting bigger biceps that they center their training around pumping up their arms. First, let me say this: Beginners should not even be doing biceps work. You will get much stronger with Chin-Ups, Rows and Presses than you will with 20 sets of Curls. Advanced lifters and guys who have to build their arms to at least 16 inches need to add direct arm work and intensity techniques to keep growing.
A lot of lifters make the big mistake of too much volume in their biceps work. While it is true that the biceps can handle more volume, because they are smaller muscles, too much volume all the time will lead to a decrease in size, not the growth you’re looking for.
There is a smarter way: Hit the biceps more frequently instead of bombing them once a week with a two-hour marathon workout. Most lifters do arm work on their upper-body days or even dedicate a day solely for arms. I will show you how to hit the arms with more frequency, giving you more growth with less time in the gym.
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Many lifters do not realize that back work hits the biceps indirectly and leads to bigger biceps. Moving your direct arm work to your upper-body days will allow you to hit your biceps twice a week indirectly and twice a week directly—a greater frequency. Frequency has a high correlation with hypertrophy. Think about gymnasts, who focus on bodyweight movements and holds seven days a week. Or the mason with Popeye-sized forearms from carrying concrete blocks eight hours a day, six days a week. Each builds tons of muscle without progressively overloading—meaning the gymnasts have the same body weight every day, and the blocks the mason carries are a consistent weight. The body adapts to stress over time by building more muscle.
The guys with the best physiques in history used both low and high reps to build up their bodies. The problem is that doing heavy Curls for extended periods of time will destroy your elbows and wrists. This is where modifying your back exercises really helps. We’ve already established that back exercises work the biceps indirectly. The combination of heavy Chin-Ups and Rows with some higher-rep direct arm work is unbeatable, and it won’t destroy your wrists and elbows like heavy Curls. You can achieve the arms you desire without damaging your joints. Another point to consider is that you will always be able to lift heavier loads on Row and Chin-Up variations than you could with any type of Curl. More overload equals more size.
Some back exercises hit the biceps harder than others. I have selected some of my favorites that really hit the biceps (to add size) indirectly.
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Close Grip Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups
By moving your hands in close (6 to 12 inches apart), you put more emphasis on the biceps brachi (the short head) with a much heavier load than you could typically curl. Close-Grip Pull-Ups hit the brachialis ( long head ) and brachioradialis (forearm). You should rotate both into your program.
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Supinating Ring Chin-Ups
With this variation, you add intensity to the biceps by supinating the hands at the top of the movement. This exercise provides a lot of bang for your buck, because it hits both heads in the biceps as well as the forearms. This is because you start with a pronated grip (palms forward) and finish with a supinated grip (palms back ), which changes the muscles being targeted. Be sure to squeeze the biceps hard at the top.
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Thick Rope or Towel Inverted Rows
Any time you use a thick implement, your arms work twice as hard. Holding on to a thick rope forces you to grip harder. This creates more tension everywhere. The more tension created, the harder the fibers are contracting. Good news if you want to add size.
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V-Grip Bent-Over Barbell Rows
The narrow grip will again put more emphasis on the biceps brachi. It is also a great forearm and back builder. You can set up a bar in a corner of a power rack or wall if you don’t have access to a landmine.
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Direct Biceps Exercises
I’ve also included direct biceps exercises you can add to your arsenal for the finishing touches.
Iso-Hold Biceps Dumbbell Curls
This Curl variation will fry your biceps because you are using two types of concentrations. The first is a static hold. The second is concentric contraction, with your normal shortening of the muscle (moving the weight up). Combine these two to create huge time under tension, which really cranks up the intensity without the need for a lot of weight. Switch the arm with which you start the hold every set.
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Offset Supinating Dumbbell Curls
This variation uses leverage to increase intensity. By sliding your hand to the top of the dumbbell, you create a longer lever arm. Doing so makes supinating the dumbbell much harder and creates a harder contraction at the end of the movement.
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Once again you use leverage. A normal Dumbbell Curl becomes easier at the top, because your mechanical advantage improves through the range of motion. Using a kettlebell is a different story. The weight of a kettlebell is out in front of the hands, making the lever arm longer. Now the curl becomes harder at the end range of motion, giving you a much harder peak contraction. If you have weak wrists, this curl will fix them in a hurry.
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Barbell Drag Curls
By keeping the bar close to your body, you move your elbows behind you and take your shoulders out of the mix. This minor change places all the emphasis on the biceps. These really make your biceps scream. Squeeze your biceps hard through the entire Curl for maximum tension.
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Sample Training Week
Monday – Upper ( indirect arm work )
1a) Close Grip Bench – 5 x 6-8 x 75
1b) Close Grip Chin-Ups – 5 x 6-8 x 75
2a) V-Grip Bent-Over Rows – 4 x 6-8 x 75
2b) Dips – 3 x 6-8 x 75
Wednesday – Lower (direct arm work)
Deadlift – 3 x 6 x 90
DB Split Squats – 3 x 8-10 x 60
Back Extensions – 2 x 20-25 x 45
Barbell Drag Curls – 3-4 x 10-12 x 30
Friday – Upper (indirect arm work)
1a) DB Military Press – 4 x 8-10 x 45
1b) Supinated Ring Chin-Ups – 5 x 7-9 x 45
2a) Towel or Rope Inverted Rows – 4 x 7- 9 x 45
2b) DB Shrugs – 3 x 10-12 x 45
3) Close-Grip Push-Ups 1 x amap
Saturday – Lower (direct arm work)
Squat – 4 x 8 x 120
Glute Ham Raise 3 x 8-12 x 60’s
3a) Seated Offset Supinating DB Curls – 3 x 12-15 x 0
3b) Tricep Cable Push-Downs – 3 x 12-15 x 0
Perform 3a then 3b then rest 60 seconds
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WATCH: Patrick Willis’s Bicep Workout