Arm Exercises For Athletes: Biceps Edition

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The answer to bigger and stronger biceps isn't endless sets of Curls. Alone, Curls fail to significantly increase the size of your arms, but even more important for athletes, they only work one muscle when your body actually moves as an integrated unit in sports. Think outside the box to build your biceps in ways that will also improve your performance on the field.

Obsession With Isolation Exercises
It's called the Ron Burgundy syndrome—doing Curls in an attempt to "sculpt the guns." Catching a quick pump while lounging on a machine might feel good, but it doesn't do much for you in the grand scheme of athletics.

Isolation exercises—those that involve moving only one joint at a time—are problematic for athletes, because muscles aren't isolated during competition. Even in a simple arm movement, the back is usually involved, as are other supporting muscle groups. For example, keeping the ball high and tight—a Tiki Barber special—requires strong arms and a strong back. So does hoisting an opponent over your shoulder during a wrestling match.

Even though the arms never work without the back, isolation exercises still have their place. Strong biceps need a strong back, but strong biceps also need strong forearms. The body won't lift what the hands can't grip. There's a strong neural connection between the brain and the hands. If the brain senses a weak grip, the weight will be harder to lift.

The best way to develop forearm strength is to perform Curls with a thick bar. This will increase strength in both the forearms and biceps. If you don't have access to a thick bar, create one by wrapping a towel around the dumbbell or barbell.

Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups
According to strength and conditioning expert Bret Contreras, the Chin-Up and the Neutral-Grip Pull-Up engage the biceps more than Curls—and they also strengthen the large muscles in the back. Performing these two exercises will make your workouts more efficient, because you will be strengthening multiple muscle groups with one exercise. Also, your muscles learn to work with each other, increasing coordination and overall body control.

The Program
Perform two biceps-focused exercises toward the end of your upper-body workout. Make sure to perform the compound exercise before the isolation exercise.

Combo One:


  • Place hands slightly wider than shoulder-width and grip bar with palms facing you
  • Pull up until chin is over or even with bar
  • Lower until arms are fully extended
  • Don't swing body or use legs for momentum
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 4x8

Thick-Grip Hammer Curls

  • Hold thick-grip dumbbells at sides with palms facing in and thumbs up
  • Flexing elbow, curl dumbbells to shoulders, keeping palms facing in and thumbs up through whole motion
  • With control, lower dumbbells back to side of body
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x12

Combo Two:

Neutral-Grip Pull-Ups

  • Place hands on neutral-grip bars with palms facing together
  • Pull up until chin is over or even with bar
  • Lower until arms are fully extended
  • Don't swing body or use legs for momentum

Sets/Reps: 5x5

Thick-Grip Barbell Curls

  • Grip thick bar slightly wider than shoulder-width
  • Curl bar up to chin level, keeping elbows locked in place
  • Lower bar with control

Sets/Reps: 3x15

Stronger arms don't come from performing countless isolation exercises for high reps and sets. Workouts that develop true arm strength—and that contribute to overall upper-body strength—mix compound movements like Chin-Ups with isolation exercises that also tax the forearms. If you consistently train with these four exercises for a few months, your arms will experience unmatched strength and size gains. And best of all, they will be suited for any athletic task. Time to cancel your next Ron Burgundy Gun Sculpting Class.

Source:  Contreras, B. (2010, March 10). Inside the muscles: Best back and biceps exercises. Retrieved from

Anthony Mychal is a writer, athlete consultant, teacher and coach. He has a B.S. in health and physical activity and an M.S. in health and physical education; and he studied under James Smith and Buddy Morris at the University of Pittsburgh. In his free time, he publishes a blog with his musings on athletic preparation at

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