The Body Part Series #4: Bicep Training

Bicep Training Explained: Four Strategies and Considerations to Maximize Growth

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on my blog, but I’m glad to be back here today to share with you guys my best tips for training the bicep muscles in the gym. So many of you want to learn the “secrets” to bigger, stronger arms, so I’m going to run through my research on this subject, and offer you practical strategies that you can provide to your own training program. Let’s take a look at the anatomy and function of the bicep muscles, talk about your exercise options, then run through an overview of where to place these exercises within your weekly plan.

Key Takeaways

  1. The biceps are composed of two distinct muscles: the short head and long head. These muscles are primarily responsible for elbow flexion (bringing the upper arm closer to the body).

  2. These muscles are highly active in both horizontal pulls (i.e. barbell row) and vertical pulls (i.e. lat pulldown), but can be further isolated with single-joint exercises.

  3. Shoulder angle between exercises can alter maximal muscle activity, so it’s advisable to train different movement patterns (i.e. seated and standing curls) for maximal hypertrophy.

  4. Examples of exercises demonstrating high levels of bicep activation during training include the chin-up, narrow grip pulldown, seated incline curls, and barbell preacher curls.

A Quick Note On Bicep Training

I simply want to preface this article by offering you guys my honest opinion on bicep training. My goal with writing this article is offering you research-based strategies that you confidently apply to your own workouts, but the key is to not get too carried away. Don’t get me wrong, the biceps are an important muscle that should be worked in your training program, but I see far too many people performing excessive bicep isolation work in the gym. As you’ll see later in this article, there’s an enormous amount of research demonstrating high levels of bicep activity in various compound movements and sufficient isolation work, so there’s absolutely no need to spend 30 minutes performing curls on a regular basis. If there’s anything I’d like you to take away from this article and the rest of these training posts, it’s to understand the basic anatomy and function of each muscle group, then ensure that your training program is designed to have a reasonable amount of weekly volume for these body parts. At the end of the day, a balanced resistance program focused on progression will provide most people with the strength and muscle gains they’re looking for, and that’s how I hope to educate you all for the future. But with that being said, let’s dive into a deeper analysis on the bicep muscles. 

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Anatomy

The biceps (brachii) consist of 2 main muscles: a short head and a long head, both of which are responsible for flexing the elbow and supinating the forearm. For the purpose of combining individual muscles into a more generic group, I’m also going to briefly touch on the anatomy of the forearm muscles, primarily in reference to the brachioradialis. This muscle, typically inserted on the lateral side of the forearm, is also actively involved in any activity that requires flexion of the elbow. EMG research on various bicep exercises has shown high levels of activation in the brachioradialis, used in conjunction with the two primary bicep muscles (Marcolin et al 2018). The important thing to take away about the anatomy of the bicep is that as you can see, there are really only two main functions the muscle performs (elbow flexion and forearm supination). This is a big reason why I predicate the muscle group does not need nearly as much overall volume compared to a much larger set of muscles, such as the back or legs musculature. And now that we understand the anatomy and function of the muscle group, consider the takeaways I present in these four strategies to maximize the effectiveness of your training strategy.

biceps-brachii-2.jpg
Basic diagram of the bicep anatomy illustrating the insertion points for the long and short of the brachii, as well as the smaller brachialis.

Train the Biceps With Higher Speeds and Faster Loads

Although a properly balanced resistance training program should be sufficient for progression in any athlete, paying attention to muscle fiber type of an individual muscle can be important, particularly for someone whose priority is more tailored to hypertrophy. Though research in relatively limited in relation to the fiber type distribution of the biceps, current research suggests that the biceps display a predominantly type II fiber proportion (Dahmane et al 2004). Because of this, it’s advisable to base your bicep training around higher average bar speeds in addition to heavier loads, which has shown to a useful strategy when training a muscle group with a greater proportion of type 2 muscle fibers (Pareja-Blanco et al 2017) (Ogborn and Schoenfeld 2014). I see a lot of people in the gym performing barbell or dumbbell curls with the same weight each session, and ultimately that’s not going to lead to for the progression in musculature you’re looking for. Just like any other muscle group, the biceps should be trained with progressive overload, which commonly comes as a result of lifting heavier weight.

Failure
Awesome infographic created by the team over at strengthandconditioningresearch.com offering a further explanation on the importance of faster bar speed when training a muscle group with a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers.

Utilize Vertical and Horizontal Pulls as the Basis for Your Training

Many trainees simply lack awareness of the effectiveness compound (multi-joint) movements have on the development of their smaller muscle groups, especially in untrained or beginner strength athletes. When it comes to bicep training, this rule is not an exception. Although vertical and horizontal pull movement patterns will primarily target the various muscle of the back musculature, numerous back exercises have shown to elicit high rates of bicep activation when performed with proper form. As far as vertical pulling movements are concerned, both the medium and narrow grip lat pulldown, in addition to the standard chin-up have shown to produce superior muscle activity in the biceps (Lehman et al 2004) (Youdas et al 2010).

Additionally, several horizontal rowing variations have shown to recruit superior bicep activity, particularly when performed at a lower angle. The inverted row and supinated barbell row have shown to produce the greatest muscle activity, while single-arm variations have shown to be inferior to overall bicep recruitment (McGill et al 2014) (Snarr and Esco 2013). So as you can see, there are various compound pulling movements that can be performed to effectively recruit the biceps. When you continue to progress on these exercises with heavier weight over time, I can promise you that you’re going to see your biceps grow. Understanding this consideration is going to be key for maximize your programming for “pulling” movement patterns, and so that you’re not performing unnecessary isolation work in the gym.

Pullups
The pullup is a good example of a vertical pull that has shown to elicit significant bicep activation, though it is primarily a back exercise.

Pick 1-2 Isolation Exercises at Different Movement Angles

With that being said, isolation exercises can have their place in a balanced resistance training program, and I definitely recommend incorporating some additional volume work into your bicep training, if you so choose. Yes your biceps will definitely grow if you’re progressing on compound pulling exercises, but the biceps are a muscle group that most people like to prioritize for aesthetic purposes, so I think additional work is certainly advisable when trained in moderation and focused on progressive techniques. Once again, there’s not a ton of research that has been studied comparing muscle activity during different isolation exercises, but the information that we do know can be useful when considering the multitude of options we have available in bicep isolation training.

Overall, it appears that the biggest consideration in single-joint exercises is that the change in shoulder joint angle can actually result in different patterns of muscle activity throughout the bicep curl range of motion (Oliveira et al 2009). What this tells us is that it would make the most sense to incorporate a bicep exercise that maximizes muscle activity at the peak contraction (such as a standing curl), in addition to one that maximizes activity at the stretch position (such as seated incline curls). Of course, this is for those trainees that are interested in maximizing hypertrophy, but nevertheless the majority of strength trainees are already performing at least two bicep exercises each week in their program. As far as overall volume is concerned for these isolation exercises, I recommend adding in just 4-8 sets per week into your training, which has shown to be a sufficient amount of total work for a smaller muscle group (Wernborn et al 2007). If you’re already doing a good amount of pulling with a pulldown and/or barbell row, this extra work is just the icing on the cake.

seated incline curl.jpg
Seated incline curls have shown to be effective at targeting the long head of the biceps brachii.

 

Minimize Deltoid Involvement and Focus on Supination of the Wrist

And finally, I think it is important to mention overall form technique in regards to bicep training. Curls seem like a fairly simple movement pattern, yet many people require some adjustments to their exercise form in order to maximize the muscle activity in the biceps, and prevent another muscle group from taking over. Overall, my biggest recommendation would be to focus on limiting the use of the anterior (front) deltoid in any curling motion, in addition to incorporating supination of the wrist for peak contractions at the top of the movement.

In order to effectively eliminate the use of the deltoid muscle, focus on keeping your back upright when performing each rep, in addition to pinching the shoulder blades back and maintain a neutral spine. By making these adjustments to your form, you’ll drastically reduce the body’s urge to utilize the shoulders or back to move the weight, and place much greater tension on the bicep muscles. If you’re unable to make these alterations, you’re likely using far too heavy of a weight for that respective exercise. Don’t be afraid to start with a light weight, focus on performing the exercise with a maximal contraction at the top of the movement, and slowly add weights/reps into your programming.

The reason why I recommend incorporating a bicep exercise that involves wrist supination isn’t just to look cool in the gym, but more so for the effect this has shown on bicep activation. In one study researchers analyzed EMG activation in various bicep exercises, and concluded that the short head of the biceps was maximized with both elbow flexion and wrist supination (Rudroff et al 1985). An example of an exercise that accomplishes this is the dumbbell concentration curl, which has also shown to minimize the involvement of the anterior deltoid.

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Cool graphic by Jeremy at builtwithscience.com that visually explains how to maximize the activation of the short head on the biceps brachii.

Conclusion

So whether you’re a beginner to the gym or an advanced trainee looking to bring up their arms, you are definitely encouraged to utilize these principles for future use. I’m hopeful you guys found these tips useful and can apply them to your own training methods! If you have any additional questions about the information I presented, please feel free to drop a comment down below and let me know your thoughts. Stay tune for part 5 of this series, which will hopefully drop later this week. Thanks again for reading through this, and I’ll talk to you all again soon!

Studies Referenced:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18356480
  2. https://peerj.com/articles/5165.pdf
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17326698
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021929004005147
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27038416
  6. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Abstract/2014/04000/The_Role_of_Fiber_Types_in_Muscle_Hypertrophy__.3.aspx
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=(2004).+Variations+in+muscle+activation+levels+during+traditional+latissimus+dorsi+weight+training+exercises%3A+An+experimental+study.+Dynamic+Medicine%2C+3(1)%2C+4.
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21068680
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25066518
  10. https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineDecember2013_Snarr_Esco.pdf
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737788/
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