Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Guns, cannons, pipes, howitzers. The nicknames can be endless for the infamous biceps. Aspired by many but built by few, the biceps are the quintessential show-off muscle. Difficult to build, they are often focused on more than triceps and over trained in the process. With little else to do about your lack of upper arm girth other than curl, you can easily find yourself adding sets, including too many intensity techniques and over doing it on your relentless quest for bigger guns.
So, if curling is the beginning and end to your biceps program how do you structure a better biceps routine all the while breathing some new life into it. Normally barbell curls, dumbbell curls and some sort of one-arm concentration curl make up the typical routine. How do you improve on that? What can be changed to help you reach your goals?
A little open mindedness can go a long way. When you start thinking in terms of functionality, the correct amount of training stress and the entire body working as a unit then you will start to realize the real-world way of building not only bigger biceps but how to improve any body part. Killing your arms with countless sets and too many intensity techniques will drive your sought-after gains into the ground.
Below are some tips for better biceps you may have never thought about before. Some of these tips are new twists on old favorites and others will require a shift in your normal perspective to jumpstart gains once again. Don’t let genetics hold you back. There is always a different way to approach an old problem.
9 ways to challenge your biceps
#1 - Reverse-grip chin-up
Popular among functional trainers, the reverse-grip chin-up is an excellent biceps mass builder providing enough weight (body weight) for overload. When focused on the arms instead of the back, the chin-up is a welcome change from all of the redundant barbell and dumbbell work that usually makes up a biceps routine, plus you get a little back development as a side effect.
Since you will be focusing on biceps, you will perform these chin-ups a bit differently than usual. Grasp a chinning bar with an underhand grip that is about shoulder width. Instead of arching your back to engage your lats you will slightly bend or hump your back to keep the lats out of the movement and put most of the stress on the biceps. Pull yourself up focusing on flexing your arms. At the top squeeze hard for a count and then slowly return to full extension.
#2 - TRX curl
Very similar in function to the chin-up, the TRX curl is another great bar-free exercise that will challenge not only your strength but also your ability to stabilize your entire body. Since the suspension trainer is split into separate straps for each hand balance and midsection strength is a must.
Stand facing a TRX suspension trainer and grasp the handles with a thumbs-up neutral grip. Angle your body at about a 45 degree angle from the floor in a straight line and your arms perpendicular to your body. Without moving your upper arms curl your lower arms by supinating them toward the sides of your head. Squeeze the biceps hard and slowly return to the start. This can be a challenging move so you may need to adjust the angle to the floor to make it a bit easier until you have mastered your form. Also, remember to keep your body straight throughout the exercise.
#3 - Chest-supported curl
Okay, there has to be some sort of dumbbell exercise in here so here we go. Many times you will observe bent backs and contorted spines on a normal biceps day. A chest-supported dumbbell curl will help avoid all that. No, I am not about to tout the advantages of a preacher or spider curl, I am talking about a much more focused exercise. Performing a strict dumbbell curl on an incline bench will require less weight but more concentration.
Set up an adjustable bench with about a 45 degree angle. Face the bench with your chest resting on the pad and grasp two dumbbells. Let your arms hang down with the dumbbells in a palms facing neutral position. Slowly curl the dumbbells up supinating them as you go toward your shoulders. Be sure not to move your upper arms as you curl and keep ultra-strict form throughout. Lower the dumbbells twisting them back into a neutral position toward the bottom.
#4 - Rep density
Much like the tactic listed for triceps, rep density refers to accomplishing a certain amount of reps despite the number of sets performed. Instead of doing a certain number of sets accompanied by a set number rest periods; you will look at this as one big set in a sort of rest/pause fashion.
You can perform this set many ways. For example, if you want to do some heavy curl work pick any biceps exercise and a specific rep total such as 50. Perform low rep sets resting only as long as necessary. For higher rep sets go for 100 reps total and go for it. Over time try reducing rest times or increase the weight. These are also excellent to superset with a triceps rep density set.
#5 - Time density
Another way to shake up the boredom in the gym is with time density. Your goal here will be to accomplish as many reps as possible in a set amount of time. This will fit nicely into any program for the simple fact that you will know exactly how much time you need. It is also excellent for those who have a limited amount of time to train.
Pick any biceps exercise and a specific amount of time. Start with a low number like five minutes if you are new to this type of training. You can slowly increase your time by one minute as you get more conditioned over time. As with rep density you can vary your amount of weight from one workout to the other. One day may be heavier reps and another lighter weight is used. Perform as many reps as possible in the designated amount of time resting as necessary. The goal is, over time, to reduce the rest periods, increase the amount of weight used and/or increase the total time.
#6 - Seated barbell curl
This is an old-school exercise that has been long forgotten in the biceps arsenal. Even though the range of motion is limited to the upper half of the movement which enables you to use a heavier than normal amount of weight it still requires strict execution in the seated position. This will give your biceps a very unique and different type of stress kick starting new muscle and strength gains.
Sit on a flat bench making sure to keep a strict upright position, flexing your midsection for stability and forming a 90 degree angle at your hips. With your feet firmly planted on the ground grasp a barbell with an underhand grip at shoulder width resting on your thighs. Lift the barbell off your legs and start to curl the weight up toward your shoulders allowing your elbows to slightly move forward to help contract your biceps. Squeeze your biceps hard at the top position and pause for a second or two before slowly returning to the bottom only touching your legs with the bar, not bouncing or slamming the weight down.
The seated barbell curl will quickly allow you to use some pretty hefty weight since it uses a limited range of motion, but don’t get too carried away. Keep your form in check and use slow and controlled movements to avoid injury. You should also include other full range exercises in your routine so you work the biceps from all points of stretch and contraction.
#7 - Biceps ladder
A biceps ladder is a great way to take a break from the weights and utilize your bodyweight for gaining more muscle and strength. Similar to the TRX curl the biceps ladder is a challenging but incredibly effective muscle builder requiring little equipment but a total focus on form and function.
The most convenient places to perform a biceps ladder are a Smith machine, squat rack or an adjustable power rack. Start with the bar in a low position such as knee level. Lie under the bar grasping the bar with an underhand grip in line with your shoulders. Pick your body off the floor with only your heels touching the floor and your body in a straight line. Curl your body up to the bar as if you were curling a barbell toward your forehead. Squeeze at the top and then lower your body slowly back down. Be sure to keep your midsection tense while your body stays straight.
Once failure is achieved, raise the bar up one notch and repeat for more reps. Keep raising the bar one position at a time until the bar is roughly chest height. At the end of the series your biceps will be screaming. This will also fit nicely with a triceps ladder since you don’t have to run around the gym looking for another piece of equipment.
#8 - Frequency
This tip will affect your training like no other. Frequency is one of the most powerful changes you can make to any body part – not only biceps. By increasing frequency you can literally increase the opportunity for growth. For example, if you train your biceps once per week you give them only 52 chances to grow per year. If you simply train them twice per week you have doubled the growth potential to 104 times per year, and better yet with three times per week, 156 growth bouts per year. Now, which group would grow faster?
Of course your results are dependent largely upon keeping a close eye on recovery and regulating volume to avoid burnout. A good example would look something like this:
- Monday: Heavy barbell or seated barbell curl – 4 sets of 4-6 reps
- Wednesday: Chest-supported curl – 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Friday: Biceps ladder – 1 total set to failure
#9 - Increase rowing and pull-up work
Finally, another forgotten trick is to simply increase your efforts on all back movements. Most of us focus so much on pushing big weights on the bench press and other chest exercises (with well-developed triceps to show for it) that we fail to put an equal amount of attention on pulling. Pull-ups, heavy barbell and T-bar rows and other pulls put an enormous amount of stress on your biceps overloading them in such a way that is extremely difficult to achieve with more isolated movements like curls.
This residual effect will also indirectly increase your frequency. If you work your back one day and then biceps a day or two latter, that is technically training your biceps twice. But your back training needs as much focus as chest or any other body part that gets your undivided attention.