Big Biceps Without Curls: The Anti-Isolation Bodybuilding Method

James Chan
Written By: James Chan
April 29th, 2013
Updated: June 13th, 2020
79.2K Reads
Bored with barbell and dumbbell curls? Author James Chan shows you how to train your biceps for bigger gains using 4 non-isolation and unconventional exercises.

I recently got back to training at a commercial gym.  As a Christmas gift, my wife bought me a membership at a brand new gym that was due to open up in a few months.  I still have my home gym, and for several years the home gym served me well.  But because it was a home gym, I was limited to free weights: bodyweight, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells.

I was looking forward to working out in a new environment with new and different pieces of equipment.  It had been awhile since I had trained on machines or cables, and I was looking forward to providing my muscles with new stimuli.  When the gym finally opened up, I was like a kid in a candy store.  I wanted to try all of the machines and training equipment the gym had.  

But as I trained at this commercial gym over the months, I ended up going back to the basics: free weights.  My muscles had grown so used to handling free weights, that machines really didn't do it for me anymore.

My muscles didn't really respond to cable flyes or cable curls.  They didn't grow that much bigger off of leg curls or leg extensions.  I still prefer pull-ups and chin-ups to pulldowns and cable rows.

Growth comes from adversity.  Your muscles grow when the exercises are hard to do.  They don't grow when you sit in a chair and push a lever.  Your mind and body crave stimulation, and you can only get stimulation by making exercises more and more difficult.

Instead of isolating muscles in my workouts, I gravitated towards exercises where my muscles worked as a single unit.  Instead of isolation, my muscles became accustomed to integration.

In conventional bodybuilding training, you try to build a particular body part by isolating it.  In other words, you choose an exercise that maximizes the tension on a target muscle and make it work in isolation without the help of other muscle groups.

Big Biceps

But there is also an anti-isolation approach to bodybuilding.  In other words, you tense and flex your entire musculature in order to lift more weight.  By tensing your entire musculature, your muscles work as a single unit.

Prime examples of this anti-isolation approach to bodybuilding are calisthenics.  Bodyweight exercises require you to flex your entire musculature and to work as a single unit.  This is because you must push or pull your entire bodyweight, and in order to push or pull your bodyweight, you have to stabilize your body while the prime movers do the work.

For instance, if you do a pushup, then your prime movers (chest, delts and triceps) push while the rest of your musculature (quads, abs, back, etc.) stays flexed to keep your body straight and rigid so that it can be easier to move.  You can't move weight as easily when it's flopping around and sagging all over the place.  Big difference between lifting a solid 45 pound barbell and a half filled 45 pound sand bag.

Hence, the anti-isolation approach to bodybuilding is to build a target muscle with the help of all your other muscles.  Instead of making your biceps work in isolation with single joint movements such as curls, you can build much bigger biceps with heavy compound movements.

The main reason that the anti-isolation bodybuilding method works is that the smaller muscle groups (such as the arms and shoulders) are exposed to far more weight with compound movements than with isolation movements.  Bigger muscle groups assist the smaller muscles in moving the weight.  In the cheat curl, for example, the explosive thrust of your hips assists the biceps in moving a heavy barbell, a weight that your biceps would not have been able to move alone.

Four Anti-Isolation Bicep Exercises

If you want to build massive muscle, then take the anti-isolation approach to bodybuilding.  The following are four anti-isolation exercises to build enormous biceps:

Front Squats for Maximal Contraction of the Biceps

To perform the front squat, you have to isometrically contract your biceps in order to hold onto the weight and keep it on your shoulders.  If you didn’t contract the biceps, then the barbell would slide off your shoulders and crash on to the floor.  If you do the front squat correctly, then not only will you build up the quads but the biceps as well.

You can front squat far more weight than you can curl.  By performing the front squat, you maximally contract the biceps with an extremely heavy weight to which they are not normally accustomed to handling.   Contracting against supra-maximal loads builds up both the density and strength of the biceps.

Cleans for Explosive Biceps Growth

The clean builds explosiveness and works the hamstrings, back, biceps, and trapezius.   It builds big biceps the same way a barbell cheat curl does.  The explosive thrust of your hips assists the biceps in moving a heavy barbell, a weight that your biceps would not have been able to move alone.

The explosive movement of the clean will activate the fast-twitch fibers (Type IIb) of the biceps and brachialis.  Type IIb fibers have far more growth potential than slow-twitch fibers (Type I) or the intermediate fast-twitch fibers (Type IIa) normally trained by bodybuilders.

To perform a power clean, stand over a barbell and grab it with an over hand grip slightly wider than shoulder width.  Bend at the knees and hips and keep your lower back arched.  Pull your body up so that the barbell touches mid-thigh.

Jump up and extend your torso. Shrug at the shoulders and pull the barbell upward.  This should be done explosively.  As you pull the bar up, your body will drop underneath the bar, resting the weight on your shoulders.

Cleans can be performed with a barbell or with a kettlebell.  Both variations will thicken up the biceps and brachialis muscles.

Pull Ups

Ring Flyes for High Tension on the Biceps

Larry Scott helped to introduce this gymnastics exercise to bodybuilders.  Stand on a stable platform and grab a pair of gymnastics rings.  Put yourself in a push-up position.

Lower yourself to the floor by flaring the arms out to the side with a slight bend at the elbow.  When you’ve reached the bottom, reverse direction and squeeze your arms back together as if you’re performing a flye.  Maintain total body tension throughout the exercise.

The ring flye builds not only the chest, but it also builds up the biceps through straight arm leverage work.  By using the straight arm leverage of ring flyes, you’re placing the biceps at a mechanical disadvantage.  This mechanical disadvantage requires your chest and biceps to generate more force to perform the exercise.  Greater force generation means greater muscular tension, which means greater hypertrophy in the chest and biceps.

Chin-up Variations for Massive Biceps

Chin-ups are pull-ups performed with an underhanded or supinated grip.  Because of this underhand grip, chin-up variations build up the biceps by overloading them with your own bodyweight.

If you have a hard time doing chin-ups, then start off with shoulder width, parallel grip pull-ups, as these are the easiest to perform without a spotter.  This pull-up version places you in a strong mechanical advantage and will overload the biceps and brachialis muscles.  To truly work the biceps, hold yourself for few seconds in the flexed position at the top of each rep.

Once you’re able to perform 10-12 shoulder width, parallel grip chin-ups, you can either strap on some weight or progress to harder and more difficult chin-up variations.  The next progression would be wide grip chin-ups.  Take a shoulder width underhand grip and perform as many chin-ups as you can.  Again, to work the biceps, hold yourself for few seconds in the flexed position at the top of each rep.

Once you’re able to perform 10-12 wide grip chin-ups, you can progress to the next level, which would be mixed grip chin-ups.   This exercise is the precursor to the one handed chin-up.  Not only will this chin-up work the lats, but it will overload the biceps more than they’re used to.

With this exercise you perform a chin-up with one hand supinated (underhand grip) and the other hand pronated (overhand grip) and farther out on the bar. The side with the underhanded grip takes on more of the load, while the other side supports. It's sort of like doing a self-assisted one arm chin-up,

Once you’re able to perform a significant number of mixed grip chin-ups, you can progress to the next level, which would be one handed chin-ups.   One handed chin-ups are different from one arm chin-ups.   With the one handed chin-up, you’re holding the bar with one hand while the other hand grabs on to your wrist.

Even though you're hanging by one hand with one handed chin-ups, you’re using both arms to pull up your weight. Once you're able to do several of these one handed chin-ups, then you can transition to one arm chin-ups.

Posted on: Wed, 07/06/2016 - 20:57

Using biceps in front squat.....someone apparently doesn't front squat. The barbell rests on your front debts. You should be able to let go of the bar and it stays in place. No biceps growth to be gleaned from front squats.

Posted on: Sun, 05/25/2014 - 12:52


I struggle with a elbow injury on the inside, but i want to train my biceps which is the best way?
are chin ups safe?

Posted on: Fri, 05/03/2013 - 19:13

Clean grip is best especially for biceps.

Javaid Alam
Posted on: Mon, 05/06/2013 - 00:19

Thanks for your reply.

Javaid Alam
Posted on: Tue, 04/30/2013 - 01:17

Hi James,

Great exercises. Thanx for this informative article. However, I have just one little question. When we do front squats, what type of grip should we use, Clean Grip or Crossed-Arm Grip? Which is better?

Joe Langley
Posted on: Mon, 04/29/2013 - 17:56

Interesting article, never really thought about the use of biceps isometrically in a squat before.. but your so right. Too many people over work arms with isolation work in the gym and wonder why they struggle to add real size. The big compound lifts are the way!