Your biceps are not the largest or strongest muscle group in your body, but they’re definitely one of the best ways to show off the work you’re putting in at the gym.
There are an insane number of exercises out there to help you bring out every peak, vein, and bulge in your biceps, but training your biceps to get those peaks and bulges doesn’t have to be complicated. If you pay attention, you can make it happen with just five moves.
The Anatomy of the Biceps
Before jumping straight into these exercises, I first want to talk about the anatomy of the biceps. This will help you understand why these five exercises are so effective.
The biceps are actually made up of two heads – the long head and the short head, and every biceps exercise activates both heads. However, there are certain exercises that can cause superior activation of one head over the other.
The long head lies laterally, along the outside of your upper arm, which means you can work it best with your arms at your sides. On the other hand, the short head lies medially, or inside the arm, and can be best worked with your arms in front of you.
There is also the brachialis muscle that lies beneath the biceps that helps flex the elbow. You don’t want to ignore the brachialis because when it’s developed, it can push your biceps up and give you a better peak when you flex, and cause more separation between your biceps and triceps.
So to get the best possible gains, you want to choose exercises that grow the long and short head of your biceps, plus the brachialis. And, that’s why these five exercises are the best.
In a 2014 study from the American Council on Exercise, scientists looked at eight common biceps exercises to compare their muscle activation, and chin-ups tied for second place. Another study showed that biceps are comprised mostly of type II muscle fibers which respond to heavy weight.
A third study found that every time you increase the weight load on your biceps from 30 percent to 90 percent of your max, there is even more bicep activation.
The science is clear – chin-ups are one of the best exercises you can do to grow your biceps. You need to use heavy weight, and that’s easy to do with chin-ups since your body weight serves as the resistance with the option of adding additional resistance with the help of a weight belt.
#2. Incline Dumbbell Curls
Like any other biceps exercise, this will activate both heads, but emphasis will be on the long head. This emphasis occurs because your shoulder is in a hyper-extended position when you do a curl on an incline.
Remember, the long head lies laterally, and the incline position will stretch the long head which runs over the shoulder joint. Also, compared to the short head, the long head is in a greater stretch position, and that means it can produce more force.
A study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that throughout the whole range of motion of an incline dumbbell curl, the long head is activated. With many bicep exercises, the long head will only activate at just the beginning or just the end.
Since the long head is activated throughout the entire range of motion with this exercise, it is one of the best for long head growth.
#3. Concentration Curls
Now, let’s move to the short head. The American Council on Exercise study that I mentioned during the chin-ups section found that the best exercise for biceps activation is a concentration curl. The research also showed that the activation of the anterior deltoid was significantly lower than every other biceps exercise.
Your upper arm can’t sway while performing this exercise because your humerus is pressed against your leg, and that allows you to isolate your biceps even more. Concentration curls emphasize the short head and maximizes activation because of the combined flexion and supination.
Quick science lesson: flexion and supination are terms for anatomy movement. Flexion describes bending movement, like when bending your elbow or clench your hand into a fist. Supination is the rotation of the hand and forearm to make your palm face forward or upward.
What does all of this mean? Basically, you want to make sure you turn your wrist out during every rep so you fully activate the short head.
#4. Reverse EZ Bar Curl
Now let’s target the brachialis. When you want to improve the aesthetics of your arms, emphasizing the brachialis should be a major part of your exercise strategy.
A 2015 study found that the brachialis inserts onto the ulna, not the radius. And, all that really means for your bicep workout is that you need to use a reverse grip when doing EZ bar curls.
The only purpose of the brachialis is to flex the arm. Its job does not include any supination. So, when you reverse your grip, part of the workload will shift from your biceps to your brachialis. You don’t want your biceps taking over during this exercise, so the reverse grip is key.
#5. Dumbbell Spider Curls
Dumbbell spider curls work both the long and short head of the biceps, plus the brachialis. This exercise has constant tension, and the slow negatives of the curl mean more time under that tension.
This detailing move is a must for getting those chiseled, massive arms you want. You should save this exercise for last, and incorporating this strict isolation work regularly will help make your biceps pop.
The Bottom Line
More muscle activation means bigger muscle and strength gains. And, with these five exercises, you’ll activate all of the muscles you need for that prominent peak you’ve always wanted.
You don’t have to do all of these moves as a singular workout. You can incorporate the moves into an upper body routine, if you prefer. Just make sure to do all five of these moves on a regular basis to get the look you want.
About the Author
Kyle Hoffman is the editor NoobGains.com, one of the most reputable muscle-building blogs in the nation. He’s been mentioned in the Huffington Post, Best Company, and Muscle Sports Mag and has published over 100 articles in the last 10 years on topics ranging from sports nutrition to celebrity workouts. Kyle’s an expert on building muscle and losing body fat in young and middle-aged adults.