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9 Best Bicep Workout Exercises For Thicker Arms

Everyone wants big biceps but not everyone knows how. Isn’t it just curling the weight? Yes and no.

If growing your biceps was so simple, I wouldn’t have to write this article. The truth is, the “just curl the weight” mindset is shallow. It’s like banging your head against a brick wall and hoping for it to break. I’ve been training in the gym for almost 5 years.

I’ve experimented with almost every bicep exercise known to man. My biceps are much bigger now and I’ll tell you exactly how I grew them peaks and how you you can do it too!

Cheat sheet:

The Biceps function – The biceps function is to supinate. Meaning, to turn your hands from facing your sides to facing ahead or up. Its second function is elbow flexion. For example, curling a dumbbell up to your shoulder causes elbow flexion. 

Workout structure – The best bicep workout is structured by bicep anatomy. The long head (peak) of the bicep and the short head (inner) of the bicep. Also, incorporate working out the brachialis which sits beneath the bicep. This helps push the bicep out further.

Volume matters – You need to be doing enough sets and reps in your workouts to increase hypertrophy. As stated in this scientific literature, “increases in muscle hypertrophy follow a dose–response relationship, with increasingly greater gains achieved with higher training volumes. Thus, those seeking to maximize muscular growth need to allot a greater amount of weekly time to achieve this goal”1

(For reference, I do 10 sets a week, 8-12 reps, split between 2 days)

Intensity matters – Because you do more reps and sets doesn’t always mean you’re getting the hypertrophy you want. In fact, we have a term for this inefficiency – Junk volume. Rather than counting the reps, make the reps count. Focus on the mind-muscle connection, pause at the top of each rep and slowly bring the weight back down.

Slow eccentric – Many studies suggest that in the second half of an exercise (i.e. when bringing the weight back to neutral), hypertrophy is greater than in the first half of the movement.2 To take advantage of this, control the weight as you bring it back to neutral rather than letting momentum do it for you.

Now let’s get into the exercises

Medical Disclaimer: Always make sure to consult a fitness professional to understand how to add new exercises to your training regimen safely. This information is not to be taken as medical advice

Preacher Curls

 

The preacher curl is all about the stretch and contraction. Almost fully stretch out your arms on the pad and contract hard when you get to the top. This exercise primarily works the long head of the bicep.

Bro tips:

  • Don’t miss out on the first third of the movement. I.e. the stretch since your biceps will be most active then.
  • Drop the weight, drop your ego. This exercise is best done with moderate weight so that you can control it with the full range of motion. If you find that you’re shifting your upper body back and forth to get the weight up early in your set… Drop the weight. You want to be able to do at least 5-6 clean reps for an 8-12 rep range.
  • The exercise is done with the EZ bar, Straight bar, Dumbbells or cables. With dumbbells, you can supinate for each rep.

Dumbbell curls

 

Simple and effective. When the average person thinks about how big biceps are made, they think of dumbbell curls or barbell curls. It is by no means average when done using the bro tips below. Most tension will come around the middle and bottom of the movement. The exercise is an all-rounder bicep workout.

Bro Tips:

  • Do not make the mistake of swinging the weight. This puts tension on the front deltoids and reduces tension on the bicep. Lock your elbows to your side, shoulders back, a very slight lean forward, and curl. You’ll feel the burn right away.
  • Make sure to supinate right at the start of each rep. If you’re doing it too late, you’ll be shifting a lot of the work on the brachioradialis (forearm).
  • Remember to contract hard at the top of the movement and to have a slower eccentric.

EZ Bar/Barbell curls

 

The EZ bar and barbell curls are the go-to exercise for progressive overload. They are also the heaviest bicep exercise you can do. That “can” does have some limitations though, as you’ll see below. Similar to the dumbbell curl, most tension is in the middle and bottom of the movement. It is also an all-rounder bicep workout.

Bro Tips:

  • You can lift the heaviest on this exercise but this is what happens when you lift too heavy. You swing the weight, You have a bounce in your knees, you lean back, and you use momentum. In short, you’ll get better results by lowering the weight and doing good form rather than looking like a fish out of water.
  • You can, however, break form a little towards the end of your set when you really can’t get that next rep. Squeezing out that extra tension even with slightly off form is good progressive overload.
  • To prevent yourself from leaning back too much, activate your core for stability.
  • It is also worth pointing out that the grip for the EZ bar is something between neutral and supinated. Not fully supinated like the barbell curl. A study3 has shown that it is a minor difference and that the subjective comfortability of your wrists may be the only concern when comparing the two bars

Spider curls

https://youtu.be/-4RNtxT0LwM

 

Spider curls are all about contraction. You won’t be able to use your upper body for momentum and your shoulders will be mostly out of the picture. The only way you can cheat is by swinging your arms but now you know not to do that. The primary focus of this exercise is the short head of the bicep.

Bro tips:

  • Keep your elbows vertical with your shoulders and lock them there during your set. This will prevent any excessive swaying and keep all the tension on the bicep.
  • You can either add supination to the exercise (by using dumbbells) or keep your hands supinated throughout (using barbells). Do what gives you the most tension in the bicep.
  • Contract the biceps as hard as you can at the top of the movement. Hold at the top for a second before coming down with a slower eccentric.

Incline Dumbbell Curl

 

A very popular exercise among gym goers, the incline dumbbell curl is all about hitting the long head of the bicep. The use of the bench in an incline position removes the issue of using momentum during the exercise. Most tension is at the beginning of the movement due to the bicep being stretched, similar to the preacher curl.

Bro tips:

  • You want the bench adjusted so that your arms hang naturally behind your side.
  • Keep your elbows locked to their natural position and curl up to your chest or armpits. Do not lift forward and up as you’ll end up putting tension on your front delts.
  • Remember to squeeze your biceps at the top and control the weight as you go down.

Dumbbell Hammer Curls

 

This is not a bicep exercise. But it does make your bicep “look” bigger. The brachialis is found beneath the bicep. When we work it out, it pushes the bicep out, giving the appearance of a bigger bicep. To work the brachialis, you need a neutral or pronated grip. In the case of hammer curls, that’s neutral.

Bro Tips:

straight bar cable curls

 

Imagine the barbell curl but with more tension throughout the range of motion. It’s also easier on your joints to use cables over barbells if that is a concern for you.

Bro Tips:

  • Cables are perfect for mind-muscle connection since you can feel the tension throughout the movement. Use moderate weight with good form, same as barbell curls. 
  • For a strong stretch on the bicep, get into starting position and take a step or 2 back so that you can feel the stretch before you even start curling.
  • If you find it more comfortable, you can also use the EZ bar attachment if your cable station has one.

Behind the body Cable curls

https://youtu.be/fV9BpknCjGM

 

This would be the equivalent of the incline dumbbell curl. It’s all about hitting the long head of the bicep and getting that deep stretch.

Bro Tips:

  • Keep your elbows locked to their natural position and curl up to your chest or armpits. Do not lift forward and up as you’ll end up putting tension on your front delts.
  • Take a few steps forward so that you feel a stretch on the bicep before you even start your set
  • Remember to squeeze your biceps at the top and control the weight as you go down.

Drag Curls

https://youtu.be/BjBmtkfy1-0

 

Another exercise to thoroughly isolate the biceps. You can either use dumbbells or barbells. It takes the shoulders out of the equation and puts a stronger focus on the peak or specifically the long head of the bicep.

Bro Tips:

  • Don’t grip the bar too hard and relax your hands to increase the tension on the bicep.
  • Bring the weight up in a straight line parallel to your body. When you do this properly, your elbows will move back behind your side.
  • Don’t raise your shoulders as that would involve your deltoids in the movement.
  • Remember to have a slower eccentric.

The Best Bicep Workout

 

The best bicep workout will incorporate exercises that work the short head, long head and brachialis. You can use the table below to decide what exercises you want to do. Remember that these exercises are categorized by focus. This doesn’t mean that the other head of the bicep isn’t being activated.

Short HeadLong HeadBrachialis
Spider curls
Dumbbell curls
EZ Bar/barbell curls
Preacher Curls
Dumbbell curls
EZ Bar/barbell curls
Incline Dumbbell curls
Behind the body curls
Drag curls
Dumbbell Hammer Curls

Advice From A Gym Bro

 

If you want bigger biceps you’ve got to focus on the intensity. It’s definitely not a comfortable feeling at first (or ever really) but it’s how you grow. No pain no gain.

If you don’t know how to ‘feel’ that intensity or squeeze your bicep, try this experiment. 

Stand in a normal position (literally just stand with your hand by your sides) and turn your palm so that it faces in front of you. You’ll feel a stretch on your bicep from being supinated. That’s it. Your bicep is activated now and all you have to do is curl and tense/contract your bicep at the top.

My final tip is this: DO NOT neglect your forearms. You don’t want them to get tired before your biceps do. Strong forearms are also important for back exercises because once again, you don’t want them to tire out before your back does. 

Incorporating 2 or 3 sets a week of forearm training will go a long way. Hammer curls and reverse barbell curls are good ways to train your forearms.

 

References

  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, Grgic J, Delcastillo K, Belliard R, Alto A. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):94-103. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764. PMID: 30153194; PMCID: PMC6303131.
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn DI, Vigotsky AD, Franchi MV, Krieger JW. Hypertrophic Effects of Concentric vs. Eccentric Muscle Actions: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Sep;31(9):2599-2608. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001983. PMID: 28486337.
  3. Marcolin G, Panizzolo FA, Petrone N, Moro T, Grigoletto D, Piccolo D, Paoli A. Differences in electromyographic activity of biceps brachii and brachioradialis while performing three variants of curl. PeerJ. 2018 Jul 13;6:e5165. doi: 10.7717/peerj.5165. PMID: 30013836; PMCID: PMC6047503.
  4. KULIG, KORNELIA; POWERS, CHRISTOPHER M.; SHELLOCK, FRANK G.; TERK, MICHAEL. The effects of eccentric velocity on activation of elbow flexors: evaluation by magnetic resonance imaging. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33(2):p 196-200, February 2001.

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