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5 Best Bicep Workouts (Science-Backed)

5 Best Bicep Workouts (Science-Backed)

Do you want muscular, toned arms with prominent definition in your biceps? You will want to check out the list of bicep exercises we have compiled. The effectiveness of these exercises is supported by science so you know these are the workouts to focus on. We even created a full bicep workout below to include in your next arm day.

Regardless if you are male or female, looking to tone or bulk, you can benefit from these bicep workouts. You can finally feel good about your bare arms. The bicep is important for both proper elbow and shoulder function, so it does more than just make your arms look good (1)! One common mistake: People tend to perform only one type of bicep workout and miss out on getting a comprehensive bicep exercise. In order to get a complete bicep workout, you must understand the anatomy of the bicep (2). Once you know how the bicep muscles work and their positioning, you will be able to choose the best bicep workouts to reach your goals.

Anatomy Lesson: Biceps 101

Which muscles should I train during a bicep workout?

Man Showing Biceps Workout Contrary to what some may believe (and how people usually exercise their biceps), the bicep is actually a pair of two muscles. The two muscles of the bicep are called the “long head” and the “short head.” The short head is the part of the bicep that lies closest to the center of your body. The long head lies “lateral” or further away from the center of the body. It is important that both of these muscles are utilized in your bicep workouts in order to get the definition and/or bulk you are looking for. Each muscle head has its own role in strength training and kinetic functionality (3).

Aside from the bicep muscle, there is another muscle that you need to work to look bigger. The brachialis is a muscle that lies just to the side of your bicep on your outer arm. If you strength train this muscle, it can push out your bicep to make it appear even larger and more defined. This is one secret to getting great biceps!

For an even more complete bicep workout, don’t forget about the brachioradialis muscle. This is the muscle right at the inner junction of the elbow. It is a small muscle, but it has a significant role in elbow flexion, such as when you do a bicep curl. This little muscle can also indirectly give you more defined and larger biceps by pushing the biceps up from underneath.

Is the type or amount of weight important for these muscles?

We now understand what muscles are located where on our arm. To determine how much weight is appropriate (and actually useful) for our arm workout, we need to understand what type of muscle fibers are in the arm. We all have two main types of muscle fiber all over our body. Some people may have different ratios of each, but it is important to identify which exercises work which specific type of muscle fiber. Let’s break down the two main types of muscle fibers:

  • Type I (Slow Twitch) Muscle Fiber: Type I muscle fibers are for muscle movements that are needed over a long period of time. This would be something like endurance exercise, long distance running, or even just being able to stand for a stretch of time. Type I muscle fibers are aerobic, meaning they need oxygen to sustain their power for extended periods.
  • Type II (Fast Twitch) Muscle Fiber: Type II muscle fiber is for short spurts of muscle use. Short spurts can be something like strength training repetitions or any other explosive movements that start and finish very quickly. As you may be able to guess, we use type II muscle fibers for throwing a punch, doing a quick sprint, or even curling our bicep in a dumbbell curl. The issue with type II muscle fibers is that they can fatigue very quickly, unless they are properly trained. In a study that examined how proper training can alter type II muscle fibers, researchers found that extensive training can reduce fatigue and increase endurance in type II muscle fibers. Training your type II muscle fibers allows you to exert great force without tiring too quickly. This can help you reach your fitness goals quicker!

For this workout, we wanted to provide great bicep exercises that when done together offer a complete, well-rounded outcome.

A good bicep workout is well-rounded and features exercises that work all the necessary surrounding muscles. These bicep exercises target both heads of the bicep muscle, the brachialis, and the brachioradialis. Do them with confidence knowing that they’re efficient and effective (there’s even research to back them up!).

Exercise 1: Concentration Curl

Man Doing A Concentration Curl Exercise For BicepsIf you’ve heard of a concentration curl before or you search for videos online, you may think that this is just a normal bicep curl. A key difference between a concentration curl and a bicep curl is that concentration curls typically use lower weights, yet yield more muscle growth and firing (as they did in this study). The main benefit of concentration curls is that it utilizes a supine (palm up grip) as you curl the dumbbell. You are also in a seated position, which really allows you to target the bicep (the short head in particular).

Main Area Targeted: Bicep Short Head 

Strengths of this Exercise: The concentration curl takes the directness of the bicep curl and amplifies it. The concentration curl with a supine hand position targets the bicep muscles while maximizing gains at just the right angle.

How To Perform this Exercise:

  1. On a weight bench or chair, spread your legs and place both feet on the floor. Your arms should be able to extend fully towards the floor in between your legs.
  2. Place your non-working arm on your thigh for support and stability.
  3. With a weight in the working arm, extend your arm down towards the floor between your legs.
  4. Anchor your working elbow against the inner thigh. This will help keep your elbow stable and prevent you from using secondary muscles when you start to fatigue. You want to focus on just your biceps for this!
  5. Once your legs, elbow and extended arm are in position, curl the dumbbell up to your shoulder. Make sure to keep your working palm facing up at all times. Do not twist or flip your palm as you bring the dumbbell up and back down to its original position. Repeat this exercise to complete the set.

Exercise 2: Incline Dumbbell Curl

Man Incline Bench Workout Dumbbell Curl For BicepsThis exercise also takes the muscle directness of the bicep curl but changes and increases the range of motion. As seen in this study, the incline position while doing a dumbbell curl can really change the range of motion you achieve when performing the curl. When you extend more to perform the curl, you use more muscle fibers and exert more energy to perform the exercise. In this systematic review from Applied Physiology, exercises and movement techniques that increase range of motion are preferred and do not negatively affect your strength. Increasing flexibility is an effective way to improve your workouts. It also can help prevent injury. Even if you want really good bicep workouts for mass, don’t forget to find exercises that promote good range of motion!

Main Area Targeted: Bicep Long Head

Strengths of this Exercise: Since this exercise is performed in the incline position with the full extension of your arm perpendicular to the floor, your bicep curl went from 180 degrees or less to hyperextension of the shoulder joint. This hyperextension of the shoulder joint allows for a greater stretch against the bicep muscle and increases the range of motion.

How To Perform this Exercise:

  1. On a weight bench in the inclined position (or another surface that allows you to lean back), sit on the bench and allow both shoulder blades to press against the inclined backrest.
  2. Pick up a dumbbell in the working arm and let the arm hang past the edge of the weight bench. Your working arm should be perpendicular to the floor.
  3. Keep your upper body against the backrest and curl the dumbbell up to your shoulder. Slowly extend your arm back down to its original position. Repeat this exercise to complete the set.

Exercise 3: Reverse EZ Bar Curl

Muscular Man Doing A Reverse EZ Bar CurlThis exercise is a great way to give your biceps a break while still sculpting them. Say what? Remember in our anatomy section when we talked about the brachialis muscle just outside of the bicep long head? Don’t forget that you can exercise the brachialis muscle to help tone and push out that bicep even more! This exercise is great because it targets the brachialis muscle without over-exercising your bicep (because you should be tiring out that bicep by now).

What’s the science behind this move for bicep definition and bulk? This move may not directly target the bicep, however, it works on increasing the size of the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles. As mentioned before, these two ancillary muscles can be conditioned and exercised to push the biceps up and out, making them appear bigger without doing thousands of bicep curls. The pronation (palms down) hand position of this workout really activates these muscles, especially the brachioradialis as detailed in this 2018 study.

Main Area Targeted: Brachialis + Brachioradialis

Strengths of this Exercise: This exercise helps you work the muscles around the biceps in order to make your biceps look bigger and/or more toned. With the specific prone hand position, you can target muscles that are not specifically used in a regular bicep curl.

 How To Perform this Exercise:

  1. Using an EZ bar, flip your palms downward and grab the EZ bar. You may be able to get the same angle using light dumbbells or a regular barbell, however, the EZ bar allows for a more comfortable prone hand position. The EZ bar may also be more beneficial than free weights since it will not allow you to change the position of your palms during the exercise.
  2. In a standing position, allow your arms to be fully extended towards the ground. Keep your arms shoulder width apart.
  3. Once in the proper position, curl your EZ bar up to your chest and shoulders and then lower the bar down. You should always bring your arms back to full extension to get the full range of motion.
  4. You may need to add extra weight in order to feel the burn. Complete the set by repeating the exercise.

Exercise 4: Overhead Cable Curl

Man Doing A Overhead Cable Curl Exercise For BicepsThis exercise can help you practice your muscle pose! The overhead cable curl is another great exercise to target your biceps. According to a 2017 study, research shows that using cables to do strength training increases the range of motion, increases joint angles and improves the diversity in the exercises when working out. As previously noted, using a greater range of motion helps you get a tougher, more effective workout.

Main Area Targeted: Biceps (long head + short head) + Brachialis + Brachioradialis

Strengths of this Exercise: This exercise offers a different type of resistance via cables. These cables still put weight on the working muscles, but you have to stabilize the moving joint (in this case your elbow) by yourself. Cable exercises allow you to position yourself as needed and allow for greater range of motion. Not only can you get substantial weight onto these cables, but you also have to work on steadying yourself. Overhead cable curls are great for stabilization of your elbow joint while working to increase muscle size or tone.

How To Perform this Exercise:

*One thing to note: This exercise requires cable weights. You may be able to get some bicep benefits using just free weights, however, to really reap all the benefits of this workout, make sure you have cable weights around. For lower weight, you could use resistance bands if cable weights were unavailable.

  1. You can perform this exercise while working one arm at a time or both arms at once with 2 cable weights across from each other. Regardless of how many arms you work at once, position the cable weight so that it is about the same height as your head.
  2. Grab the cable handle so that your palm faces you when you curl the cable towards you.
  3. Make sure you are far enough away from the cable pulley. You should feel the resistance from the cable even when your arms are fully extended out to the side.
  4. Once in the proper position and all adjustments have been made, grab the cable handle and extend your arms out to the side. You should be making a “T” with your body.
  5. Have your palms up at the starting position. Curl the cable towards you so that your hands curl all the way to your ears. Slowly extend your arms back to the position in which you began. Complete the set by repeating the exercise to reach your goal.

Exercise 5: Chin Ups

Fit Man Doing Chin Up Exercise For BicepsChin ups are great for utilizing the biceps and surrounding muscles. By using your body weight (or more with a weight belt), this is a great way to train the type II muscle fibers. You may fatigue quickly when you start doing this exercise. Over time, your type II muscle fibers will become conditioned to do more repetitions or hold more weight. According to a study that compared several types of bicep-focused exercises, the chin up was one of the top 2 exercises for firing up muscle fibers. Despite what some may believe, the chin up had less secondary muscle activation than even a barbell curl.

Main Area Targeted: Biceps (long head + short head)

Strengths of this Exercise: This exercise can be done with body weight or added weight, making it a good option for nearly anyone to try. It also is a good way to target the biceps without a lot of other muscles working to take the load off of the biceps. As long as you have a chin-up bar, you will be able to do this exercise.

How To Perform this Exercise:

*One thing to note: You will need a chin-up bar that can hold your weight. If you are doing bicep workouts at home, your home gym may have a chin-up bar attachment. Some people do not have their own home gym. If so, you can always purchase chin-up bars that attach to your doorframe.

  1. Standing under your chin-up bar, reach up and grab the bar with both hands. You want your palms to face backwards (towards you) when you pull yourself up to the bar.
  2. Have a sturdy grip. Try to pull yourself up to the bar so that your chin is higher than the bar. You should strive to distribute the weight so that both arms are doing the same amount of work. Sometimes we favor one side, but that can lead to uneven musculature.
  3. Once your chin surpasses the bar, lower yourself to hanging or to a standing position. Your arms should be fully extended after each repetition before pulling yourself up again. Repeat this exercise to complete the set.

Complete Bicep Workout: Add This to Your Routine

Whether you’re looking for a bicep workout for women or the best bicep workout for men, everyone who wants to tone or build muscle in their biceps can benefit from these exercises. If you would rather just tone your muscles than build bulk, try these exercises with lower weight and do longer sets. However, if your goal is more muscle mass, pile on the weights and do shorter sets. Check out our “Considerations for Your Workout” section below for more ways to individualize your exercise.

Here is a bicep workout to try the next time you want to exercise your arms. This can be a bicep workout without weights or using soup cans. It can definitely be an awesome bicep workout with dumbbells. Below is a handy breakdown chart that you can use to keep track of how many reps to do for each set:

Workout Number of Sets Lower Weight or Bodyweight (if applicable) Heavy Weight
Concentration Curl 3 10-12 reps 6-8 reps
Incline Dumbbell Curl 3 10-12 reps 6-8 reps
Reverse EZ Bar Curl 3 8-12 reps 6-10 reps
Overhead Cable Curl 3 10-12 reps 6-8 reps
Chin Ups 3 8-12 reps 6-8 reps

 

Considerations for Your Workout:

  • Order of your Exercise: Some of these exercises target multiple muscles whereas others just target one muscle. Utilize compound exercises like chin ups and cable curls as warm up exercises to stimulate all the muscles. On the other hand, you may want to fatigue the muscles individually with concentration curls and incline dumbbell curls. Save the compound exercises for the end to really shred your muscles. Regardless of which order you choose, remember to diversify your workouts by switching out the workouts and their order.
  • Your Goals: As with most strength training exercise, if you want to add muscle to any area of your body, do heavy weight with a low number of repetitions (4). These types of exercises should make you tire quickly. Make sure to keep your sets to no more than 3 per exercise, since one study showed that doing more than 3 sets really was not more effective for muscle bulking (5). If you want more toning and less bulk, do sets that use less weight and a higher number of repetitions.

We hope this article inspires you to try these workouts! If you want to really improve your biceps, this workout was complied to highlight the essentials to meeting your goals. Use the list of exercises above and tailor the amount of weight you add as well as the number of repetitions to help you achieve your goal. Before you know it, you’ll have the biceps you’ve been hoping for.

Which exercise above do you think can give you the biggest gains in your biceps? The compound exercises like the chin up? Or do you think the single-muscle exercises like the concentration curl are better? Chat with us about it in the comments.

7 Comments

  • Mandy says:

    Man I’ll have to be honest to say that I wish I could be strong enough and do chin ups! I’ve vowed to live a better life of health and fitness this 2019. Also, I want to keep improving on my techniques. What equipment would be good for a starter practicing chin ups at home? I’ve seen the iron gym one.

    • Amanda Kostro RD, LDN & Professional Dancer says:

      Good question. To help you get started towards chin ups, here are some ideas:
      1. Consistent push up exercises (push ups are hard, but effective!).
      2. Home gym machines may have several arm workouts to tone and strengthen the arms.
      3. If you still go to a commercial gym (or you are looking for more equipment), assisted pull up machines can be helpful. They let you work up to pulling up your whole body weight. When you can pull up your whole body weight, most have a way to remove the assistance pad and you can just do pull ups on your own.
      4. Chest presses may be helpful if you’re having a hard time strengthening your biceps.
      5. Other chest exercises (chest fly, incline chest press).

  • Luigi Ruggeri says:

    Again very informative, thank you very much, Amanda.
    Compared to other parts of the body I tend to train the biceps less, because I think that the biceps is also trained by the other exercises (especially back training). In fact, my bicep has grown steadily and in a defined way. Probably, however, I would have much larger arms if I trained the biceps more consistently.

    A question of understanding: Do you mean the triceps when you say “brachialis muscle”?

    • Amanda Kostro RD, LDN & Professional Dancer says:

      I’m really glad you find these articles informative! Yes, while the biceps are trained as a secondary muscle in a number of exercises, training the biceps specifically will yield the shaped and muscular arms you are looking for. The brachialis muscle and the triceps are actually 2 different muscles. The tricep is on the back of the arm and the brachialis muscle literally lies underneath the bicep. That’s why it’s important to work on bulking the brachialis muscle so that the biceps are pushed out.

  • Jason Torres says:

    Ok, I’ll be honest – this is my LEAST favorite routine… I often feel the most pain in my arms every time I work out and it gets heightened whenever I do these types of exercises. Chin-ups really push the limits on my biceps AND my abs but those concentration curls make my elbows and biceps feel like they’re on fire! Don’t get me wrong, they feel great after a few days but it’s just not something I look forward to. What would you recommend to give me an extra boost of endurance when doing this type of workout? I can push myself but right now it’s mind over matter and I’ll work out anywhere around the gym to avoid these, even though honestly, I could sure use bigger biceps.

    • Amanda Kostro RD, LDN & Professional Dancer says:

      We all have those certain workouts that make us really sore! Check out this article about supplements for different components of working out. In the article, it breaks down what situations and types of people should consider consuming these certain supplements. See if any are right for you and get some feedback from your healthcare providers.

      Also, we have our chest workouts article and back workout articles for more ideas. Perhaps you have excessive soreness on arm day because certain secondary muscles are underdeveloped, making your arms have to work a ton. Add these workouts in for an all-around, comprehensive workout.

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