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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
March 17, 2023
Has anybody ever asked the question: "Are his biceps too big?"
Absolutely not! The biceps might be a bit of a show muscle, but there's no doubt that a massive set of upper arms plays a crucial role in building a muscular physique. And fortunately, no matter what your lifting experience may be, building bulging biceps is possible, as long as you have the right exercises, strategies, and programming tips to follow.
Now, your first instinct when it comes to building big biceps may be to head to the gym and start doing curls on repeat, but there's a much more strategic approach to take that can yield far better results.
The problem with most people's biceps training is they go too hard (no one needs an 8-hour arm workout, RIP Rich Piana). In addition, most people training biceps have the goal of "feeling the burn" and "getting a serious pump" with as many reps as possible.
What's wrong with that? We're going to answer that question, and many, many more, in this ultimate guide to building bigger biceps.
Table of Contents:
Regardless of whether it's a warm and sunny summer day or you're in the midst of a harsh winter, in our book, it's always the right season for building big guns.
The biceps, or biceps brachii, is a two-headed muscle that sits on the anterior (front) of the upper arm. It's generally looked at as an elbow flexor and is one of the most popular muscles in modern culture. In fact, when asked to strike a bodybuilding pose, most lifters' initial instinct is to flex their biceps.
There are several muscles to know about when discussing biceps anatomy. Let's first go over the biceps brachii, which is the actual biceps muscle. Then we'll discuss two other important muscles all lifters need to be aware of when their goal is bicep muscle growth.
The first thing to know is the biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle. What this means is that while there are two different origins for each head, they come together to form a single muscle belly.
The two heads of the biceps are divided into the short head and the long head, and they're named this way based on their length. The biceps short head is the shorter of the two (again, hence the name!), with its origin located on the coracoid process of the scapula (shoulder blades), running down the medial side of the arm (the side closest to the body).
Somewhere around halfway down the upper arm, the short head converges with the long head of the biceps and inserts across the elbow on the medial part of the forearm.
The biceps long head (also known as the outer biceps) is longer than the short head (captain obvious) and is responsible for your biceps peak. It inserts across the shoulder joint on the supraglenoid tubercle region of the scapula.
The biceps long head then crosses the shoulder and runs down the lateral side (the outside of the body) of the upper arm until it merges with the short head at the midway point. It then runs down to the same insertion as the short head.
Another important muscle to know is the brachialis, which too, sits on the upper arms, but unlike the biceps brachii, only crosses the elbow joint. Further, it is a powerful elbow flexor in both the supinated and pronated positions.
In other words, it has one job, which is to flex the elbow, and it does a very good job at it. In fact, it's your most potent flexor, more so than the biceps brachii.
So why doesn't it get the attention the biceps get? This muscle isn't as beloved because it lays underneath the biceps, and who cares about muscles you can't see, right? Well, trust me when I say, you should care.
Even though you may not see the brachialis, if you train to increase its muscle fibers, it will effectively grow and push the biceps up closer to the skin. In other words, if the brachialis grows, your entire upper arm will increase in size, and it will cause the biceps to become more pronounced.
The other muscle it's important to know about is the brachioradialis. This is the third major elbow flexor, a large forearm muscle that sits at the top of the lower arm and crosses the elbow joint.
The primary reason this is important is that it always fires with your biceps during elbow flexion. Therefore, if it becomes stronger, you will be able to place a more significant load on the biceps. Think of it as a "weakest link" situation.
Using either a neutral or overhand pronated grip when performing some of your bicep exercises is a great way to target and train the brachioradialis and brachialis muscles.
As mentioned above, the biceps is generally looked at as an elbow flexor. While elbow flexion is one of its duties, it's not actually the primary elbow flexor. That title goes to the brachialis.
In reality, the biceps muscle only offers significant force to flex the elbow while in the supinated position (palms facing upward), like in a bicep curl. But, the biceps lose force as the forearm begins to rotate internally toward a pronated (palms face downward) position. This is due to the placement of the attachment on the elbow¹.
In addition to elbow flexion in the supinated position, the biceps muscle plays a significant role in forearm supination, rotating from palms facing down to facing up with external rotation.
The last function of the biceps is shoulder flexion. As mentioned above, the long head of the biceps actually crosses the shoulder joint. As a result, it plays a small role in pulling the shoulder forward. This is one reason people tend to draw their arms forward when performing biceps curls.
Now that you know the anatomical structure and function of the biceps, let's see how to manipulate training variables to optimize your biceps training. If you're targeting biceps in the 15-19 inch range, this information will help get you there!
Most of the time, when training biceps, people tend to stick to high reps until failure. While this might be the suggested scheme for muscle hypertrophy, don't forget about also training for muscle strength. Biceps muscle fibers still behave the same way as every other muscle, meaning they require strength training to lift more weight.
Stronger biceps will be able to handle higher loads and more volume, both of which lead to more muscle growth. Plus, it's simply a different training stimulus that still helps break down the muscle and trigger more growth. This is why it's crucial to use compound exercises (more on this in a second).
The takeaway here is to get away from only performing your basic 3x8-10. Use some heavy loads (>5 reps) and also some ultra-high reps (12-15+). Biceps 21's, anyone?
You must include compound lifts and isolation exercises to effectively build your bis. The biceps muscle is an essential muscle group in every single pulling exercise you do, including crucial moves like pull-ups, chin-ups, bent-over rows, and T-bar rows. Don't ignore this fact.
Compound exercises are just as capable of building muscle as isolation exercises, including moves such as the concentration curl and spider curl, and they allow you to safely stress the muscle fibers to optimize growth. Alternatively, isolation exercises enable you to really concentrate on working your biceps.
Your takeaway here should be that to build your biggest biceps, use compound and isolation exercises.
During the anatomy section of this article, I went over how using a pronated, supinated, and neutral grip can invoke different muscle stimuli. To specifically target the biceps brachii, you need to use a supinated grip. In fact, using the other grips actually mitigates the activation of the biceps.
But, this doesn't mean you shouldn't use the other grips! They all have their place and benefits. Using a neutral and pronated grip will put the biceps on the sidelines and put all the stress on the biceps brachialis muscle and brachioradialis. Even though these aren't the biceps, their growth still creates bigger arms and causes your biceps to appear larger.
For this reason, use a variety of grips. This strategy enables you to hit different muscles, allowing for more rest for each muscle, and even providing an opportunity to use supersets.
For example, you could superset a biceps curl and reverse biceps curl. Although you probably assumed these are both biceps exercises, one hits the biceps while the other targets the brachialis.
Unilateral exercises are those that hit one arm at a time, while bilateral exercises are those that work both arms at the same time. Performing dumbbell curls with both arms at the same time is an example of a bilateral movement, whereas doing curls one arm at a time is a unilateral exercise.
Utilizing both unilateral and bilateral movements helps to identify muscle imbalances and address the unilateral/bilateral deficit. Also, I like it just because of its variety. Variety is the spice of life and great for muscle hypertrophy.
Plus, with unilateral exercises, I like to sometimes do a continuous set until failure. The next time you're doing a biceps workout, alternate back and forth between arms, doing 10 reps per side, until failure.
The key to bicep muscle hypertrophy? Progressive overload! Try to increase your volume each week, whether it’s through an extra rep, set, or an increase in weight.
A study found that when comparing participants who performed 3, 9, and 15 sets of bicep curls in a week, after 6 months, the group who performed 15 sets saw the largest gains in biceps muscle mass2.
As a PSA, don't forget to include some bicep stretches, particularly when you're trying to progressive overload weekly!
Emphasizing your mind-muscle connection with your biceps can make a huge difference in upper arm growth! As you are performing curls, really concentrate on feeling your biceps squeeze and contract. The goal is to force them to work as hard as possible during the movements.
Research backs up this method, with a 2018 study comparing two groups: One group focused on a strong mind-muscle connection during bicep curls, while the other group did not.
The study found that the group who concentrated on feeling their biceps work saw almost double the gains as the group who was asked to just curl the weights3.
This is a great technique for all lifters, but especially those following an at home biceps workout.
Let's pretend your max bench press is 100kg. There's no way you could curl that amount of weight up. But, if you take the curl portion out of it, you could hold 110 kg, and even let it down in a controlled manner.
That's because your muscles create superior force during the eccentric contraction and heavy eccentric take advantage of this.
Use a heavy load with your biceps exercises by cheating the load up and then following it with a slow, controlled descent. Go easy on your first day, or you'll wake up with crazy DOMs.
You've got 7 great training tips, but equally important in your quest for big biceps, is avoiding common training mistakes. Here are 5 mistakes you should stop doing immediately. Your biceps will thank you!
I love a crazy pump as much as the next guy, but if that’s the sole goal of your bicep workouts, you’re missing out on some serious gains.
When you prioritize getting a pump, you end up moving through your exercises far too quickly. And when you do this, progressive overload and mind-muscle connection quickly fall to the back burner.
Pick progressive overload and force your muscles to work fully and slowly over just trying to get a good pump.
If up until now, you’ve only performed your barbell curls standing up, I highly recommend trying a seated variation. The seated barbell curl limits your range of motion, as the bar will stop at your thighs.
This results in eliminating the bottom portion of the movement, which is typically the weakest part of the lift for many. By eliminating this portion of the exercise through a seated barbell curl, you can use heavier weights, forcing your biceps to work harder and improving your muscle strength.
I like including both standing and sitting curl variations in our routine, as both work the biceps effectively in different ways. Try incorporating 2-3 reps of seated curls into your program, followed by 2-3 reps of standing curls. Prepare to see serious bicep gains!
Just as it’s a mistake to not include a seated variation, another bicep training no-no is not including incline dumbbell curls in your biceps workouts.
This exercise is essential for building big biceps as it stretches out the bicep long head, resulting in your upper arm muscles contracting much more forcefully.
As the long head is crucial for giving your biceps a full and rounded shape, working them with the seated incline curl is a must for those looking for serious bicep gains.
Think back to the anatomy section when we discussed the brachialis and its key role in bicep growth. The stronger your brachialis is, the heavier the loads you’ll be able to put on your biceps.
On top of that, brachialis exercises will cause this muscle to grow larger, resulting in it pushing the biceps out, further increasing the size of your upper arm. Sounds like more than enough reason to start including brachialis exercises in your training routine!
This typically goes hand in hand with ego lifting. If you’re using weights that are too heavy, your form is going to take a serious hit. You may find that you start using other muscles, and your body as a whole, to increase momentum for your lifts.
This is not going to lead to bicep gains! Focus on proper form, slow movements, a strong mind-muscle connection, and the correct weights to enable you to do all of that.
Biceps curls are a dime a dozen. These work, but there are also a ton of different exercises to use in your next biceps workout.
We're about to go over the best exercises for building bigger biceps. Well, some are the best and some I simply prefer because they offer some training variety. Regardless, these are the biceps exercises you need to have on heavy rotation.
Before going over these, realize that not all of these, like chin-ups, for example, are isolation exercises. In fact, that's one of the most significant errors people make when they are training their biceps. It's impossible to place heavy loads on the biceps muscle with isolation exercises, at least with low risk.
Using big compound exercises, in combination with isolation moves, for your biceps could be the key to igniting incredible muscle growth. Ready to create an incredible big bicep workout?
These 10 best exercises for big biceps are a must!
Don't think that chin-ups are just for your back. In fact, chin-ups might be your number 1 exercise when it comes to targeting how to get big biceps. The key is to do them loaded, so you are in the 4-6 rep range.
Even though no official studies have looked at this, Dr. Bret Contreas once performed a massive project where he personally measured EMG readings of various bicep exercises. What he found surprising was that the best exercise for the biceps was - drumroll, please - weighted chin-ups4.
Whew, that's a mouthful. There isn't a specific exercise for this one, as you have multiple options. Rather, it's the idea of using an underhand grip for upper-body barbell exercises, which instantly puts more stress on your biceps.
And, you're simultaneously training your other pulling muscles, so how's that of multitasking? While not every barbell exercise should be performed with an underhand grip, use it for 1-2 exercises in your workout. Sometimes, I like to perform a burnout set with an underhand grip.
Some good upper-body barbell exercises that you can use an underhand grip for include:
Looking for some additional information on the different hand grips? Check out our article that explains the different hand grips in the barbell bent-over row.
Think about the biceps anatomy, remembering the biceps cross the shoulder and elbow joints. Drag curls take advantage of this anatomical feature requiring you to perform shoulder extension during the exercise.
Generally, when you perform a curl, you'll stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and the implement will go out in front of you in an arc.
With drag curls, however, the load stays closer to your body as it is dragged upward, resulting in shoulder extension lengthening the muscle, then contracting it, ultimately creating a serious biceps burn.
Spider curls approach isolating the biceps in a unique way. Instead of using a wall or support, they use gravity and are performed while lying face down on an incline bench with your arms extended down.
In this position, the biceps get full activation throughout the entire movement. Further, as your arms are at an angle with your body, the shoulders can't really do much to assist, forcing your biceps to work even harder.
The incline dumbbell curl is similar to the spider curl except for this move, you're sitting with your back on the bench, at an incline.
Now, instead of your shoulders being in flexion, they are in extension, which stretches the long head of the biceps to an even greater degree.
The Bayesian curl is a must for any bicep cable workout (or any bicep workout, for that matter). This exercise also takes advantage of the biceps crossing both joints.
To perform it, you use a single-handle cable attachment, so that your arm is pulled back as you face away from the cable, which allows two things to happen:
Rope hammer curls are a favorite among those with massive biceps.
While you could use dumbbells, I recommend trying the rope attachment on a cable machine. It allows constant tension throughout the whole exercise and enables you to hit different angles.
You'll want to use a neutral grip for this exercise.
The preacher curl likely evolved from being used as a torture device because no other exercise burns the way these do.
Preacher curls specifically build the lower part of your biceps. I always use the EZ-Curl bar with these as a straight bar places extra stress on the joints.
Zottman curls work by taking advantage of the biceps role in elbow flexion and forearm supination. Performed with dumbbells, you begin with an underhand grip slowly curling your weights up toward your shoulders.
Once your biceps are fully shortened and contracted, rotate your forearms so your palms face down, in an overhand grip, slowly lowering the weights back down.
To repeat the exercise, rotate your forearms, so you're once again starting the move with an underhand grip, and repeat.
To perform bicep 21s, take two dumbbells, an EZ bar, or even a dumbbell, and perform 21 reps using both a partial range of motion and some full range of motion. Your 21 reps are as follows.
Is there any science backing these up? No.
Do they burn? Hell yes.
Do they work? Guys with bigger biceps than we have would say yes.
Maybe there's a bit of bro science with these, but neuroscience is fun once in a while.
Volume is an important topic to discuss as most lifters are probably overtraining their biceps. Remember above, we noted that you use your biceps every time you do a pulling exercise, which is why many of our favorite biceps moves are actually back exercises.
The point is that as long as you have a pulling day or back workout in your program, you are already getting good biceps training in, even without biceps isolation exercises.
With this in mind, most people don't need an entire "biceps day" or even an "arms day" to get substantial muscle growth. It's likely that the only groups who need this are those who are so advanced that they need the extra stimulus or those whose biceps are severely lacking.
In reality, most people are likely fine adding 2 to 3 isolation exercises at the end of their pull-day workout. The more critical variable with this is including variety with these exercises. To be clear, you will do your big compound exercises and then add a few isolation movements at the end.
To summarize, assuming you're including large compound back exercises in your routine, you only need to add 2 to 3 isolation exercises at the end of your pulling or back days to build big biceps.
When programming biceps exercises, I always recommend following different rules for compound lifts and isolation exercises. As you'll see, even though the biceps is a smaller muscle, to really emphasize its growth, we must treat them similarly to our bigger muscles.
These instructions are going to be for your big compound movements like chin-ups and rows. For these movements, use progressive overload just as you would normally. This means you will gradually add more weight or include additional reps or sets.
Even though these are compound exercises, they are still placing a greater amount of stress on the biceps. And trust me on this: If you're progressive overloading moves like underhand grip rows, you're also building stronger biceps.
For your smaller isolation exercises (the 2-3 exercises at the end), use RPE instead. RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion, which means you exercise until reaching a certain intensity.
Now, for many of your exercises, I recommend still having a general idea of how many reps you're doing for the sake of progressive overload. However, with your isolation exercises at the end of your workout, you should also focus on bringing your sets to near failure rather than simply hitting a specific number.
RPE is also good to use when you're performing bicep workouts at home, where it may not be as easy for you to bump up your weights, or when you're utilizing bodyweight bicep exercises.
Your isolation exercises are an essential part of the biceps puzzle. But when compared with compound lifts, their programming doesn't need to be as rigid. In other words, you don't need to stick to the same isolation exercises for 8-12 weeks before you decide to switch.
And the good news is, there is an endless assortment of bicep exercises to choose from. For added inspiration, check out these dumbbell bicep exercises, information on how to perform concentration curls or bicep cable curls, or review the isolation exercises included in our "best biceps exercises" list above.
In addition, make sure the exercises you choose on a given day have variety. For example:
If your goal is to build big biceps, as you begin to apply these exercises and strategies, you may be anxiously awaiting results, wondering when your arms will start to blow up.
Unfortunately, this question is almost impossible to answer, as multiple factors play a role in muscle growth. Factors such as genetics, emphasis on sleep, dietary habits, training protocol, and gender are just a few examples of things that can impact your ability to grow muscle mass.
Brand new trainees will see much quicker gains and may see significant bicep growth within the first three to six months of their training. If you're hoping to quickly add on an inch of mass within months, beginners have the best shot at making this happen.
On the other hand, it could take advanced lifters who already have measurable arm mass up to a year to build another inch of bicep muscle. This is not meant to discourage anyone, but rather to encourage you to stick with and remain committed to these training protocols. Progress will happen! It will just occur at a different pace for everyone.
When talking about eating to build muscle, the same tips apply to all of your muscle groups. This includes things such as eating the best foods for muscles and ensuring you have macros that align with your goals.
First, in order to grow muscle, you must eat!
Therefore, your first goal should be to get in a slight caloric surplus of 300-500 calories. To do this, use an online calculator to determine your maintenance calories, and then add 300 to 500 more to this number.
Keep in mind that eating more calories will likely add extra mass, but it will also add fat. Therefore, find a good balance of gaining mass with minimal fat gain. I recommend tracking your weight on a weekly basis so you have an idea of where things are at so you can adjust as needed.
In terms of macros, when it comes to how much protein per day to build muscle, target 1.8-2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight daily⁵. Try to separate this into 5 even servings throughout the day, with your post-workout meal being the largest, which ideally will include at least 40 grams of protein.
Thirty percent of your daily calories should come from fats. Remember that 1 gram of fat has 9 calories (we'll show you below how to calculate this in the next section). Finally, fill in your remaining calories with carbs.
Let's pretend that you weigh about 200 pounds and need to eat 3,000 calories daily to build muscle. Here's where your calories
Therefore, your daily macros would be:
If you're going to only pick one supplement to add to your routine, it should be a good creatine supplement. It works, and if you're at all serious about muscle growth, you should absolutely use it⁶.
In addition to creatine, there are other supplements that you don't need per se, but that can prove to be very useful.
Selecting a good protein powder should be next on your list. It's not under "must have" because you don't necessarily need it if you can get adequate protein through real food. However, it can be tough (and expensive!) to get the right amounts of protein only through whole foods, and protein powder fixes both of these issues.
A quality pre-workout supplement can also be a great help to give you an extra boost heading into tough workouts or on days in which your energy is lagging.
Other supplements that you may want to look into include:
These last two options are by no means necessary, so if you're tight on money or happy with your training and results, I'd say don't worry about them.
So there you have it. All the information you need to build massive biceps is wrapped in this one article. Some people may need to start giving their biceps special attention, while others may need to actually pull back on the number of biceps exercises they're doing.
But regardless of where your current biceps training stands, one thing rings true for all lifters: Once you start training your biceps with intent, you will begin to see growth.
Just like every other muscle, the biceps need to be hit with the right amount of stimuli and receive the right amount of rest and recovery. Focus on compound moves, and use a little bit of variety when it comes to isolation exercises, and you're good to go.
Heed our advice, and big biceps are yours for the taking.
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