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December 02, 2021 3 Comments
The brachi-what? Sounds like we’re talking about a dinosaur, but we’re not. We’re talking about the brachialis muscle, the most important muscle you’ve (likely) never heard of. What makes it so important? Well, sit down for this as the biceps are about to get a dose of reality. Training the biceps is fantastic, and it can be fun to get a pump as they are the primary flexors of the elbow, right? Wrong! All of the stuff about the biceps being fantastic and fun to train is true. However, what’s incorrect is that the biceps are not the number 1 flexor of the elbow. That designation goes to the brachialis muscle.
And this is why this article is so important, as it will deal with a widespread misconception about elbow flexion. Knowing the brachialis muscle and how to train it is crucial in developing a powerful arm with well-defined muscles. Still, if you have been neglecting specific brachialis training from your routine, there’s a good chance you’re missing out on some strength gains. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about brachialis, which includes:
When people think of “elbow flexion”, they generally think of the biceps brachii. While not entirely wrong, there are actually 3 main muscles involved with elbow flexion, and the biceps are not the primary flexors.
The brachialis muscle is a deep muscle that runs beneath the belly of the biceps brachii and is situated on the upper arm on the anterior side. The brachialis origin is slightly higher than middle way up the upper arm and the brachialis insertion is located a few centimeters past the elbow joint on the ulna. If you were to look at the elbow, it sits in the crook of your elbow joint.
One of the best ways to understand what makes the brachialis so unique is to compare it to the well known biceps. And here’s where things get interesting.
Many people look at the biceps as being the most important muscle there is for flexing the elbow. This makes a ton of sense as the most common pose is the double front bicep which everyone does by flexing the elbow and it’s shown in every fitness magazine and Instagram post (when was the last time you saw a post for the brachialis). Further, the biceps are easily seen and make a massive mound on your upper arm. Unfortunately, the majority of us (even informed lifters) fall victim to the “out of sight out of mind” fallacy.
In reality, the brachialis is the main mover of elbow flexion. Some studies have shown that the force produced by the brachialis is responsible for up to 60%! In other words, any movement with elbow flexion will be significantly hindered by a weak brachialis.
When examining the function of the biceps brachii, who will discover that it actually has multiple roles in addition to elbow flexion. For example, the biceps are a very powerful supinator of the forearm (turning the forearm, so the palm is up). In fact, this is one of the reasons why it is so much more pronounced when flexing with the wrist curled towards you (supinated position) rather than away (pronation). Still, the biceps also contributes to shoulder forward flexion (bringing the arm up in front of you) as well as arm adduction.
All of these functions are due to the biceps crossing three joints. However, the brachialis crosses just one. In fact, the brachialis is unique as an elbow flexor as it is the only pure flexor as it has no other job other than to flex the elbow. What seems to be a universal truth is when anything focuses on being good at one job, it usually ends up being the best. Being that the brachialis only job is to flex the elbow, it does a really good job and comes out as the most powerful elbow flexor on the body.
Further, the brachialis is a powerful flexor of the elbow when the arm is in any position. Pronated, supinated, neutral...it doesn’t matter. Compare that to the biceps which are only strong during supination of the forearm but will lose force production quickly as the arm rotates from supination to pronation.
Unfortunately, this very powerful elbow flexor isn’t trained to the extent of the biceps. As we are visual creatures, this can limit our importance on things we can’t see, such as the brachialis. That would be a pretty silly thing to do, as training the brachialis will provide a list of significant fitness variables. Here are the top benefits from training the brachialis.
Training The Brachialis Will Produce Stronger Arms
You just can’t have strong arms without a pair of strong brachialis. It’s as simple as that. The brachialis is responsible for up to 60% of the tension placed on the arm during flexion movements. 60% is a considerable proportion that will have a significant effect on your total flexion strength. In other words, brachialis will either make or break your time in the gym.
In fact, if you are concerned with strength, the brachialis should actually be your primary concern due to the high involvement in producing strength.
A Stronger Brachialis Will Improve Performance
A stronger brachialis will absolutely give you stronger elbow flexion strength. That being said, this strength will go much further than just being able to curl more. Training your brachialis will profoundly affect your performance in general as many movements require elbow flexion. Below is just a shortlist of pulling movements that depend on strong elbow flexion.
That list can go much further. Basically, any movement that requires elbow flexion will improve after training your brachialis. This is why dumbbell forearm exercises are a must!
Training The Brachialis Will Build Bigger Arms
While you can’t actually see the brachialis as it sits deep under the biceps, training for muscle hypertrophy is still going to give you bigger arms. How? Well, when you train the brachialis for muscle hypertrophy, you will increase its muscle mass. That mass has to go somewhere, so it will simply push the biceps out, creating a more expansive, fuller arm. In fact, due to its location, a larger brachialis will have a significant effect on how large your arms look.
The point is, all you need to remember is this simple equation. Small Brachialis = Small Arms
Related: Average Arm Size Chart
A Stronger Brachialis Will Decrease Injury
The elbow joint can be a susceptible spot for injury. A lot is happening here, including multiple joints within the elbow as well as numerous muscles, tendons, and ligaments to hold it together. Further, the elbow is the first joint that takes on the force created by lifts. Technically, it’s the wrist, but in most movements, the wrist holds an isometric hold in the extended position. The elbow is the first to actually flex and move a load.
All that considered, things can happen if you’re not careful. While studies show that the injury rate in weight lifting sports is rare, especially when compared to contact sports, things still happen. In fact, there’s a specific condition known as brachialis tendonitis, which occurs when the elbow undergoes numerous powerful contractions. This overuse injury can develop over time, leaving you unable to extend your arm due to high amounts of inflammation of the brachialis and its tendon.
However, one of our favorite sayings at SET FOR SET is “Strong things don’t break”. By increasing the strength of your brachialis, you will drastically mitigate the chance of any issues occurring. While you still need to rest, strengthening this muscle, along with its tendon, will create a stronger joint.
Training The Brachialis Will Improve Flexion Strength In The Pronated Position
Perhaps the one area where you will see the most significant effect is flexion while the arm is pronated. This is when you are pulling with your palms facing down, and you can see the back of the hand. Think exercises like pull-ups, reverse curls, and bent-over rows (pronated grip). While the biceps are strong supinators, they lose strength as the hand rotates inward as they are in a weak biomechanical position.
However, as mentioned above, the brachialis is vital when the arm is in any direction as it has nothing to do with supination or pronation. It’s a one-trick pony. Still, it’s generally considered stronger in the pronation position, making it an important aspect to train.
When it comes to targeting the brachialis, you need to perform movements that use a pronated grip. This can include both compound movements as well as isolation exercises. As mentioned above, this is the position where the biceps are almost entirely eliminated and provide no assistance (there are other flexors, but the bicep will be taken out). Therefore, fewer biceps means more brachialis.
Still, there is good reason to believe that slow movements would work really well to train the brachialis, especially the lower portion. The reason being is that the other flexors, biceps brachii and brachioradialis (sits on the forearm), have higher activation from 90-degrees flexion up. Therefore, this means that the brachialis is left to function by itself during the bottom portion of the movement.
One other variable that is discussed a lot is that of training by fiber types. Because the brachialis is predominantly composed of type-II muscle fibers, it’s commonly suggested to train with heavy loads. While this thinking has some merit, it’s far from conclusive. In fact, a study just published in 2020 showed that heavy loads and light loads created the same muscle growth in lower limbs that predominantly consist of type-I muscle fiber. While there are a lot of things to consider, the main point is that right now, no one can say for sure if this will have an effect. Therefore, using a variety of rep ranges would be best. This includes using methods such as heavy, slow tempo flexion movements to 20+ burnout.
Here we go, the best brachialis exercises that you can do.
The pull-up is a great compound movement that trains the entire back. Often called the king of bodyweight movements, including the pull-up in your training will invoke massive muscle growth and strength gain of your full back. However, the pull-up also uses a pronated grip to pull your body up. In fact, this pronation grip is what differentiates it from the chin-up, which uses a supinated grip.
While the pull-up and chin-up are fantastic exercises, favoring the pull-up is the obvious choice if you want to train your brachialis. Further, the pull-up is usually performed slowly due to the massive load you are lifting, especially at the bottom of the movement, which will generate higher activation of the brachialis.
Further, the pull-up is incredibly easy to load for progressive overload and even allows you to perform some heavy negatives, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Related: Pull Up vs Chin Up Muscles Worked
Ironically, when people want to train their arms, they almost always perform curls with a supinated grip or underhand grip. In fact, this point is highlighted by the fact a “reverse” curl is performed with a pronated grip. However, if they really wanted to increase the strength of their elbow flexors, they would actually be doing reverse curls.
The reverse curl is performed the same manner as a regular curl, except you use a pronated grip. Everything else is the same such as hand position, stance, and actual movement.
However, using the EZ bar tends to be much more comfortable for trainees and allows them to use heavier loads. This is because their grips are slightly more neutral, meaning there is less stress on the wrists. At the same time, they are still pronated enough to really target the brachialis.
Grab an EZ-Bar and place your hands on the angled grip. Keeping your elbows in, bring the bar up to your chest by flexing the elbow (again, same movement). One tendency to be aware is that a trainee’s elbows will tend to want to flare out during reverse curls to a higher degree. Therefore, be mindful and keep your elbows tucked.
Zottman curls use dumbbells, and more-or-less simply have you alternate between using a pronated grip and supinated grip while curling.. Traditionally, the movement will start with your hands at your side using a neutral grip. You will then begin to curl the dumbbells up for the concentric portion. As you do, you will rotate the dumbbells to a supinated position (underhand) and continue all the way up. At the top, you will switch to a pronated grip (overhand) and then perform the eccentric with a pronated grip.
You can also perform the same movement but just swap the movement; concentric with a pronated grip and eccentric with a supinated grip.
Note: You can do this exercise standing up, sitting down or on a preacher bench as pictured above.
One of the other components of the Zottman curl that favors training the brachialis is that they are performed slowly. As mentioned, training with slow-motion can really cause the brachialis to explode.
Related: 5 Best Zottman Curl Variations
The hammer grip. Not quite pronated, but still very effective at hitting the brachialis. As mentioned with the EZ-Bar, trainees are usually significantly stronger using a neutral grip, so including hammer curls in your routine will allow you to use much higher loads. Further, the biceps will still be excluded from the movement for the most part. However, you will get more activation from the brachioradialis; not that’s a bad thing. The brachioradialis is also a forgotten elbow flexor that needs some love too. And a stronger brachioradialis will mean the ability to move more weight with the brachialis.
When doing hammer curls, we like to use the rope attachment as the movement seems to be smoother and more natural than when using a dumbbell. Plus, when using the cable, you are able to stand back to alter the angle for a different stimulus. Nothing wrong with a bit of variety!
Above we said that we like using the EZ-Bar for reverse curls, however, that is when using a barbell. Therefore, when doing reverse curls, we recommend doing them on a cable pulley machine using a straight bar (you can also use an EZ-Bar attachment). Using a cable allows you to stand back which alters the angle of resistance. Therefore, it seems to relieve some of the issues seen when using a straight barbell. However, with these, we recommend going in light with multiple reps.
Related: Best Cable Arm Exercises
The preacher curl is a classic bicep exercise as it is highly effective in isolating the flexor muscles. To perform the exercise, you place your arms on a supportive mat which eliminates all body motion leaving your elbow flexors to do all the work. This makes the preacher curl one of the most favorite exercises for maximal muscle hypertrophy.
Since it’s such an awesome movement, it makes sense to use it to train the brachialis. To do this, simply use a pronated grip and curl away. But a word to the wise, start light AND DO NOT use the heavy, slow eccentric method discussed below. As mentioned, this movement is very effective, which means serious muscle damage. Don’t overdo it when you begin.
Related: Biceps 21s
The crossbody dumbbell curl is a bit interesting as it’s a cross between a hammer curl and a supinated grip. The movement starts with the arms down by your side, holding a pair of dumbbells with a neutral grip. When you bring the dumbbells up, you’re going to bring the dumbbell up at an angle instead of coming straight up. The dumbbell should run up the chest to the opposite shoulder, your palm facing your body. It’s an awesome tweak to the dumbbell curl, which not only hits the brachialis it’ll hit the biceps from a different angle as well.
Related: 12 Best Dumbbell Biceps Exercises
Using a very slow tempo during the eccentric contraction (going down) can be just what you’re missing in your brachialis workout. Let us explain.
During the eccentric portion, we are significantly stronger and are able to handle more weight during the contraction. If you were to use a mind experiment, during the bench press, the concentric occurs when you push the weight up, and the eccentric occurs when the weight comes down. While you might only be able to bench press 150lbs, if your friend put on 170lbs and helped you unrack the bar, you could probably control that weight and lower it down smoothly. This is the idea.
Still, studies have shown that the muscle damage that occurs during the eccentric portion is more responsible for muscle damage. While there are some factors, the gist is that performing the eccentric portion seems to have a larger effect on muscle hypertrophy.
By putting these two factors together, you get heavy, slow contractions. You can use this method for any exercise as long as you follow the basic premise. Load the weight so that it is sufficiently heavy, around 90%-95% of your estimated 1RM max. Or, you could even go higher but start with a smaller load before you start messing with your 1RM or heavier. Regardless, you will get the weight to the top position, and if needed, you can cheat to get the weight up. When ready, you will allow the load to come down in a slow and controlled manner. You should aim for at least a 3 second eccentric, but longer would be even better.
Again, this is a method of training rather than a specific exercise so use as desired. For programming, once you get to your brachialis-specific exercises, your FIRST exercise would be with a slow, heavy eccentric contraction if you’re doing one. Further, you only do this with one exercise.
As the brachialis is the part of the arm, it’s quite apparent that you will perform these exercises with your arm session or pulling session.
As far as the load and rep range, you would be better off having variety. However, you may want to favor the heavier loads to possibly take advantage of the “training for fiber types” theory. One important aspect to remember with this theory is that while the evidence is not concrete in terms of benefit, it definitely isn’t going to hurt you. Basically, you don’t need to get into an argument on Youtube about it, but it may be beneficial to include it in your program.
As mentioned above, start off your single-joint brachialis-specific training with a heavy eccentric if desired, then move on.
Who would have thought that all this time, you have been performing your elbow flexion training subpar? If you have, don’t sweat it. You rarely ever hear this information as the majority of fitness content is concerned with aesthetics rather than function. We at SET FOR SET believe you need both.
Now that you read this article, you now know why it’s so important to train the brachialis muscle for optimal elbow flexion strength. Even more indispensable, you know how to choose the right exercises to train the brachialis now. To be clear, we love training the biceps, so you definitely want to keep doing that. All we’re saying is that you need to start to include some of the exercises from this article in your next training session. Trust us, train your brachialis for one month, and you’ll begin to see a BIG difference.
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