How to Work Out Your Biceps

Woman doing biceps curls
Getty Images/John Fedele

One of the reasons why people like working out the biceps is that these muscles respond very quickly to training. But many people don't train the biceps correctly. They fail to realize that the bicep is a complex muscle system that requires more than just heavy weights to fill them out.

Many people simply use too much weight. Instead of using a concentrated movement, they will often grab a barbell or dumbbell that is far too heavy and end up swinging the body to lift the weight. All this does is distribute the effort to numerous muscle groups including the shoulders, back, and hips.

When this happens, the biceps don't get a good workout. To remedy this, go back to basics and learn how to build your biceps with the appropriate weight and workout routine.

Biceps Basics

The biceps muscles run from the front of the shoulders to the elbow. They are made up of two different parts: a long head and a short head. Both are activated during bicep exercises, but respond differently to various movements. The biceps are responsible for elbow flexion (curling the arm up and down), forearm supination (turning the arm in and out), and, to a lesser extent, shoulder flexion.

Beyond the aesthetics of bigger muscles, it is important to work out the biceps as they are key to lifting, pushing, and pulling. As you age, the loss of these functions can be profound. Not only will you be less able to perform routine tasks, other joints and muscle groups will be eventually be compromised, including the elbows, wrists, forearms, shoulders, and lats.

Without a strong core bicep, none of the other arm and shoulder muscle groups can be fully developed or provide protection to vulnerable joints, tendons, and ligaments.

How to Work Your Biceps

Biceps work should be part of a well-rounded strength routine. Focusing on the biceps alone might seem physically appealing, but unless you work them along with other muscle groups, you will create an imbalance that can affect the alignment of the shoulders and elbows, making them more (rather than less) vulnerable to injury.

Because the bicep muscles are proportionately small, at least in relation to your chest and back, you should always use a lighter weight that allows you to flex and release with isolation (meaning that no other muscle is involved). When putting together a workout routine, follow these basic rules:

  • Work your biceps up to three non-consecutive days per week. This means at least one rest day between bicep workouts.
  • If lifting heavier weights (enough so that you can only complete six to eight repetitions), rest at least two days between bicep workouts.
  • If your goal is endurance and lean muscle, stick with one to three sets of 12 to 16 reps with at least one day of rest in between.

Recommended Routines

Most bicep exercises are pulling exercises because they involve drawing your hand toward your shoulder. While there are many other exercises that can build the bicep, the curl is foundational to growth.

When designing a routine, choose three to four different biceps exercises, doing each for three sets of 12 reps. You can also do them as part of a circuit, performing one bicep exercise after the next with no rest. You will generally need to go lighter for this, but will definitely feel the burn.

Sample Biceps Workout 1

  1. Biceps curls with dumbbells: Don't be afraid to lift a little heavier here, adding enough weight so that you can only do 12 reps. Don't jerk; watch your form.
  2. Preacher curls on the ball: Working out on the ball forces to you maintain control and avoid swinging. Gravity is not your friend here, so you may need to go lighter.
  3. Hammer curls: Turning your palms inward will also activate the forearm muscles.
  4. Reverse curls: Finishing off with reverse curls helps target the forearm while working the brachialis muscle that lies just beneath the lower bicep.

Sample Biceps Workout 2

  1. Barbell curls: You can usually lift more weight with a bar, so go for it here.
  2. Concentration curls: These isolate the arm and focus the effort on the bicep.
  3. Incline curls on the ball: Since you'll be at an angle for this exercise, you'll really feel the pull of gravity at your bicep.
  4. Resistance band curls: Finishing off with resistance bands is not meant to be easy. It forces you to concentrate on form and balance more than many other types of exercise.

By alternating these routines weekly, you'll be able to build a fuller bicep faster than with just one or two exercises. Take your time, and you'll see real results after eight to 12 weeks.

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