Building bigger biceps is top of many men’s gym wish list. But you only need to look around the next time you’re in the weights room to realise that their wishes haven’t come true. One of the main reasons is that sticking to simple dumbbell biceps curls every time you work out just won’t get the job done. Your body is very good at adapting quickly to what you ask it to do, so to force your biceps to grow bigger and stronger you need to push them outside of their comfort zone and shock them into growth. Read on for world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin’s advanced exercises that build bigger biceps, followed by top advice on how to make your biceps training more effective.
Charles Poliquin’s Key Moves for Bigger Biceps
There are dozens of biceps exercises. The trouble is, unless you’re involved in this business full-time, you tend to adopt a few exercises and do them over and over again to the exclusion of all others.
This is simply a list of five of my favourites. Obviously, many of them will be familiar to you. However, you may want to read the descriptions anyway because you might discover a new way to do that particular movement or you might find that you’ve been doing it incorrectly.
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One-arm dumbbell preacher curl
Most biceps exercises require some assistance and stabilisation work by other muscle groups, but the preacher bench was designed to isolate the biceps. Most gyms have standing and sitting preacher benches. I prefer the seated version because it minimises cheating.
Sit on the bench with one arm fully extended. Use your free hand to lock your triceps in position. As you curl the weight, keep your neck aligned by looking straight ahead. You want to keep tension on the muscle throughout each rep, so don’t curl the weight up until your forearm touches your biceps, but make sure you do lower the weight all the way back to the start.
Incline dumbbell curl
This is a simple, common exercise and the most effective for isolating the long head of the biceps, but I see it done incorrectly time and again.
Recline on an incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms fully stretched out. Curl the dumbbells up together while keeping your elbows still, at least through the first 90˚. Keep your palms facing up at all times so your elbow flexors are well stretched. Here’s a tip: if your head comes off the bench no matter how hard you try to keep it down, roll up a towel and place it between your neck and the bench. You’ll find it increases your strength.
I recommend the incline dumbbell curl as a staple of your arm workouts, especially if you want to do specialised work for the long head of the biceps. Just make sure you change the angle of the bench every six workouts so your muscles don’t adapt.
Dumbbell concentration curl
The concentration curl can be performed in a standing or a sitting position but I prefer the latter. When you’re standing, your nervous system has other responsibilities such as maintaining balance, but if you sit down it has its full attention on the movement.
Sit on a bench, lean over and grab your dumbbell. Sit back and rest your triceps against your inner thigh. Keep a slight arch in your back while leaning over the dumbbell. Make sure to curl the dumbbell slowly and deliberately until full range is completed – the dumbbell should be near your pectoral muscle. It’s crucial that you lower the dumbbell until your arm is fully extended.
If your arms haven’t grown for a while, you might want to consider doing this move more often. It’s a surefire mass builder. Grasp the chin-up bar with a close grip. The palms of your hands should be facing you about 8-12cm apart. Pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Do this very slowly – it should take about 15 seconds or so. Then, slowly lower yourself to the start position.
You won’t get many reps in the bag, but that doesn’t matter because you want to expose your muscles to the maximum amount of tension. And don’t short-change yourself by not coming all the way down. Range of motion is critical.
Seated Zottman curl
This is one of the best upper-arm builders. It feels uncomfortable at first, so it may take a few workouts to get used to this movement.
Grasp two dumbbells and sit on a flat bench. Fully extend your arms downward and keep your palms facing forward. Begin curling the weight, but keep your palms extended away from your body – the tendency is to curl the wrist upwards, but I’m asking you to extend the hand backwards. Once you reach the top, rotate your hands so your palms are now facing downwards and straighten the wrists so, in effect, you’re ready to do the eccentric portion of a reverse dumbbell curl. Slowly lower the dumbbells, keeping your elbows glued to your sides throughout the entire exercise.
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Build Bigger Biceps with Less Effort
Drop the weight
Not literally, at the end of the set, but at the beginning – by decreasing the load you lift.
Why it works: “So many people think that growing bigger biceps means using bigger dumbbells, but that’s not the case,” says former Royal Marines PTI Sean Lerwill. “Reducing the weight and performing slow and controlled reps will build muscle faster because it makes your biceps do all the work so you can’t cheat using momentum.”
Fix your elbows
“Your elbows need to be locked into the right position, close to your sides, so they don’t move when you lift then lower the weight,” says Lerwill.
Why it works: If your elbows move during a rep, you’re taking tension off your biceps. “You can also make a biceps curl even more effective by keeping your elbows behind your body. This will prevent any cheat reps and keep the biceps engaged,” Lerwill adds.
Rotate your wrists
One of the main roles of the biceps muscles is to externally rotate your wrists, so use this to your advantage during dumbbell curls.
Why it works: “Start with your palms facing each other. Then, as you lift each dumbbell, start to rotate your wrists so you finish in the top position with your palms facing the fronts of your shoulders,” says Lerwill. “Reverse the movement as you lower to activate more muscle fibres.”
Squeeze at the top
One of the best ways to add muscle size is to get a good pump, and squeezing your biceps at the top of a curl will achieve this.
Why it works: “Getting a pump looks and feels great, but science suggests it’s also an important factor in initiating a muscular growth response,” says Lerwill. “Pausing to squeeze your biceps at the top of each rep reinforces your mind-muscle connection, and pumps more blood into the tissue.”
Take your time
If building bigger biceps is a race, think of it as more of a marathon than a sprint.
Why it works: “Rushing your reps is one of the biggest gym sins because you won’t work the muscles anywhere near hard enough, so you’re ultimately wasting your time,” says Lerwill. “Keeping to a strict tempo of curling the weight up powerfully and lowering it slowly makes a huge difference to unlocking growth potential.”
Tense your triceps
Fully straightening your arm at the bottom of each curl rep ensures you move through the fullest range of motion.
Why it works: “When you tense your triceps to fully straighten your arm before you start another curl, it makes your biceps muscles move through a full range and work harder,” says Lerwill. “It also acts to refocus your mind ahead of every rep, and greater focus means greater results.”
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