What’s your single best tip for building bigger biceps?
1. Do 100 reps of empty barbell curls.
Most guys that struggle with biceps growth use really heavy weights and a lot of momentum to curl. Then they do reps in the low ranges and, ultimately, the biceps really don’t end up doing a lot of work or getting a lot of tension. The upper back helps with the initial cheat to start the concentric and then the eccentric or negative portion of the rep is basically just the barbell dropping back down.
But even if you get sloppy with 100 empty-bar reps, just making it to the 100 rep mark will have your biceps screaming. If you can’t do the 100 reps nonstop then work towards that goal.
Doing this twice a week, with no other biceps work, caused my biceps to grow a lot in only two months. But like any training stimulus, it’s going to have its effective time limit. Once I could do 200 reps nonstop I didn’t see the same type of growth that I did over the first 8 weeks. But if your biceps growth has been stuck, try it.
2. Time your curls
There are many ways to build biceps. And sometimes the “best” method of triggering fresh muscle gains is to simply do something new… something you haven’t done before or haven’t done in a long time.
For biceps, here’s something to try. The next time you do a set of curls of any type, keep an eye on the clock or have a buddy time your set. How long did that set of curls take?
If you typically go heavy so you don’t have to go home your set probably fell below 60 seconds. Let’s say you did a fairly heavy 8-rep set, and it took roughly 1 second to lift the weight and you lowered it under control for 2 seconds each rep. Do the math. That’s 24 seconds per set. Add a 1 second squeeze at the top of each rep and you get 32 seconds.
That’s fine, heavy weights, lower reps, and therefore a shorter time under tension (TUT) builds muscle too. But you could be “missing” some muscle fibers and missing out on hypertrophy if you always use short sets.
Now do another set and make it last at least 60 seconds, maybe even up to 90 seconds. Yep, you’ll have to reduce the weight, and yes, this will hurt in a whole new way. In fact, it’s tougher in many ways than doing fewer reps with a heavier weight, which is why many people avoid it. But you’ll also be tapping into different muscle fibers and triggering a host of fresh biological responses that tell your body to “put some new muscle here.”
Keep the timer handy or watch a nearby clock the next time you hit biceps. You may be surprised that you never even approach the 1 minute mark. Add some 60-90 second sets to your heavy work, or spend a whole training block in that longer TUT range. Your biceps will grow like the national debt.
3. Chase the pump
I compete in the IFBB and we don’t care all that much about strength. “How much does the competitor curl?” This is a question you won’t find on the judges scorecard. Interesting enough, 20-plus years of training also taught me that lifting big numbers, particularly in regards to arm training, does very little for gains in size.
Sure, it might impress other dudes in the gym while inflaming your elbows and wrists, but sleeve stretching results won’t ensue. Therefore the single best tip for building bigger biceps is to train for the pump. This is best accomplished with lighter weight and intensity techniques. My preferred intensity techniques include: eccentric-focused reps, drop sets, rest-pause sets, banded tension, and iso-holds.
Turn up the volume, pair the exercise with an intensity technique, pound some Plazma™ and leave the heavy weight for leg day. Your skin-splitting pump will do more for size increases than the over-inflamed joints which follow on the heels of training with excessive weight
4. Use moderate loads, higher reps, and more cumulative metabolic stress
Some lifters get carried away trying to train the arms with pure strength. But the arms really don’t respond that well to heavy loading.
Yeah, that’s right, the days of swinging around the 60s with ugly compensation patterns that look more like a back extension than a curl are over. What’s in (among smart lifters) is chasing a painful skin-tearing pump to achieve not only strength and muscle, but also resilience through the upper arms, which protects the joints.
Once you nail the programming, it’s all about the execution. Contract the biceps as slow and hard as humanly possible on every rep in order to maximize tension and increase total time under tension. But even more importantly, this strategy will turn up your mind-muscle connection.
Working at a slow and deliberate tempo with a peak squeeze at the top of each rep while moving through extended ranges of motion in and out of a stretch is the recipe for massive biceps. Put your ego down, move light weights slowly for more reps, and challenge your form to maximize every rep. This is how you get gains that you can show off in a tank.
5. Focus on total-body strength first, then use iso-dynamic contrast.
Without first building a foundation, you’ll never have the base to specialize and maximize isolation work. But if you’re already a strong lifting junky you’ll need isolation work to build bigger and stronger biceps.
One of the biggest obstacles lifters have when trying to build lagging areas is a poor mind-muscle connection. Once you’re past newbie gains, you’ll have one hell of a time building your biceps until you “feel” the muscle working. This is where the iso-dynamic contrast method comes in.
- Pick a weight you could curl for 15 reps.
- Curl the weight to the common sticking point, right around 90 degrees of flexion. Squeeze the dumbbells as hard as possible to create an irradiation stimulus and improve muscle fiber recruitment. Hold that squeeze for 15-20 seconds.
- After the hold, perform curls for 8-12 reps, or to technical failure.
This creates tons of metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and improves the mind-muscle connection to build bigger, stronger biceps. Do three to four sets twice a week.
6. Want your biceps to grow? Think effort
Ten years ago, I would’ve recommended a pyramid scheme involving barbell curls. Five years ago, I would’ve recommended heavy weighted chin-ups. Today my opinion is different.
A recent training study turned out some intriguing results. The subjects trained three sessions per week for six weeks. Each did two protocols: one arm was used for no-load and the other arm was used for high load.
The no-load condition had the subjects moving their arms into elbow flexion and extension while attempting to maximally contract their biceps throughout the range of motion. They experienced EMG biofeedback which encouraged them to flex as hard as possible throughout the workout. They performed 4 sets of 20 reps with 30 seconds rest time between sets. The high load condition used a dumbbell curl with 70% of 1RM for 4 sets of 8-12 reps with 90 seconds rest in between sets. Loads were increased over the 6-week period.
Unsurprisingly, the dumbbell group increased strength to a greater degree than the no-weight group. But here’s crazy thing – the dumbbell and no-weight groups saw the same gains in biceps hypertrophy. This should tell you that load doesn’t matter as much in building biceps as long as you’re contracting the muscle as hard as possible.
For biceps growth, you could choose a barbell curl, a dumbbell curl, a preacher curl, or a concentration curl, with heavy load for moderate reps, light load for high reps, or a combination thereof, and see similar results as long as effort is high and volume is sufficient.
But when it comes to biceps strength, specificity is king. One study found that performing 1RM biceps curls every day for 21 straight sessions gained the same strength as a group that did the same thing with 1RMs but also included additional curling volume.
Therefore, if you want to maximize strength, do plenty of heavy low-rep work on whatever exercise task you’re striving to improve. For example, if you believe that the best way to test your biceps strength is a 1RM EZ-bar strict curl where your back is placed against the wall, then do lots of that in your training and you’ll be good to go.
7. Improve your ability to recruit and contract them
When it comes to biceps, focusing on getting them strong often makes it more difficult to get them bigger because it can shift the tension away from the biceps themselves. Practicing intense contraction of the target muscle is much harder to do when using heavy weights.
So when you’re trying to fix lagging biceps, the first thing to do is work on constant tension to maximize the mind-muscle connection. The time spent doing it will be an investment in all the future biceps training you’ll do.
So my recommendation isn’t so much a special exercise, but rather a specific way to do your reps. For four weeks do every rep of your bicep work like this:
- Before even lifting the weights, tense the biceps as hard as you can, as if you were trying to flex it. That is the “principle of first tension” – the muscle firing hardest first is the one that’ll receive the most stimulation in the set.
- Then when you lift and lower the weight, use a slower tempo. About 3 seconds up and down. This allows you to tense and flex the biceps as hard as humanly possible during every inch of every rep (during both the lifting and lowering portions). If you go faster it’s harder to keep the muscle maximally tensed.
- During the lowering portion you should actually flex and tense your triceps too. Sounds weird, but it makes the eccentric (lowering) even harder, accentuating the eccentric.
- It’s the best way to become really good at recruiting and contracting the biceps and you’ll program your nervous system to do it, which will make the future heavier biceps work more effective.
- It stimulates muscle growth via an accumulation of growth factors and mTOR activation, but there’s very little, if any, muscle damage. So you can (and should) do this type of biceps work multiple times during the week. Think 3-4 days a week. This will allow you to become even better at recruiting the biceps. Remember, frequency of practice is the key to motor learning.
Once you’ve spent some time training the biceps like this, you’ll be able to switch to heavy lifting, but now the tension won’t shift away from the biceps because you improved your capacity to recruit the muscle and keep it tensed.
8. Develop a mind-muscle connection
Focus on flexing the muscle throughout the movement and maximally contracting the muscle at the peak point of contraction on every rep of every set. The conscious effort to activate the target muscle before and between every set while visualizing its action and desired appearance during a movement will help to develop this powerful connection.
This is an extremely powerful method, and it’s a real phenomenon that influences neuromuscular dynamics during resistance training. When curling, make it a goal to feel every inch of the range of motion from the stretched (lowered) position to the contraction and back. The profound connection between your nervous system and muscles will help you recruit as many muscle fibers as possible with each rep.
Try incline dumbbell curls, seated alternating curls, and spider curls. On every variation, supinate your forearm (like you’re turning a doorknob) and drive the little finger side of your hands into the weight to target your biceps.