This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
This week we give our view on the top 5 best bicep exercises.
The biceps are relatively small muscles and in terms of training there’s only really one movement, which is flexing of the elbow joint. So why would we dedicate a whole ‘top 5’ to them? Well, everyone knows about the biceps and to a lot of people they are synonymous with weight training. What do a lot of people do when they talk about weight training? They mime a biceps curl. What do people do when they talk about how strong they are? They raise their arm and do a biceps pump. The biceps are ‘beach muscles’ and considered important by the public, recreational and hardcore lifters alike. So, although, in reality, they are a small part of the body’s overall musculature, their ‘fame’ demands that we give them their own top 5. Oh, and they look great when they’re well developed.
So, if you’re only flexing the elbow joint, how can there be enough variety to come up with 5 sufficiently different exercises? Well because there are two heads – long and short – and there are also the muscles of the forearm which can, and should, be developed along with biceps. Different exercises will emphasis the different muscles. There are also exercises that are better as heavy basics to emphasise myofibrillar hypertrophy and others that are better for pumping up the biceps and emphasising sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. So, with these considerations a good deal of variety is possible.
In our 5 best bicep exercises that follow there are exercises that emphasise the long head and exercises that emphasise the short head. There’s one that includes the forearm. There are exercises where the load is high when the biceps are stretched and others where the load is high at the fully contracted squeeze. As you’ll see, it’s often about arm position and angle.
So, with the intro done, on to our 5 best bicep exercises…
1. Supine cable curl
The first of our best bicep exercises is my choice for ‘heavy basic’. I know what you’re thinking. Standing barbell curls are the go-to choice for a heavy basic biceps exercise surely? They’re good, I agree, but I find that the ability to sway and use the legs takes a lot away from the biceps. Try as you might, it’s difficult to stop yourself. I also find the abdominal tension that is required to maintain good form can be quite distracting. I find the exercise uncomfortable and unpleasant and I’m not sufficiently focused on the target muscle.
The supine cable version has a lot of advantages over the standing barbell version. It’s essentially the same lift but the opportunity to sway and use momentum is much less. It’s a stricter biceps exercise. The core isn’t required to tense so strongly either. I also like the fact that I can vary the angle to emphasise the stretch on lower angles and the squeeze on steeper angles. So, there’s more variety possible in this version of the standard barbell curl. It’s also a lot quicker and easier to do drop sets.
I go heavy on this. I can put a good deal more force through the biceps because I am not able to use the rest of my body to get the weight up and I am not distracted by a barbell that is constantly shifting my centre of gravity and requiring a strong core contraction. I also find I get a better contraction by allowing the elbows to rise so that I curl the bar right up to my chin.
Use a wider cable bar attachment for short head emphasis and a narrower bar for long head emphasis.
2. Preacher curls
I love preacher curls because they are so strict and I can really focus 100% of my energy into stimulating the biceps. I say ‘stimulating’ but in reality, it’s on the way to ‘annihilating’ – they get a lot of (good) damage with the preacher curl, largely due to the amount of force put through them in the stretched position.
The arms forward position on this exercise emphasises the short head, especially if the grip is a little wider and a straight bar is used. If you don’t like the feel of a straight bar on your biceps then an EZ bar is also fine. Or even dumbbells. I like to get a really good stretch at the bottom and then reverse the movement before the forearms become vertical and all the tension is taken out of the target muscle. I won’t go too heavy on this because I don’t want to put too much tension through the biceps in that stretched position, so I’ll keep it at 10 reps or more and slow the tempo to make it more challenging.
3. Incline curl
The third of our best bicep exercises is the incline curl. This is another exercise that gives the biceps a good stretch but this time the arms are behind the plane of the body, which emphasises the long head. And, like the preacher curl, this is also a very strict exercise, so you won’t be able to use the same dumbbells you use with the standing dumbbell curl. You’ll also find that the biceps fail suddenly when you think you’ve got a bit left in them. Sometimes I’ll get up and extend the set with some standing curls.
Not many exercises give you a stretch and a squeeze at the full contraction, but this one does. I find that I get a good pump from this exercise because of this.
4. Hammer curls
The penultimate of our list of best bicep exercises is hammer curls. As well as emphasising the long head, this exercise works the forearms quite strongly. Done consistently this exercise can build the forearms well and give a better overall shape to the arm. It looks a lot better to have a bit of meat below the elbow than to have a couple of twigs hanging off there.
You can do this seated or standing but either way it’s a good heavy basic exercise. I like to do both arms at the same time for time efficiency, but you can alternate or work one arm then the other, which allows more focus on each arm and can help with correcting a weaker side. There’s no good cable equivalent of this exercise and bars that enable a hammer grip are rare, so dumbbells will likely be the go-to equipment for hammer curls.
5. Single arm cable curls
The final of our best bicep exercises is single arm cable curls. I really like this exercise and will include it in most workouts for several reasons. First, it enables me to even out any imbalances in my two arms. Second, it emphasises the long head which, for presentation on stage, is probably the more important head. Third, it has a heavy emphasis on the fully contracted position, which enables a big focused squeeze and an almost cramping sensation. Fourth, the pump I get on this exercise is supreme, nothing beats it. And because I can quickly change the pin, double and triple drop sets are easy to execute as a way to intensify a set.
If I’m short of time then three triple drop sets, starting heavy, is all I need to provide sufficient stimulation. If I have more time, I’ll finish with these to end with an extreme pump.
So, there you have it, my top 5 best bicep exercises. When designing your workout for biceps, make sure to regularly include exercises that emphasise the long head and the short head, the stretch and the squeeze, maximum force and maximum pump. Be careful not to over train them as they get a lot of stimulation when training other parts of the body, particularly with back training. So, what are you waiting for? Go and put some variety in your biceps training and watch them grow!