This is a comprehensive look at biceps training with Team Beast athlete Rob Riches. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or novice, there is something for you in this article. Find the routine that’s right for you and build your biceps to new levels.
My first memory of wanting to build an impressive physique was as a 15 year old looking at the cover of Men’s Health. I wanted to have the same peaked biceps and sculpted six pack abs. I had guidance from an early age and I quickly learned the basic movements and established proper form and technique. That built a strong foundation for today.
Within this article, I will focus on covering three different bicep-focused routines: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Each section accompanied by its own video. Part I focuses on the beginner.
It’s not so much that the beginner routine is only for people who have little to no experience training, and the advanced is only for someone with many years of experience. It’s simply based around fundamentals and when and how to employ certain shocking principles. Still to this day, I will follow many of the same fundamental basics as shown within the beginner routine. Yet, I will mix it up with many of the techniques and methods discussed throughout the intermediate and advanced routines. I would encourage you to do the same.
The Warm Up
As when training any muscle group, I would strongly recommend performing a few warm up exercises, along with some specific stretching and mobility. The main benefit to this is that it helps to pool blood (along with oxygen and nutrients into the working muscles). It also helps to properly prepare the joints and tendons for the stresses ahead. I also find this beneficial to our psyche, and helps us to mentally prepare for the lifts ahead.
I’ve shown within the first section of the beginner routine, a great bicep warm that consists of banded chin-ups, rotational dumbbell curls, inverted plank, and straight arm, behind-the-back, bicep stretch. The emphasis here is not on weight. In fact, you shouldn’t be getting anywhere close to muscle failure. Rather, work the muscles through their full range of motion across a variety of different angles and positions. I don’t think I spend more than 5 minutes on this warm up routine. But I sure did feel the benefit even from the first exercise, where my arms were soon feeling the pump from the first set.
For any of the static stretches, I wasn’t pushing into the stretch hard. It was just enough where I could feel all the muscle fibers under tension. Then I would take a few deep, slow and controlled breathes, and release.
The Beginner Routine
I’ve focused this beginner bicep routine around 3 core movements. As with many of these exercises, there are numerous modifications and variations that can be made. I will touch upon some of them throughout the article. But the focus at this point should simply be to master each movement and be sure that you are effectively involving the muscle. How you perform a movement (efficiently using the muscle and pushing it to just beyond it’s comfort zone <muscle failure>, can often be more impactful to your goal than always trying to move the heaviest weight you think you may be able to manage).
Exercise 1: Seated Dumbbell Curls
Target: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
Seated dumbbell curls are one of the best bicep building exercises, second only to perhaps barbell curls. While these can be performed standing, I prefer doing them seated as this keeps any momentum and sway to a minimum. This means the full work of lifting the weight up is left to the biceps and not shared between the shoulders and lower back.
Set the bench up so that it’s as near to vertical as possible, and sit with your hips pushed back into the seat. Your chest is lifted up proud and shoulders pulled back and down. With the arms hanging vertically at your side, dumbbell in each hand, start with keeping your palms facing forwards (a slight external/outward rotation from the normal neutral arm position).
Keeping this fixed grip throughout the lift. This actually works the biceps more intensely than when you rotate the grip during the lift. Then, curl both dumbbells upwards in an arc-like fashion, keeping the upper arms stationary at the side of the body.
The elbows will naturally pull forwards a little. That is okay, but don’t consciously move them forwards as you curl. This will start to work the front of the shoulders and relive some of the effort from just the biceps doing all the work. The dumbbells should be at chest height when your biceps are fully contracted, and not all the way up to the shoulders (as seen in both images above). It’s at this point that you should contract the biceps hard for as split second before resisting them back to the start position.
After familiarizing yourself with this standard grip, you can begin to add in a few other variations. I’ll typically alternate my weekly arm workouts using different variations (after performing the first working set with the standard grip), so as to not let my workouts become too stagnated or just dull.
- 90-degree rotation (neutral – palms in, to externally rotated – palms facing forwards).
- Alternating arm curls
- Fixed hammer curls (neutral grip – palms facing each other, throughout duration of lift).
Exercise 2: Standing Barbell Curls
Target: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Barbell Curls might be the best for mass building, but they’re also a great exercise for targeting the outer and inner regions of the biceps.
First, lets address the technique. Much like the set up with the first exercise, the upper arms remain almost exclusively at the side of the body. The elbows only pull forward a little, and the bar stopping around the top of the chest, and not up to the chin.
The biggest thing I find with the barbell curls is either too much momentum as the bar is lifted up, and too much movement at the elbows, pulling forwards and lifting up with the bar. Doing both of these may allow you to lift heavier weights, but it will also reduce involvement of the biceps as other muscle groups get involved to assist with moving the heavier weight.
Keep it strict and focus most on really feeling the biceps work as you curl the bar up. Contract them hard at the top of the rep, especially during the final few reps when you’re close to the muscles capacity to perform. It’s at this point that will provide the greatest stimulation for growth/change.
If you find yourself swinging too much during the curl, try resting your lower back against an incline bench, or middle of the back against a fixed pole or wall. This helps you keep your back straight as you curl the bar up. This can really make this a strict exercise. It also shows you how much weight your biceps can truly handle if you eliminate all other assisting muscles.
Just like with the Seated Dumbbell Curls, I’ll add one or two variations in within different weeks. But this is always after reaching failure first using the standard (and most effective) neutral grip.
- Narrow Grip (hands within shoulder width, about 4-6 inches gap between them, and elbows rotated slightly outwards). This will place greater emphasis on the outer region of the biceps
- Wide Grip (hands outside shoulder width, and elbows rotated slightly inwards). This will place greater emphasis on the inner region of the biceps
- Overhand/Pronated grip on the barbell. This involves more forearm muscles and especially works the lower region of the biceps head.
Exercise 3: Single Arm Preacher Curl
Target: 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps
So far, the first two movements have focused primarily on working the long head of the bicep. This is seen best when looking at the arm from the side, when the arms are at the side of the body. The short head (shown on the image above, being the fatter, longer muscle of the bicep, and sitting just under the long head), is worked most when the elbow(s) are in front of the body, such as the preacher curl, which is demonstrated above using the back of an inclined bench.
This is a great exercise to perform as a single-arm movement. I personally think all workouts should include at least one unilateral movement. That allows you to focus solely on one side at a time. This can help squash any imbalances in strength and size before they become too visible.
I’m also a big fan using the bench in an incline position as a preacher bench. Not all gyms have preacher benches, or they only have seated benches and not freestanding preacher benches. An incline bench allows you to really position yourself well while supporting the entire arm during the movement. This again makes it an especially strict movement, and therefore very effective for working a specific region of the bicep.
My tip is ensure that the entire back of the arm (triceps) rests on the bench. Keep the elbow and shoulder aligned. With your arm fully extended open, holding the weight with a standard underhand grip, your arm should be as straight as possible. That forces the bicep to do all the work to lift the weight up.
This is one exercise where you should be looking for as greater range of motion as possible, from start to finish. So long as the elbow doesn’t lift off from the bench, you should find you can curl the dumbbell almost up the shoulder with full contraction in the bicep.
I would also get used to opening the bicep up to it’s fullest length during this exercise. The preacher curl is a great exercise that specifically targets the lowest region of the bicep. It also targets the thicker, short head of the bicep. That is mostly seen in its fullest glory during a front bicep shot.
- External Rotation at the wrist during the curl. Think of turning your little finger outwards as you curl up (the opposite motion to pouring a jug of water). This will further pull in the short bicep head, giving a more intense contraction at the peak of the movement.
- Cable Concentration Curl. If the foot of the bench is positioned to a low-set cable pulley, you can modify. Instead of using a dumbbell to curl, you can hold a handle attached to the cable, and curl. The main difference is you’ll feel constant tension on the bicep throughout the full range of motion.
Beginner Bicep Summary
In summary, the beginner bicep routine is simply to familiarize yourself with several key movements. They target both the long and short head of the biceps, as well as unilateral and isolation work.
After spending several minutes warming up the biceps with some light resistance work, stretching and mobilization, perform each exercise for 3 sets. Aim for 10-12 repetitions on each set. Only increase the weight to the next increment up if you really feel you can manage more weight after comfortably achieving the final few reps. Perform all sets as straight sets and aim for 70-85% maximum intensity.
Perform this arm workout for 4-6 weeks. Aim to add a few extra repetitions, or increase up to the next weight increment. When you can no longer increase the weight or go beyond 12 repetitions with each exercise, you’re ready to move on to the intermediate bicep routine. There, I’ll be introducing some additional training methods.
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