Training

Get Armed for Battle

The very best biceps exercises for towering peaks.

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“THE BEST” IS A REMARKABLY FLUID CONCEPT. Debates rage in all corners of art and popular culture. What constitutes the best movie in a given year? Or TV show, or song?

So when a magazine like ours tells you they’re going to give you a listing of the “very best” biceps exercises, we understand your skepticism. We know you may look at the following choices by our selected panel of training experts with a raised eyebrow.

Is the standing barbell curl really the best biceps mass move? Does a preacher curl trump an incline dumbbell curl for the No. 1 peak builder? And when it comes to biceps isolation, how irked will you be that it’s a machine versus a free-weight exercise? (Let’s not even mention yet the controversial “top strength” entry.)

We encourage such debate—as long as you don’t miss the main point. That is, this list as a whole constitutes a kick-ass collection of proven, dependable exercises. Hate on a few if you must, but we think together they could make for the best biceps workout you’ve ever done.

BEST ALL-AROUND BICEPS MASS MOVE:

STANDING BARBELL CURL

KNEE-JERK REACTION

“Well, sure, but I’ve seen lots of guys turn it into a lousy lower back exercise.”

OUR EXPERTS’ TAKE 

The standing barbell curl is universally lauded by our experts as a solid biceps builder, which can annihilate both the long outer head and short inner head of the biceps when done correctly. But “correctly” is crucial. Your ego will whisper in your ear, “Slide the 45s on each side, you can do it.” Chances are, you can’t—and attempting too heavy a load means you’ll be jutting your hips forward to start the movement, then leaning way back to get your elbows under the bar. Your biceps will barely see any action at all.

HOW TO DO IT 

  • In a standing position, feet placed shoulder-width apart, hold a barbell with a shoulder-width underhand grip, arms extended.
  • Maintaining a tight core, with your chest up and head straight, flex your biceps to curl the bar from hip level toward your upper chest, keeping your elbows at your sides throughout.
  • Hold for a count at full contraction at the top, then slowly return the bar along the same path.

KEY POINTERS 

The standard shoulder-width grip tends to hit both the long and short head of the two-headed biceps muscle well, but you can adjust your grip to emphasize one of them more. A wider grip works the short head—it’s on the inside of your arm and helps give the overall muscle more width and thickness—while a closer grip inside shoulder width stimulates the long head, which runs on the outside of your arm and forms the “peak” when flexed.

INTENSIFY IT 

Add chains on each end of the bar, which increase the resistance one link at a time as you lift.

BEST BICEPS STRENGTH BUILDER:

BARBELL CURL 21s

KNEE-JERK REACTION

“Wait—isn’t 21 too many reps for strength building?” 

OUR EXPERTS’ TAKE 
In combining the best overall biceps movement—standing barbell curls—with one of the most wicked intensity techniques, this is an elite strength builder, says New York City-based strength and fitness coach Heather Farmer (Instagram @Olyfarmer). As for the idea that it’s too much potential volume?

“Your overall strength can be enhanced by working in isolated parts of the movement that may be sticking points,” says Farmer, who’s also an Olympic weightlifting national competitor in the USA Weightlifting 63kg women’s class. Still, though, for those who want to go a more traditional route, you can take a longer break between each seven-rep portion, while also varying the weight used in each position. “You may find that you can handle a heavier weight in the half positions versus what you can do through the full range of motion,” Farmer points out.

HOW TO DO IT

  • This is done the same as the standing barbell curl, except you’ll manipulate the range of motion every seven reps.
  • “The first seven reps are performed starting at top of a finished curl position and lowering until the elbow reaches 90 degrees,” Farmer instructs. “The second seven start from a hanging extended arm position [the bottom of the rep)], and you raise the bar up to the halfway point where the elbows are 90 degrees. The last seven reps are a full-range, traditional biceps curl.”

KEY POINTERS

“Keep your core tight throughout, and avoid initiating the upward movement of the barbell by using your lower back and hips to generate momentum,” she says.

INTENSIFY IT

When you get to the full-rep portion of the set, switch to a weight that will elicit failure within seven reps, with partner assistance to reach seven if needed.

 

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