The 3 Best Biceps Exercises According To Science
For many guys, bigger biceps represent the holy grail of training.
It’s why we punish ourselves rep after rep, in the quest to pack an extra inch on top of those glistening, mountainous peaks… right?
Well, if you love training arms (like me), then you’re going to enjoy today’s blog post – I’ll be looking at the interesting results of a new study published by ACE.
The study set out to discover the best biceps building exercise of all…
… and they got an answer.
Did your favorite make the top 3?
Take a look!
For those who prefer your info in video format, I cut this in The Torture Rack earlier this week.
PSST! HERE’S SOMETHING ELSE YOU’LL LOVE. DOWNLOAD MY FREE GUIDE ON HOW TO MAKE A SCIENTIFICALLY PERFECT PRE WORKOUT DRINK!
What Are The Best Biceps Building Exercises?
Let’s get down to business…
During an 8 week trial at the University of Wisconsin, researchers worked with a group of 8 men and 8 women, aged 18-24.
They wanted to record muscle activation levels of the both biceps heads (the short head, and the long head) as subjects performed 8 of the most popular biceps exercises you’ll see in gyms around the world.
The exercises used:
- Narrow-grip EZ-bar Curl
- Wide-grip EZ-bar Curl
- Barbell Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Concentration Curl
- Preacher Curl
- Chin Up
- Cable Curl
It was a well conducted study, too, as the team of researchers also set out to identify potential ways test subjects could “cheat” the outcome.
For instance, people tend to simply train harder on exercises they enjoy.
Let’s use me as an example.
I can perform an EZ-bar Curl for days, but put me against some Preacher Curls and I’ll tap out quicker than if Ric Flair came round my home and slapped me in a Figure-4 Leg Lock.
So, to counteract this, each participant endured a ‘Test Day’ to establish their performance level on each individual exercise, and to ensure they only ever worked against a force representative of their 70% one rep max weight during the trial itself.
This evened out the deck.
So which exercises came out at the top end?
Check out interesting the graph below:
Looking at the results above, we can see that current science recommends the following 3 exercises as the best biceps building moves:
- Concentration Curl
- Cable Curl
- Chin Ups
Surprisingly, popular moves like the EZ-bar curl did not result in a significant activation of the biceps brachii. The researchers deemed this likely because the surrounding muscles of the anteroir deltoid and forearms were creeping in to assist the biceps in curling up the weight.
(Remember, we’re talking about pure biceps activation here.)
Also, not only did Concentration Curls win the overall test… it wasn’t even close!
It seems that the seated position, and allowing optimal elbow positioning in a dead hang position, really help us to focus all of the dumbbell’s force on the biceps and nowhere else.
So when it comes to isolating your biceps, concentration curls are the way to go! (1)
Here’s a quick demonstration of each one.
My Top 3 Biceps Exercises…
There was another flaw in the study above…
… and it was something the researchers missed.
Concentration curls may be the best pure activator of the biceps, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best biceps exercise.
Sure, very few other muscles can assist during a concentration curl, but other muscles assisting isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For example, a dumbbell lateral raise will isolate the middle head of the shoulders far more than a shoulder press, but getting assistance from the front delts and bracing the core will lead to a significantly heavier weight being lifted on a shoulder press, and the overall muscle activation of the middle deltoids is greater despite the fact they’re not working on their own.
None of the biceps exercises used in the study above were able to activate the biceps to a greater degree than a concentration curl – even those which allowed other muscles to help (Chin Ups, EZ-bar Curl)…
… but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options which will do the job.
So to give you more training tips to add to your workout arsenal, down below you will find 3 of my favorite biceps exercises which weren’t included in this study.
These are exercises my clients consistently ask to feature in their workout plans (because they’re highly effective, and fun).
All of them are shown in the video at the top of this page, but here’s some lovely pics.
HEAVY EZ-BAR NEGATIVES
The barbell curl works best when performed heavy.
Sure, this will see assistance from the forearms and front delts, but we will also significantly boost biceps activation by focusing on the most important part of the rep; the negative!
Most micro-tears in the muscle are created during the lowering of the bar, so it makes sense to maximize this portion of the rep by going heavier in weight that normal and having a partner assist you in the lift (or use my “kick” technique shown in the video at the top) before controlling the lowering phase of each rep for a 5 second count.
3 sets of 6-8 reps will give you a pump (and have you sweating) like no other biceps exercise.
STANDING CONCENTRATION CURLS
The seated version of the Concentration Curl won the study above.
It’s a great biceps isolation exercise, but it’s also a heavily abused movement.
Take a look around your gym, you’ll see guys swinging the too much weight up by tilting backwards and using their knee to help them power the dumbbell up.
By switching to a standing position, we can create a better dead hang position to start the rep from, and minimize any cheating by taking away the ability to push into our inside leg.
That’s why, whenever concentration curls appear in my workout plans, they’re always the standing variation.
GROWTH FACTOR CURLS
This little-known exercise is among my all-time favorites.
I often throw it into the workouts on my app.
Growth Factor Curls are partial dumbbell curls which focus on keeping the movement restricted to 90 degrees and above.
This minimizes the assistance of the forearms, and seeing as the forearms are usually a lot weaker than the biceps, may mean you could go heavier than on standard dumbbell curls.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it…
This exercise really excels when used with a moderate weight and targeted towards a higher rep range.
The burn is unreal.
You see, the longer we can make the set, the greater time under tension our biceps are receiving. Look at the photo – the resting arm is still working while the other arm performs a rep.
Time under tension is great for muscle development, and this exercise will create a stack of metabolic stress for your biceps to go to war against.
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- Young S., et al. ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises. Acefitness.org. (2014)