“It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive. What matters is the size of the arms hanging out of the window.”
If you can relate to the quote above, then you’re going to LOVE this article.
Let’s face it, bigger biceps represent the holy grail of training for lots of guys, and there are very few sights more impressive in the gym than a pair of well-sculpted, glistening, mountainous peaks.
So what if I could show you THE ABSOLUTE BEST biceps exercises for packing on new muscle? That would be awesome, right? Because then you could focus your efforts on the things which work the best, and fast-track your results!
So let’s do that.
Will it be barbell curls? Maybe concentration curls? Heck, did your favorite even make the top 3? Take a look and see…
For those who prefer your info in video format, I cut this in The Torture Rack earlier this week.
WHAT IS THE BEST BICEPS EXERCISE FOR BUILDING MUSCLE?
If you ask 10 guys for opinions on the best biceps exercises, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.
One guy will tell you dumbbell curls, another will say machine curls, heck one guy will probably tell you to do some functional Swiss ball balancing act they got off Instagram.
The problem is these are all opinions, and we want FACTS. So instead of asking some guy at the gym, we’ll ask the researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who actually published a study on this very subject in 2014!
During this trial, the team of researchers worked with a group of 16 participants (8 men & 8 women) aged between 18-24 years old. They recorded muscle activation levels in the short head and the long head of the biceps while the trainees performed a selection of the most popular biceps exercises to see if they could determine a WINNER. (1)
This was a very well conducted study, with the researchers even identifying potential methods the trainees could use to “cheat” the outcome. For instance, some people simply train harder on exercises they enjoy.
I’m like this. I can perform an EZ-bar curl for days, but preacher curls will make me tap out faster than a Ric Flair Figure-4 Leg Lock.
To counteract this, each trainee recorded a ‘test day’ so the researchers could note their performance level on each exercise, and then ensure they only worked against a force representative of 70% of their one rep max during the trial. Solid stuff indeed.
Here are the exercises they compared:
- Narrow-grip EZ-bar Curl
- Wide-grip EZ-bar Curl
- Barbell Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Concentration Curl
- Preacher Curl
- Chin Up
- Cable Curl
WHICH BICEPS EXERCISE WON?
The graph above shows you the results. The winners were:
It might be considered a surprise that concentration curls came out on top, as it’s an often overlooked biceps exercise. But in truth, it wasn’t even close! It seems that the seated position, and optimal positioning of the elbow in a dead hang position really help us to trap all of the dumbbell’s force in the biceps and nowhere else.
So when it comes to isolating your biceps, concentration curls are the way to go!
Interestingly, popular moves like the EZ-bar curl did NOT produce the biggest activation of the biceps brachii. The researchers claimed this likely because the surrounding muscles of the anteroir deltoid and forearms crept in to assist the biceps in curling up the weight.
(Remember, we’re talking about pure biceps activation here.)
Here’s a quick demonstration of the top three exercises.
HOW TO APPLY THESE FINDINGS FOR MAXIMUM RESULTS
I’m not going to recommend you throw away every other biceps exercise just because concentration curls came out on top in this study.
That would be crazy.
Because while concentration curls may be the best pure activator of the biceps, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best biceps exercise.
The reason this exercise is so good at activating the two heads of the biceps is because it isolates the muscle. Isolation is a great way to make a muscle grow but it isn’t the ONLY way, because there are other factors which play a major role in the hypertrophy process, such as progressive overload and metabolic stress.
So I’m going to give you a killer arm workout to try down below (which includes concentration curls), but first I’m going to show you 3 of my favorite biceps exercises/techniques which weren’t included in this study.
This means you’ll have even more ammo to build quality guns. These are moves my clients regularly ask to use 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 that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it will lead to a heavier weight being used, and we can significantly increase 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 from the top, so with this technique we are trying 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 of the page), then controlling the lowering phase of each rep for a 5 second count.
A few sets of 6-8 reps will have you sweating and give you a pump 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 and you’ll see guys swinging too much weight up by tilting backwards and using their knee for help.
I’m not a fan of this.
By switching to a standing position we can create a better dead hang position at the start of each rep, and minimize any cheating by taking away the ability to push into our inside leg.
GROWTH FACTOR CURLS
This little-known exercise is among my all-time favorites because it takes biceps isolation to a whole new level.
You see, 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 versus standard dumbbell curls (or perform a f**k-tonne more reps).
In my experience this exercise EXCELS when used with a higher rep range, because it allows us to tap into the muscle building benefits of metabolic stress, and because the range of motion is so short it means the target muscle (biceps) will become absolutely engorged in blood, and you’ll feel like your arms are going to explode.
Look at the picture – the resting arm is still working while the other arm performs a rep, there is no escape!
TRY THIS WORKOUT:
Alright, let’s get growing.
Check out the two workouts below. I want you to use these workouts on Monday & Thursday for the next 6 weeks, then take a look at your results.
We are applying the findings of the study above, as well as the extra tips I’ve given you. The first session is a heavy duty biceps session with some high rep work for triceps, and the second session is a heavy duty triceps session with some high rep work for biceps.
If you’re lucky enough to be a website member you can simply log in and you’ll have access to my full 6 week BICEPS BOOM training program, which is a complete training program full of handy tips like the ones you’ve read in this article. Your sleeves will hate you.
1) CHIN UPS x10
(45 sec rest)
*** Use an assisted chin up machine if necessary.
2) EZ-BAR CURL NEGATIVES x8
(60 sec rest)
*** Lower the bar for a 5 count and squeeze the life out of your biceps.
1) TRICEPS DIPS x10
(45 sec rest)
2) CLOSE-GRIP BARBELL BENCH PRESS x8
(60 sec rest)
3) EZ-BAR STRETCH SKULLCRUSHER x8 – SUPERSET – PLATE PUSH BACK x8
(45 sec rest)
*** Consider the first exercise a cross between pullovers and a traditional skullcrusher, it’s far more effective. On the second move, contract your triceps hard as your arms move behind the line of your body.
5) GROWTH FACTOR CURL x20 – SUPERSET – STANDING CABLE CURL x20 or failure
(45 sec rest)
*** It’ll be a real b**ch switching to full curls after the first exercise, so dropset it when you reach failure.
Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
Russ has been a personal trainer in the UK since 2002, and provided both training advice and full programs on this website since 2011.
His work has been featured in Men’s Fitness magazine, and the content on this website led to him being voted one of the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost.
Russ spends his time coaching men and women inside the legendary Powerhouse Gym, South Shields, and writing training tips for the 114,301 members of his popular free training e-mail (join it below).
- Young S., et al. ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises. Acefitness.org. (2014)