The biceps are the most recognizable muscle group in the whole body. Don’t believe me? When someone asks you to “make a muscle,” what do you do? If you don’t lift your arm and flex your biceps, either you’re really modest or you’re a liar.
Sculpting well-muscled arms requires more than a few sets of curls once a week. If you want to build stronger biceps, it’s good to have a few training tricks up your sleeve (which will hopefully fit a little tighter if you play your cards right). Follow these six rules to get the guns you’ve always wanted.
Rule No. 1: Build your back first.
The biceps are a small muscle group, compared with the rest of your body. Before you focus on your arms, you need to work on bigger muscles, especially your upper back.
Why the back, specifically? Because your biceps are involved in every upper-back exercise you do. If you fatigue your biceps first, your back will never get the attention it needs.
Before working your arms directly, make sure you target your back with exercises like deadlifts, rows and pull-ups.
Rule No. 2: Don’t go below 8 reps.
The biceps are best-trained using some variation of the curl exercise, where you hold weights in your hands and bend your elbows to bring your hands closer to your shoulders. This is a single-joint movement that doesn’t work well with heavy weight. In fact, if you go too heavy, you’ll have to swing the weight with your hips or lower back, taking the tension off your arms and increasing the risk of injury.
When training your biceps, use a weight that allows you to do at least eight reps and as many as 20 reps. Do 3–5 total sets to get you at least 30 total reps per workout.
Rule No. 3: Lower the weight slowly.
You’ll see plenty of people at the gym heaving weight around, slinging the weight up and letting it fall back to the starting position. This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when trying to build stronger biceps. Controlling the speed of your reps is a must, and here’s why:
If you can’t use heavy weight to build muscle, you need to increase the time under tension. This simply means that the muscle needs to work for an extended period of time.
It’s fine to lift the weight up quickly, but lowering the weight slowly and under control is a tried-and-true way to build bigger muscles. If you let the weight down too fast, the muscles relax and won’t grow.
Try doing curls using a 1-2-3 tempo: Take one second to curl the weight to the top position, squeeze your biceps for two seconds, then take three seconds to lower the weight back to the starting position. You’ll get a nasty burn without the need for heavy weight.
Rule No. 4: Squeeze hard!
You may have heard bodybuilders talk about the “mind-muscle connection” or may have read about it in magazines. Turns out it’s another secret to building muscle in record time.
The mind is a very powerful thing. Research shows that simply thinking about a muscle can make it start working. If you focus hard on your biceps moving the weight and squeezing your muscles at the top of every rep, the muscles will work overtime, making for more efficient reps.
For a serious challenge, try squeezing your biceps even as you lower the weight down. Beware: This highly effective method will make you extra sore!
Rule No. 5: Vary your wrist position.
Curls can get boring pretty quickly. To keep things interesting — and keep your elbows and wrists healthy — vary your wrist position every so often by switching between a supinated (palms-up), pronated (palms-down) and neutral (palms-facing) grip.
The biceps actually has two heads (hence the “bi” prefix) that start on the shoulder blade, cross the elbow and attach to the forearm. Changing your grip can target the muscle in different ways, as well as work smaller forearm muscles that can make your arms look bigger.
Switch up your wrist position every few reps, and opt for dumbbells most of the time. They allow for the most freedom in terms of grip selection. Or if you’re feeling fancy, use exercises that involve multiple wrist angles, like the Zottman curl.
Rule No. 6: Flirt with failure.
There are two reliable ways to get stronger: Use heavy weights, and push a muscle until it can’t go anymore. Since the biceps don’t respond well to heavy weights, your best bet is you do as many reps as possible every set until you’re just shy of failure (the point where you couldn’t complete another rep with good form).
This takes some mental toughness, but it’s worth it. Approaching muscular failure floods your muscles with nutrient-rich blood and other metabolic by-products that signal the muscles to rebuild bigger and stronger.
For consistent muscle growth, choose a weight that you can do for three sets of eight reps, but the last rep of each set should feel really hard. Once you can do that weight for three sets of 12 reps, increase the weight, and start back at eight reps.
Brothers (and Sisters) in Arms
Building stronger biceps takes patience — to use lighter weights, lift the weight slower and change wrist positions frequently. Follow these six rules, and you’ll be bursting out of your shirtsleeves before you have time to say, “Which way to the beach?”