You don’t need to spend an eternity training your biceps. (And this comes from somebody, by the way, who loves training biceps.)
Yes, your biceps workout can easily take upwards of 40 minutes as you do rep after rep to pump your guns full of blood. But, done correctly, you can also blast your biceps in 20 minutes. They’re a small muscle group, and if you focus on your reps correctly, you can get plenty of mileage from a shorter workout.
The key is to make that time productive and make sure the biceps (and your brachialis, a nearby muscle that helps give your arms the depth and “three-dimensional” look that pops out of a T-shirt) is doing the majority of the work.
The Biceps Contraction
Your biceps has two main goals, and for many, those goals are misunderstood. Yes, lifting more weight is always good. But in the quest to lift more weight, it’s easy for form to suffer dramatically, and for the end goal of even a simple biceps curl to move away from the biceps.
Your biceps does two key things: It flexes your arm at the elbow joint, and it also supinates your forearm. These two ideas are smaller motions than you may think, and executing them both correctly will get you the mythic “pump” that helps spur growth.
As an Elbow Flexor
The function you’re most familiar with for the biceps is the elbow flexing action. In a general curl, it’s your biceps that shifts your forearm upwards and brings your wrist close to your shoulder. This is the biceps’ main function, in fact, although it draws some aid from the brachialis in this process.
Very often, though, when people do do biceps curls, they treat it like a point A to point B move: They try to get the dumbbell to their chest. In doing so, they shift their elbow forwards in front of their shoulder, sometimes raising their elbow. The problem with this? Doing so takes stress off the biceps and places it on the shoulder muscles. In an instant, you’re not training biceps, but you’re training something else.
People also often rock their hips backwards then forwards, creating momentum as they curl. Again, this takes stress off the target muscle. Don’t do either of these things.
Instead, start your curls, whether with dumbbells or barbells, by squeezing abs, glutes, and shoulder blades, and make sure your elbows are directly below your shoulders. Maintain this position and curl up only as high as you can while not letting your elbows shift forward. This will get you the quality contraction you need.
As a Supinator
The biceps’ other main function is that of supination. Basically, without your biceps, your palm would always face your torso or it would always face the ground when you did a curl. Your biceps is what pushes your palm to face the ceiling when you curl.
This is an underappreciated biceps function, but a key one, because only your biceps can drive this supination. When you flex your forearm, your biceps teams up with your brachialis to make that action happen. That means even a weak biceps can help you flex your forearm. Supination? That’s all biceps, so learning to do it properly helps strengthen your biceps more than you realize.
Timing is critical in supination, too. Many people curl upwards, and wait until very late, until the curl is almost done, to create that rotation. But the physics of the curl dictates otherwise for maximum biceps impact. Try to rotate your forearm when your forearm is about parallel with the ground. It’ll be tougher now, because gravity will be acting on the weight more aggressively, but creating that supination at this moment will also force your biceps to have to work that much harder during the curl, and it’s a good way to build your biceps peaks.
Train More Than Your Biceps!
It’s easy to fall in love with curls to grow your arms, and to fall in love with biceps training to grow big biceps. But other workouts help spur that arm growth too, even if there is no direct arm component. You need to train heavy when you’re not training biceps too, signaling to your body that it needs to gain overall muscle and strength to deal with large loads. That means training legs once or twice a week, focusing on large motions like squats and deadlifts. Train your back twice a week, making sure to do rows and chinups. And find some time to bench press, too.
These aren’t “biceps workouts” in a direct way, but working through them readies your body to grow your biceps in more ways than you may realize.
Do this workout as often as three times a week to build your biceps. You can use it in a variety of ways, too. Throw this quick workout on the end of a back day session, or use it as an evening biceps pump. Take at least a day of rest between biceps sessions, though, so your guns get adequate recovery. Above all, focus on technique when doing this workout; don’t over-focus on moving a ton of weight. Go as heavy as you can on every movement with good form.
Mixed-Style Biceps Curl
The mixed-style biceps curl, from fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., forces you to perfect your biceps curling technique, right down to the timing of your supination. Lead off with 4 sets of this, doing 5-6 pairs of reps per set. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Twist and Supinated Lower Hammer Curl
Next up, you want to attack your brachialis. You'll do that with 3 sets of this hammer curl, but you'll do more, too. You'll still challenge yourself to supinate at the perfect time, stimulating your biceps, and you'll lower the weights from the supinated position, forcing a vicious eccentric biceps contraction. Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps, and don't be afraid to train this movement heavy. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Half-Iso Spider Curl Countup
One more move, and this one just builds time-under-tension to finish off your biceps. It's also going to force good form. You're going to the half-iso spider curl countup, and you'll do 3 sets. Finish strong. Rest just 45 seconds between sets.