If you’re like most guys (including me), you had two simple goals when you started working out:
- Big chest
- Big biceps
I mean…how could we watch Predator and see this:
…and not want to start doing curls on the spot?
And if you’re a girl, there’s a good chance that toned, defined arms have always been high on your list of priorities too.
Well, if you’re reading this article it’s safe to assume that you either don’t have the biceps you want yet or are just looking for something new in your biceps training.
And I’m going to help.
I’m going to lay out exactly how I’ve built my biceps:
…without steroids or having to do hours and hours of curls every week.
So let’s get started.
- The Anatomy of the Biceps Muscles
- The Simple Science of Effective Biceps Training
- The Best Biceps Exercises
- The Ultimate Biceps Workout
- What About Supplements?
- The Bottom Line on Biceps Workouts
- Want More Workouts?
Table of Contents
When most people talk about the biceps, they’re talking about a muscle known as the biceps brachii.
This is a two-headed muscle that looks like this:
This is the muscle that most biceps exercises emphasize.
If you want to build outstanding arms, though, there’s another biceps-related muscle you should know about.
It’s called the biceps brachialis, and it lies beneath the biceps brachii and assists it in flexing at the elbow.
Here’s how it looks:
The significance of this muscle is, when it’s well developed, it does two things:
- It provides separation between the biceps and triceps.
- It pushes up the biceps brachii, adding to their size, circumference, and “peak.”
Here’s what I mean:
There are exercises you can do to emphasize the biceps brachii and there are variations you can do to emphasize the biceps brachialis.
I’ll have you do both.
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There are a lot of theories out there about how to best train your biceps.
Some people say you have to focus on high-rep training and really feel the burn.
Others say you should be training them several times per week.
Others still say you don’t have to do biceps exercises at all and should focus on compound pulling movements instead.
Well, I’ve tried all the above and more, and I’ve worked with thousands of people, and here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Most people need to train their biceps directly to get the size and definition they want.
Heavy back training will build the biceps but it’s rarely enough to build the size and definition most people want.
2. Heavy barbell and dumbbell curls are best for adding strength and size.
High-rep sets and cable curls can be included in your biceps workouts, but they can’t replace heavy free weight curls.
3. One heavy biceps workout per week is generally enough.
A crucial part of your biceps training that you have to get right is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting in general because the general rule is this:
The heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week without running into overtraining symptoms.
This is especially true of compound movements like the deadlift and squat–the heavier you pull and squat, the more time your body needs to recover from the workouts.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the biceps but to every other major muscle group as well.
Now, in the case of biceps, we have to take into account the fact that they’re heavily involved in your pulling.
If you’re doing, let’s say, about 60 reps of heavy pulling per week for your back, then an additional 60 reps of biceps training is probably too much.
I’ve worked with thousands of people and have found that 30 to 40 reps for biceps directly per week (in addition to the pulling) is plenty.
That said, every so often I run into people whose biceps are very stubborn, even when bulking properly, and I have them do the following each week:
- 9 sets of heavy (4 to 6 rep) pulling/rowing plus 3 sets of biceps curls in the 8 to 10 rep range.
- 6 heavy sets of biceps curls several days later.
This slight increase in weekly volume isn’t a “magic fix” by any means, but it does help break through stubborn muscle growth plateaus.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best biceps exercises.
Ignore the muscle mags.
You don’t need to do fifty types of curls to build great biceps.
In fact, out of the scores and scores of biceps exercises you could do, only a small handful are really necessary.
And they are as follows…
1. Barbell Curl
The barbell curl has been around since the days of Sandow and it remains one of the best all-around biceps builders you can do.
2. E-Z Bar Biceps Curl
The E-Z Bar variant of the barbell curl is an effective biceps builder and is also good for giving your wrists and elbows a break from the barbell curl.
3. Alternating Dumbbell Curl
Like the barbell curl, the dumbbell curl has been used to train the biceps since the advent of bodybuilding.
4. Hammer Dumbbell Curl
The hammer curl is my favorite exercise for building the biceps brachialis, which is why many bodybuilders do it to improve their biceps peak.
The chin-up a “functional” movement that heavily involves the biceps.
Progressive Overload is the Key
That’s it for the best biceps exercises. Those are all you need to build the guns you want.
Before we talk biceps workouts, though, I want to make sure you understand a vitally important part of weightlifting in general:
The key isn’t just doing exercises–it’s progressing on them.
And as a natural weightlifter, the most important type of progression is overload. That is, increasing the amount of weight you can move over time.
The reality is if you want any part of your body to get bigger, you need to make it stronger.
That is your number one priority. Adding weight to the bar over time.
If you do that, and you eat enough food, your muscles will grow.
A good biceps workout does the following:
- It includes exercises that emphasize the biceps brachii.
- It includes exercises that emphasize the biceps brachialis.
- It emphasizes heavy weightlifting.
You can learn more about programming workouts in my books Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (women), but I want to give you here a simple biceps workout so you can see how my advice works for you.
What I want you to do over the next 8 weeks is perform the following biceps workout once every 5 to 7 days:
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
3 sets of 6 – 8 reps
Just 9 heavy sets for your entire workout.
And in case you’re not familiar with how rep ranges work, it’s very simple:
- If you’re able to get more reps than the top of your rep range, the weight is too light. Go heavier.
- If you’re not able to get the reps at the bottom of your rep range, the weight is too heavy. Go lighter.
So, for example, if you can barbell curl a given weight for 8 reps but want to work in the 4 to 6 rep range, you need to add weight.
If you add 30 pounds to the bar and can only get 2 reps, though, you need to remove weight.
Now, once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.
For instance, if you get 6 reps on your first set of barbell curls, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can curl it for 6 reps, and so forth.
Thus, your weekly goal is to add reps to your exercises, which in time turns into adding weight.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here, but if you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out. (And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your arms (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
Again, if you feel confused about what supplements you should take to reach your goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz to learn exactly what supplements are right for you. It’s the best way to ensure you get the most out of your supplement regimen.
In most ways, building great biceps is like building any other part of your body.
- You have to do the right exercises.
- You have to lift heavy weights.
- You have to do enough weekly volume.
- And you have to be patient.
This last point is particularly true with biceps, though (and shoulders as well). Unless they’re a genetic strength of yours, it takes time to go from scrawny to brawny.
I’d say one year of training to fill your shirt sleeves, two years to get compliments regularly, and three years to look like a fitness model.
Another thing I’ve seen after working with thousands of people is many simply can’t gain size in their biceps unless they’re bulking.
They saw significant newbie “recomp” gains everywhere else but just couldn’t add significant size to their biceps until they were in a calorie surplus.
So, train hard, stay consistent, and eat right, and you’ll get the biceps you want.