As you may know, I’m not a fan of isolating body parts in a workout. It’s most important to remember your primary goal—to lose fat, build lean muscle or improve overall fitness—before embarking on a focused abdominal or bicep workout. That said, the most visible evidence of a muscular guy is the look of his guns.
When I first set foot in a gym, I had the weakest biceps you could imagine. I hadn’t done a curl in my whole life. It was kind of embarrassing, to tell the truth, to be using the same 10-15-pound weights the ladies at the gym were using. So I made the decision to put extra emphasis on my biceps. Long story short, over the years since, various girlfriends have mentioned, completely unsolicited, that they like my arms.
Rules for a Bicep Workout
Before we get to the exercises, here are a few points to remember:
Don’t overwork. Doing bicep curls every day will hurt more than it will help. The best way to target your biceps is with additional training on the days you normally do bicep exercises. If you’re following the Simple Starter Workout, that’s every 3-4 days, which is perfect.
Work the triceps too. First, it’s important in the balance of your arm to work both opposing muscle groups. Second, well-built triceps make your arms bigger too, and in less total time than it would take building biceps alone. So if you’re working the biceps hard, show some love to your triceps too.
Use your arms only. The biggest mistake I see guys making with bicep exercises is when they lean back, brace their elbows against their torso, and use their legs to help get the weight up. That not only takes the load off their biceps, it also can potentially hurt their back. Stay straight, keep your abs rigid, and let your biceps do the work. Remember to squeeze a bit at the top, and don’t lock your elbows at the bottom of the movement.
Stay in proportion. You’ve no doubt seen photos of guys with grotesque “Popeye arms,” way out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. It’s easy to get carried away, just work them a little harder, and when you see results just wanting to get them a little bigger. A rule of thumb is that your upper arms should be roughly the same circumference as your neck and calves. If you find your guns getting larger, cut back on the extra bicep workouts and maybe put more effort into your shoulders.
The Bicep Exercises
Since you should be doing this in addition to an overall workout plan, I’m going to assume you’re already doing some sort of standard curl. The following exercises are designed to either put more load on your biceps or work them from a different angle than a standard curl. You should work in one extra exercise per session, and perform it until failure (you can’t squeeze out another rep). Adjust your weight so that you can do 8-12 reps before failure, and do three sets. Also select an additional tricep exercise to alternate with each set of biceps.
Incline Curls: The incline position better stabilizes your torso and upper arms, and minimizes the swinging that can occur in the upright position. You’ll also get more resistance at the bottom of each rep. The incline should be about 45-60 degrees from flat.
Alternating Dumbbell Curls: Just what it sounds like. When you can focus on one arm at a time, you’ll be able to lift more, and lifting more makes you stronger faster.
Hammer Curls: Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them like two hammers (your palms in). Now perform curls as you would normally, but with the weights remaining in that “hammer” position.
Reverse Curls: Hold a barbell with an overhand (palms down) grip. Now perform normal curls. Remember to keep your elbows close to your body, but not touching your torso.
Preacher Curls: These are done on a piece of gym equipment that keeps your upper arms stationary as you curl a barbell up. If you don’t see a preacher curl station, ask the floor person or another patron where it is. This is excellent for making sure you’re not recruiting any additional muscles.
The Tricep Exercises
I would be failing you if I didn’t also include some tricep exercises, for the reasons I mentioned above. Same rules as the bicep exercises, although when you work the triceps don’t bend your arms further than a 90-degree angle (to protect your joints), but use a full extension (squeeze the tricep muscles) at the other end of each rep.
Lying Tricep Extensions: You can use either dumbbells (in “hammer” position) or a barbell (palms facing away from you, called a “skullcrusher” for reasons you’ll see when you try it). Lie on a bench with your arms holding the weight(s) straight up in the air. Lower the weight slowly until it’s 6 inches above your head, then raise it again. Keep your elbows pointing straight up at all times.
Upright Tricep Extensions: This is simply a standing version—hold two dumbbells (or one heavier dumbbell with both hands) straight up over your head, then lower them back behind you until your arms form a 90-degree angle. Raise them back to straight up.
Dips: The dip uses your own bodyweight for resistance. For beginners, most gyms have a Gravitron or other machine that uses counterbalance weights so you’re not forced to use your entire bodyweight. Start with your arms locked straight, holding your body up, then lower yourself until your arms reach that 90-degree “L-shape.” Then push yourself back up.
Off to the Gun Show
That should be plenty to give you the kind of bicep workout that will blast your upper arms. Remember to listen to your body, rest (sleep helps muscles grow) and eat nutritious, protein-rich foods to help your muscles grow without packing on fat around them. Get out there and have fun with it.