The biceps are a small muscle group that have taken on a level of importance that far outweighs their size. That’s because they are the show muscle of the human body. It’s hardly surprising then, that millions of guys the world over spend more time training their biceps than any other muscle group, with the objective of getting the ultimate biceps. Unfortunately, most of them are not performing the best bicep exercises to stimulate growth.
In this article, I’ll rate the most popular bicep exercises on a scale of 1 to 10 on the basis of how effective they are from a biomechanical point of view and how well they follow the direction of the muscle fibers of the biceps brachii.
What You Cannot Do With a Biceps Exercise
Before we get into the analysis of biceps exercises, let’s address a common false belief regarding training your upper arms. It is not possible to work the two heads of the biceps, the short head and the long head, separately. Even though the two heads have different origin points at the shoulder they have the same insertion point at the radius of the forearm, just below the elbow.
So, when you bend your elbow, which is the only function of the biceps, you are involving both the short and long head together. There is no way you can work one without the other. You may have heard that you can do specific exercises, such as preacher bench curls or spider curls that will allow you to target the short or long head in order to change the shape of your biceps by, for instance, give you a higher biceps peak. This is scientifically impossible!
The Ideal Biceps Exercise
When it comes to biceps training, you are limited to movements that flex the elbow, bringing the insertion point of the muscle toward its origin. The best body position is the most anatomically natural, which is to have your arms alongside your body. There has been some research to show that working a muscle group unilaterally provides greater muscle building benefit than working it bilaterally. As a result, using dumbbells is preferable to the barbell curl when training the biceps.
Ok, let’s start rating some biceps exercises . . .
Preacher Curls – Rating: 4
The preacher curl has you resting your upper arms against a 45 degree pad as you perform curls. The strictness of the movement and the angle of resistance makes it a lot harder than a standard curl. When you start the preacher curl, the angle of your bicep insertion just below the elbow is straight. This creates what is called mechanical disadvantage. The muscle is disadvantaged until the point where it is able to move toward its origin perpendicularly, which would be at around the halfway point of the preacher curl. As a result it has to use up to 9 times as much force at the start of the movement as it does when you get to the halfway point.
The big problem with the preacher curl is not so much the bench but the fact that you are using free weights on the bench. That is because free weights pull straight down as a result of gravity.
The preacher curl puts a huge load on your bicep insertion point even before you start moving the weight. That puts you at a very high risk of tearing a bicep tendon when you are performing the preacher curl exercise.
There is a way to turn the preacher curl from a 4 to a 10. Simply ditch the free weights, whether it’s a barbell or dumbbells and replace it with a cable. Pull the preacher bench in front of a low pulley and set yourself up on it. Grab the cable handle and now, rather than having a huge resistance pulling straight down on your biceps tendon, the resistance is coming from an angle that is in line with your arms. That keeps the biceps neutral at the start position of the exercise, which is the ideal.
Close Grip Pull Up – Rating: 4
When you are doing a pull up, your forearm is mostly parallel with gravity. That makes it a neutral lever. As a result it provides very little load to the biceps. The biceps are only crossing gravity by about 5 percent throughout any phase of the pull up. That makes the pull up a very inefficient bicep exercise.
Alternating Standing Cable Biceps Curls – Rating: 10
Performing curls with a pair of cables provides the ideal resistance curve to fully activate the biceps through their full anatomical range of motion. Performing the exercise in alternating fashion also overcomes bilateral deficit. When you perform a curl with a barbell you get a degree of weakening on each arm.
When you have the pulleys set at their lowest point, your forearm is parallel with the cable. As a result there is no resistance at the start of the movement. But as soon as you start the curl, the load kicks in. It does so faster than if you were using a free weight because the cable is pulling toward the pulley rather than straight down. This provides much better early phase loading.
Keep your palms facing forward when doing alternating standing cable curls.
Alternating Standing Dumbbell Curls – Rating: 9
The alternating standing dumbbell curl is almost as good as the cable version, except that it does not allow for as effective early phase loading as the cable version. Because gravity is pulling directly down, it will take an extra 20 percent of movement to achieve early phase loading.
When you are doing the dumbbell version of the standing alternating curl, you will have a tendency to supinate your wrist as you come down in order to avoid banging into your thigh with the dumbbell. This is not ideal and another reason why this exercise is rated down slightly. To avoid this, perform the dumbbell hammer curl, with your palms facing your body.
When you train biceps, in order to get the most benefit from the sweat equity that goes into your bicep workout, you need to train hard AND smart. By focusing on the cable and dumbbell versions of the alternating curl, you will be doing just that and be building bigger biceps faster. Use a rep range that varies from very high (30) to very low (6), focusing on a full range of motion and peak contraction on every rep. For variety, throw in the incline dumbbell curl or preacher cable curl (just avoid the free weight version like the plague!).
These are excellent exercises to do in your home gym should you have the equipment at home. All our articles are written by fitness professionals who give you their pro tips. Whatever your fitness objectives (for example to lose fat, increase muscle, strength or stamina) we can help you.
Furthermore, we have how to and best exercise articles (for example how to do the bentover row, Zottman curl, incline bench or resistance bands, best triceps exercises and best arm exercises) to improve your workouts.