5 Exercises for Sleeve-Bursting Biceps
Well it finally happened. A personal training blog post dedicated to biceps.
Last week, jacked up on caffeine and a Two Steps From Hell playlist, I dove headfirst into a blog post investigating the murky world of intrinsic motivation and skill acquisition as it pertains to lifting weights. Looking into the reasons why we all find great satisfaction behind learning a new skill, and exploring why we feel the need to keep progressing as human beings.
Now I’m talking ’bout dem biceps.
Last week you got creative writing, structured story telling and an abundance of emotive language that created a rich tapestry on which my journey was told. This week you get curls.
And you get curls for one simple reason, because let’s be honest; YOU want curls.
YOU want biceps that fill sleeves.
YOU want people to notice that you workout.
YOU want people to ask “what’s your secret” and point to that vein running down the front of your arm.
And I know you want this because of one simple reason; I was once YOU.
My first foray into a gym was outside of Chichester over a decade ago (I should have put ten years that seems less foreboding). I had absolutely no knowledge or any idea what I was doing. I knew only one thing, I wanted big arms (the lead man of my favourite band back them was a “slight” inspiration I must confess).
So I walked over to the nearest personal trainer and asked their advice on all things training. I followed their recommendations to the letter, and made great progress. I kept their services and attended a few times per week. I trained multiple parts of the body, kept my fitness to a reasonable level and made sure I stayed mobile and flexible.
YEAH RIGHT! DID I FUCK!
I did what every young man who ever went to the gym has ever done. I walked into that gym, plugged my headphones in, and made sure to look angry and serious 24/7. I wasn’t going to ask some pencil-necked personal trainer for advice, I was going to do it all my way. Besides, there wasn’t much to it surely?
I spent the first 3 months of my training “career” curling and shrugging. Monday through to Friday. I figured if I didn’t do anything complicated (like squatting) then they couldn’t laugh at me for getting it wrong. Plus who cares about legs anyway!
I wanted big arms and nobody was going to stop me from getting those sleeve-bursting biceps I so desired. Fast forward ten years (couldn’t bring myself to use decade again) and I perform 10-15 minutes of direct arm work per week. They don’t get any bigger, but thanks to a woefully imbalanced training program all those years, will always be slightly out of proportion with the rest of me.
Over the years I have played around with pretty much every exercise and routine you can think of for your biceps. And so, before I prattle on anymore, here are my go-to 4 exercises that I thought worked best for me. Do with them as you will.
1: Supinated (Underhand) Chin Ups
When trying to grow muscle tissue, it’s essential not to overlook the importance of the load you are putting those muscles through. My first bicep curl was performed with a 2kg ankle weight, strapped to my wrist. I did over a hundred repetitions. Boring. Now think about how much more stress I am placing on the muscle when I perform a chin up with my bodyweight (which for most of the last decade has been comfortably over 100kg). Those wrist weights don’t even come close.
So it’s simple; nothing you do with a dumbbell or barbell will create as much mechanical tension. So prioritise compound movements. Add weight if possible.
Recommendation: go heavy. 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions. Make sure to squeeze the arm at the top of the movement.
2: Fat Grip Farmers Walks/Holds
This one is pretty simple; get a fat grip dumbbell/barbell, and hold on for dear life as long as you can! You can walk with it, run, or stand still, hell you can travel the breadth of Chichester if you really want to. Make sure it’s a chunky handle though. I recommend getting a pair of Fat Gripz, and keeping them in your gym bag for these sorts of occasions.
This will build size and strength through the entire forearm, will allow you to curl heavier weights, and increase your chin-up strength. Plus it’ll fry the brachioradialis (which runs directly under the biceps itself and will “push them up” so to speak. Plus I love recommending farmers walks at any opportunity as they are tremendous for all manner of physical qualities.
Recommendation: aim for sets of 60-90 seconds at the end of your workout. Try to go as heavy as you can, and just keep hold!
3: Incline DB Curls
Walk into any commercial gym in Chichester or around the world, and no doubt you’ll see some form of the “power clean bicep curl”. You know what I’m referring to, that strange combination of an Olympic lift (all power and speed and hip action) paired with some sort of barely-identifiable bicep curl. The remedy is simple; add the incline dumbbell curl into your personal training in it’s place.
It’s difficult to “cheat” your way through this one. Pin those elbows back to the bench (as shown), lower down slowly, flex the triceps at the bottom, and then use the biceps to being the weight back up (taking the time to squeeze as hard as you can at the top).
Recommendation: 3-5 sets of 6-8 repetitions. And throw in a really slllooooooooooooww eccentric (lowering) phase for good measure.
4: DB Hammer Curls
A relatively simple personal training procedure; hold the dumbbell like you are holding a hammer, and curl the weight.
If, like me, you aren’t into your DIY, then think of the grip position that you would be in if your palms faced towards each other.
Have you just looked at your hands and faced your palms together?
Yeah me too.
You can go a little heavier with these than you can normal supinated (palms upwards) curls, which is always a bonus.
Recommendation: 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions with a controlled tempo. And no damn swinging the weight!
Arms, Arms & More Arms
So there you have it, I was going to include a fifth, but 5 exercises dedicated to just one muscle group seemed a little obscene.
Always prioritise good form and technique in your personal arm training over just using the heaviest weight possible. As everyone loves to say “leave the ego at the door”, and make sure you are eating your steak if you want “dem gainz”!
On next week’s edition: 5 Best Shirts to Make Your Arms POP (I’m kidding – you’ve already tried them all I’m certain). I always make sure I buy mine a size smaller than I need.
Wait There’s More!
This personal training article has been bothering me of late. How did I ever come to the conclusion that 4 exercises was an ok number to stop at? 5 is obviously a better choice.
Everyone’s favourite strength program is 5 x 5.
Your foot has 5 toes.
Later on I’ll eat 5 bags of chocolate buttons.
See, it’s science.
So here’s my fifth.
5: Single Arm Preacher Curls
This exercise has many benefits, but I think the most important one is that it puts you in the perfect position to aggressively stare at your bicep as you curl. You’ve heard of the “mind – muscle” connection, well now we have the “sight – muscle” connection; and I am certain this trumps all forms of muscle connection.
For most people the single arm variation will allow you to twist slightly so you aren’t hunched over the preacher curl bench (as you would be doing a barbell variation), and you can open up the front of the shoulder to a position much more comfortable.
Recommendation: we want slow and controlled execution here. Aim for 3-5 seconds lowering, and squeeze at the top. As always going heavier than you need is a sure-fire way to develop elbow pain long term, so drop the ego and drop the weight down to a suitable resistance.
The Final Realisation
This is how I went about my training over the years for biceps. But as always, the journey to big arms was a slow one, and it wasn’t until I realised that curls will only get you so far that I started to make real progress as a personal trainer.
“So you made us read all of this, and only now do you mention that there’s another secret to big arms?”
Life’s cruel isn’t it.
Because if there’s one thing I love training, it’s my triceps. A bigger bench press, a more powerful throw, and sleeve-bursting-arms are all yours for the taking. You just have to train those triceps!
I would give you my top 5 exercises for developing triceps that look like horseshoes.
But that’s a tale for another time.
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Chichester based personal trainer.