Growing Your Biceps 101

A little known fact is that the biceps muscle group..

Biceps 101

Growing Your Biceps 101

A little known fact is that the biceps muscle group only make up one-third of the upper arm’s muscle.

The triceps brachii is actually twice its size, accounting for the remaining two-thirds of muscle mass. That said, let’s look at the makeup of the biceps…

Biceps Brachii & Brachialis

Biceps Brachii and Brachialis

Biceps Brachii

The anatomical name for the main biceps muscle is biceps brachii, which is in Latin. Translated to English, biceps means “two-headed” and brachii means “of the arm.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the combined translation: “two-headed [muscle] of the arm.”

The two heads (i.e. distinct collections of muscle fibers) of the biceps anatomy vary in length, and so, they are known as the short and long biceps heads.

They connect to different places on the shoulder/scapula region, but have a common insertion point on the elbow tendon.

This unique structure allows the biceps to carry out their two essential functions:

  • Elbow Flexion. Bending the arm at the elbow joint. An example of this is when you do a class arm flex to try to impress your friends.
  • Forearm Supination. Rotating the forearm and hand from side to side. An example of this movement is turning a key to unlock the door.
  • Curling and Pulling. Unlike most muscles on the front of the body, the biceps are involved in pulling and curling movements as opposed to pushing and pressing movements or exercises. Examples of exercises that work the biceps brachii include barbell curls, barbell bent over rows and pull ups.

 

Brachialis

There is another arm muscle typically associated with the biceps muscle group. It is the much less known muscle called the brachialis…

…But being relatively unknown doesn’t mean it’s unimportant; as is the case with many things in the fitness world.

The brachialis, which is located underneath and on either side of the biceps brachii, assists in the action of elbow flexion.

However, it is unique in that it becomes fully activated only when the arm is flexing, but not actually moving.

And so, this muscle is worked in the same exercises as the biceps brachii, but it is only active at a specific point within the movement.

BICEPS Injuries & ANATOMY & MOVEMENT

The bicep has two heads and runs from the area above the shoulder joint to the area below the elbow joint.

It is a true two joint muscle.

Many people are surprised to know that the bicep not only curls/flexes the elbow. But also is involved with elevation of the upper arm.

To properly use the bicep in a curl you must begin with your arms extended to the thigh. As you begin to raise the arms and curl the weight. Begin to elevate the front upper arms so that the bar finally touches your forehead.

Do not bend your forehead down to touch the bar; rather bring your arms forward and upward towards your head.

The short head of the bicep is also involved in supination of the wrist. This is observable with your arm outstretched forward with your thumb pointing up towards the ceiling. 

Then rotate your thumb away from the midline of your body and return it to an upright position. You will see the bicep slightly contract as you perform this motion.

Tendinitis & Tendinosis

Tendinitis is a condition associated with overuse and is usually less than two weeks of duration. Using ice and some anti-inflammatories and rest will result in the body recovering from this type of injury.

Tendon Irritation

The chronic form of the tendon irritation is best treated with light activity and heat to promote local circulation throughout the affected area.

Most tendons respond very well to the use of local topical treatments designed to bring additional circulation to that area.

Using alfalfa in a tablet form has been a long-term “home remedy” to many athletes. Other treatments to the bicep may include electric stimulation, cross-frictional massage, ultrasound, and laser just to mention a few.

Using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) will result in additional damage to any chronic tendon problem. They do this by removing the sulfur necessary for the collagen formation associated with tendon repair.

Adhesions

Adhesions often play a role in the bicep tendon injuries. They can mimic bicep tendon injury by creating pain with any movement.

Adhesions often times occur in muscles and can complicate any common type of tendon injury.

Adhesions are usually removable with full range of motion exercises and in some cases deep tissue massage. Sometimes arthroscopic surgery is necessary to remove significant damage from the tendon surface.

Improper muscle strain and flexibility will produce imbalances associated with the shoulder joint and also with the bicep tendon.

Basic muscle test performed by a licensed physician and/or physical therapists will often reveal this type of problem. These lead to abnormal biomechanical forces that result in tendinopathy.

Biceps Tendon Tears

Biceps tendon tears will often occur due to trauma or extremely heavy lifting. Many biceps have been torn off by individuals during deadlifts.

Some of these conditions will require surgery and general medication to prevent infection.

“BICEPS TENDON TEARS WILL OFTEN OCCUR DUE TO TRAUMA OR EXTREMELY HEAVY LIFTING.”

The increase of various foods such as onions, garlic and other foods high in sulfur will aid in tendon tear prevention. Some individuals, who use excessive antibiotics prior to a tear, will result in weakening of the tissue.

Fluoro quinolones such as Cipro, are commonly associated with tendon tears and should be avoided whenever possible.

Just simply remind the doctor that you are actively lifting weights and wish to avoid any type of antibiotic that may weaken your tendons.

The effects of antibiotics on your tendons can last up to 6 months before any injury will occur. It is common to see this type of injury in men between the ages of 16 to 45 years of age.

Tendon Impingement Syndrome

Tendon impingement syndrome is often diagnosed when specific movement results in shoulder pain. Patients will often state that something feels “pinched” or “impinged” when the arm is being moved.

The most common tissues that can get pinched in the shoulder region are the biceps tendon and the supraspinatus tendon.

When these tendons become pinched it begins subsequent inflammation and can even lead to fraying of the involved tissues.

Extreme conditions of pinched tendon can eventually lead to rupture of the involved anatomy. Some of the complete tears may result in the need for surgery; however, partial tears may only require rest and additional physical therapy.

Top Tips To Growing Your Biceps

Having big, muscular arms that stretch your shirtsleeves will never go out of style either, so let’s take a look at a few strategies that you can use to jump start your arm growth.

1. Train In All Rep Ranges

People often ask “Should I do low, medium, or high reps?” when they should really be asking ” When should I do low, medium, and high reps?”

You see, a bodybuilder who wants bigger arms needs to stimulate those bi’s and tri’s with a variety of stimuli in order to maximize growth from various components of the muscle tissue itself.

An athlete like a weight-class bound fighter should focus primarily on doing low rep stuff with a high repetition speed to maximize power.

A bodybuilder should do that and do sets that maximize time under tension to maximize cross sectional area of the muscle.

As a general rule of thumb, for maximizing arm size, spend about one-third of your training time doing low reps, one-third doing moderate reps. And one-third doing higher rep sets.

This will ensure that you provide your arms with various types of stimulation, thus causing muscle growth via a variety of mechanisms.

2. Train Arms More!

Although many gung-ho trainees don’t make progress in arm size due to the fact that they’re overtraining. Many people fall on the other end of the spectrum and could use more direct arm work… especially more frequent arm work.

To make this strategy work, however, you have to make sure that you’re starting from a fully recuperated state.

If you need to take a full week off from training, or a month off of direct arm training, go ahead and do so before ramping up your arm training volume and frequency.

In general, I find that biceps and triceps each grow well with, and can recuperate from, approximately 9-12 working sets per week.

But instead of doing all these sets in one workout, you can really jumpstart your arm growth by dividing your training volume over the course of three weekly arm workouts.

After about four weeks of doing this, add a little more volume (a work set or two per week) if you’re still recuperating and progressing well.

Do the same in two more weeks if applicable, after which it will be time for some much-needed recuperation.

3. Use Targeted Form

If you have testicles, you derive a certain sense of power from the focus and effort it takes to lift “heavy-ass weights.” But if your goal is to get bigger arms, then you’re going to have to keep an eye on your ego and make sure you’re optimally stimulating your biceps and triceps when you train them.

No, that doesn’t mean you have to opt for sissy weights and always train like the form police are watching. But you should always train safely enough so that the brunt of the stress is being placed on your muscles, not on your joints.

To keep your form in check, control the eccentric (or lowering) portion of the rep enough so that you can make it last at least two or three seconds. Don’t necessarily do this every rep, but make sure you can.

Likewise, focus on the muscle you’re working as if it’s all that exists. When you’re doing barbell curls, picture your biceps brachii shortening on the way up, then lengthening on the way down.

The main thing to keep in mind regarding arm-training form is to make sure that you really feel your biceps and triceps working when you’re training them.

If you don’t get a good mind-muscle connection when training your arms, lighten the weight, slow down, and/or tweak your form a bit until you do.

Remember, athletes train movements and bodybuilders train muscles. If you want arms like a bodybuilder, then focus on your biceps and triceps, not on elbow flexion and extension.

4. Train Bi’s and Tri’s Together

Initially, I’d suspect that pairing triceps with chest and/or shoulders while training biceps after back would probably be best since it allows for more rest and recovery days for the biceps and triceps. While this certainly works, it’s not the best approach. Nor is training biceps after chest and triceps after shoulders.

Time and time again, the best arm-building results come from training biceps and triceps on the same day, and on a day of their own.

Obviously training arms (or any body part) when you’re fresh and chockfull of ATP and glycogen has advantages over training them when you’re exhausted from training another body part. But the benefits seem to go beyond simply lack of fatigue.

The superiority of arm growth from having an arm day is so obvious that I couldn’t help but put on my thinking cap to come up with an explanation.

I suspect that training biceps and triceps (and subsequently the large brachialis) in the same session places significantly more outward, and thus expansive, force on the surrounding fascia than training each separately.

Done repeatedly over time, this would promote growth and expansion of the dense fascia encompassing your upper arm, especially if you thoroughly stretch your arms while they’re still pumped.

Whether due to fascial expansion, better energy, or a combination thereof, training triceps, biceps, and their friend the brachialis all in the same session is a great strategy to get your arm hypertrophy moving in the right direction.

5. Save Your Elbows

Whether you like it or not, for your arms to get big and stay big, you’re going to have to have healthy, pain-free elbows.

And as someone who has both had and treated elbow injuries, I can tell you it’s a lot easier to prevent them than to fix them!

The first step in keeping your elbows free of tendonitis is to use a weight you can control, not a weight that controls you.

Skull crushers (triceps extensions), which happen to be one of the best triceps exercises in existence, tend to cause elbow tendonitis if done year around.

Of course there are many factors involved, but if you have skull crushers in your routine more than eight months out of the year, the likelihood of triceps tendonitis goes way up!

To be safe, do skull crushers one training cycle, then leave them off of the next. That area just above your elbows will thank you.

Forearms: The Forgotten Muscles?

Like any other muscle, you want to be careful not to over-train forearms. However, make sure never to neglect forearm training. Training forearms is imperative for bodybuilders, powerlifters or fitness enthusiasts alike.
 
Forearms are certainly one of the more abandoned muscle groups among the moderate weightlifters and fitness fanatics.
Some of the more casual body sculptors realize that biceps and triceps exercises conveniently hit the forearm muscles as well.
 
But to the more hardcore bodybuilders, however, working forearms is an essential part of your workout regiment. So to build some huge forearms, go straight forward with these painfully numbing exercises.

From a purely cosmetic angle, lagging forearms can kill the overall look of your arms. Sure, there are certain bluffs that can be employed to offset that imbalance like wearing sleeveless shirts and tank tops as often as possible.

However, up here in the true north, those with poor forearm development are eventually left with a choice. Look like a fool and get hypothermia in December or do something about it.

From a performance angle, both in and out of the weight room, grip and forearm strength can do a lot of good.

Whether you’re a domestic worker, or a mixed martial artist, having claws of death puts you one step ahead when carrying loads, grappling with an opponent or performing submission holds.

All this being said, here are a few tricks that are sure to make your forearms more impressive in terms of both looks and functionality.

1. Loaded Carries

Most trainers would agree that forearm training for development is usually most effective when the muscular endurance and time under tension is maximized.

Exercises like farmers walks, fireman’s carries, and other dynamic movements that involve isometric grip holds are key.

Keep in mind that you can only lift as much as you can hold. The progression you see through these exercises will also be an indicator that your grip strength has improved. This has a huge carryover to your deadlift, weighted pull-ups, and rows.

Don’t be afraid to use a “pinch grip” in your loaded carries with lighter weight too. Simply hold the weights between the fingertips, and not within the palm of the hand.

2. Hammer Grip

Using a hammer grip (palms facing each other) when performing your sets of biceps curls and chin-ups can prove effective simply because the neutral palm position allows the brachioradialis – one of your beefiest forearm muscles – to get involved.

This lesson is a simple one: ditch the standard curls and wide grip pull-ups, and use a palms facing in (or even reverse) grip where you can. You’ll be glad you did.

3. Make it a Challenge

When performing basic movements, don’t limit yourself to typical barbells and dumbbells – change it up! Give your grip and forearms a challenge by forcing them to really clutch something tight.

By this point in time, you’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t heard of tools like Fat Gripz which are used to increase bar thickness and subsequently train a lifter’s grip strength.

You’ll really have to squeeze tight to get a good hold on a fatter bar, which creates a workout within a workout.

As my man John Gaglione likes to point out, with a “crushing” grip you’ll create more tension and subsequently have a better connection and more stable set-up.

4. Start Doing Strongman Stuff

You’re off to a good start with the loaded carries. I’m not saying you have run out and enter a strongman competition with the intention of setting a new meet record.

However, depending on your gym, you may have access to some thick ropes to climb or pull, tires to flip, or stones to carry (those are little bit tougher to get a hold of).

If so, don’t hesitate to incorporate them into your training as an auxiliary exercise. One strongman workout and you’ll be going home with your hands fixed in a “perma-claw.”

Top 5 Bicep Exercises

Exercise 1: Barbell Curl

The first biceps exercise to perform is barbell biceps curls, which will also allow you to overload those biceps with a heavy weight.

Most trainees are slightly stronger when lifting a barbell versus a set of dumbbells, so this is a great one for maximum strength development.

When doing the exercise, the primary thing to focus on is that you’re not cutting the movement pattern short at all, and that you’re not allowing momentum to cause you to lean backward as you hoist the weight upwards.

This is one of the most common mistakes with this exercise—momentum performs more of the work than your muscles actually do.

If you perform it in a slow and controlled manner, that should reduce the chances of this happening significantly and allow you to place a higher intensity deep within the muscle fibers.

Exercise 2: Hammer Curls

Bulging biceps and better grip are just two of benefits you will experience from using hammer-style dumbbell curls.

While it is common knowledge that your biceps are trained with curls, the hammer curl variation trains other areas of your arm as well.

Performing dumbbell hammer curls is easy and only requires basic knowledge of how your arms move.

To set up the exercise, stand up and grab a pair of dumbbells while rotating your hands inward so that the palms of your hands are parallel to each other.

The curls are performed by gently pressing your elbows into the sides of your body and then flexing at your elbow.

Exercise 3: Standing Cable Two Arm Curls

The key to this exercise is to isolate and build the muscles in your upper arm.

Using the cable machine to target your biceps ensures that you maintain resistance on both the concentric (curling motion) and the eccentric (lengthening the muscle) portion of this movement.

This is a true isolation style exercise for your biceps so you will need to make sure that your elbows are in a fixed position so focus on just moving your forearms back and forth without any up and down movements in your elbows.

If you combine two arm overhead cable curls (strength training) with cardiovascular exercise and a clean diet as part of your complete fitness routine, you will be able to achieve stronger and more defined arms.

Adding this exercise to your arm workouts can also help with aesthetics since it’s always nice to confidently wear sleeveless shirts and tank tops while showcasing a pair of lean and defined biceps.

By training your upper body you will help to increase your lean muscle mass which will assist you in speeding up your metabolic rate and lose body fat.

Having an increased BMR helps your body burn additional calories even at rest.

This is because lean muscle is a very metabolically active tissue and it burns many more calories than adipose tissue (body fat).

Exercise 4: Standing Biceps Cable Curl

If you’re looking to target the deep-tissue muscle fibers, cable curls are a good bet.

Since the pattern of movement is less stable with this movement, due to the constant tension provided by the cable. You will call all the stabilization muscles surrounding the biceps into play as you execute the exercise.

You can use a variety of different attachments to perform the cable curls including a rope, a straight bar, or rotating cable handles that allow you to work a single arm at a time.

Exercise 5: Concentration Curl

Finally, the last of the exercises to consider to blast your biceps into growth are concentration curls.

When done while sitting. These will also limit the degree momentum plays in the execution of the exercise and place all the emphasis right on the biceps muscle.

There will be no helper muscles called into play when doing concentration curls (when done properly).

So this is a good one to add in at the very end of your workout when you’re really looking to finish off the biceps and fully exhaust them.


Daniel Messer, RNutr, CPT
Daniel Messer, RNutr, CPT

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