Over the years, a number of studies have sought to investigate the best biceps exercises. This shouldn’t surprise you! You know the first thing you’d do if you ever got access to an EMG machine would be to hook it up to your guns. Be honest.
So, what’s the winner? Based on biceps EMG alone, it’s usually the concentration curl, a staple in the bodybuilding regimens of golden-era lifters like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. But here’s the catch: We’ve never met a single bodybuilder who whole-heartedly agreed.
Why not? For one, experienced lifters know that while muscle activation matters, it isn’t the only thing that determines the best muscle-building exercises. Instead, we used a number of parameters to choose the 10 best, including:
- Ease of learning and performing
- Total muscle stimulation and intensity
- Popularity among diehard lifters and bodybuilders (This matters!)
- Availability of equipment in commercial gyms
You don’t have to consider this a definitive list. Take it as the start of the discussion, then go experiment for yourself in the following three complete workouts!
10 Best Biceps Exercises
Barbell or EZ-Bar Curl
Why it’s on the list: The standard shoulder-width curl engages the short and long heads of the biceps equally, you can alter grip width to slightly change the emphasis (wide to target the short head, narrow for the long head), you can really pile on the weight, and you don’t have to sit there endlessly working one arm at a time.
How many more reasons do you need? If you’re only going to do one biceps exercise, make it this one.
Want to use a straight bar instead of a cambered EZ-bar? Have at it, if your wrists don’t mind. A 2018 study found that while both variants produced greater activity than dumbbell curls, “The small difference between [barbell] and EZ variants… makes the choice between these two exercises a matter of subjective comfort.”
Barbell Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: Hit your heavy curls at the beginning of your biceps workout when you can really challenge yourself with weight. For a bit more of a strength stimulus, choose a weight you can handle for about 6-8 reps, or even a classic size-and-strength rep range like 5×5. A common biceps blunder is rocking your body excessively on this movement. Keep it strict for the most part, especially when you’re going heavy.
Why it’s on the list: As the second-rated biceps exercise in the ACE study and third in the landmark Boeckh-Behrens EMG study from the 1980s, this movement seems a lot like the standing barbell curl at first glance. After all, they’re both bilateral movements in which you take a shoulder-width, underhand grip on the bar. What makes it different is that the angle of loading comes from down and forward, giving you constant tension on the muscle through the full range of motion.
Essentially, that means you can’t rest at the bottom or the top, which creates more total time under tension. Plus, depending on the gym you’re in, you might have numerous handle options and body positions to keep you busy.
Cable Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: Because it’s fairly similar to the barbell curl, pick one or the other. If you’re doing it first in your workout, go fairly heavy and use a challenging weight for 6-10 reps per set. If you choose to do it later in the workout, go for 8-12 or more per set.
Why it’s on the list: Is this really any different than a barbell curl? That’s up to you. Sure, you can do the moves in basically the same way in the same workout, but we don’t recommend it. The real value of dumbbell curls is that they can be done a number of ways: standing or seated, with both arms or alternating, rotating your wrists into Zottman curls to work on your fearsome forearms, or twisting that pinky up to focus purely on the bis. In short, you have options.
Dumbbell Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: If you’re doing these after barbell or cable curls, emphasize the difference by performing Zottmans, or take bilateral seated curls to fatigue and then extend the set by switching to unilateral curls.
If you feel your reps getting sloppy, really hammer the negatives. It’s been shown that the eccentric-focused reps can produce higher levels of force than the concentric, even when you’re fatigued.
Why it’s on the list: Ever done a set of max-rep chins? Then you know the biceps are working seriously hard during this move. Both pull-ups (overhand grip) and chin-ups (underhand grip) have a high degree of elbow flexion, but research has shown that chin-ups work the biceps significantly more.
Sets of 8-12 reps too easy? Add weight. Too hard? Use assistance. Too uncomfortable on your wrists or elbows? Alternate with a neutral (palms facing in) or cambered grip, or perform them on rings. Grip giving out? Wear wrist straps.
Chin-up Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: If you train back with biceps, this exercise could make a great bridge movement between the two body parts for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. It can also be your primary upper-back and biceps move in a home workout if you take a few sets to failure, like in strength coach Paul Carter’s program Jacked at Home: Bodyweight Muscle-Building Workouts.
Reverse-Grip Barbell Row
Why it’s on the list: Some lifters speak reverently of the bent-over row as the “fourth powerlift.” Whether you agree or not, this is a back-focused movement in which you can go very heavy, and with the reverse grip, the biceps are heavily engaged. It’s not really the kind of exercise you’d do on a biceps-only day, so it makes a good bridge between back and biceps.
Row Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: Include it in your back routine, or as a bridge exercise when training back and biceps together. Go fairly heavy and train in the classic muscle-building rep range of 8-12 reps.
Why it’s on the list: Curls with a palms-facing or neutral grip do more than just hit the biceps, they also heavily recruit the brachialis, a muscle that doesn’t get measured on EMG studies because it’s beneath the biceps. Because it’s not as obvious a move as, say, a barbell curl, it often gets undeservedly skipped on arm day.
Why should you care? Increasing the girth of the brachialis can “raise” your biceps from below, making your entire arm larger. Another reason: They were Chris Hemsworth’s go-to curl to transform into Thor.
Pro tip: The dumbbell version is solid, but even better is the cable version holding a rope grip, because it gives you constant tension throughout the range of motion.
Hammer Curl Variations for Biceps Growth
In your workout: Hammer curls are usually done in the middle or at the end of a workout in a classic rep range of 8-12 reps. Experiment with isometric holds to create a deep burn that even the pros fear.
Why it made the list: What’s the difference between curling at 90 degrees and 45? More than you think. The incline curl elongates the biceps and increases the stretch at the start of the movement. Theoretically, this helps you target the long head and build the so-called “biceps peak.”
Incline Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: This is detail work, not the main course! Perform these after an exercise like standing curls, in which both biceps heads are targeted with heavy weight. Because of the “overstretched” arm position at the bottom of the movement, it’s best done with relatively light weights and at least 8-12 reps per set.
Why it’s on the list: Hey, there’s a reason the concentration curl fares so well on muscle-activation studies. One reason is that the torso position limits shoulder involvement, but another might be the mind-muscle connection many people report experiencing with this move. There is actually some emerging evidence surrounding the ability of the mind-muscle connection to help increase muscle growth.
Concentration Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: This is best treated as a light, strict move to finish off your biceps when you’re already somewhat fatigued. Pick a weight just heavy enough that you’re failing around 10-12 reps.
Why it’s on the list: There are many versions of the preacher curl, and every serious physique builder has their fave. Whatever version you do, you’ll get a serious pump, particularly if you have a quality pre-workout or pump supplement coursing through your bloodstream at the time. In fact, this old-school peak-builder can be nearly enough for an entire biceps workout, perhaps with something like hammer curls added to it.
As with other movements that start from a stretched position, you get the most muscle activation during the lower third of the movement. As the weight moves up, the muscle doesn’t have to work as hard. This is one reason the cable might be the best implement to use here to help complete your biceps.
Preacher Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: Since your arms are against a bench, it’s a very strict movement that doesn’t allow a lot of cheating. Hence, this movement is best done toward the latter half of your workout for at least 8-12 reps per set.
Why it’s on the list: In contrast to traditional barbell curls where you keep your elbows pinned at your sides, you’ll actually push them backward, keeping the bar close to your torso as you bring it up. This reduces the range of motion, so don’t expect to take it up very high.
Because the bar moves vertically up and down, it can also be done effectively on a Smith machine. This is a favorite biceps-building “hack” of Kris Gethin in his popular 8-Week Hardcore Daily Video Trainer.
Drag Curl Variations for Biceps Growth:
In your workout: You can program this just like any other barbell curl, heavy in the beginning or lighter in the middle to end of your workout. Want to make it extra tough? Extend the negative portion of the rep to 3-5 seconds per rep. Repeat for 5-8 reps, perhaps having a spotter help you with the concentric (lifting) portion as needed.
Best Biceps Workouts
Hard and Heavy Biceps Workout
If you’re someone whose biceps workout is a non-negotiable part of the week, this is for you. It starts with heavy curls, then switches to lighter dumbbell and cable variations. This is your ideal biceps workout after a hard back session.
Biceps Workout for Beginners
Don’t blindly follow some high-volume workout from a pro bodybuilder! Hit these three moves hard and leave the gym feeling great and knowing your arms have gotten a loud and clear message to grow. It’s great on it’s own, but is also an ideal approach if you like to hit your arms with lower volume 2-3 days per week. That’s the approach taken in the popular program Six Weeks to Sick Arms by Jim Stoppani.
Machine Pump Biceps Workout
Love the feeling of a pump and the mind-muscle connection? This high-rep, short-rest workout will give you the feeling you’re after. Mix in some dropsets and let that pre-workout show what it’s good at.
Best Biceps-Building Programs
What Are the Best Biceps Programs for Mass?
The best biceps-building programs feature workouts you’ll be looking forward to all week long. Lift heavy, finish with a pump, and give your biceps everything they need to grow. If there’s any time left afterward, do the same for your triceps!
To follow a similar blueprint to build the rest of your body, check out the companion pieces in this series: