What Are The Biceps? How They Work And How To Train Them
In this series of articles about the different muscle groups, we first look at the biceps. One of the favorite muscles to exercise are the biceps. For many people nothing say "strong and in shape" more than a pair of well developed biceps. It should come as no surprise that it is also one the most popular exercises to train, but I have a suspicion you already knew that. But what exactly are the biceps and how exactly do they function?
The biceps (biceps brachii) muscles are located on the front part of the upper arm. Although seen as one muscle, they contain both a long and short head. It is atteched via connective tissue called tendons to the shoulder joint at the top, and the forearm bone at the bottom. The main function of the biceps is to move the forearm up and rotate it outwards when the muscle is contracted.
Like most other muscle groups, biceps do not work in isolation. They normally work in conjunction with other muscles groups to perform a certain function or movement. To better understand this we first need to take a closer look at how exactly the biceps function.
What Is The Function Of The Biceps?
The biceps brachii (for the technically inclined among you) is seen as a single muscle, but have two heads that connect to the rest of the body at multiple locations at the shoulder and elbow. (Also known as a double-headed muscle.)
The long head of the muscle is connected at a point just above the shoulder joint (the supraglenoid tubercle), while the short head is connected to the shoulder at the top of the scapula. Both heads are connected at the same point on the elbow.
The biceps is what is called a bi-articular muscle. This simply means that it helps to control movement at two different joints, in this case the elbow and shoulder.
As already mentioned, the main function of the biceps is to move the forearm up by contracting the muscle at the elbow. It also plays a less important role with certain movements of the shoulder. It supports the shoulder with smaller upward, forward and sideways movements of the arm.
All right, enough technical stuff. Let's move on to the exercises.
Exercises To Train The Muscles
1) Compound/Mass Building Exercises
These exercises are your "bread and butter" exercises. Normally if you have only one exercise to choose to train a muscle, this will the ones you choose. This is usually also the exercise you can move the most amount of weight with and involve compound (multiple-joint) movements.
Your biceps are rather unique in this aspect, as the best basic exercises do not involve multiple-joint movements. Movements like chin-ups and lat pull-downs both exercise the back muscles and biceps. Unfortunately, these exercises do not place enough emphasis and stress on the biceps themselves though. Too much of your back mudcles gets involved as well.
The simplest form of bicep exercises that you can put the biggest amount of weight on, are 2 exercise that can also be seen as types of isolation exercises.
Standing Barbell Curls
Standing upright while holding a barbell (straight or EZ bar) in front of you with your arms fully extended, you perform a simple curl while holding the rest of your body as still as possible. It is a very basic movement that is not difficult to master, but still remains one of your best muscle builders.
The advantage of barbell curls is that you can use a slightly heavier weight, and use a little bit of momentum through some hip movement to assist in a lifting a heavier weight. Needless to say, you should keep this body movement to a minimum and only use it to assist you while your biceps are doing the majority of the work.
Standing Dumbbell Curls
Also performed while standing, but holding a dumbbell in each hand. The advantage of standing dumbbell curls is that you can alternate between your left and right arm. (Lift and lower the one arm first before performing the other side.) In this way you can focus on each individual bicep and put the maximum amount of stress on each one.
As with standing barbell curls, you can also use some assistance from a slight arching of the back while producing some swinging of the weights through hip movement to enable you to lift a slightly heavier weight. Again, I cannot stress enough that the hip movement (or swing) should be kept to a minimum and only used to help the biceps lift that extra bit of weight. Make sure your biceps are doing the vast majority of the work.
2) Isolation Exercises
Many trainers or "gurus" like to refer to isolation exercises as shaping exercises. Many believe that you can "develop or shape" a muscle by putting emphasis on certain areas by using isolation exercises among others. Other experts in the field believe this is completely incorrect and a muscle's shape is already determined by genetics and only the size of a muscle can be increased.
Obviously this is a very controversial and much debated issue. Through years of personal experience and extensive research, I learned that both arguments are only partially true. (Yes, chances are pretty good that you may have a completely different take on the matter. No problem, like I said it, is a very controversial subject where no-one is probably a 100% right or wrong.)
As much as the fundamental shape of a muscle cannot be changed, by putting emphasis on a certain part of a muscle through training, you will be able to obtain a much fuller muscle development (which yes, can also lead to a generally more shapely look). And this is exactly where isolation exercises come in.
An isolation exercises can be defined as a movement where the target muscle do all of the work, and supporting muscles groups used during other exercises are not involved at all during isolation movements. This way you place all the tension and focus on the target muscle, allowing you much more control over the muscle group and how it is trained.
(An isolation exercise can normally be performed with much lighter weights as your muscles are already exhausted from the big compound sets you performed. Using a higher rep range during these movements also helps to completely exhaust your muscles and achieve that "burn" that signals muscle hypertrophy. I will recommend a 8-12 rep range.)
To best understand how this works in practice, let's take a look at 2 of the best isolation exercises for biceps.
Seated Dumbbell Isolation Curl
By sitting on the edge of the bench with your knees apart, you rest your upper arm against the inside of your thigh. Let the dumbbell hang between your legs with your arm fully extended. Just by moving your forearm while keeping the rest of your body completely still, you curl the weight upwards until your bicep is completely contracted. Repeat with the other arm once you finished all your repetitions.
This way you make your biceps do all the work. This is an excellent exercise for training the peak of you muscles and create symmetry between your biceps, as the same load and form is applied to both muscles separately.
As you curl the weight upward, make sure you squeeze your biceps hard at the top of the movement before lowering it down until your arm is fully extended. After a few repetitions you will start feeling a burning sensation on the upper and outer side of your biceps. This is what you want and know you are putting enough emphasis on the "peak" of your biceps. Combined with exercises that put emphasis on the lower part of the biceps where it joins the elbow joint, helps to create fuller looking biceps.
Barbell Preacher Curls
By using a preacher bench and an EZ-bar, make sure you find the right seating height where you upper arms are resting firmly and straight on the padded slope of the bench. Start lowering the weight until you arms are fully extended, then lift it by just bending your arms at the elbows until your biceps are fully contracted.
This a another great isolation which is very effective at exercising your whole muscle, but especially emphasize the part where both heads of the biceps connect at the elbow joint. When performed in a slow and controlled function, you will actually start feeling the muscles pull at the elbow joint at the bottom of the movement.
(Because this exercise helps with full biceps development, as it works from the joint at the elbows to the full contraction at the top of the movement, some trainers like to use it as the ideal finishing exercise for their biceps workout. When performed at the end of the workout, you don't need a lot of weight to fully exhaust your muscles. Just remember to focus on keeping good form at this stage of your workout.)
3) Exercises For Maximum Stretch
A whole book can be written about why including an exercise that fully stretches your muscles should be included in every workout for every muscle group. I will not go into too much detail as a result, but just know that no muscle group can be considered fully trained without one of these exercises included. Yes, it is my personal opinion, but I believe a very valid one.
For one, allowing the muscle to stretch while under tension, you promote more micro tears in your muscle fibers which will lead to much great muscle atrophy. A further benefit of fully stretching your muscle while exercising, is the strengthening of your muscles where they tie in with your tendons, which allows for much greater mobility and increased joint strength. (More on the numerous advantages of in another article.)
As the title already indicates, exercises for maximum strength is where you allow the weight to extend and stretch the muscle beyond its normal extended position, until you reach position of maximum stretch (without placing stress on the joint by forcing the muscle past its natural range of movement!)
Please note, care should be taken when performing a "exercise for maximum strength". Especially when starting out, only allow a small amount of stretch at the extended position. As you progress over weeks you can increase the amount of stress. Never ever go beyond the point where your joints' natural range of movement are exceeded. (Remember you can stretch a muscle, but not a joint. This will we one guaranteed way of causing long term joint and tendon damage.)
Again, to best understand how these "stretching exercises" work, we will look at 2 of the best exercises to fully stretch your biceps.
Incline Dumbbell Curls
Using and adjustable bench with the back angled back at about 45 degrees, lie down against the back while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Allow your arms to hang straight down. In this position you will already feel your biceps stretching. (You can adjust the angle to what is comfortable for you and lower it over the course of time to allow more stretch.)
In a slow and controlled motion curl the weight up just by bending your elbows until your biceps are full contacted. Lower it in a slow and controlled motion until it is fully extended. Do NOT use momentum or swing of your arms to help you lift the weight at the bottom of the movements. You can seriously damage your shoulder joints and overextend your biceps.
(Two important things to remember is to not use momentum like I just mentioned, and also to keep your shoulders completely still during this movement to allow your biceps to do all the work.)
This exercise is one of my favorite exercise for the biceps, as it not only allows you to get as much stretch as your biceps allow you to, but allow you an extended range of movement from beyond the normal extended position to a fully contracted one. (It can also be used to completely exhaust your muscles by performing 2 or three more half reps if you are unable to perform another full curl, and that in a stretching position. You will feel like you need a fire extinguisher after such a set and is not recommended for the faint at heart. But it works!)
Standing Low Pulley Cable Curls
By holding the handles of the pulley cables next to your sides (with the cable connected at the bottom pulleys), stand in the center of the machine. Now take a step or two forward until you feel a stretch in your biceps.
In this position your arms will be pulled into a position slightly behind your sides. From this position, curl your forearms up just by bending your elbows until your biceps are fully contracted. Lower it again in a controlled way until your arms end up back in the extended position slightly behind you sides. (Remember to use your shoulders to only move your upper arms until next to your side and keep them there for the remainder of the curl.)
This exercise is effective not just because of the stretch your biceps get at the bottom of the movement, but also the continuous tension that is applied to it. Even in the "rested" position at the bottom of the movement, the weights are still pulling at your muscles. Continuous tension allow your muscles to be fully exhausted in a shorter period of time which will also lead to much more muscle fiber recruitment in the process.
As this exercise puts a lot of continuous stress on the muscle, you will reach muscle fatigue quite rapidly. As a result, start with a small enough weight you can perform at least 8 repetitions with. It may be a very light weight, especially after already exhausting your biceps with other movement. For his movement though, leave your ego at the door, start small and reap the benefits in the long run.
You now should have a much better understanding of what your biceps are, how exactly they work and which exercises are used to train them effectively.
Once you understand what the function of a muscle is and how it is used by the body to perform certain movements, it will become much easier to see how different exercises make use of the muscle movements in different ways to produce a specific result.
(Many trainees develop variations of existing exercises, or even invent their own to best suit their specific body structure and the unique way their muscles react to exercise - with great success!)
I trust this post helped you to look at your biceps in a whole new light, and inspired you to approach your next biceps workout with renewed enthusiasm.
As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my mailing list to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.
Until next time, take care and don't quit!