What are the best biceps exercises for muscle growth?
For many guys, bigger biceps represent the holy grail of bodybuilding.
It’s why we punish ourselves rep after rep in the quest to pack an extra inch on top of our glistening, mountainous peaks, right?
Well, if you (like me) simply love to train arms then you’re going to enjoy today’s blog post as I’ll be looking at the results of a recent study from ACE which actually discovered the best biceps exercises to build muscle mass.
Did your favourite make the top three? Let’s take a look.
Watch The Video
For those of you who prefer your information in video form, I cut this video in The Torture Rack earlier this week:
What Are The Best Biceps Exercises? >> The Study
During this 8 week study at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, researchers worked with 16 individuals.
This was an equal split of 8 men and 8 women, ranging in age between 18-24.
During the trial they recorded the muscle activation of the biceps in eight of the most popular exercises you’ll see performed in gyms around the world. They were:
- Narrow-grip EZ-bar Curl
- Concentration Curl
- Preacher Curl
- Chin Up
- Cable Curl
- Wide-grip EZ-bar Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Barbell Curl
By attaching electrodes to the arm, they were able to record the total muscle activation in the biceps brachii and the muscles which make up it’s surrounding areas, such as the forearms and the anterior deltoid.
Now I know what you’re thinking – what if they simply trained harder on a certain exercise?
After all, I can curl an EZ-bar for days, but put me up against some preacher curls and I’ll tap out quicker than if Ric Flair slapped me in a Figure 4 Leg Lock.
So to counteract this, each participant went through a ‘test day’ to establish their performance capabilities on each exercise, and to ensure they only ever worked against a force representing 70% of their one rep max strength on each move during the trial itself.
This evened out the deck.
So which exercise came out on top?
Check out the graph below!
So what are the best biceps exercises for building muscle mass? According to the latest science, they are:
- Concentration Curl
- Cable Curl
- Chin Up
Here’s a quick demonstration of each exercise.
Surprisingly, the team of researchers concluded that big, popular moves like the EZ-bar Curl did not result in a significant activation of the biceps brachii because the surrounding muscles of the anteroir deltoid and forearms were creeping in to assist the biceps in curling up the weight.
Interestingly, the winner of the trial (Concentration Curls) were miles ahead of their nearest rivals.
It wasn’t even close.
It seems that by being seated and allowing for optimal elbow positioning, concentration curls really do help to focus all of the dumbbell’s attention on the biceps.
So when it comes to isolating your biceps, Concentration Curls are the way to go! (1)
My Top 3 Biceps Building Exercises
To give you some extra options, I’ve put together a quick list of my favourite biceps-building exercises comprising of moves which weren’t included in this study.
These three exercises are the ones my clients consistenly ask to go back to when I’m doing personal training sessions at Powerhouse Gym, because they’re highly effective.
All of them are shown in the video at the top of this page, but here’s some pics.
- Heavy EZ-bar Negatives
The barbell curl works best when performed heavy. Naturally, this sees assistance muscles like the forearms coming in to help us power the weight up, but how do we further boost the muscle activation levels of the biceps itself?
We focus on the most important part of the lift – the negative.
The negative phase (where you lower the bar) is where the most micro-tears are made in your muscle, so it makes sense to maximize this phase of the repetition and we do this by going a little heavier in weight than normal.
Have a partner assist you through the lifting portion of the rep if necessary (or use my Kick Technique shown in the video above) before concentrating on lowering the bar for 5 count.
Three sets of 6-8 reps will give you a pump like no other biceps exercise, and a cold sweat that makes you feel like you’ve been through some real gym warfare.
- Standing Concentration Curl
The standard version of the concentration curl is a great exercise when performed correctly, but it’s also one of the most commonly abused exercises.
You see, doing this exercise in a seated position enables us to go heavier in weight, the downside being many guys instinctively pick up a dumbbell which is about 5kg too heavy to use strict form, resulting in a backwards tilt at the shoulder joint of the working arm to get the weight up.
So while concentration curls are the best exercise to isolate your biceps, these benefits are somewhat diminished when we go too heavy and voluntarily bring in other muscle groups to assist us in the lift.
So by switching to a standing position and hinging forward at the waist, allowing your working arm to hang down completely straight, you will notice how much more you are able to focus on using proper form during your rep.
That’s the main reason I perform this exercise standing.
- Growth Factor Curl
This exercise is one of my real favourites, and it’s included in several of the most popular arm workouts on my website.
Growth Factor Curls are essentially partial dumbbell curls which minimize the involvement of the forearms.
Does that mean you could go heavier? Seeing as the forearms are the ‘weak link’ in a biceps curl, the answer here is yes. But I don’t recommend you do.
Instead, this exercise becomes a real power player in your workout when you opt for a moderate weight and focus on hitting a higher number of repetitions per set (15+ on each arm).
You see, the longer we can make the set, the greater the time under tension will be for the biceps, which is great for muscle growth.
The key to separating this exercise from regular dumbbell curls is that we hold the rep just beyond 90 degrees while the other arm works and, in doing so, this creates a ton of metabolic stress for the biceps to work against.
That’s why higher rep sets work well with this particular move.
So there you have it!
If you’ve enjoyed these tips on the best biceps exercises and maybe like my teaching style, jump on my free email list below for future tips.
- Young S, Porcari JP, Camic C, Kovacs A, Foster C et al. ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises. Acefitness.org. July 2014.