Biceps Curl Techniques for Maximum Muscle Growth

On the surface, the biceps curl seems like a simple exercise involving motion exclusively at your elbows. This assumption suggests the exercise is an isolation, or single-joint, movement. The truth, however, is biceps curls involve multiple joints across your upper limbs and are thus a more complex exercise than you may think.

biceps curls

Learning how to manipulate joint positions is a crucial technique for maximizing the growth of your muscles.

This certainly applies to the biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis. These are the three main muscles that bend your elbow when you do biceps curls in its many variations.

The Biceps

Basic Anatomy

The biceps is made up of two muscles, or heads, hence the “bi” in its name. The inner head is short, and the outer head is long. Both heads cross your shoulder, elbow, and radioulnar forearm joints, which means they act on all of these joints. More specifically, the biceps helps you raise your arm forward, bend your elbow and rotate your forearm externally to a palms-up position (called supination).

The Biceps Curl

When you do traditional standing biceps curls, your biceps you naturally reproduce all of these movements. To work both heads equally you need to keep your forearms externally rotated, and keep your arms by your side (perpendicular to the floor) while bending at the elbow. To experience a maximum contraction avoid raising your arms forward (away from a perpendicular position), a common “cheating” technique often used when the weight is too heavy.

Improving the Outer Head

If the outer head of your biceps is lagging you should do curls with your arms raised about 30 to 45 degrees forward. This is where the preacher curl comes in – a specifically formulated bench to assist you in keeping this specific angle and ultimately helping you improve the outer head of the biceps. You’ll still work your biceps inner head when doing preacher curls, just not to the same extent your outer head. In point of fact, the preacher curl primarily works the brachialis (more on this later), but it’s still the best exercise for working your biceps outer head.

Improve the Inner Head

Now for the other scenario, in which your biceps inner head is lagging, you must do an exercise with your arms slightly behind your torso. The incline bench biceps curls is the best exercise to put your in this position. Set the bench to an incline between 45 and 60 degrees to sufficiently stretch your biceps during the movement. This stretch will lengthen the fibers of your biceps, especially the shorter inner head, thus allowing you to better recruit it.

The Brachialis

Basic Anatomy

The brachialis is an often overlooked muscle in many resistance training programs – this is a big mistake, as the muscle has a larger cross-sectional area than the biceps.

This means that the brachialis is larger in size than the biceps in the average person.

The brachialis is located underneath the two heads of your biceps, but, unlike your biceps, it only crosses one joint, your elbow. As a result, its sole function is to bend your elbow. So, no matter what your forearm or elbow position is, you’ll always work the brachialis when doing any biceps curl exercise. However, to maximize the work done by the muscle and to develop it it’s fullest potential, you need to perform exercises that specifically recruit that muscle.

To put it in the simplest terms, if you want bigger arms, focus on your brachialis.

The Reverse Biceps Curl

The best exercises for the brachialis is the reverse curl as it takes the biceps completely out of the movement. For the reverse curl, you use an overhand grip, meaning your forearm is internally rotated. This is known as pronation, and prevents your biceps from contracting during the reverse curl. You can see this for yourself by bending your arms with your forearms in two different positions. First, keep your forearms externally rotated, such as during traditional biceps curls, and then bend your elbows. You should clearly see your biceps contracting and thus, getting shorter. Now, do the same with your forearms internally rotated, such as during reverse curls, you should clearly see no shortening of your biceps, as it remains the same length. The muscle cannot contract in this position, thus causing the brachialis to take over and act as the primary mover.

Brachioradialis

Basic Anatomy

The other muscle that lets you bend your arms is the brachioradialis. This muscle lies over the outer part of your forearms, appearing almost as an extension of your biceps. Developing this muscle is important for filling the gap between your biceps and forearms. The brachioradialis crosses two joints – your elbow and radioulnar forearm joint. In addition to bending your elbow, it is a semi-pronator, meaning it allows you to rotate your forearms to a position halfway in between full supination and full pronation, such as a “thumbs-up” position.

The Hammer Curl

The hammer curl places your forearm in this “thumbs-up” position and is thus the best exercise for the brachioradialis. Another excellent movement for the muscle is the reverse curl. Although it mainly works the brachialis, it also targets the brachioradialis to a large degree. This is because your forearms are internally rotated, which eliminates the biceps from the exercise, thus forcing the brachialis and brachioradialis to do all the work.

The Ultimate Biceps & Forearm Workout Program

The following four workouts include exercises for each of the main elbow-bending muscles, and is in turn broken out into four complimentary exercises focused on maximum muscle contraction and growth.

Exercise # 1: The first exercise in each workout allows you to focus on both heads of your biceps.

Exercise #2: The second exercise emphasizes your inner biceps during the odd-numbered workouts, and your outer biceps during the even-numbered workouts.

Exercise #3: The third exercise is for your brachialis. Although the brachialis is larger than the biceps, you only need to do one exercise for this muscle because it’s involved in all the other exercises so will be pre-exhausted.

Exercise #4: The fourth and final exercise in each workout focuses on the smaller brachioradialis muscle.

Perform Workout #1 once per week, then after four weeks, perform Workout #2 for four weeks, and so on until you’re back at Workout #1. When performing your sets, you should pick a weight where you can reach muscular failure at  the targeted rep count. The only exception to this is the warm-up sets. Use lighter weights and do not go to failure during these sets.

Workout #1

  1. Standing alternating dumbbell curls – 5 sets of 20, 15, 12, 10, 8 reps (first two sets are for warm-up purposes)
  2. Incline bench dumbbell curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  3. Seated machine overhead brachialis curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  4. Standing alternating hammer curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps

Workout #2

  1. Standing barbell curls – 5 sets of 20, 15, 12, 10, 8 reps (first two sets are for warm-up purposes)
  2. Seated machine preacher curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  3. Standing barbell reverse curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  4. Standing cable pulley rope hammer curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps

Workout #3

  1. Standing alternating dumbbell curls – 5 sets of 20, 15, 12, 10, 8 reps (first two sets are for warm-up purposes)
  2. Seated machine preacher curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  3. Seated machine overhead brachialis curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  4. Standing cable pulley rope hammer curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps

Workout #4

  1. Standing barbell curls – 5 sets of 20, 15, 12, 10, 8 reps (first two sets are for warm-up purposes)
  2. Incline bench dumbbell curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  3. Standing barbell reverse curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
  4. Standing alternating hammer curls – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps
Richard Choueiri

Richard Choueiri is a professional writer specializing in fitness, nutrition and health. His work has been featured in over 10 major online and print publications. He is the author of The Human Statue Workout: Your 365 Day-a-Year Guide to Transforming Your Body Into a Masterpiece. Richard double majored in exercise science and nutritional science at Rutgers University. He holds a personal trainer certification through the American College of Sports Medicine and has over a decade of training experience.

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