If your training never changes, your biceps will stop growing. You're no longer creating enough stress to trigger adaptation. And changing the curl exercise you're doing might not be enough to spark new growth.
After all, arm flexion is arm flexion. There isn't a huge difference between a barbell curl, a dumbbell curl, or an EZ-bar curl. You need something a bit more drastic. Here are five strategies to try.
Trick One: Do Close-Grip Chin-Ups First
Ask a dozen strength coaches what the best overall triceps-builder is and most will say either the close-grip bench press or dips. These are compound movements that allow you to create the greatest overload of the triceps. Of course, they also involve other muscle groups (pecs and delts) but they're still considered the best way to start a triceps workout.
Think of all the main muscles in your body and the big lifts you'd do to hit them: pecs, lats, quads, hams, triceps, delts, etc. They all have their own compound movement or bread-and-butter lift.
For pecs the bench press (or dips), for delts the military press, for quads the squat, for hamstrings the Romanian deadlift, and for the upper back it'd be either barbell rows or pull-ups.
But for biceps, it's weird. When we think of its bread-and-butter lift, the first thing that comes to mind is the standing barbell curl.
Listen, there's a multi-joint big basic for the biceps too: the supinated (palms facing you) close-grip pull-up. That exercise shows greater biceps activation than most direct biceps exercises while also using a heavier load. Keep in mind, you're lifting around 97% of your bodyweight with no added weight, and it's even more effective if you DO add weight.
If you want to build your biceps, start your workout with the close-grip supinated chin-up. Load it up pretty heavy so that your reps will fall in the 6-10 range. Your goal should be to get stronger in that range while maintaining proper form.
But what if you can't even do 6 proper chin-ups with bodyweight?
You have two main options:
1. Use a partial range of motion.
Start from the bottom and pull yourself up as high as possible (without cheating or contorting). Over time, your goal will be to get higher and higher.
2. Use a lat pulldown.
If you can't even do a partial rep, use a close-grip, supinated lat pulldown. To make it work you must have the impression of pulling it down toward you, not simply down.
This should be the first exercise when training biceps. Don't go to failure, since chin-ups respond well to the greasing-the-groove approach of daily practice.
Trick Two: Focus On The Brachialis AND Brachioradialis
The main upper arm flexors include the two heads of the biceps, the brachialis, and the brachioradialis. But when you look at most training programs, rarely will you see any brachialis or brachioradialis-focused exercises.
That's the main reason for focusing on both of those muscle groups. They've been neglected and proportionally undertrained, which makes them an easy target for rapid growth.
Most people can quickly add upper arm size simply by focusing in on the brachialis and brachioradialis for six weeks. How do you do that? First by varying your grip.
To focus on the brachialis, use the hammer (neutral) and pronated (reverse) grips. Also use a slower contraction speed (something like two seconds up and four seconds down – especially on the pronated curls. Adding isometric holds, either with the forearm parallel to the floor or at the peak contraction, will also increase brachialis activity.
To focus on the brachioradialis, your best bet is any form of reverse (palms down) curl. To increase the reliance on that muscle, use a faster contraction speed (without cheating) than what you'd use to target the brachialis.
Good brachialis exercises include:
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl (with a slow eccentric)
- Rope Hammer Curl (holding the peak contraction two seconds on each rep)
- Cable Reverse Curl (hold with forearms parallel to the floor and a slow eccentric)
- Dumbbell Hammer Seated on an Incline Bench (hold the peak contraction for two seconds on each rep)
Good brachioradialis exercises include:
- Zottman Curl (lift with a palms-up grip, lower with a palms-down grip)
- EZ-Bar Reverse Curl (with a normal tempo)
- Dumbbell Reverse Curl (seated on an incline bench)
Start your biceps workout with a close-grip chin-up (I'd actually go with a pronated grip this time) then use 3-4 other exercises picking from the moves listed above. Keep the chin-up in every one of these workouts and focus on improving performance for 6-8 reps. The other 3-4 exercises can be rotated if you want and the reps should fall between 8-12.
For 4-6 weeks, don't do any biceps-dominant exercises. That means any curl with a supinated or palms-up grip. Instead, specialize on the brachialis and brachioradialis. Don't worry, your arms will still get completely stimulated from your other exercises. And they'll respond even better once you train them directly again.
Trick Three: Try Stato-Dynamic Curls
This one is awesome if you have problems feeling your biceps when doing curls. Why is that important? Because there's a strong correlation between feeling a muscle when training it and the growth you get.
In fact, when someone has a lagging muscle group, the first thing I want to work on is his or her capacity to feel that muscle when training it.
My favorite method to do that? The stato-dynamic pre-fatigue method.
Sounds complicated, but it simply refers to doing one long isometric hold before your regular reps. You'd focus on contracting the target muscle as hard as you can. The position of the hold should be the one where you naturally have the most tension. For a free-weight curl, this is at the mid-range position, or when the forearm is parallel to the floor.
Here's how you do it:
- Curl the weight up until your forearm is parallel to the floor. Then hold this position for 15-30 seconds (I like to progress by five seconds per week) while focusing on tensing the biceps as much as you can.
- After the hold is done, bring the bar back down under control, then immediately start doing your reps.
- Do 8-12 reps after the hold.
The hold has several effects and benefits:
- You have 15-30 seconds to practice contracting a muscle. Contracting a muscle is a motor skill; the more your practice it, the better you get. And just like pretty much any skill, it's easier to do it statically or very slowly than with a dynamic action.
- You sensitize the neuromuscular junction which will immediately improve your capacity to recruit the biceps during your reps.
- You pre-fatigue the biceps during the hold so that even if you're not yet efficient at contracting the biceps, you'll still get a greater training effect than what you'd get by simply doing reps.
- During the hold you accumulate lactate in the muscle. This leads to the release of local growth factors, which can help trigger growth.
- You'll immediately feel the muscle more after the hold. If you feel the muscle more during your reps, you'll be able to improve your capacity to use your biceps properly.
I go with three work sets using this method. Use it with any standard curl, reverse curl, or hammer curl variation.
Trick Four: Change the "Strictness" of Mechanical Drop Sets
Mechanical drop sets are one of my favorite methods for hypertrophy. It consists of doing two or three variations of the same movement as a "superset" but with descending difficulty.
You start with your "weakest" or hardest variation. When you hit failure (or close to it) you switch to the second weakest variation. When you hit failure (or close to it) on this one you finish with the maximum reps you can in do your strongest movement.
A typical example would be to go from pronated (reverse) dumbbell curls to supinated (normal) dumbbell curls to hammer curls.
But one approach that a lot of lifters don't use – and that might be even more powerful – is to do the exact same exercise but change the "strictness" of the movement to allow you to keep getting reps even as you hit failure or close to it.
How could it be more effective? Well, you'll keep pounding the same muscle whereas, in the previous example (pronated/supinated/hammer), you're only able to get more reps because you're hitting different parts of the arm flexors.
So here's how you do it by just changing the strictness:
1. Start with wall standing curls (barbell or dumbbells).
The back of your head, upper back, butt, and heels must touch the wall behind you. Actively push into the wall with your neck. This will increase neural transmission and allow for better recruitment. When you hit failure (or one rep in reserve) you...
2. Move away from the wall and switch to regular standing barbell curls.
Keep the form strict. This will still be easier than curling against the wall. Crank out reps to failure then...
3. Switch to slightly cheated curls.
You can use a little bit of upper body momentum. Just bend at the torso, going slightly forward and rocking it back to start the weight up. But – and here's the important part – the eccentric (lowering of the rep) should be slow and strict. With curls, a slight cheat is fine as long as you do the eccentric under control.
You can take as much as 10 seconds of rest between the three steps. Try starting with a weight you can do for 8-10 reps on the first exercise and do 3 work sets.
Trick Five: Use Neurological Contrast
This originates from a method that Pierre Roy (former coach of the Canadian National Weightlifting team) used with his female lifters. In Olympic lifting, women lift using a bar smaller in diameter than men's: 25 versus 28mm. While it may not look like a big difference, it's night and day when it comes to the feeling in your hands.
Pierre had female lifters warm up, and even do their lighter work sets, with the thicker men's bar before they switched to the women's bar for the heavier sets. There are two benefits to this:
1. The psychological advantage:
When switching to the thinner bar, their hands could wrap around it more easily, it felt lighter, and it increased their confidence which lead to an improvement in performance.
2. The power of the homunculus:
This is what helped boost their neurological activation. What is the homunculus? It's the visual representation of the importance of each body part in your nervous system. The homunculus has huge hands because your hands have the largest representation in your nervous system – the hands send and receive more info than any other body part. The harder your hands work, the more it activates the nervous system. A more activated nervous system can recruit more muscle fibers and produce more force.
For this trick, it's this second benefit that'll be the most important to you. What you'll do is alternate between sets of curls using a thick bar and sets using a standard bar.
This will require a fat bar (two inches thick) or Fat Gripz which can be added to a regular barbell to make it thicker.
You'll start with a set of curls using the thicker grip, rest for two to two-and-a-half minutes, then do a set with a regular grip using the same weight. After your set with a regular grip, you'll rest for four minutes and go through the process two more times (for a total of 6 sets).
Here's exactly how it looks:
- Start with the thick-grip curls, then grab a weight you can curl for 3-5 reps. It's important that those 3-5 reps are done with proper form – no swinging or cheating – and good mind-muscle connection. Still, try to go as heavy as you can. You shouldn't hit failure, but the last rep should be challenging (leaving a rep in reserve).
- Rest for two to two-and-a-half minutes (or 120-150 seconds).
- Switch to the standard-grip curls. Using the same weight, do reps to failure. Your goal is get 2-5 more reps than you did with the thicker grip.
- Rest for four minutes. Since you went to failure or close to it on your previous set, you want full recovery before starting again.
- Repeat the process twice more for a total of three complexes, or six total sets of curls.
This method will maximize muscle fiber recruitment and stimulation, allowing you to trigger more biceps growth and strength gains. Try this once or twice per week for four weeks.
One of the main reasons for lagging biceps is doing the same thing over and over and expecting better results. That won't happen. In fact, the more you repeat a strategy, the better adapted your body becomes to it and the less it'll change you.
These five "tricks" aren't anything magical. There's a pretty logical reason why they work, and they may be exactly what you need to blast through your biceps plateau.