Variations on a Theme

The Top Seven Biceps Movements


There are scores of biceps movements. Furthermore, there are hundreds of ways to do those biceps movements. The trouble is, unless you're involved in this business full-time, you tend to adopt certain exercises and do them over and over again, to the exclusion of all others. We tend to adopt the same habits in other aspects of our lives. We tend to eat at the same restaurants, frequent the same stores, and call the same girls at 2:00 in the morning after we've had a few too many drinks and ask, "Hey, what are ya' wearing?" We are creatures of habit.

In training, though, it's imperative that we break out of these ruts. We have to try new movements or try different ways of doing the same old movements.

In no way is the following list an attempt to even scratch the surface of the incredibly broad spectrum of biceps movements. It is simply a list of seven of my favorites. Obviously, many of them will be familiar to you. However, you may want to read the descriptions anyway because you might discover a new way to do that particular movement, or you might find that you've been doing it incorrectly.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Scott Curls

The Scott curl is usually called the preacher curl in the US. Obviously, it's named after the fact that the exercise resembles a preacher leaning over his pulpit to preach his sermon. However, in most other places around the world, it's called the Scott curl in honor of two-time Mr. Olympia Larry Scott, who helped popularize the bench by slaving on it for years to develop his massive arms.

Most biceps exercises require some assistance and stabilization work by other muscle groups, but the Scott Bench was designed so that you could isolate the elbow flexors. By taking out the possibility of using "body English," the assistance muscles are excluded from participating in the movement.

Regardless of the intent of the designer, I continue to see trainee after trainee using terrible form on the bench; so bad, in fact, that it kind of reminds me of a penguin having an epileptic seizure. In fact, one Mr. Olympia finalist tore his biceps because he failed to use proper form on the bench.

The Scott bench is used to isolate the medial (short head) of the brachialis muscle. A lot of bodybuilding jock kinesiologists, however, will say that a 90-degree inclination on the padded surface will work the lower biceps. Too bad there's no such thing as a "lower" biceps. If you feel soreness after a Scott bench workout, it's because you've worked the short head of the biceps brachii and the brachialis. Since the distal insertions of both of these muscles are in the crook of the elbow, people invented the term "lower" biceps.

Most gyms have a standing Scott curl and a seated Scott curl. I prefer the seated version because it minimizes cheating. Simply sit on the bench with either arm (and dumbbell) fully extended. Use the free hand to lock your tricep in position. As you curl the weight, keep your neck aligned by looking straight ahead. Here's the tricky part: only work in the range where the tension is put on the elbow flexors. If you curl the weight up too high, you'll lose the tension on the elbow flexors and you'll compromise your results. In other words, regardless of the instructions in Muscle and Fitness, don't curl the weight up until your forearm touches your bicep.

Conversely, make sure you lower the weight all the way. The initial portion of the movement is a lot harder than it is in standard barbell curls, so many trainees generally abstain from lowering the barbell all the way.

You might also want to try varying the angle of the support pad by turning it around (most Scott benches allow you to remove the pad and flip it around 180 degrees so that you can use the alternate, steeper side of the support pad). This will vary motor unit recruitment.

Single-Arm, Offset-Grip Dumbbell Curls

You can use the Scott bench for this movement, too. However, you'll be holding the dumbbells with an offset grip that is, an asymmetrical grip where the thumb side of your hand rests against the inside plate of the dumbbell. This will increase the involvement of the short head of the biceps.

Start with the dumbbells in a semi-supinated (hammer) grip and curl the weight to about 40 degrees. Then, turn your palm up (supinate) and complete the curl.

Since you're holding the dumbbell in an asymmetrical fashion, you'll be forced to activate the short head of the biceps to complete the supination movement.

Do the movement at a very slow tempo so that you'll create high intramuscular tension.

Incline Dumbbell Curls

A very simple and common movement, yet many trainees fail to do it correctly. Too bad, because this is the most effective exercise for isolating the long head of the biceps. The incline position allows the elbows to be drawn back, away from the body, thus recruiting the long head.

This exercise was first popularized by fifties bodybuilder Steve Reeves (Hercules) to give his biceps a godly look.

Recline on a multi-angle bench with a dumbbell in each hand. The more flexible you are, the lower you can set the bench, but bringing it down to a flat position may be too hard on your rotator cuffs. As a rule of thumb, the lower the angle of the bench, the more recruitment of the long head of the biceps, especially if the angle of the bench is 30 degrees or lower. Conversely, the steeper the angle, the less the shoulders are extended and the less the elbows are behind the mid-line of the body (and thus, less recruitment of the long head).

With your arms fully stretched out, curl the dumbbells up simultaneously while keeping the elbows directly in line with the ground for at least the first 90 degrees. (In other words, pretend your elbows are rifles and keep them pointed at the ground.) After the first 90 degrees, however, your elbows will begin to come slightly forward, especially if you're using gargantuan weights. Don't worry about it, though, as long as you kept them in line for the first 90 degrees of the movement. Keep the palms supinated at all times so that the elbow flexors are well stretched.

Here's a tip. If you have forward head posture your head comes off the bench no matter how hard you try to keep it down roll up a towel and place it between your neck and the bench. You'll find that it increases your strength.

I recommend that you keep the incline dumbbell curl as a staple of your arm workouts, especially if you want to do specialized work for the long head of the biceps. Just make sure you change the angle of the bench every six workouts so that you don't adapt.

Concentration Dumbbell Curls

This is one of the most basic of all exercises. In fact, a neophyte, if left alone, would no doubt "invent" this movement after a workout or two. It probably got its name from the undivided attention a trainee usually gives to the arm being worked. Furthermore, it's a known physiological fact that you can increase muscle facilitation when you look at it.

The concentration curl can be performed either in a standing or sitting position, but I prefer the seated kind. When you're standing, your nervous system is "distracted" because it's maintaining balance. If, however, you sit down during this movement, it will allow full attention to the movement at hand and your neural drive will be enhanced.

Sit on a bench and lean over. Grab your dumbbell. Sit back and rest your tricep against your inner thigh. Keep a slight arch in your back while leaning over the dumbbell. Make sure to curl the dumbbell slowly and deliberately until full range is completed. By that time, the dumbbell should be near your pec.

It's crucial that you lower the dumbbell until the arm is fully extended, and make an effort to vary the angle at which you curl the dumbbell towards you. (Go ahead and vary the angle on each rep if you like.) This will ensure that you recruit and knock off different motor units.

Like any dumbbell exercise, concentration curls allow you the luxury of being able to perform 1 to 2 forced reps on your own, once you've achieved concentric muscle failure.

I often employ a variation of this movement where I walk over to a wall, bend over, and place my glutes against it using a narrow grip on an EZ curl bar instead of working with a dumbbell. I then plant my elbows against my inner thighs and curl the weight up, being careful not to adopt a rounded back position.

You may prefer doing a freestanding version where you don't back up against a wall, but many people end up using too much upper body swing to complete the movement. If that's the case, I recommend lying face down on an incline bench and having your upper torso extend over the edge. This will allow superior isolation of the elbow flexors.

Seated Zottman Curls

This is one of the best upper arm thickening exercises, as the Zottman Curl thoroughly stresses all the elbow flexors. It feels uncomfortable at first, so it may take a few workouts to get used to this movement.

To begin, grasp two dumbbells and sit at the edge of a flat bench. Fully extend your arms downward (with the weights in your hands, of course) and keep your palms facing forward. Begin curling the weight, but keep your palms extended away from your body so that you prevent the forearm flexors from being recruited. (The natural tendency is to curl the wrist upwards, but I'm asking you to extend the hand backwards.) Once you reach the top, pronate the forearms. In other words, rotate your hands so your palms are now facing downwards and straighten the wrists, so that, in effect, you're ready to do the eccentric portion of a reverse dumbbell curl.

Keeping your wrists in a neutral position, slowly lower the dumbbells. Keep your elbows glued to your sides throughout the entire exercise. If your elbows tend to flare out, that means your brachialis muscles are weak in relation to your biceps brachii. If that's the case, you'll need to use slightly less weight so that you can do the eccentric portion of the movement correctly.

Omni Curls on a Swiss Ball

A lot of trainees are resistant to the concept of the Swiss Ball, but I have a few words of encouragement for them: Get over it! The Swiss Ball is a useful bodybuilding tool (when used properly).

Squat down in front of a Swiss Ball and rest your back and triceps against the surface of the ball (a 65-centimeter ball should suffice for most trainees, but if you're Lurch-like, you might need to use a 75-centimeter ball). Grab your working pair of dumbbells.

Perform the concentric range of a seated dumbbell curl, initiating the movement from the elbows in a smooth fashion. Make sure that the wrists are bent back again so that you'll isolate the elbow flexors instead of the forearm flexors.

Once you've completed the concentric portion of the movement, raise your hips up so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Simply push down on the floor with your feet and roll your body and the ball back so that it raises your torso and hips.

Now, while remaining in this hips-elevated position, lower the dumbbells away from you. At this point, the brachialis anticus and the short head of the biceps are fully activated. Keep your wrists cocked back as you lower the weights.

After the arms are fully extended, lower the hips and start over again.

If you're excessively masochistic, or you simply want to trash your brachialis muscles, adopt the Zottman style of curling to this exercise.

Close-Grip Supinated Chin-Ups

Throughout my career, I've met a lot of people who've packed inches on their elbow flexors simply by doing chinning exercises. The thing is, the main reason they did chinning movements was that they didn't have access to a wide variety of equipment. Necessity, as they say, is often the mother of invention. These individuals, however, were determined to achieve international success, regardless of the limitations imposed on them. You can list Boyer Coe and Arnold Schwarzeneggar as part of this group.

Grasp the chin-up bar with a close, supinated grip. The palms of the hands should be facing you, and your pinky fingers should be 4 to 6 inches apart. Hang below the bar and then pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. This movement should be done very slowly, on the order of about 15 seconds or so. Then, slowly lower yourself to the start position.

Don't short-change yourself by not coming all the way down. Like it is for any exercise, range of motion is critical.

If your arms haven't grown for a while, consider adopting this movement. It's a sure-fire mass builder.

Regardless of which of these exercises you decide to adopt, make sure that they, too, don't become habit. Try mixing one or two into your biceps workout, and after six workouts or so, discard them in favor of another one or two. Variety is not only the spice of life; it's the main ingredient of bodybuilding and strength training success.