Biceps that burst out of your sleeves!
Think back to all the times you ever heard a regular person tell you or someone else to “make a muscle.”
That’s a vague request, as there are well over 600 skeletal muscles in the human body. Yet even so, what muscle got flexed? It was the biceps!
Most of us were throwing up biceps poses long before we ever touched iron for the first time. I don’t care who you are: When you started lifting, you wanted huge arms.
The most popular exercises to build the biceps are the good old barbell curl, standing alternate dumbbell curls, and preacher curls. These and a few others have done a fantastic job of helping millions of men and women around the world get bigger bi’s for many decades.
But they’re far from the only productive exercises to choose from. Having been training for 40 years and being privileged enough to train with and around countless champion bodybuilders and coaches, I’ve picked up many lesser-known biceps exercises, most of which have been forgotten by the current generation.
That’s a shame, because you never know which exercise will give you the best results until you’ve tried them all. With that in mind, I have 10 excellent but rarely performed biceps movements for you to try. One or more of them might very well become your new favorite exercise to blow up your bi’s!
1. Drag curls
One reason many people fail to see the results they would like from biceps training is that their front delts take on too much of the workload. Bracing the back of the arm against an immovable object such as a preacher curl bench helps, but drag curls are another way to provide isolation for the biceps.
They’re performed just like any standing barbell curl but with one key difference. Instead of keeping your elbows at your sides, you drive them back. The curling motion isn’t an arc as in a standard curl. Rather, you literally drag it up your torso with the bar maintaining contact with your body at all times.
Depending on the length of your arms and torso (we all have slightly different skeletal proportions), you will probably start with the bar at mid-thigh and finish with it just under your pecs.
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You won’t need a lot of weight to do these right because no other muscle groups are assisting. If you’re looking for a killer superset, go right into regular curls with the same bar and weight as soon as you hit failure on the drag curls. The pump and burn are glorious!
2. Spider curls
You’ve probably done a lot of preacher curls for your biceps using the sloped side of the preacher bench. Have you ever tried using the vertical side of the bench instead?
These are known as spider curls, and they provide a larger range of motion. In particular, they allow the biceps to fully stretch at the start of the rep, which is impossible with preacher curls because of the angle of the padded bench. You might have to take the top piece with that pad off and turn it around to do these depending on what your gym has to offer.
3. Seated barbell curls
This is a partial movement that overloads the final half of the rep for barbell curls, meaning that you can go pretty heavy on it. For instance, if you can curl 100 pounds for a full ROM on standard standing curls, you can most likely handle 120 to 130 pounds seated.
What we’re really doing here is overloading the midrange of the curl and shocking the biceps with more resistance than it’s accustomed to, forcing a growth adaptation. I do advise you to not get too zealous your first time with the weight. But once you’ve found the groove. I think you will like the way these hit.
4. Seated cable row curls
These should technically be called “‘lying” cable row curls, as you will be lying back on the pad you normally sit on for seated cable rows. Clip on a short straight or cambered bar attachment, then lie back flat on the padded seat and curl. You will find it’s a stricter movement than standing cable curls and does a better job of isolating your biceps.
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5. Close-grip curls
You have probably noticed that the cambered EZ-bar has two sets of knurling, but odds are you have only ever used the standard one that’s shoulder width. Try the closer grip where your hands are only about four inches apart.
This will target the outer or long head of your biceps, which you may not be activating much by using a standard grip width. It also works the brachialis (that knot-like muscle between your biceps and triceps), and every little bit of extra size helps!
6. (Very) close-grip pull-downs
If you train biceps after back, this will also serve as an excellent finishing movement for the whole shebang. Clip a short straight bar attachment to a lat pull-down machine. Your grip should be as close as possible with your hands all the way toward the center.
Normally in a lat pull-down, we are working the lats and strive to keep our biceps out of the movement. Not here! Pull and let your biceps do the work. You will feel them working hardest if you keep a perfectly straight torso with no leaning back and pull to chin level. Drive the elbows straight down rather than down and back as you would to work the lats more.
7. “Old-school” hanging concentration curls
Dumbbell concentration curls are a perfectly good exercise, but they really aren’t very different from preacher or spider curls. In this case, your inner thigh acts as the preacher bench to brace your upper arm against. If you’re a fan of the old-school guys from the Pumping Iron era such as Arnold and Franco, you’ve probably seen them do an entirely different variation of concentration curls.
Rather than perform them seated with the working arm braced against the inner thigh of the same side of the body, they stand—or, more accurately, squat—with the working arm hanging straight down in space to curl up. This permits both greater freedom of movement and range of motion.
In particular, the biceps can stretch out to its full length at the start of each rep. You won’t need a heavy dumbbell here, as just keeping your arm from swinging takes “concentration!”
8. “Hangover” barbell curls
This is another favorite of mine that is so seldom seen that I had to make up my own name for it. I use an incline bench and plop myself face down so that my chest and shoulders are above the top of the bench and my arms are free to hang down in front of me holding a straight bar or EZ-bar.
You won’t get the best stretch here, but you can really squeeze out some quality biceps contractions at the top of every rep.
9. High cable curls
When your elbows are higher than your shoulders in a curling motion, the short/inner head of the biceps is selectively targeted more than the long/outer head.
You can do these at any cable station with the pulley set in its highest position, and you’ve probably seen or done them with both arms at once, a variation I call the “front double biceps curl” as it resembles that iconic pose. Mostly you will see it referred to as an overhead cable curl. You can do one or both arms at a time.
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There are also a couple curl machines that have curling pads and handles set higher than your shoulder to simulate this angle of attack for the biceps. It definitely imparts a unique feel.
10. Back-against-the-wall curls
For my tenth and final recommendation, I almost went with Arm Blaster curls, that device you strap on to your torso with cups for your elbows to force strict form. But few gyms have these, and I didn’t want you guys to have to go buy anything to try out these exercises. Instead, all you need here is a wall or a flat pillar or column to stand with your back flat up against.
I’m telling you right now that you had no idea how much other muscles were assisting in your standing barbell curls until you try this exercise. If you normally curl 100 pounds for 10 reps, you probably won’t get even one rep with that with your back firmly against a wall. It forces pure biceps isolation, and there’s absolutely no way to cheat and use your shoulders or hips to heave the weight up.
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My favorite superset utilizing these is similar to what I suggested with drag curls earlier. Once you reach failure on the curls, step away from the wall and keep going. In this case, it’s even okay to use “cheating form” to eke out a few more reps. In fact, it’s one of the few times I recommend it, as it will drive your already-fatigued biceps deeper into exhaustion.
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There you have 10 excellent biceps exercises, some or all of which I bet most of you have never tried. I guarantee you will love the feel of one or more of them, and they will work their way into your regular biceps workouts so you can start seeing brand-new growth. Now get out there and blast those biceps and grow some huge-ass guns!
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