Many skinny guys dream of bulging biceps and generally bigger arms. But these muscles can also be notoriously difficult to bulk up if you don’t know what you’re doing. Below, I explain how many exercises you need for an effective biceps program.
Generally speaking, 3 or 4 different biceps exercises are sufficient to build larger arms. However, the exercises must be selected carefully. Together, they should be able to work all regions of the biceps muscles. Weekly training volume should also be optimized for maximal growth.
I’ve been that skinny dude pumping 100 bicep curls in his garage with no results to show for.
That was until I cracked the code to unlock sleeve-busting arms.
This post shares my research and experience to help you do the same.
- Why Different Exercises Are Needed To Bulk Up The Biceps
- How Many Exercises Are Required To Build Big Biceps?
- Best Exercises For Huge Biceps
- How Many Bicep Exercises Should You Do Per Workout?
- Optimal Number Of Sets And Reps To Increase Biceps Mass
- Ideal Training Frequency For Biceps
- How I Perform Biceps Training At Home
Why Different Exercises Are Needed To Bulk Up The Biceps
It is important to perform multiple exercises to build bigger biceps. A variety of different movements will allow an individual to target the individual regions of the collective biceps muscle. These regions include the long and short heads of the biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis.
Here’s how each muscle functions and how it contributes to the overall look of your biceps:
- Biceps brachii long head. This muscle serves as an elbow flexor (bringing the forearms towards the shoulder) and wrist supinator (rotate your right hand clockwise and you’ll feel your right biceps contract). It runs along the entire outer-top surface of the upper arm. The long head contributes to your biceps peak (aka the bulge) as well as the length of your biceps. It’s activated by normal underhand-grip curling.
- Biceps brachii short head. The role of this muscle is for elbow flexion and wrist supination. It runs along the inner-top surface of the upper arms, next to the long-head. The short head contributes to the biceps peak as well as width, thickness, and girth. It’s activated by normal underhand-grip curling movements.
- Brachialis. This muscle is used purely for elbow flexion and it’s around 50% stronger than biceps brachii at flexing your arms. It runs beneath the biceps brachii. Whilst it won’t directly contribute to biceps peak, it does add overall volume to your upper arms. It’s activated by neutral-grip (palm facing towards the body) pulling and curling.
- Brachioradialis. This muscle is a wrist supinator and elbow flexor. It bridges the bottom of the upper arm to the middle of the forearm. The brachioradialis contributes to the thickness of the upper forearm. It’s activated by neutral-grip and overhand-grip curling and pulling.
By working your biceps with multiple varieties of exercises, you target them at different angles for complete biceps growth (hypertrophy).
How Many Exercises Are Required To Build Big Biceps?
The average beginner-intermediate can work with 3 to 4 different exercises to develop the biceps. However, these exercises must target the biceps at different angles for optimal results. Exercise variety should include a mixture of different curling and pulling movements.
I’ve been the skinny newbie who performed every biceps exercise in the books, hoping that this would lead to exponential biceps growth.
But with experience, I’ve come to realize that more is not always better.
In support of this, 75% of Quora trainers agree that 2 to 4 exercises are all you need to drive biceps hypertrophy (recommended biceps exercises can be found below).
Here’s what worked for me:
Choose 3 different exercises, each emphasizing a different region of the biceps muscles, and work on this selection for a 4 to 6-month cycle.
And when you’ve completed this cycle, you can rotate into another 3 different exercises.
Keep repeating this process, and trust me, your biceps will grow (assuming you perform the correct training volume which I’ll discuss later).
Why is this method so effective?
Focusing on a select few exercises gives you ample time to apply progressive overload without the risk of overtraining.
You can apply progressive overload by:
- Increasing weight over time.
- Reducing lifting tempo (also known as time under tension training, or TUT).
Both actions will increase exercise difficulty and force your biceps to adapt and grow.
And if you’ve chosen a good combination of biceps exercises, you bet your biceps WILL grow!
On the contrary, changing your exercise selection too quickly means you deny your biceps the opportunity to adapt.
You’ll end up treading water and your biceps size will remain the same!
Best Exercises For Huge Biceps
Here’s a complete selection of exercises that work all your biceps muscles. Work on 3 at a time (1 from each category):
|Long Head Biceps Exercises||Short Head Biceps Exercises||Brachialis |
|Incline dumbbell curl||Spider curl||Dumbbell/barbell row||Overhand reverse curl|
|Supinated dumbbell curl||Wide-grip curl||Pull-ups/chin-ups||Pull-up|
|Concentration curl||Concentration curl||Hammer curl||Hammer curl|
1) Incline dumbbell curl.
Lay on a 45° incline bench and hold dumbbells below the torso using a neutral grip (palms facing the body). Curl the dumbbells up whilst supinating your wrists (rotating them upwards). Lower the dumbbells slowly to complete a repetition. I like to contract my triceps at the end of the down phase to put my biceps in a deficit position and get a good pump.
2) Supinated dumbbell curl.
Use a neutral grip to hold pair of dumbbells on either side of your body. This can be done whilst standing or seated. Curl the dumbbells and supinate your wrists to get a really good contraction in the biceps. Bend your knees a bit, sit back, keep a straight back to prevent cheating. I offset my grip so that my thumbs rest on the outer edge of the dumbbell handle and my pinky finger rests in the middle of the handle. This helps with wrist supination.
3) Concentration curl.
Sit on a bench with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Open your legs to allow space to rest the triceps of one arm on the inner thigh of the same side. Curl the dumbbell upwards whilst maintaining a firm thigh-tricep connection. This prevents you from using momentum to help you curl the dumbbell. As a result, your curling strength will improve.
4) Spider curl.
Lay chest-down on a 45° incline bench and hold a pair of dumbbells in front of you using a neutral grip. Your upper arms should be pointing towards the floor. Curl the dumbbells up and supinate your wrists. Brace your core, keep your chin tucked into your neck, and make sure you come to a dead-stop before curling the dumbbells back up. This will maximize biceps contraction.
5) Wide-grip curl.
This is the same as the conventional supinated dumbbell curl. The only variation is in your grip width. Rather than curling with your hands at a shoulder-width distance, widen the grip so that your hands are just outside of your shoulders. This will emphasize the biceps brachii short head. Result? Bulging biceps with a strong peak and wide girth!
6) Dumbbell/barbell row.
Stand and hold dumbbells or a barbell in front of you using an overhand grip. Lean forward so your back is almost 45° to the floor (keep your lower back straight though). Bending your knees slightly and sticking your butt out can help you maintain this position. Pull the dumbbell/barbell towards your navel and hold the contraction for a split second before slowly lowering the weight. Keep your grip a shoulder-width distance for maximal brachialis activation!
Hold the pull-up bar using an overhand grip with the hands at a shoulder-width distance. Retract the shoulder blades and pull yourself up. This is one of the best moves to do for a larger brachialis and brachioradialis. If you want to maximize biceps growth, make sure the bar touches your chest such that your forearms touch your biceps.
8) Hammer curl.
Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand using a neutral grip. Slowly curl them upwards before lowering them again, just like a normal bicep curl. This is one of the simplest exercises to drive brachialis and brachioradialis growth. It’s a similar movement as the pull-up (in terms of biceps activation).
9) Overhand reverse curl.
This movement is exactly the same as the normal bicep curl. But instead of holding the dumbbell/barbell with an underhand grip, you go for an overhand grip. This shifts the emphasis onto the brachioradialis. As a result, you’ll develop musculature on the upper forearm where it meets the biceps.
How Many Bicep Exercises Should You Do Per Workout?
Generally speaking, a beginner should begin working the biceps with 2 exercises per workout. This can increase to 3 exercises per workout when the individual becomes stronger. Intermediates and bodybuilders will typically perform 3 or more different bicep exercises per workout to maximize growth.
These recommendations are based on the assumption that you’re doing 2 or 3 biceps days per week (which you should be doing to drive maximal size gains).
In support of this, 50% of Reddit users agreed that 3 to 4 different exercises per workout is optimal as a trained lifter.
Bodybuilders like Chris Bumstead (IFBB bodybuilder and Mr Olympia) will usually do around 3 direct isolation-type bicep lifts like curl variations per workout
In addition, they’ll also do a variety of indirect compound-type pulling lifts like the row and pull-up.
You can find Chris’s arm workout here.
Combined, this provides them with the volume and angles required to drive optimal hypertrophy in the biceps.
But this kind of training volume will be too intense for a beginner.
It won’t allow your biceps a sufficient recovery time.
Remember- your muscles grow during rest and not during the workout itself. So it’s imperative you don’t overtrain them with super-intense workouts.
Start with 2 different exercises instead, making sure they each target distinct regions of the biceps (as per previous recommendations).
Then progress on to 3 and then 4 different exercises when your biceps have adapted.
This will take around 1 to 2 years of consistent training, respectively.
You may also be interested in my other article for bicep curl weight standards for beginners.
Optimal Number Of Sets And Reps To Increase Biceps Mass
The average beginner should aim to complete a minimum of 10 sets of biceps exercises per week. Each set should comprise 8 to 15 repetitions using a weight that fatigues the individual’s muscles. This should provide a sufficient training volume to drive biceps hypertrophy and mass development.
Training volume simply refers to the total number of sets, reps, and training frequency you complete every week.
Sticking to a predefined volume is the best way to guarantee a consistent hypertrophy stimulus.
Generally speaking, 10 direct sets per muscle group per week is recommended for hypertrophy in beginners.
For biceps, this would usually come from isolation-type lifts like the bicep curl variations.
But chances are you’re also doing indirect bicep work throughout the week in the form of compound pulling movements like the row, pull-up, lat-pulldown, etc.
If so, then you should account for these in your 10-set weekly target.
How do you account for sets of indirect biceps work?
I use the rule of halves- every 2 sets of indirect bicep training equates to 1 set of direct bicep training.
For example: 3 weekly sets of biceps curl is the equivalent to 6 weekly sets of pullups (for biceps).
After around 6-12 months of consistent biceps training, your arms will become stronger and you can increase to 12 total weekly sets, and so on.
But you should stop increasing sets when you reach 20+ direct sets of bicep work per week.
Here, you’ll unlikely get any more added benefits. This is a bodybuilder-level of training volume and far too much for most people.
Focus on overloading by increasing weight or decreasing lifting tempo instead.
Each set should always stay in the 8-15 reps per set range. Sometimes it’s better to decrease weight and increase reps to build bigger arms.
The weight should challenge you for those 8-15 reps and also allow you to lift with proper form.
You can check out my other post for more details on the best number of sets and reps for biceps.
Ideal Training Frequency For Biceps
Most beginners should train their biceps with at least 2 workout days per week. When the biceps become stronger, the person can increase to 3 arm days. Completing the optimal training frequency gives the biceps a sufficient growth stimulus whilst also reducing the risk of overtraining.
Why a minimum of 2 biceps days per week?
2 studies explain why.
This 2017 study found a dose-response relationship between the number of weekly sets and muscle growth. In other words, the more sets you complete the more your biceps will grow.
But there’s also a caveat.
This 2018 research paper found that doing more than 5 sets per workout leads to significantly diminished returns. In other words, doing too many sets in a workout results in so-called “wasted sets”.
Taken together, this suggests you should aim to complete your 10 weekly sets over 2 training days to give your biceps the perfect hypertrophy stimulus (rather than cramming all your sets into one long ass workout).
Additionally, those training days should be non-consecutive.
In other words, you should leave 24-48 hours of rest between workouts.
This is important for 2 reasons:
- Muscle growth happens at rest. Denying your biceps rest will negatively impact their growth.
- Allows recovery for progressive overload. You can’t push yourself with heavier weights if you’re biceps aren’t fully recovered.
It’s for these reasons that it’s not recommended to train your biceps every day.
Only when your biceps have adapted to your current training volume should you increase to 3 bicep days per week.
You can tell when time is right when your biceps are able to fully recover between workouts (no muscle soreness or lack of strength).
You might also be interested in my other article to learn about the different rep ranges for hypertrophy and strength.
How I Perform Biceps Training At Home
The exercises mentioned in this post can all be performed at any semi-decent gym.
If you decide to go down the home workout road, then here’s the equipment I use and recommend.
They aren’t the most premium models out there, but they’ll do the job perfectly at an affordable price.
1) Pair of adjustable dumbbells.
I use and recommend the Powerblock Elites (check out my review to find out why).
These dumbbells may seem pricey at first, but their versatility makes them one of the best value-for-money dumbbells you can buy (I’ve researched and tested over a dozen different brands and models).
Powerblocks are ideal for biceps training.
Unlike most dumbbells, they offer 2.5/5lb increments. These tiny weight settings are perfect for progressive overloading your biceps.
Think about it- it’s much easier to add 2.5lbs to a bicep curl than it is to overload by 10lbs.
They’re also heavy enough for compound exercises like rows.
The base model weighs 50lbs per dumbbell with 16 weight settings. They can also be upgraded to 70lbs and 90lbs using the stage 2 and stage 3 addon kits.
If money is tight, then these Yes4All spinlock dumbbells are good as a budget alternative. Just be aware that the weight increments are quite large.
2) Adjustable bench.
I use and recommend the Flybird flat/incline/decline bench (you can go to my full review to see why this bench is so good). The build quality and weight capacity may not be as good as a commercial gym bench, but it’s affordable and foldable (for space savings).
You’ll need an incline bench to do spider curls and incline curls.
You can also use it as a seat for standard bicep curls and concentration curls.
3) Pull-up bar.
I use and recommend the Sports Royal Power Tower.
It’s not for everyone though- you’ll need 9 square feet of floor space to house it and it also needs to be assembled at home.
Your other option is to go with a doorway pull-up bar like this Prosource which is much cheaper and space-effective.
But speaking from personal experience, a standalone tower is much less abrasive to your property. Even the best doorway bars can scratch and damage your doorways.
I also use the DMoose chained belt to strap the Powerblocks onto my body for weighted pull-ups and chin-ups.
I’ve explained how many different exercises you need for a biceps workout program.
If chosen correctly, you’ll only need to work on 3 or 4 exercises at a time to maximize biceps strength and size.
Just make sure your selection of exercises is able to hit all regions of your biceps (you can refer to my recommended biceps exercises).
You should also make sure you optimize your weekly training volume (sets, reps, weight, and training frequency) to ensure maximal biceps growth.
Which exercises will you be using to build bigger biceps?
Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions! You can find my details on the “contact us” page.
You may also be interested in the downloadable Kalibre Blueprint PDF which details exactly how I gained 40lbs of lean muscle (it’s 100% free!). It details the exact exercises and nutrition (with printable worksheets) I used to go from skinny to ripped!
Thanks for reading guys!
(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)