Top 5 Exercises for a Great Bicep Workout

An intense bicep workout, when done with the correct form and intensity, can help you build and develop the “trophy muscle” of bodybuilding.

arnoldI’m not sure I agree with this “trophy” lore, as I believe the chest and back are the most important muscle groups to achieve a super-impressive, hard and lean physique.  But either way, the biceps are a very close second and are important to an overall great physique.  And yes, Arnold did indeed set the gold standard…

When someone says flex, you’re probably going to show them your “guns,” not your back.  So they definitely need to be near the top of your list to achieve a balanced, lean, and muscular build.

Following my 30on3 Workouts, biceps are worked on your “B” day with back and abs, and every workout is 30 minutes long so they will fit your busy schedule.  You will also work your biceps when you are doing many back exercises, such as chin-ups and supinated bent-over rows, to name a few.

The exercises below are my Top 5 Best Bicep exercises, but first let’s understand the basics of the biceps…

Bicep Structure and Function

The biceps muscle is a two-headed muscle, hence the prefix “bi.”  The formal name is the biceps brachii, but is mainly referred to in the vernacular as the biceps.  The biceps muscle is located on the front (anterior) of the upper arm, connecting the shoulder blade to the elbow.

The biceps consist of a long and a short head, and each head has its own point of origin on the shoulder blade, but connect to the elbow (at the radius bone in the forearm) at one point.

Two additional, smaller muscles of the biceps are the brachialis and the brachioradialis, but your main focus should be on the biceps brachii.


The function of the biceps is to bend and extend the arm, as well as rotating the forearm in each direction (supination and flexion).

Top 5 Exercises for Your Bicep Workout

Bicep Preacher CurlFirst, remember these basics for bicep workout routines:

  • For each curl you perform, make sure you get a full range of motion.
  • Lift heavy weights if you are building mass and definition, but only as heavy as you can lift without major cheating – no swinging, swaying, or rocking.  A little cheating is OK when going heavy.
  • Make sure you are properly warmed up before doing any resistance training with dynamic stretching and light cardio – get the muscles warm and loose.  Really important to avoid injury.
  • Keep the movements steady and controlled – you don’t want to tear a bicep.  When you introduce angles to your routines, such as sharp incline dumbbell curls, things can get dicey so be careful and take things slowly.

For more info on Sets / Reps / Rest, see the full workout plan at…30on3 Workouts ● simple, proven, powerful

#1  Barbell Curls

This is widely considered the very best biceps exercise for mass and strength.  It will also work your forearms.

  • Start Position:  Stand straight with good posture, with arms slightly bent at your sidess, holding the barbell.  Keep your elbows tight to your body, and palms facing forward.  You will get the best bicep workout (working long and short heads) if you start with a wider grip – slightly wider than shoulder width – and then with each progressive set slightly narrow your grip.
  • Technique:  In a controlled motion, contract the biceps to curl the barbell to just short of vertical without resting, then return the barbell to start position.  Keep a laser focus on your biceps, and feel the contraction and burn at the top.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Muscle Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Muscle Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  Start with a wide grip on your 1st set, and narrow your grip with each successive set, until your last set is slightly less than shoulder width.

#2  Preacher Curls

This is probably my favorite bicep workout exercise.  I just seem to see and feel the most gains (strength and size) when I prioritize this in a given month.

  • Start Position:  Sit at the preacher bench, and lift the barbell (or EZ curl bar) to the up position.  Your upper arms should be positioned on the pad, with your armpits and chest flush to the pad for support.  This is the starting position.
  • Exercise:  Curl the weight up, but make sure you stop short of vertical, as this is a rest position.  Return the barbell to the down position.  Throughout the movement keep your body and upper arms still, and feel like your elbows are on a fixed hinge.  You don’t want to swing your body or jerk your head to perform the curl.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  When you get to the down position, make sure you stay in control of the weight.  A slip here and you can tear your bicep, so always maintain control.
  • Variations:  If your hand grip is wider, you will work the interior head.  If your grip is narrower, you will work the outside head more.


#3  Rope Cable Curls

These are another favorite of mine, as they don’t seem to put great strain on the elbows and wrists, and yet I always feel a very good burn and pump.

  • Start Position: Standing holding rope attached to cable, with hands close together (nearly touching).
  • Exercise:  Perform a fluid, controlled curl motion – up to nearly vertical, and then down.  Do not arch your back to achieve the curl – maintain steady posture.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  You can work the muscles from a slightly different angle by spreading your hands 6″ apart at the start position – it is hard to hold this position with a heavy weight, but it’s doable.
  • Caution: This is generally a safe exercise for your bicep workout, just be cautious of the strain on your lower back and of course lifting the correct weight.

#4  Alternating Dumbbell Curls

  • Start Position:  Standing with your arms at your side holding dumbbells, and palms facing your body.  Make sure your posture is good, feet shoulder width.
  • Exercise: One arm at a time, rotate the forearm until the palm is facing up as you contract the bicep and perform the curl.  Return to the start position rotating the arm to the start position on your way down.  Performing one
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations: Some people (like me!) have weak elbows due to past tendon problems, so the rotation can be a problem.  In this case, perform the same exercise without rotating the forearm on the up motion (bicep contraction).  (So the starting position would be palms forward).
  • Caution: I had a very reputable orthopedic tell me that the rotation on alternating dumbbell curls could not be causing my elbow tendon issues, and he was probably right.  I just know that any time I perform these curls with rotation, my elbows are shot for a week…use your own discretion on the rotation, cause I haven’t figured it out!


#5  Hammer Curls

  • Start Position:  Standing with your arms at your side holding dumbbells, and palms facing your body.  Feet are shoulder width and your posture is upright.
  • Exercise: Both arms together, contract the biceps and perform the curl.  Return to the start position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  I like to do Hammer Curls “down the rack” at the end of my bicep workout.  Start with your comfortable weight, and go “down the rack” without rest between sets.
    Example: Start with 20# dumbbells, hammer curls to failure, switch to 15# dumbbells, hammer curls to failure, switch to 12.5#, hammer curls to failure, etc  —  all in quick succession, usually doing about 5 to 6 sets total (20# down to 5#).
  • Caution: Pretty safe – just watch the weight.

 “Also Rans”

Actually, these are not also-rans…they are every bit as worthy of the Top 5 list as any bicep workout, so I will list them here:

  • Incline Dumbbell Curl – Great for working the long head muscle.
  • Supinated Bent-Over Rows – Great for bicep mass and also working the back.
  • Close-grip Chin-ups – Great for working biceps as well as back.

Avoiding Injury and Bicep Tears

As you get older, you slowly start to create wear on the biceps’ tendons that connect the biceps to the shoulder and the elbow.

bicep-injuryMost torn biceps tendons at the shoulder occur in people over the age of 60 or 70, and are not the result of a bicep workout.

However, as you get into middle age, you have to be aware and cautious of tears at the elbow when performing your bicep workout.  This is the location of most torn biceps tendons for middle-aged men, and they usually happen when attempting lifts with heavy weights.  Sometimes there is no warning that it’s coming (pain,etc.).

These tears often require surgery, so you obviously want to take every precaution to avoid this:

  • You want to use heavy weights in resistance training to increase mass, but not so heavy that you lose control of the weight and overextend your arm.
  • Make sure you keep your lifting and curling motions controlled and fluid, not jerky and sudden.
  • Make sure you are stretching properly – dynamic stretching and light cardio before your workout to warm and loosen the muscles, and more static stretching after your workout.
  • Always use proper form and technique – don’t let your ego get the best of you and lift weights that you are not yet ready for.
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