The Ultimate Guide to Bicep Workouts:
By Tyler Woodward
In this guide, we will talk about everything you need to know in order to design your own complete, principle-based bicep workout.
Table of Contents:
- Bicep Anatomy 101
- Muscle Physiology 101
- Physics 101
- Mechanisms Of Hypertrophy
- The Ultimate Bicep Workout
- Notes On Exercise Selection
Biceps because everyday is arm day right? ;)
Bicep Anatomy 101:
To understand how to properly and efficiently do a biceps workout, we need to understand the anatomy of the bicep brachii muscles. The biceps have two heads, the long head and the short head.
- The long head of the biceps runs through the top of the humerus and wraps around onto the top of the scapula (shoulder blade).
- The short head of the biceps attaches to the front of the scapula under the deltoid muscles.
The origin of heads of the biceps is at the top of the radius (one of two forearm bones). Both heads of the biceps function mostly as elbow flexors, as in bringing your wrist up towards your hand.
However a “bicep” or really upper arm workout would not truly be complete without mentioning the brachialis and brachioradialis. The brachialis and brachioradialis run from your forearm to about halfway up your humerus (upper arm bone). Like the biceps, these muscles act as elbow flexors, but also play a large role in supination (rotating your palm from facing the ground to facing the sky). They are able to do this because they do not just run straight up and down like the biceps, but actually wrap around your forearm on a diagonal. You can actually see these muscles at work by watching your “bicep” muscle move up towards your arm or shorten as you rotate your wrist from facing down to facing up.
Muscle Physiology 101:
My favorite analogy to explain muscles is to compare them to ropes. Every muscle is like a rope, the biceps are made up of two ropes, the short and long head. These ropes are able to contract (shorten) as the joints get closer together or lengthen as the joints get further apart. The biceps will be fully shortened when your arm is up slightly above your head and your fist is a few inches from your face. The biceps will be fully lengthened when your arm is straight and extended slightly behind your body. These ropes are then composed of thousands of little strings that also run from end to end which are known as muscle fibers. These strings are made up of thousands and thousands of microscopic ropes that attach in series one in front of the other, also running from end to end. These are known as sarcomeres or muscle cells. Just like the muscle as a whole is capable of contracting and lengthening, so are the muscle fibers and the individual sarcomeres.
It should also be noted that not all of your muscle fibers or “strings” fire at the same time. Think about it this way, it would be an insane waste of energy if every time you had to scratch your head, every muscle fiber and cell had to contract to do so. Instead, muscle fibers contract in relation to the load used, the heavier the object lifted the more muscle fibers will be forced to contract in order to lift the load. OR once the smaller muscle fibers run out of energy to contract, the large muscle fibers will be forced to kick in. To build muscle, we need these larger muscle fibers or high-threshold motor units to contract. This only occurs towards the end of an exercise as we get close to a failure point.
If you haven’t read my article, “The Ultimate Guide to Chest Workouts”, I highly recommend you check it out, as I go much more into depth with how muscles work.
One last and really important point to note is that our muscles are stronger, or capable of producing more force, in certain positions. In the fully shortened position (think flexing your bicep), your muscle will always be the weakest. In the fully lengthened position, (arm straight and slightly extended behind your body) your muscle will be much stronger. Lastly, in the middle between these two points, (when your bicep is bent at 90 degrees in front of you) is where your muscle will be the strongest. This is important because we want to choose exercises that are hardest in the same position as our muscles are the strongest to get the most results.
Have you ever noticed that some portions of an exercise are harder than others? Like at the bottom of a squat or bench press and at the top of a lateral raise. This is because of two forces known as tension and torque. Tension is often referred to as the pull force. When you play a game of tug of war, whichever team is able to pull on the rope the hardest and thereby generate the most tension, will win the game. The part of an exercise that is the hardest is the point where the most tension is placed on the muscle group due to torque.
Torque is also known as leverage. Torque is the reason why if a bolt is really difficult to tighten or loosen with your hand you go and grab a wrench. The wrench increases the length of the “lever arm”, so less force is needed to tighten or loosen the screw. You can see this in real time by bending your arm at 90 degrees when you perform a lateral raise. When your arm is bent, the “lever arm” is half as long, so there is half as much torque and therefore half as much tension placed on your muscle.
The important thing to know about torque is that torque is always greatest at 90 degrees or a perfect right. So when you use a dumbbell, barbell or cable, the exercise will always be the hardest when the load (dumbbell/barbell/cable) is perpendicular to your muscle.
We can use this knowledge of physics and muscle physiology to choose exercises that are hardest when our muscles are the strongest to “match” the exercise to our muscle.
Mechanisms Of Hypertrophy:
There are primarily two changes that occur in our muscle cells that result in hypertrophy or muscle-growth.
- Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - This occurs when we break down large amounts of the proteins in our muscles, so that they can build back stronger. This will result in an increase in strength/force production in our muscles. This is best done in the lengthened position
- Best performed in the muscle’s shortened position
- Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - This occurs when we perform more repetitions with shorter rest periods in between sets, resulting in the accumulation of fluid in our muscles otherwise known as the infamous “pump”. This challenges our ability to produce and store enough fuel within our muscle cells and results in the production and storage of more glycogen (energy) in our muscles.
- Best performed in the muscle’s lengthened position
I like to compare myofibrillar hypertrophy to upgrading your car’s engine while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is like upgrading your car's fuel source.
Read More: The Many Benefits Of Resistance Training
The Ultimate Biceps Workout:
To build the big biceps (upper-arms) workout we need to abide by the following principles:
- Take the biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis through their full range of motion, while applying adequate resistance throughout this range of motion
- Program exercises that bias both mechanisms of hypertrophy into your workout over time to maximize muscle-growth.
- Recognize that there will be overlap between training the individual heads of the bicep and the brachialis/brachioradialis, so it is likely not optimal to train them all together
For these reasons I prefer to spread out my bicep workouts over a few days, so your muscles are fully recovered so we can get maximum output. This may not be a possibility for everyone or you may just prefer hitting one muscle group per day, so I will give you as many options for all of these.
- For each exercise, make sure to start with a weight that you can perform the maximum assigned reps for on the first set with good technique.
- Make sure to rest enough between the different exercises to fully catch your breath, about 1-3 minutes depending on the person.
- For the myofibrillar focused program rest between 2-3 minutes between sets
- For the sarcoplasmic-focused program only rest between 30-60 seconds between sets.
*Do not let your form begin to break down when you get to end of a set or an exercise, once your form has broken down you have reached “technical failure” and should end that set*
Make sure to check out our UMZUfit platform for more programs like this and a ton of information on how to improve your health and fitness!
Notes on Exercise Selection:
When training arms it is important for you to be able to customize or adjust the exercises to best suit your structure. Generally cable exercises all for much more adjustability because the tension is generated from the cable and not gravity alone like in free weights. It is important when doing the unilateral dumbbell exercises and cable exercise to adjust your “elbow pit” (the area between your forearm and upper arm), so it is in line with the resistance. For free weights the resistance is straight up and down due to gravity, while for cables the resistance is directly in line with the cable, like it is an extension of your arm. This is the reason I do not program any fixed bar exercises because they very little room to adjust the exercise to fit individual structures. Frequently resulting in less tension placed on the muscle and more tension on the joints leading to wear and tear over time and joint pain down the line.Conclusion:
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good~Tyler Woodward
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology