Top 5 Exercises for a Great Bicep Workout

Bicep Injury

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

Not sure about all this “trophy” lore? You’re not alone. Most body experts agree, 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 close second and are important to an overall great physique.

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

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 our Top 5 Best Bicep exercises, but first let’s understand the basics of the biceps.

Table of Contents

Main Takeaways

  • Bicep exercises can be performed using barbells, dumbbells, cables, and even body weight.

  • Always warm up before doing resistance training with biceps to avoid injuries.

  • Always use proper form and lift a weight that you can handle to avoid bicep tears.

  • For most people (who are not competitive bodybuilders), doing bicep workouts two times a week is sufficient to build, tone, and strengthen your biceps.

Muscles Worked

Primary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Biceps (Long head and Short head)

Secondary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Brachioradialis
  • Forearms

Bicep Structure and Function

Bicep Structure and FunctionThe 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. (1)

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. (2, 3)

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

#1  Barbell Curls

Bicep 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 sides, 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: 3-4 / 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.

    NOTE: A straight barbell can put strain on your wrists, especially as you age. So if barbell curls are straining your wrists, then try EZ Bar curls, which are a more natural fit for your grip. This puts much less strain on your wrists, and is a more comfortable movement.

EZ Bar Curls

#2  Preacher Curls

Bicep Preacher Curls
This is a favorite bicep workout exercise. It just seem to provide the most gains (strength and size) when you 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: 3-4 / 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

Rope Bicep Curls
Another top bicep workout. It does not put great strain on the elbows and wrists, and yet you’ll feel a very good burn and pump.

  • Start Position: Standing and holding the rope attached to a cable, with hands close together (nearly touching), and palms facing.
  • 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: 3-4 / 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.

    NOTE: It’s suggested to grip the rope 1″ below the end knobs on the rope. If your index finger and thumb are flush to the knob when performing the curl with a heavy weight, it can be painful on your hand. This can be avoided by gripping 1″ below the knobs with a strong grip strength.

#4  Alternating Dumbbell Curls

Alternating dumbbell curl

  • 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 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: Perform the rotating motion controlled and deliberate. Jerking motions can put strain on your elbows.

#5  Hammer Curls

Alternating Dumbbell 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 without rotating the forearm. So a hammer curl differs from a traditional dumbbell curl because the palms remain facing each other during the curl, with no rotation. 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:  Do Hammer Curls “down the rack” at the end of your 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:

  • 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. (4)

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 vulnerable location of most torn biceps tendons for middle-aged men, and they usually happen when attempting lifts with heavy weights and jolting movements. 

Sometimes there is no warning that it’s coming (pain, discomfort, etc.). This is why it’s also helpful to include a solid bicep stretching routine to keep your biceps healthy and supple.

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.
Bicep Preacher Curl

Variation Is Key, Not the Same Old Same Old

I find that using a lot of variation in my bicep workout is the best way to keep my biceps engaged and actively growing. So if you are doing the same barbell curls or EZ bar curls on a weekly basis, you are probably cheating yourself to a certain extent.

Mix it up on a weekly basis to keep your muscles always reacting to new exercises. And by doing this, you will also effectively work the long head and short heads.

Going Heavy

Also make sure that you are sufficiently challenging your biceps. You need to lift heavy to actively engage your biceps to a point where they break down and rebuild stronger.

If you are just going through the motions, it will still be good for toning, but you won’t increase mass and strength in the same way if you are going heavy.

And always remember there is a balance to strike in this. You don’t want to go too heavy and risk injury. So keep in mind about 80% of max weight. I’ve always found that’s a good rule that works for me. And I’ve never had a bicep injury, but they can happen, so always make sure you do a good dynamic warm-up to ensure your muscles are so full and ready.

Powering Your Gains

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David Williams

A diet and fitness enthusiast, David is an ex-Army Airborne Ranger and Infantry soldier with decades of fitness and wellness experience. A West Point graduate with a degree in engineering, he focuses on technical research related to fitness, nutrition, and wellness. He loves the beach and working out, and spending time with his wife and daughters.

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  1. Anatomy, shoulder and upper limb, biceps muscle – statpearls – NCBI … (n.d.).
  2. MSc, N. G. (2022, July 27). Brachialis muscle. Kenhub.
  3. Brachioradialis. Physiopedia. (n.d.).
  4. Rotator cuff injury – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.).

Click to see our medical disclosure.