Does anything say “yeah I lift” like huge biceps? It’s a hard one to hide and big arms are fun whether you’re trying to be a #GirlWhoLifts or a manly macho man.
The importance of bicep training has been in the public eye since bodybuilding gained some popularity in the 70s. It’s a classic piece of physique change and you’re going to need big biceps to pull off a convincing, well-balanced physique.
Stick around if you’re ready to fill out the sleeves of your shirt or whip out your guns in any social situation. Ironically, of course.
Anatomy of the Biceps for Big Gains
You might have biceps, but do you understand how they work? If you don’t, you’re going to struggle.
Most people aren’t making big enough bicep gains because they don’t understand the anatomy behind them or how to train more effectively.
There are two heads to the bicep: the ‘long’ and ‘short’ heads. These muscles act simultaneously but they do have different angles and central roles in the way that they act on the elbow joint.
Also, what you’re thinking of as the bicep is probably not just one muscle. You’re going to want to develop other muscles in the upper arm to build up that significant thickness: the brachialis and brachioradialis are significant for a thicker total upper arm.
One of the things you might not have considered with the bicep is that it crosses the shoulder joint. The upper bicep tendons are attached to the shoulder, which makes it a bit more complicated than just curling your way to glory.
It’s also going to be key to consider the role of the biceps and triceps working against each other. This is key for isolation exercises – as we’ll discuss later – but the tricep also crosses the shoulder joint.
1. Follow Simple Principles
The growth of the biceps works exactly like any other area of your body. You need to start with these principles, or it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. There are some specific ways to get bigger arms, but if you’re no doing the basics then we can’t fix it for you.
Increase Your Volume Over Time
If you’re not adding weight, reps, or sets over time then you shouldn’t be surprised when your biceps stop growing. You need to deliberately increase your volume over time, or you’re not going to see any significant progress.
It doesn’t matter which of the variables you’re adjusting, you need to do more in one way or another. It’s usually best to alternate which variable you’re changing over time, and there are benefits to taking a little time to focus on weight, reps, or sets.
A good program has a system for this kind of progress and 4 sets of 12 at the same weight every session just isn’t going to bring you the results you want. Push yourself, or you won’t progress.
Get Your Recovery on Point
There are three stages to muscle and strength gains: stress, recovery, progress.
The first one is the progressive overload we mentioned above. Training stresses muscles and tendons, and then the recovery process is where your body does the real growth.
If your recovery sucks, there’s no way you’re getting good results. You could have the best training in the world, but your recovery factors – diet, sleep, hydration, mobility work – determine the results you’re going to get.
If you’re working hard but complaining you’re not making gains, this could be the missing link. You can’t out-train a bad diet or insufficient sleep, so you need to prioritize these things. Plenty of dietary proteins and carbs, 8+ hours of sleep per night, and as much good relaxation as you can get.
It’s not enough to train if you want the best results. Your lifestyle has to reflect the goals you’re chasing!
Incorporate Some Variety
There’s a fine balance between variety and specificity. If you change up your workouts too much, you’re not going to be able to progress consistently – and you’ll miss out on performance and physique gains.
However, introducing variety is an important stimulus to better growth. It’s important to introduce some change, as this has been shown in some studies to actually be more important than variety in reps and loads.
Variety doesn’t have to be changing your main bicep exercise, however. One great approach is to keep the main exercises (like rows, pull ups, etc.) the same, while varying the secondary movements – such as changing your types of curls or other isolation exercises.
You should consider introducing more variety in response to things like stalling or plateaus. This change of pace can be a significant enough change to produce results without taking a serious step back or changing you training drastically.
Sometimes, a change is as good as a rest – and often better!
2. Use A Combination of Heavy and Light Loads
The biceps are like any muscle, they require a significant amount of mechanical tension to make significant progress. The metabolic change also happens when you’re exercising, which contributes to better performance and size.
What you want to do is take advantage of these different mechanisms and use them for your own goals. This means that exercise selection and order is going to be key: you need a combination of movements that focus on gross, total loading, as well as more specific exercises where weight isn’t the limiting factor.
This is why we recommend breaking it down into two key types of exercises for the biceps: heavy compound movements and lighter isolation exercises.
- Compound exercises include rows, pull ups, and pulldowns.
- Isolations are primarily curls and machine exercises.
The compound exercises provide gross loading, but get tired faster. They provide a significant stimulus alone, but not optimal levels. The isolation exercises provide a way of focusing in on a single muscle (like the bicep), allow greater variety, and they can be used as ‘finishers’ which induce more mechanical tension because of fatigue and the pump is a potentially useful muscle builder.
Combining these different types of exercise is important to getting the most from your training and making biceps wider, thicker, and stronger. Speaking of different types of training…
3. Work Full and Partial Ranges of Motion
The length of a movement is an important factor for training your muscles. There’s a lot of contention about which kind of movement to use: longer ranges, or shorter ranges with more weight?
As with compounds vs isolations, the best choice is to do both. There are specific benefits to each type of movement, but the important part is to get strong through the whole range. Adding shorter, partial exercises on top of full-range exercise will only improve your results.
The full range of motion movements is important for building strength at all muscle lengths and joint angles. This reduces the risk of injury, as well as involving a stretch in the muscle – something closely tied to better strength and hypertrophy in muscles.
These movements also place more focus on force in the passive aspects of the arm. The full-range curl might not make you feel like a badass, but it prevents injury in the tendons and strengthens the muscles in ways you won’t get from partial exercises.
On the other hand, most heavy bicep exercises aren’t going to work the whole range. The row, for example, isn’t likely to get you a huge range of motion in the bicep. The partial, heavy loading of the muscle is a great way of achieving larger overall loads on the bar.
Partials also produce a greater amount of muscle damage in a specific way. They load the muscles more in active ways, with less passive elements. This means they don’t strengthen the tendons or recruit the cross-bridges in the muscle as effectively.
The combination of long and short range exercises is the perfect training stimulus. It ensures you’re not limited in any range, but also able to amass more training volume and loading. This combination is important, so make sure your curls (for example), are long and controlled. Tense the tricep at the bottom position and you’ll be supporting elbow health and full-stretch muscle gains.
4. Work Your Wrists and Grip, Too!
The other side of the bicep that you might not have considered is how it ties into the forearm. The attachment of the upper arm to the lower arm is important for overall development, as well as the health of the forearm, wrist, and elbow. Pretty important!
The muscles that cross this joint are important because they contribute to the width of your arm. When asking the question ‘how to get thicker biceps’, one of the key answers is to not. You want to add more training for the brachialis and brachioradialis.
These are the muscles that make up the lower 1/3 of your upper arm. They take up the space between the bicep and the elbow joint itself. If you’re not training these muscles, or at least keeping them in shape, you’re going to have a problem with arm thickness more generally.
You can train these muscles with effective grip training – so watch out using straps on your rows/ deadlifts. You can also incorporate wrist curls and wrist rotations with a dumbbell, which are great, and a variety of bicep/ row variations. These ensure proper strength and mass in every position.
5. Build Mighty Triceps
If you’re wondering how to make your biceps wider, one important aspect is to balance your bicep training with better tricep development. The tricep makes up roughly 2/3 of the arm and is responsible for most of the width overall.
Training your biceps alone might be gratifying but it misses a ton of arm-meat that would make your arms wider. It’s a kind of arm-thickness that really shows up, and completes your physique in every direction.
The triceps respond to the same training principles we’ve discussed, but the volume for triceps should be 100-200% as much as the biceps. They’re a bigger, stronger muscle and need to be trained effectively.
If you want to make your arms wider, you can’t just focus on the biceps. Supersets that focus on both the bicep and tricep in combination are some of the most effective and worthwhile. Something as simple as pairing cable curls with tricep pushdowns could be an easy finisher for building wider arms.
This combination of the two is the sure-fire way to make sure your arms look thick from every direction.
We all know that big arms are fun whether you’re beefing up or just getting into shape. The thickness of the arms is one great way to say “hey, I do lift”. Getting bigger biceps isn’t just about peaks – and the things we’ve highlighted so far are the keys to bigger biceps, thicker arms, and width in your sleeves.
If you follow these principles – and have a little patience – you’ll be adding inches to your arms in no time. It’s a simple equation, it just takes time and a smart approach to your own training. If you can commit the time, you’ll get the results.
Let us know if this has been a useful guide, and how you’ve gotten on with your own bicep training. We’d love to hear from you, and we’re curious how well this kind of advice can improve your training!