As discussed in the previous article, the anatomy of the biceps is such that it is composed by two main heads. These are conveniently named the short and the long head.
The short head of the biceps is closest to the body on the inner arm. It helps give the biceps the appearance of fullness and girth. In contrast, the long head runs along the outside of the upper arm and gives the muscle the appearance of length. Training the long head is beneficial when aiming to increase the “peak” of the biceps.
This article is part of a series which focuses on exercises that use body weight or minimal equipment to train the biceps muscle group. We will focus this time on the long head of the biceps. Targeting this part of the muscle can help create a toned arm region with a well-defined muscle “peak”.
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Studies have shown that mechanical tension is the largest determinant of muscle size increase. This means that lifting more weight overtime will allow you to grow larger, more powerful muscles.
Barbells are great for a few reasons. They allow you to lift more weight than dumbbells do. These movements require less stabilization than dumbbell movements.
Dumbbells in contrast allow for greater muscle activation (study 1 and study 2). This is likely due in part to the greater range of motion in dumbbell exercises.
Also, dumbbells tend to cause less discomfort as they allow for more natural movement. Perhaps most importantly, imbalances are minimized with dumbbells since each side of the body must perform the movement independently. Therefore, one side cannot compensate for the other.
So… you should use both in your exercise routine!
Without further ado, lets jump right in and cover exercises which you can add to or use to modify your current training repertoire.
Hand position is key and can be altered to change activity in the biceps.
To maximize activation of the long head, start the curl in the standing position with your hands lined up with the body and in the neutral position (thumb pointing forward). As you move though the range of motion by bringing the weight up and reducing the angle between the biceps and forearm, you supinate.
Looking at the right arm below, we can see the rotation in the radio-ulnar joint.
Supination involves rotating the forearm (technically it’s movement at the radio-ulnar joint). As you supinate, your palms should face the front and your thumbs should point outward and away from your body.
Try to finish the curl with your pinky pointing in the upward direction.
Starting in a supinated position and finishing in the same will target the long head of the biceps. The long head is preferentially activated when the wrist is supinated. See picture below:
End the movement completely supinated – again, the with the pinky should be pointing in the upward direction.
Research has shown that the long head remains active throughout the entire range of motion when performing inclined curls.
The long head crosses the shoulder joint and the short head does not, therefore, starting with the arm behind the body will preferentially activate this head. Also, muscles produce the greatest force when slightly stretched.
In the picture below, the movement is performed from the starting position (left) to the final position (right). As always, it is important to select the weight so that you can perform 6 – 8 curls before fatigue.
In the starting position, the upper arm is held behind the body and hangs towards the ground. The shoulder is in a hyper-extended position. This position stretches the long head and causes maximal activation of this head of the biceps muscle.
As shown above a normal curl is performed with the palm being slightly angled throughout the range of motion.
Performing this is not necessary as the previous exercise is an excellent option in and of itself while this requires some equipment. Cabled curls are included here for those who have access to and would like to mix up their normal routine.
Also, it has been shown that inclined curls are most effective in the last half of the motion. Standing and using cables allows for greater activation through the whole range of motion.
To perform this exercise, stand some distance away from the cable pulley as shown below (on the left). The arms are extended backwards where the long head of the biceps is elongated. The movement is performed and completed in the picture shown on the right below.
The arm is positioned and maintained behind the body throughout the whole range of motion. The elbows are bent and the biceps flexed as the upper arm is kept in position and the forearm is moved in the forward and upward direction.
It is important to keep in mind that the elbow should be pointing backwards at the end of the movement as it was at the start. Also, multiple other muscles such as the deltoids, trapezius, rhomboid, and upper pectoralis major will be recruited throughout this movement as stabilizers.
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Altering your grip can be an easy to manage way to focus on the long head of the biceps. Using a narrower than shoulder width grip can be used to prioritize the long head and preferentially activate this part of the biceps over the short head when performing curls with the bar.
Despite this, anecdotal evidence has been used to suggest that the long head of the biceps which plays a role in shoulder joint abduction may be more activated with a much wider than shoulder width grip…
In general, both wide and short grip reduce range of motion, and there is some evidence that they reduce biceps EMG amplitude as well. So, while they provide variety, neither should be the only focus of your barbell curl exercises.
The bar is lifted as close as possible to the body. The elbows are positioned behind the body as they bend through the range of motion.
This movement, shown below allows for preferential recruitment of the long head of the biceps over the short head.
The advantage of targeted exercises which can be used to focus on one or two muscle groups are clear. However, compound exercises also have their place in a workout routine. Some would even argue and not without merit that a few key compound exercises should be the core exercises around which you build your routine. These are the over-head press, bench press, squat, and deadlift (video).
With this in mind, let's cover a few exercises which focus on the biceps but require coordinated activity and stabilization by numerous other muscle groups to perform.
The push up is an excellent compound exercise which can be utilized to strengthen the muscles of the upper body. While the push up most activates the muscles which surround the shoulder joint (pectoralis major and deltoid muscles), it can also activate the biceps and triceps to a significant extent. The activation of the biceps is only slightly less than the pecs in a standard push up and the same is true of the triceps.
The tendency, when performing exercises, especially those that are more challenging is to increase speed and sacrifice form. This study shows that slow push-ups significantly increase the amount of biceps activity compared to normal or fast speed performance.
Also, it is increasingly clear that exercise routines should strengthen muscles that perform opposing actions (and are often on opposite sides of the joint). Given the previously discussed anatomy of the biceps and function in flexing the elbow joint the triceps should be trained concurrently.
The same study shows that slow performance of push-ups also significantly increases the activation of the triceps muscle group.
The chin-up as an excellent bicep workout (study). It is also a great compound exercise around which you can build your upper body workout routine.
One of the other great things about chin-ups is that weight can be added to cause maximal tension and activation of the biceps while performing this movement.
Here is a sample workout for enhancing the long head and biceps peak:
Inclined dumbbell curls (no supination) – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Narrow grip barbell curls (drop to partial curl) – 3 sets of 6 – 10 reps
Drag curls: 3 sets of 6 – 12 reps
Hammer curl or reverse curl: 3 sets of 6 – 12 reps
These exercises can be done in one work out or as I would recommend, divided up into your workouts through the week, doing a few of them each time.
That’s it for this week’s article but stay posted for the next in this series! Please continue sending in your questions in the comments section!! If you have enjoyed this content, Please follow me on Instagram and subscribe to my Youtube channel where I will continue to frequently post videos on a wide range of work-out related topics.
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