Bicep Training Tips for Hypertrophy
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 16, 2017
Here are some helpful tips for your bicep training. Please note that these are averages based on my experience working with lots of clients and my own training. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates.
To be technical for a minute, the muscle group being discussed here would be more accurately termed the “forearm flexors” which include the biceps, the brachialis, and several other muscles and supporting muscles. We’re just referring to this muscle grouping as “biceps” for the sake of simplicity and easy internet searching.
If you haven’t been training biceps directly, then no direct biceps work is needed to keep your gains, so long as you’re doing plenty of pulling work. But if you’re used to training biceps directly, 4-6 direct sets per week are recommended to keep the size on.
Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 8 sets of direct biceps work per week to make gains. However, you might be able to gain bicep size on even lower set numbers if your program has lots of pulling work for the back.
Most people respond best to between 14 and 20 weekly sets on average.
Most people seem to encounter serious recovery problems above 26 sets per week. This is more likely to occur if and when your program also includes lots of vertical and horizontal pulling for back. So if your back training is minimal, you might comfortably be able to exceed 26 working sets of biceps per week, but if your back work is a big focus, even as few as 20 sets of biceps might be a challenge for some. ALWAYS use your own assessment of fatigue and never just assume you’re good to go for more volume no matter what.
While the biceps are involved in shoulder flexion (and can thus get pretty sore from chest flyes, for example), and can be taxed significantly through close grip pulling during back training, their direct work is based on a large variety of curls of different kinds.
2-6 times per week.
Holy crap, yes, that does indeed say “6 times per week.” But how? Doesn’t the SRA (Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation) principle imply that muscles only make their best progress during recovery and not during constant stress? You bet! But the cool thing is, super high frequency biceps training doesn’t actually violate SRA. In reality, the biceps are so poorly leveraged to be exposed mechanical damage, produce so little force, and are comparatively so small (and this goes for all of the forearm flexors btw) that they can recover from limited volumes in a VERY short time; often as little as a day. Of course, the emphasis here is on limited volumes, so you can’t expect to do 8 sets of curls and be recovered to repeat that a day later. However, if you do only 3 bicep sets per day, you can easily recover by the next day if you’re adjusted to that kind of workload. And if you do that every day for 6 days, that’s 18 sets a week and well within most individuals’ MRVs. So IF you do choose the high frequency approach to biceps, make sure you weekly volume is still within MRV and you should recover fine.
The forearm flexors of most individuals are a roughly even mix of fiber types, so on paper you should be aiming to train biceps with a wide mix of rep ranges. However, your biceps get pretty much all the heavy work they need as contributors to your heavy back work, and the bicep isolation work you do for them should likely be biased towards higher reps. Additionally, curling for super heavy (sets of 6 or less) sets can be unsafe, so it’s best to focus most of your bicep volume between 8 and 15 rep sets, with occasional uses of higher rep ranges for metabolite work.
Especially to accommodate the higher frequencies of bicep training, there are three different kinds of within-the-microcycle variation that it pays to address:
Using the same exercises back to back to back might cause some localized wear and tear and lead to nagging injuries (with elbow pain and bicep tendon soreness a common one for biceps work). A cool way around this problem is to use 2-4 different exercises for biceps within one microcycle (and mesocycle for that matter). As you can see from the above exercise list, the selection for biceps is quite large, so there’s no need to get stingy with the variation. By interspersing different exercises, you both get a more complete development of the muscle and reduce excessive localized fatigue accumulation.
Along with exercise variation, loading variation can improve fatigue management and thus results. For example if you train biceps twice in a row with two different movements, the first workout with a movement might be with sets of 8, but the next workout might be for sets of 15. This lets you still hammer the movement twice and still provide an overload both times, but it actually reduces the peak forces experienced on the second workout and minimizes the chances of injury. If you do it the other way around, some microtears you caused in the first (lighter) workout might now be presented with the kinds of higher forces in the second workout that could cause injury.
Volume and Relative Intensity Variation:
If you train biceps very often, you might not be able to bring your a-game overload every single one of those times, especially if some of the movements you use (barbell curls) are pretty challenging and best done a bit fresher than other moves (cable rope twist curls) that can be trained when you’re not at your strongest. So, you might want to hammer in the big moves a ton and go easy on the less disruptive moves by lowering their total volume. This allows you to still benefit from very frequent training, but keeps your cumulative fatigue in check so that you can be freshest for the exercises on which you need to be most prepared. In just the same way as reducing the volume, you can also (or instead) reduce the relative intensity of certain workouts to make sure you heal up for the more important work the next day. So instead of going 1/fail on your rope curls like you do on your barbell curls that week, you can keep the rope curls 3/fail and really heal up for barbell curls.
Here’s a sample of what using exercise, loading, and volume/relative intensity variation can look like in a 6 day bicep split:
Monday: 4 sets of 8 barbell curls 1/failure
Tuesday: 4 sets of 15 barbell curls 1/failure
Wednesday: 2 sets of 10 rope curls 3/failure
Monday: 4 sets of 8 EZ Bar curls 1/failure
Tuesday: 4 sets of 15 EZ Bar curls 1/failure
Wednesday: 2 sets of 10 rope curls 3/failure
Range of Motion:
Only squats might be more commonly ROM-abused than bicep curls. If you can limit your ROM on curls, you will of course have all the boys and girls vying for your attention in the gym and you’ll be the king. Alternatively, if you actually want to grow your biggest arms with the smallest chances of injury, go all the way down and come all the way up when curling. Do you have to engage some shoulder flexion at the top of the movement? You can (biceps are also shoulder flexors), but you don’t have to. But if you’re not at least going all the way down and coming all the way up, you’re likely missing out on the growth-promoting effects of full ROM.
Special Metabolite Techniques:
Definitely a prime candidate for metabolite techniques, biceps can be supersetted, drop-setted, giant-setted and, unlike some other bodyparts like chest… occluded!
Biceps occlusion training involves wrapping your arms tight right below the deltoid muscle mass and repping away! A combination of giant sets and occlusion can work really well. For example:
- Take a Dumbbell set you can curl for about a 30RM.
- Put on occlusion wraps/bands.
- Do curls until you’re one rep shy of failure, do not remove occlusion.
- Wait 10 seconds, repeat.
- Finish when you’ve totaled a certain rep number, no matter how many sets it takes. Trying for 50 reps on your first microcycle and adding 10 reps each micro while keeping weight the same is a good idea!
Just like with most bodyparts, your first mesocycle should be moderate weights and reps. The next mesocycle can be more of the same with perhaps slightly different rep ranges and exercises, OR it can be a higher volume block that incorporates lighter weights (closer to the 60%1RM mark) and higher reps, as well as metabolite work. After that meso, a shorter (3-4 weeks) mesocycle of strength training (70-85%1RM) with lower volumes is likely a good idea to resensitize your muscles for more growth, at which point you repeat the process. If you train your biceps for high frequencies, you might want to take the low volume block as an opportunity to reduce biceps frequency (maybe to as low as 2 exercises per week) as well and really give your forearm flexors and their connective tissues a chance to fully heal for the next macrocycle of gains.
If you’re interested in bigger arms and still want to have your best chest, back, and shoulder workouts, doing biceps last in your daily training (on the days you do biceps) is a good idea, as tired biceps can really sap your training, especially your back training. But if you REALLY wanna prioritize biceps, do them first.