Do you find pull-ups and chin-ups challenging for you? Then yeah, your biceps will definitely get the message to grow—no isolation work needed.
So, we know that in a compound movement like the pull-up or chin-up, that your biceps will get worked.
But with something like the pull-up/chin-up, the main muscle that is doing the exercise are the lats. That means your lats will reach failure first before your biceps.
So you might not be able to do any more chin-ups, but your biceps might still be feeling pretty fresh.
The reason why is because, as Dr Israetel writes, biceps are poorly leveraged, make so little force, and are so small. So when it comes to a pull-up, they have their role, but they don’t really do the heavy lifting. (But because biceps are so small, they can recover quickly, he also says this makes a good case for training them almost daily!)
The biceps aren’t going to failure in the chin-up—does it matter?
After the chin-ups, your biceps might still feel pretty fresh. So you might be leaving some potential gains on the table. You could supercharge your bicep growth by giving them more work. You can do this by “isolating” the biceps a bit more by switching up the exercises to a simpler, single joint exercise.
Doing isolation exercises can help you get extra gains. This is especially true when it’s hard to do the full range of motion of the muscle in a compound exercise, or the muscle can handle lots of work being thrown at it (paywall MASS research review). And this is the case for the biceps.
For example, in this 2013 study, they took young guys who didn’t lift weights found that those who did some bicep curls after doing lat-pulldowns got nearly 60% better arm circumference growth and 23% stronger. Obviously if these guys just kept getting stronger at the lat pulldown, they’d eventually reach that same size, but the extra isolation work should help you optimize your size gains and get there faster.
One thing to keep in mind, is that when doing isolation exercises, this is a great time to give your biceps some variation in terms of loading intensity. Your bicep will get enough “heavy” work from the compound movements like the chin-ups.
So when isolating, this is a great time to get some lighter, higher rep work in like the 8, 12, and even 20 rep-range. (And later on, as you become a more adept lifter, you can experiment with occlusion for blood-flow-restriction with super high reps.)
What exercises hit the biceps the best?
Dr Contreras did a small experiment on this. He used electromyography (EMG), which measures the electrical activity of muscles, on the biceps to get an idea of what exercises would hit them the best. He wrote an article on T-Nation about it (here’s a link to his personal site, which is also excellent), and this is a snapshot of what he found along with the scores:
Most tension on the biceps:
- Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull-up: 109
- Weighted Chin-up: 107
- Barbell Curl: 95
- Barbell Cheat Curl: 94
- 1-Arm Preacher Curl: 80
Most force generated by biceps (more important):
- Weighted Chin-up: 205
- Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull-up: 184
- EZ-Bar Curl: 146
- 1-Arm Preacher Curl: 145
- Concentration Curl: 143
It’s no surprise that heaviest, compound movements like the chin-up and pull-up will challenge the biceps the most. So if you wanted even better bicep growth, you might want to focus more on the chin-up (where your palms are facing towards you / supinated) than the pull-up (palms down / pronated), since your biceps will be in a position to activate a bit better.
The other thing this list shows is that if you’re looking for big arms and you’re short on time, you’d be better off picking a compound movement like the chin-up over doing isolation works like curls.
Want to get stronger at the chin-up? Three ways to focus on getting stronger:
- doing more reps in your sets
- doing more sets (more volume over the week)
- making the chin-up heavier by using a weight belt with some plates on it
How to get the fullest, most 3D biceps:
Bi- means two. There are two heads to the biceps, the long head, and the short head.
The short head is on the inner side of your arm, the long head on the outside. And there’s a secret “third bicep” hidden below the biceps called the brachialis.
If you want to hit all three areas well to get the biggest, most evenly developed, and 3D looking arms, then you’ll want to challenge your biceps to get strong:
- in a variety of exercises
- in their full range of motion
For example, to hit the long head of your biceps better, you can put your arm behind your body. One way of doing this is by sitting on an incline bench and doing a drag curl.
And to hit the short head better, you can put your arm in front of your body then curl, like the preacher or concentration curl.
And to hit the brachialis? Its main job is to make your elbows flex in, so it’ll get worked with the biceps at the same time. But the more your arm is pronated (palms down), the less your biceps will get worked, allowing you to target the brachialis a bit better.
So things like the neutral-grip chin-up, hammer curls, and even going fully pronated (palms facing down) like the reverse curls could hit the brachialis pretty good.
Hitting the long head, short head, and brachialis
Using Dr Contreras’ list, you could make sure to include a compound lift like the variations the chin-up (like the neutral-grip chin-up or the pull-up) or doing something like the Dan John power curl in your workouts.
Then add a variety of other lifts like:
- EZ-Bar Curl (good, general lift)
- Preacher Curl (good for the short head)
- Concentration Curl (good for the short head)
- Incline Drag Curls (good for the long head)
- Hammer Curls (good for overall growth including the brachialis)
- Both the chin-up and pull-up will help you grow your biceps, but the chin-up will be a bit better
- You can add in extra isolation work to get even better bicep growth
- Aim to make the isolation work higher-rep, aiming for the 8–20 range, since the compound lifts will give your biceps lots of heavy work
- The best scoring bicep exercises were the:
- weighted chin-up
- weighted wide parallel-grip pull-up
- EZ-Bar Curl
- 1-Arm Preacher Curl
- Concentration Curl
- Include exercise variations that will hit the long head, short head, and brachialis
- That means you should try doing exercises that put your arms behind and in front of your body, and exercises that switch the grip position (palms up, neutral grip, palms down)
- Make Dan John proud and try doing the power curl for a great compound movement that hits the biceps