Biceps: Two heads are better than one

Have you ever seen a guy with biceps that look impressive from the side with a great peak but then all the size vanishes when viewed from the front? Conversely, have you seen biceps that, when viewed from the front, appear thick & meaty and hang from the inside of the arm as if they were sliding off but viewed from the side appear flat with no shape? Apparently one of the bicep heads has developed while its brother has lagged behind.

Truthfully, my friends, I intended to write an article that would instruct the trainer on how to focus on one head of the bicep over the other. However, the deeper I dove into my research the more conflicting information I discovered. One piece of information I do know to be fact is that both heads share the same insertion tendon that connects to the radius bone of the forearm. That being said, is it even possible to work one head harder than the other?

Rather than giving out advice, I don’t fully believe to be accurate, I prefer to challenge you to experiment with some of my favorite techniques to see if you can detect if one head is being stressed over its brother.

My focus here is on the good ol biceps brachii. The other muscles that make up the elbow flexors are not targeted in this article. The biceps brachii has two heads. The short head runs on the inside of the arm, closest to the chest, and adds to the thickness when viewed from the front. The long head runs along the outside of the arm and forms the peak when flexed. If you’re genetically lucky enough you may have been gifted with an obvious split between the two heads.

How would one target each of the heads? Some trainers claim the more supinated the wrist (higher the little finger) the more the short head would work. Others stated it was about the width of your grip on the bar and a narrow grip would have a greater effect on the long head. Most info pointed to the position of the elbows in relation to the torso, stating that the long head would work harder if the elbows were kept behind your body. I’m not convinced that any of these theories are true but I do use some techniques that I believe are effective and the results should get you two tickets to the gun show.

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Let’s take a peak at the long head

My personal favorite exercise, said to work the long head, is the Incline Dumbbell Curl. Here’s how I perform it with a little added intensity:

Set an incline bench at about 30 degrees. Grab two dumbbells on the lighter side of what you’d normally curl. Lie back on the bench and let the bells hang straight down so as to fully stretch out your biceps. Sometimes I choose to start the curl in a hammer position (palms facing in) and then supinate the hand as I curl the bell up. For that move I hold the bell with my thumb against the inside plate so it’s more difficult to supinate the hand. Other times I will start with my hands in a fully supinated position. If that’s my choice I like to hold the bell with my little finger pressed against the inside plate to add more weight to my thumb side of the bell. The latter way I feel a much deeper stretch at the bottom. I hold this fully supinated position all way up to full contraction. Two important things to keep in mind are to keep the bells close to the bench and to keep your elbows pointed down. The most common mistake most trainers make, with this exercise, is to allow their elbows to move forward as they curl the weight up. I like to take these reps to failure and then sit up on the bench for a couple more reps before finally standing up and squeezing out a couple more while maintaining the aforementioned form.

The Standing Barbell Curl can emphasize the long head if you use a narrow grip and don’t allow your elbows to come forward of your body. Your biceps should be fully contracted in the top position. Keep your chest out and your shoulders back. If you lean your torso slightly forward as the weight comes up you can aid in maintaining the stress on your biceps.

The most common error, when performing standing barbell curls, is to bring your elbows up in front of your body and to finish the movement with the bar resting on your shoulders. This removes all the tension from your biceps. I often see trainers doing curls with their arms locked at 90 degrees and their elbows traveling back and fourth in a rocking chair motion. Their biceps are never worked though any real range of motion and their front delts are doing all the work.

Another error is to curl your wrist up during the move or to hold your wrist in a contracted position throughout the curl. Performing a wrist curl during a biceps curl tends to take the tension off the biceps. I even allow my hands to sag down somewhat while I’m curling. This may bother some trainer’s wrists but I’ve never had a problem.

Another exercise, said to emphasize the long head, is the Drag Curl. For this move you would hold a barbell or use the Smith machine. You would start by holding the bar with your arms hanging down straight and your little fingers against your outer thighs. You then drag the bar up along your torso while your elbows move toward the rear. The finish position is when the bar reaches your chest. Personally, I never felt I got much benefit from this exercise, possibly due to its limited range of motion but give it a try and form your own opinion.

The short head

Exercises said to concentrate more on the short head are performed with the elbows forward of the body using a wider grip. The classic example of this is the Preacher Curl. Here are my thoughts on this exercise:

Some trainers will sit at the preacher bench and position the pad against their chest and deep under their armpits. They’ll take a narrow grip and widen their elbows. As the bar comes up they’ll curl their wrists and lean back. Even if they begin the move with they’re arms fully straight, the tension quickly comes off the biceps after a few inches of movement. Why do they perform the exercise this way? Because it’s the path of least resistance. If that’s your goal why even bother training?

Try this technique for preacher curls: Perform the movement while standing. Raise the pad so it’s just below your pecs. Place your lower triceps on top of the pad, so your elbows are just over the edge. Your elbows should be shoulder width apart and your grip on the bar should flair out slightly so your hands are a little wider than shoulder width. At the start position your torso should be leaning backward. As the bar curls up you should then lean forward to keep the tension on your biceps. I like to fully supinate my hands so the pressure stays on my little fingers. I let my wrists sag down a bit and I resist the temptation to do a wrist curl as the bar comes up.

Some trainers recommend stopping prior to straightening your arms so you always keep tension on the muscle but I’m of the school that believes you should work a muscle through its full range of motion. You can straighten out your arm while still keeping the tension on the bicep.

Another great short head exercise is the Spider Curl. Use the preacher bench by removing the pad and turning it around so the 45 degree angle is facing you. Raise the pad just enough so that when you lean over it but the bar doesn’t hit the supports when yours arms are hanging straight down. Follow the same technique as the Preacher Curl. You’ll really have to check your ego for this exercise because you won’t be able to handle much weight. It’s a good idea to have a partner on this exercise because once you reach positive failure the bar refuses to ascend so you could use a little help for a few assisted reps.

Whether or not it’s possible to hit one bicep head over the other, doesn’t it make sense to attack your biceps from all different angles anyway?

In the end, most likely, the shape of you biceps is all genetic so if you’ve got one head that refuses to grow like its big brother……..blame your parents.


About the Author
Jim Vaglica is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Team Labrada Athlete, Jim competed on the Reality TV shows American Grit, hosted by John Cena, and Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible. He is a Police Sergeant with 16 yrs on SWAT and the Owner of JimVaglica.com

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One Response for Biceps: Two heads are better than one

  1. Christy Burns

    avatar

    January 24, 2013 2:31 pm

    Love it!