Biceps Workouts: Functional Exercises for Big Arms

Updated on August 29, 2017
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Do you want bulging baseball biceps?

A lot of fitness articles tend to fall back on variations of traditional exercises when the title calls for ‘building muscle’ of any kind, especially when it comes to so-called vanity muscles like biceps, pectorals and lats. Biceps in particular seem to get an unfair share of boring old exercise articles, which is a shame. With a little imagination, you can have a lot of fun working this important muscle group.

To break out of the mold, start thinking functional and throw out almost all of your typical exercises and equipment (not literally of course.) Before we get started, a quick note. Traditional exercises like barbell, dumbbell and cable curls are all great-no argument here. The following suggestions are offered to replace or mix-up your typical routine, and with the intention of producing some positive results.

Make no mistake, every muscle in the body plays a ‘functional’ role. The biceps and surrounding muscles are important for bending the elbow, moving the shoulder out to the side, flexing it forward and assisting the larger pulling muscles during pull-ups, rows and deadlifts. Devote some quality time to this muscle group, always starting off with a light weight and a burning warm up.

Here are some underutilized methods that will give your bulging baseballs a fresh challenge:

  1. Mason Blocks: The average 8x8x16 cinder block weights 30-35 pounds. When you go to grab the flat edge and curl it, you might think it weighs a lot more. The blocks force you to focus on the movement and remove most of the grip as an aid in bringing the weight up. But don’t just stand there! Try doing Farmer’s Walks punctuated by a set of curls, Now you have a whole body workout.
  2. Thick Bar Curls: Thick Olympic barbells and dumbbell handles require the user to maintain a stronger, more open grip when doing an exercise. The forearms receive an extra pump when using them, but biceps also work harder, and at an increased mechanical disadvantage. If a $200 or $300 dollar fat bar is not in the budget, try substituting galvanized steel pipe instead. Use 1 ½”-2” thick pipes. For weight, add Olympic plates to the 1 1/2” diameter, capping both ends off. For the 2” diameter pipe, slide either end through a cinder block or two. Watch for slippage in both cases. While a thicker bar is a greater challenge over the common curl, don’t go so thick that the forearm muscles tire before the biceps. Even a slight increase in diameter makes the biceps curl harder to do.
  3. Sandbags and Other Bags: Sandbags fall into the ‘odd object lifting’ category and with good reason. The weight never seems to stay in one place, making every exercise performed with them a lot harder to do. Rows and curls are no exception. Sandbags can be purchased at the local home improvement store for a few bucks a bag, and then stuffed into a plastic trash bag or duffel bag. Several fitness companies also make good sandbags, but the additional quality will cost you. Whether the bag is commercially or home made, ignore the handles. Instead, grip the bag by some loose material, on either end or from the bottom. For a great biceps (and back and forearm) workout, try the following routine with no rest between exercises:
  4. Bent-Over Row, Power Cleans, Standing Curls
  5. Suspension Trainers: Suspension training (TRX, the Jungle Gym XT, etc.) gives the owner the advantage of working out anywhere; a sure-fire way to increase motivation if ever there was one. Performing curls on a suspension trainer is a lot of fun as well. The user can lean back and start with some easy two handle warm-up curls, drop back further and increase the difficulty, switch to one hand and do hammer or reverse curls; all without having to stop or adjust anything (except maybe the feet.) In the meantime, the entire core is working to stabilize the body as you curl. For a little more excitement, combine the ‘thick bar’ and suspension trainer curls by making your own simple version. Get some 1 ½” thick pvc pipe, cut some handle size pieces, tie some strong rope through both and anchor it with an eye hook and carabineer. Thick handle suspension curls! (See the article "Functional Homemade SuspensionTraining Tools in the sidebar for more on this subject.)
  6. Flex those Biceps: The biceps and wrist muscles play a significant part in rowing and pulling exercises, so don’t take them for granted. When doing deadlifts, rows (bent-over, seated cable) or pull-ups, use them. This doesn’t mean you perform the lift with the biceps alone, but that they are consciously activated during these lifts. As former Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu said, “…never do any lifting unless you realize which muscles are involved, then use them all.” Before performing your biceps workout, get a thorough warm-up. Light cardio and joint rotations for a total of 15 minutes will get the blood flowing and prepare the body. Next, prepare the biceps by starting out with some light rowing or light dumbbell work. This specific warm-up is important to avoid injuring this small muscle group and the delicate elbow joint.

Be creative with your workout routines and keep it interesting. Not only will it be more fun, but your biceps will be stimulated like never before.

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