Great Guns! How to Build Big Arms

Strike a pose: biceps are one of the most commonly trained muscles.


Everyone wants big “guns.” Guys showing off their muscles strike a double biceps pose pretty much every time. Often the pursuit of big arms results in the neglect of other, just as important, muscle groups. While it is essential to build all the muscles in your body, this particular post is for those who have been searching for the best biceps workout. The research has been done, the experts have weighed in with their advice so, here it is. Help for building bigger biceps.

What Works?

Get off the plateau–work your biceps more frequently to increase size.

First off, you know that building big arms requires attaining hypertrophy in your biceps muscles. You have probably read and heard a lot of different and sometimes conflicting advice on how to go about that. Thankfully, someone finally sat down to compare the studies and came up with a conclusion. According to Strength and Conditioning Research, hypertrophy occurs more readily for trained people when they exercise the muscles more frequently. That means if you are not a beginner but have been working out long enough to see results and have hit a plateau, you should benefit from changing up your regimen to work your biceps more than once a week. You will still need to allow days in between for recovery, but the increased frequency will get you back on the building track. Frequency does not appear to have the same effect for untrained individuals, however, but beginners should see results from as little as one arm workout a week because any increase in activity will affect untrained muscles.

The Best Arm Exercises for Biceps

Exercises that activate the long and short heads of the biceps are the ones that are most effective for increasing size.

Arm exercises that activate the long and short heads of the biceps brachii are the best for an effective biceps workout. Pretty much any move in which you bend and straighten your elbows will activate the biceps either directly or indirectly. Indirect exercises are essential for developing bigger biceps, but we’ll talk about those in a minute. It is the exercises that directly activate the biceps brachii by challenging them to pull weight that are most effective for building big arms. These include all manner of curls such as cable and barbell curls, concentration, incline, and preacher curls.


Concentration curls are the most effective biceps exercise for isolating and activating the long and short heads of the biceps brachii. Image via Howcast/YouTube

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a study to determine which biceps exercise is the most effective, as well as how effective the others are. Dumbbell concentration curls isolate the biceps more than other curls and were found to activate almost 100 percent maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) in biceps. The big surprise? No other arm exercises come close. The nearest contenders are cable curls and chin-ups, activating a respectable but still not competitive 80 percent MVC. That does not mean you should shun all but those top three arm exercises. Most curls will still help you build big arms. Even the lowest on the ACE list, preacher curls, still activated almost 70 percent MVC in biceps muscles.

A Biceps Workout

bench press

The incline bench press may be a chest exercise, but it indirectly works your biceps by recruiting them as dynamic stabilizers.

As you increase weight to challenge your biceps, you run the risk of straining your joints and experiencing wrist and elbow joint pain. Stack‘s solution to this dilemma is to employ those indirect exercises we were previously talking about to work on building while giving your joints a rest. Since many upper body exercises indirectly work the biceps, the recommendation is to work arms alone or work them with legs on the same day. Doing an arms day plus a legs and arms day, and incorporating different arm exercises each time you do your biceps workout will give you the increased frequency you need to build biceps muscles. An example of a week’s worth of training might look like this:

Monday: chest and back

Tuesday: off or cardio

Wednesday: legs and biceps

dumbbell concentration curls


EZ curls, both wide and narrow grips

Thursday: off or cardio

Friday: shoulders and triceps

Saturday: biceps

dumbbell concentration curls

cable or barbell curls

incline curls

preacher curls

Personal trainer Jim Ryno spelled out his biceps workout in a past issue of Muscle and Fitness1. Naturally he recommends a variety of curls, but the especially useful takeaway is the method that he uses. Known as the 6/20 drop set, you use a heavy weight for your first set, one that limits you to no more than 6 reps. Then, with no rest in between, immediately do 20 reps with half the weight. You can rest 60 to 90 seconds–seasoned lifters know when to go again–before grabbing the heavier weight to go through another drop set. Do a total of 3 to 4 drop sets of each exercise.

Don’t forget the importance of hand grip exercises to improve your arm strength and performance for pretty much every arm exercise you do!


1Ryno, Jim (2015, October). Straight Up: Biceps. Muscle and Fitness, Volume 76/Number 9, page 108


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