If you can get really good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift.
– Charlie Munger
Many dismiss promising ideas outright when they don’t fit their current beliefs.
They therefore fail to get better results, assuming they already know what’s important. In our case, perhaps they understand basic exercise science but have never delved into the latest, most detailed research.
As seen here on this blog, I entrapped myself into a basics-only philosophy, despite a true passion for natural bodybuilding.
The peak of the biceps is a good example where we assume genes mean everything. Attachment sites don’t shift through training, so if your biceps are known for being either long or high, they will always lean toward that makeup.
Nonetheless, the experiences of classic bodybuilders, and research now too, show that you can train to improve this quality.
Techniques for Improving Biceps Peak
I did a great deal of dumbbell work for biceps in those days, because it was the best. You can curl and supinate at the top of the movement with dumbbells.
– Frank Zane
Supinate while curling dumbbells on an incline bench.
Most bodybuilders have figured out that an underhand or fully supinated grip favors the biceps over other elbow flexors like the brachialis or brachioradialis, though this concept can expand further.
Frank Zane mentions that he learned greatly from Arnold Schwarzenegger as a training partner. He recalled Arnold joking around that Frank had no peaks compared to his mountainous arms. He taught Frank that supinating on dumbbell curls would help.
The key to supinating properly is not only to gradually turn the palm so that it faces the ceiling at the top of the curl, while starting in a slightly pronated or neutral position, but to use an offset grip.
An offset grip means holding the dumbbell toward either the front or rear bell. You can also achieve this effect by loading more plates on a side, if using an adjustable one, then gripping normally.
Steve Reeves adopted this practice, choosing an offset grip toward the rear bell that facilitated supination. This allows a greater range of motion, which may develop fuller biceps by overloading additional sarcomeres.
Alternatively, grasping toward the front bell has you resist supination to overload the medial fibers of the long outer head, which are responsible for biceps peak.
Finally, using an incline bench actually better hits the medium length of the biceps. Working at a moderate length probably leads to the most overall growth, since it addresses the highest active tension for the whole muscle.
Though supination hits the biceps through an increasingly better internal moment arm, it also shortens it. The stretch at the shoulder through an incline bench realigns the muscle to stress the medium length.
Use hammer curls for the brachialis.
With an underhand grip that favors the biceps brachii, the brachialis experiences less fatigue than on curls with a neutral grip, where the brachialis is prioritized relative to other elbow flexors.
By disabling the biceps as it wraps around the radius through pronation, the brachialis will bear the brunt of the fatigue due to neural inhibition of the biceps. Less intuitively, the brachialis also decreases its EMG signal with supination, which may be due to receiving less neural drive when the biceps dominate.
The brachialis will push the biceps up and out, comprising 40% of the elbow flexor girth within the arm. This is similar to how the long head of the triceps will frame the lateral and medial heads when developed sufficiently, enlarging the arm greatly.
Perform underhand curls with shortened biceps.
Performing an underhand curl while shortening the biceps through shoulder flexion and forearm supination may emphasize proximal growth to form a more prominent bicep peak.
Some options include concentration curls, spider curls, lying overhead cable curls, and preacher curls with a cable pulley or machine that allows tension at the top.
The key is to pause when the elbow is flexed maximally, where the muscle cramps as the fibers bunch up.
Contracting a muscle while shortened should decrease sarcomeres in-series overtime, leading to a shorter yet still prominent muscle.
Though less proven than other methods here, it may perhaps activate a unique muscle-building stimulus known as cell swelling, perhaps focused on the attachment nearest to the center of the body.
Address shoulder flexion?
Though the biceps have a weak influence on shoulder flexion, it still functions here.
If we consider how the biceps respond differently to elbow flexion versus forearm supination, then addressing this function may hit unique motor units.
An underhand front raise, using a cambered or EZ curl bar, could be rotated in occasionally.
Getting Peaked Biceps: Individuality, Variety, & Balance
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
– Albert Einstein
In his comprehensive book on EMG, Muscles Alive: Their Functions Revealed by Electromyography, biofeedback scientist and expert John Basmajian says:
Our results provided convincing evidence that in the movements produced by the biceps, the brachialis and the brachioradialis there is a fine interplay between them; this was to be expected. What is more striking, however, is the wide range of response from any one muscle in our series. Thus, although a general trend may be described, there is rarely any unanimity of action. For example, the brachialis is generally markedly active during quick flexion of the supine forearm, but in one of our subjects it was completely inactive.
We know then that muscle activation can differ among trainees. The advice here to get big peaked biceps likely applies for many, but you need to experiment with exercises and methods to discover what works for you.
Remember the principle of variety, among the most important for successful bodybuilding. Both heavy and light training, for instance, may better stimulate biceps peak by addressing various muscle-building components. At the least, they may represent different ways to achieve the same end result yet allow for better recovery.
Balance is important though. Heed Steve Reeves’ warning that too great a biceps peak looks grotesque, a belief which had him only focusing on this quality pre-contest. (My opinion is that this poor look may actually be underdevelopment of the biceps versus the brachialis proportionately, which occurs from too many curls with fixed wrists.)
Nonetheless, we can likely develop size anywhere that muscle already exists. This is now supported by research alongside the guidance of top classic bodybuilders. Consider these suggestions for building your own biceps peak, accounting for individual differences, as you desire.