Illustration of a muscular shirtless bodybuilder man doing a biceps workout.

The Best Biceps Workout (Dumbbell, Barbell, or Full Gym)

I recommend training your biceps with 3–5 sets of vertical pulls (like chin-ups and lat pulldowns) followed by 2–5 sets of biceps curls (like preacher curls and lying biceps curls). That gives you 5–10 sets of biceps work per workout, and it trains both the short and long head. I recommend doing that twice per week, bringing you up to 10–20 sets per week.

In the rest of the article, we’ll go into more depth, talk about the best biceps exercises, and give you examples of good biceps workouts you can do with dumbbells, barbells, cables, or at a full gym.

How to Train Your Biceps

Your biceps are made up of two heads. They aren’t usually distinguishable from one another, but the long head (outside) is said to give your biceps a greater peak, and the short head (inside) is said to give your biceps more width.

Diagram showing the biceps short head and long head of a bodybuilder.

The main difference is that the short head is a simple elbow flexor (and wrist supinator), whereas the long head also stabilizes your shoulder joint, preventing it from fully engaging during pulling exercises. So:

To train both heads, I recommend starting with your favourite vertical pull. Chin-ups/pulldowns with an underhand, angled, or neutral grip give your biceps better leverage, and they may be better. Overhand pull-ups/pulldowns train your biceps at slightly longer muscle lengths, so they might be just as effective. More on that here.

After that, choose a biceps curl that’s good for your long head. A regular dumbbell, barbell, or cable biceps curl is perfectly fine, but you can work the long head even harder with lying dumbbell curls.

Reps and Sets

Most people do 8–12 reps per set, but anywhere from 6–20 reps is fantastic for building muscle. You could go even lower on the bigger pulling exercises (e.g. chin-ups for 4–6 reps). You could also go as high as 30–40 reps when doing biceps curls, especially if you’re doing Blood Flow Restriction (BFR).

Most research shows you can maximize your rate of muscle growth with about 10–20 sets per week. The upper limit isn’t very well established yet, especially when you’re trying to focus on just a few muscle groups at a time. It’s possible that you could grow your biceps even faster by doing 30 or even 40 sets per week, especially if you work up to it gradually. I’ve gone as high as 35.

How to Program the Workouts

I recommend training your biceps 2–3 times per week. That’s enough to maximize your rate of muscle growth. Mind you, your biceps recover pretty quickly. You can train them even more frequently if you want. Just be careful not to aggravate your elbows. (Underhand chin-ups and barbell curls bother some people’s elbows.)

Almost every training split can be perfect for building bigger biceps:

  • Two-day full-body workouts let you train your biceps twice per week. That might not leave much time for your other muscles, but it can work.
  • Three-day full-body workouts let you train your biceps up to three times per week. I would include some biceps training in at least two of those workouts.
  • Four-day Upper/Lower splits have two upper body workouts. You can include some pulling exercises and biceps curls on both of those days.
  • Five-day Bro Splits have a Back Day and an Arm Day. You can do pulling exercises on Back Day and biceps curls on Arm Day. You can also mix the two together, doing pulling and curling exercises on both.
  • Six-day Push/Pull/Legs routines have two Pull Days. Include some pulling and curling exercises on both Pull Days.

I recommend doing 3–5 sets of vertical pulls followed by 2–5 sets of biceps curls. That gives you 5–10 sets per workout. If you do that twice per week, that’s 10–20 sets per week. I would start at the bottom of the range, working your way higher as needed/desired.

The Workouts

Dumbbell Biceps Workout

Workout 1

ExerciseSetsReps
Dumbbell Row3–5 sets12–15 reps
Dumbbell Curl2–5 sets8–12 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

If you have a chin-up bar, you can start your workout with chin-ups (doing as many reps as possible). If not, you’ll have to start with dumbbell rows. Rows aren’t quite as good for your biceps, but that isn’t a problem. Dumbbell biceps curls can give your biceps everything they need.

Workout 2

ExerciseSetsReps
Lying Dumbbell Curl3–5 sets8–12 reps
Concentration Curl2–5 sets8–12 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

The second workout is quite a bit harder on your biceps. Lying dumbbell curls work the long head under a tremendous stretch, which is incredible for building muscle. Concentration curls put more emphasis on the short head.

Barbell Biceps Workout

Workout 1

ExerciseSetsReps
Chin-Ups3–5 setsAMRAP
Barbell or Curl-Bar Curls2–5 sets6–12 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

If you’re good at chin-ups, feel free to load up extra weight, doing 4–8 reps per set. You can use an underhand grip, but angled and neutral grips are just as good for your biceps while being quite a bit easier on your elbows. If you only have a straight bar, you could get gymnastic rings or these cool Kensui “Swissies” (affiliate link). I have both. Both are great.

Barbell curls let you lift heavy and hard. Your biceps will love it, but your elbows might not. It’s somewhat of an unnatural grip position. If it bothers your elbows, I recommend getting a curl bar. I have this one made by Rogue (affiliate link).

Workout 2

ExerciseSetsReps
Pull-Ups3–5 sets8–12 reps
Barbell or Curl-Bar Curls2–5 sets12–18 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

This workout is similar to the first, but I recommend using a different grip. If you were doing underhand chin-ups, maybe do some overhand pull-ups. If you were using an angled grip, maybe use a neutral grip. If you have steel elbows, do whatever you like, but I don’t want to give you golfer’s elbow.

With the barbell curls, we can bump you up into a higher rep range. You can stick with the same rep range if you prefer, but muscles grow well with a little bit of variety.

Cable Biceps Workout

Workout 1

ExerciseSetsReps
Lat Pulldowns3–5 sets8–12 reps
Bayesian Cable Curls2–5 sets8–12 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

Lat pulldowns are about as good as biceps curls for building bigger biceps. Start with a wider overhand grip, about 1.5 times your shoulder width.

Bayesian cable curls bring your elbows behind your body and add tension to the bottom of the range of motion. This should make them quite a bit better for the long head of your biceps.

Workout 2

ExerciseSetsReps
Underhand Pulldowns3–5 sets8–12 reps
Cable Curls2–5 sets12–18 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

If you were doing wide-grip lat pulldowns with an overhand grip, try narrow-grip pulldowns with an underhand grip. They’re fantastic for building bigger biceps. I think you’ll like them.

You can do cable curls with an angled bar or the rope attachment. Both are good for your biceps. The rope is thought to work your brachialis a little harder, but I suspect both are similarly effective.

Full Gym Biceps Workout

Workout 1

ExerciseSetsReps
Chin-Ups3–5 setsAMRAP
Curl-Bar Curls2–5 sets6–12 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

If you’re good at chin-ups, feel free to load up extra weight, doing 4–8 reps per set. You can use an underhand grip, but angled and neutral grips are just as good for your biceps while being quite a bit easier on your elbows.

I recommend using an angled curl bar for this first workout. Load it up heavy and lift forcefully, trying to accelerate the weight. My favourite cue is to “throw the bar through the ceiling.” That will get your biceps firing fully right from the beginning of the range of motion.

Workout 2

ExerciseSetsReps
Lat Pulldowns3–5 sets8–12 reps
Lying Biceps Curls2–5 sets6–12 reps
The links will bring you to tutorial videos.

Use a different grip for your pulldowns. If you were doing underhand chin-ups, use an overhand grip for your pulldowns. That won’t necessarily give you better biceps development, but it will be easier on your elbows, and you’ll build a more balanced back.

Lying biceps curls are my favourite biceps exercise. They stretch the long head of your biceps out behind your body, and they’re brutally difficult in that deep stretch. They’re fantastic for the long head.

Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds in these principles, check out our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program and Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. Or, if you’ve already gained your first 20–30 pounds, check out our Outlift Intermediate Hypertrophy Program.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified conditioning coach with a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 70 pounds and has over a decade of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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