On the one hand, chin-ups are the bigger compound lift, they allow us to load our biceps far heavier, and they use a larger overall range of motion. On the other hand, biceps curls are lighter, yes, but they’re limited purely by the strength of our biceps. And even though curls have a smaller range of motion overall, the range of motion for our biceps is quite a bit larger. Which lift winds up being best for biceps growth?
Then we need to consider that our muscles grow best when they’re challenged in a stretched position (meta-analysis). So the next thing to compare is the strength curve of both chin-ups and biceps curls. How challenging are they at different parts of the range of motion?
Finally, what’s the best way to min-max both chin-ups and biceps curls for even better biceps growth? What variations and grip positions should we be using? What rep ranges should we be lifting in? What should our training volume be?
In this article, we’ll compare the chin-up against the curl for biceps growth, and then talk about how to build a biceps bulking routine around them.
Chin-Ups for Biceps Growth
Chin-ups can be a great biceps exercise. In fact, they can even be a great main biceps exercise: they’re a big, heavy compound lift that works our biceps through a large range of motion … sometimes. It depends on how we do them and what we compare them against.
For starters, we need to differentiate chin-ups from pull-ups. The chin-up is a compound back and biceps exercise done with an underhand, angled, or neutral grip. The pull-up is a smaller upper-back isolation exercise done with an overhand grip.
With chin-ups, the idea is to engage more overall muscle mass, and so we put our biceps in a great position to contribute to the lift. With an underhand grip, our hands are in the same position as when doing biceps curls. With an angled grip, it’s similar to doing curl-bar curls. With a neutral grip, it’s similar to doing hammer curls. No surprise, then, that chin-ups are a great lift for bulking up our biceps.
With pull-ups, on the other hand, the idea is to target specific muscles in our upper backs, such as our lats. To do this, we rotate our hands away from us, reducing the leverage that our biceps have, and preventing them from meaningfully contributing to the lift. Our forearm muscles (brachioradialis) will help us flex our arms, but these are weaker muscles and the range of motion is shorter. This is why the pull-up is mainly a back exercise.
How much of a difference does our grip angle make? If we look at the muscle-activation (EMG) research of Bret Contreras, PhD, we see that weighted chin-ups are around 50% better at stimulating our biceps than weighted pull-ups:
- Chin-up: 107 mean biceps activation, 205 peak
- Pull-up: 65 mean biceps activation, 145 peak
So chin-ups are quite a bit better at engaging our biceps than pull-ups, and thus much better for stimulating muscle growth.
The next thing to consider is the range of motion we’re using. As a general rule of thumb, when we’re trying to grow a muscle, we want to train it through a large effective range of motion. With chin-ups that means starting from a dead hang, with our biceps stretched out to 180 degrees, and then pulling our chests all the way to the bar, contracting our biceps fully, like so:
However, the chin-up is a compound lift, and we’re moving at both the elbows and the shoulders. This complicates things because our biceps attach to our shoulders and forearms. As we flex our arms, our biceps contract, but as we pull our elbows in closer to our torsos, our biceps get longer. So as we pull ourselves up to the bar, our biceps are only getting slightly shorter. There isn’t a big change in muscle length.
Mind you, it isn’t necessarily that bad if a muscle isn’t worked through a large range of motion. What matters more is which part of the range of motion the muscle is worked through. As we see in this meta-analysis on isometrics, lifts that challenge our muscles at longer lengths stimulate nearly three times as much muscle growth:
The most important part of the range of motion for building muscle is when our muscles are loaded while fully stretched. That doesn’t really happen with the chin-up because raising our hands over our heads shortens out biceps, keeping our biceps from stretching even while we’re in a dead hang.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the chin-up is useless for our biceps. Far from it. As we can see Contreras’ EMG research, our biceps are heavily involved in the chin-up. But it does mean that the biceps curl has at least one advantage over the chin-up: our biceps are worked through a larger range of motion.
Finally, because chin-ups are a compound lift, they’re working several different muscles at once, any of which can be our limiting factor on the lift. Our muscles only grow when we challenge them, and the different muscles involved in the chin-up are all challenged to different degrees. For example, if we fail because our lats aren’t strong enough to bring our chins over the bar, perhaps our biceps are still a few reps away from failure. Maybe our biceps haven’t been challenged enough to provoke a robust hypertrophy response. We could be missing out on quite a bit of biceps growth.
To be clear, chin-ups are quite challenging for our biceps. Most people will get a good biceps stimulus when doing chin-ups. But because our biceps aren’t necessarily our limiting factor, we can’t guarantee that they’re getting a strong enough stimulus to yield maximal growth.
So, to quickly summarise, chin-ups are one of the best lifts for bulking up our entire upper bodies, and they reliably stimulate muscle growth in our biceps as well as in our entire upper backs. However, even though they’re a great lift overall, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ideal for bulking up our biceps in particular.
Biceps Curls for Biceps Growth
Biceps curls are certainly the most popular biceps exercise, and they’ve earned it, too: they allow us to work our biceps through a large range of motion with no movement in our shoulder joint, meaning that we get a good biceps stretch at the bottom and a good contraction at the top.
The sticking point of the biceps curl tends to be in the middle of the range of motion, when our forearms are horizontal. That’s the hardest part of the lift but also where our biceps are strongest, allowing us to lift quite a bit of weight, and giving the lift a pretty good strength curve. Mind you, as we discussed above, lifts that are harder when our muscles are stretched are often better at stimulating muscle growth. So this is a good strength curve, not a perfect strength curve.
The biceps curl is a single-joint “isolation” exercise, but because it can be loaded quite heavy, it’s also pretty good at strengthening our upper-back muscles and posture. As we’re curling the barbell up, it will try to round our back forward, and so our back muscles will need to hold strong. In that sense, it strengthens our back in the same way that the deadlift does. The heavier biceps curl variations share the most load with our backs, and so the barbell variations, such as barbell curls and EZ-bar curls, tend to work more overall muscle mass.
The next thing to consider is that the strength we develop with biceps curls is surprisingly useful. Getting stronger at the biceps curl allows us to hold heavier things in front of our bodies while stabilizing the load with our backs. So even though the biceps curl is often thought of as a bodybuilding and aesthetics lift, it’s also a good lift for our general strength and posture. It’s a great lift all around.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to biceps curls, though, is that our biceps are the main muscles being worked, and are thus guaranteed to be our limiting factor. With chin-ups, we could fail because our upper backs aren’t strong enough, which is great for bulking up our upper backs, but our biceps might not be challenged enough to grow. If we take a set of curls to failure, it’s our biceps that will be brought to failure. Curls, then, are perhaps the best way to ensure that we’re working our biceps with a high enough training volume.
So to quickly summarize, there are some notable advantages to curls:
- Our biceps are worked from a stretched to a contracted position. So even though curls aren’t as heavy as chin-ups, and peak muscle activation levels might not reach quite as high, curls might still yield more biceps growth per rep.
- Curls are less fatiguing than chin-ups, allowing us to do more sets more quickly, and with less risk of running into recovery issues. This means that curls are usually a better way to add in extra biceps work to our workout routines.
- With curls, our biceps are the limiting factor, and so when we take our sets close to failure, we can rest assured that we’ve challenged our biceps enough to provoke muscle growth.
The Best Biceps Curl Variations
As we mentioned above, lifts that load up our muscles when they’re stretched tend to be best for stimulating muscle growth. Problem is, neither the classic barbell curl nor the chin-up loads our biceps in a stretched position, and so neither has an ideal strength curve for stimulating muscle growth. That’s where lifts like the preacher curl come in, which maximally challenges our biceps in a stretched position.
What the preacher curl does is move the weight further in front of our elbows at the start of the lift, making the beginning of the range of motion harder than the end. That’s great for building bigger biceps, and it’s why so many bodybuilders swear by the preacher curl.
Now, if you’re training at home, you might not have access to a preacher curl station. And that’s okay. Even if all you have is a barbell or dumbbells, you can create a similar effect by leaning back, like so:
I think we invented this biceps curl variation, the sissy curl, so it’s worth pointing out that we should probably test it a bit more before preaching its benefits. But it does greatly increase the demands on the biceps while they’re in a stretched position—more so than the preacher curl. After all, by bringing our upper arms back in line with our torsos, we’re giving our biceps an even greater stretch. Furthermore, our biceps work to lift the shoulder, so even just keeping our upper arms in front of us works our biceps.
Keeping our arms out in front of us also demands quite a bit of our front delts, similar to a front raise. However, this challenges our front delts in a more stretched position, too, which is another advantage. So this becomes both a biceps and shoulder exercise, with the biceps tending to be the limiting factor, and thus getting the greater growth stimulus.
Anyway, this is all to say that, as with the chin-up, there are a number of different ways that we can curl, and each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s what we see in Dr Contreras’ muscle activation research:
- Dumbbell Curl: 53 mean biceps activation, 118 peak
- Preacher Curl: 80 mean biceps activation, 145 peak
- EZ-Bar Curl: 75 mean biceps activation, 146 peak
- Barbell Curl: 95 mean biceps activation, 138 peak
- Cheat Curl: 94 mean biceps activation, 136 peak
As an interesting aside, although cheat curls weren’t noticeably better at stimulating biceps growth, they were quite a bit better at stimulating the muscles in our upper backs, making them more of a compound movement.
What we’re seeing here is that none of the curl variations are working our biceps as hard as weighted chin-ups:
- Barbell Curl: 95 mean biceps activation, 138 peak
- Chin-up: 107 mean biceps activation, 205 peak
The difference is quite stark, too. We’re seeing 50% more peak muscle activation in chin-ups than barbell curls.
However, this research isn’t gospel. In fact, one problem with EMG research is that muscle activation is higher when our muscles are shortened, but it’s more important to know how hard a lift is when our muscles are stretched. As a result, we’d expect lifts like the preacher curl and sissy curl, which are easy at the top (the contracted position) and harder at the bottom (the stretched position), to stimulate more biceps growth than the EMG research would predict.
For an example of that, we can compare hip thrusts against squats. Hip thrusts challenge our muscles in a contracted position and thus yield much higher EMG ratings, which would presumably lead to more muscle growth, right? But squats challenge our glutes in a stretched position, and a recent study found that they yield around twice as much muscle growth as hip thrusts. To be fair, regular barbells curls have a better strength curve than hip thrusts, so I doubt the difference would be that dramatic, but even so, we’d expect the variations that load our muscles in a stretched position to yield significantly more muscle growth.
Some curl variations, such as preacher curls and sissy curls, load our biceps up heavy in a stretched position, which is ideal for stimulating muscle growth.
How to Build Bigger Biceps
To stimulate muscle growth in our biceps, all we need to do is choose lifts that allow us to bring them close to failure. Both chin-ups and curls are great for that, and both will stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth in our biceps. However, by further optimizing our lift selection, we might be able to improve our biceps growth by quite a lot.
If we compare chin-ups and curls for biceps growth, we see that each lift is bringing something special to the table:
- Chin-Ups stimulate more overall muscle growth throughout our entire bodies, making them a great compound exercise. One advantage to working so much muscle mass at once is that we can lift in lower rep ranges and use quite a lot of weight. We do heavy strength training with chin-ups.
- By reducing the demands on our upper-back muscles, biceps curls guarantee that we’re bringing our biceps close enough to failure to stimulate muscle growth. This makes them the best biceps isolation exercise, and an essential exercise when prioritizing biceps growth.
- Biceps curls are much less tiring than chin-ups, allowing us to increase the training volume for our biceps without running into fatigue issues. Curls are also quite easy to add to the end of a workout.
- Some biceps curls variations are better than others. Preacher curls and sissy curls work our biceps harder in a stretched position, likely making them the best curl variations for building bigger biceps.
As a result, the best way to bulk up our biceps is to, first, focus on getting stronger at chin-ups over time. Treat them like you do your other big compound lifts, and gradually add reps, sets, and weight.
However, to speed that process up, we can also add in biceps curls and preacher curls. These lifts are arguably slightly better for stimulating biceps growth than chin-ups, and they also allow us to raise our biceps volume higher.
For example, if we look at this study, we see that adding in biceps curls after lat pulldowns produced nearly 60% more arm growth. We could expect a similar result from adding curls after our chin-ups. And we may expect even better results if we added in preacher curls alongside our chin-ups.
Overall, chin-ups are great for building muscle in our entire upper bodies, and can also be quite good for stimulating biceps growth, especially if we do them with an underhand grip and a full range of motion. Biceps curls, on the other hand, are a more reliable way to prioritize biceps growth—especially if we factor in time, energy, and fatigue. Heavy curls also do a decent job of strengthening our upper backs, making them a great overall bulking lift.
To get the best biceps growth, then, it’s best to use chin-ups as our main compound lift and then add curls to the end of our workouts. Interestingly, preacher curls may be the best curl variation to combine with chin-ups, given that their strength curve is so good for stimulating biceps growth.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. We also have our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program and Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program for beginners. If you liked this article, I think you’d love our full programs.