A prominent-looking bicep is a priority for some bodybuilders, especially those with a more extended bicep muscle belly that touches the forearm when doing a bicep pose. A longer muscle belly makes the upper arm look fuller; consequently, the bicep peak or the long head is less pronounced.
Attaining higher peaks for the biceps is achievable by targeting the long head of the biceps. Exercises to strengthen and develop the long head of the biceps include close grip chin-ups, drag curls, and inclined dumbbell curls, among others.
Whether one possesses a short or long bicep muscle belly, an understanding of the anatomy of the biceps muscle, its functions, and biomechanics is necessary to aid in achieving those massive long head peaks.
The upper arm contains three muscles in the anterior compartment: the biceps brachii, coracobrachialis, and brachialis. The biceps brachii is located in the front, while the coracobrachialis and brachialis are under the biceps.
The bicep is a single muscle on the anterior side of the upper arm composed of a short head (caput breve) and a long head (caput longum). While the short head is responsible for the width and fullness of the anterior part of the upper arm, the long head creates the peak that makes for a taller-looking and well-developed bicep during elbow flexion.
Both heads originate from the scapula and connect from different points. The short head starts at the top of the coracoid process, and the long head connects to the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula.
However, they converge as one muscle belly along the upper arm before tapering and inserting into the same area at the anterior aspect of the elbow. When the elbow is moved behind the body, the long head stretches and can provide maximal force due to the length-tension relationship of the skeletal muscle.
The functions of these two heads of the bicep are to move the forearm towards the upper arm (elbow flexion) and rotate the forearm outward (supination). The long head assists in the dynamic stability of the shoulder joint (glenohumeral) in the initial 30° of elevation.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the right exercises for a particular body or muscle group depend on the individual's physical characteristics and goals.
Isolation exercises have favorable effects on a particular muscle group. However, compound exercises exhibit fundamental movement patterns that allow them to lift heavier weights more efficiently, develop overall strength faster, and gain more muscle mass simultaneously along different muscle groups.
However, there are instances where isolation exercises are the go-to exercise for a particular muscle group. For example, the long head, a tricky muscle part to target and develop, would best benefit from isolation exercises such as elbow-behind-the-body curls that activate it more than the short head.
Chin-ups are an excellent upper body workout that creates maximal tension and activation of the biceps while performing this exercise with a narrow underhand grip on the pull-up bar. Because of the proximity of the forearms and elbows, the lats also get better activation as it gets stretch more toward the front of the body and sometimes dominate the contribution of the biceps.
The trick is to imagine curling the pull-up bar with the arms instead of pulling the body up by using the lats to minimize its participation in the pull-up.
To perform this exercise, grab the pull-up bar with a close underhand grip several inches apart. Let the body hang freely and slowly pull up by bending the elbow until the chin is above the bar. Maintain elbow position from the bottom to the top of the movement. Reverse the action by lowering the body slowly. Exhale at the top and breathe in at the bottom.
What makes barbell curls excellent is that it is probably one of the heaviest weights one can lift. With a narrow supinated grip on the bar, a small degree of rotation on the shoulder activates the long head. Leaning against a wall prevents the body from leaning forward and swaying to generate momentum from the beginning of the lift and leaning back to bring the weight to the top.
Grab the barbell with a hip-width underhand grip. The feet should be hip-width apart, and the back of the heels about 8 to 12 inches from the wall. Press the back against the wall with a slight bend on the knee. Position the elbows to press against the wall.
Lift the bar while maintaining the elbow position throughout the lift to eliminate any possibility of using a swaying motion of the upper arm to finish the top half of the lift. At the top of the movement, lift the elbows slightly for extra bicep contraction. Then, reverse the action by placing the elbow back on the wall then slowly bring the weight down to the starting position.
The neutral grip bars are better as they allow you to lift more weight than barbells or dumbbells. In addition, the movements required to execute those curls on a neutral grip bar require less stabilization than dumbbell curls and put less strain on the wrist than a supinated grip on a barbell.
This exercise can be performed standing but preferably with the back pressed against the wall, similar to the close grip barbell curls. Grab the barbell using a hip-width neutral grip. The feet should be hip-width apart. With a small bend in the knee, press the back against the wall, with the elbows positioned against the wall as well.
Lift the bar while keeping the elbow position throughout the lift. Lift the elbows slightly at the top of the exercise for added bicep contraction. Then, reverse the movement by returning the elbow to the wall and gradually lowering the weight back to the beginning position.
Drag curls activate both the long and short heads of the biceps, but at different ranges of motion. Unlike in standard curls where the load is highest at the mid-range of motion, the highest load when doing drag curls is at the end range where the elbow is flexed.
To perform drag curls, use a barbell with a hip-width underhand grip. Lift the bar to the top as close to the body as possible. The elbow moves towards the back as they bend through the top of the movement. The long head stretches as the elbow moves behind the body, providing better activation. Reverse the action by maintaining the distance of the bar from the body.
A study has demonstrated that the long head remains active throughout the entire motion when performing inclined dumbbell curls. In addition, as the arm hangs behind the body on an inclined bench, the long head is stretched, producing maximal force during the action.
To begin, set the backrest of the bench to a 45-60 degree angle. Adjust to a greater angle if there is discomfort in the shoulder joints. Sit and lean back with dumbbells on the hands using a supinated grip. Let the arms hang down almost perpendicular to the floor.
Lift the dumbbells while maintaining the position of the elbow. At the top of the movement, supinate the forearm until the pinky finger sits higher than the thumb and give it a good squeeze. Reverse the action until the hands are back at the normal supinated position. Then slowly bring the dumbbells back down and repeat until a set is completed.
This exercise is an alternative to the inclined dumbbell curls for those with access to a cable machine. In a study by Oliveira, et al., it was shown that cable curls activate the long head more as it maintains the same tension through the entire range of motion.
To perform, attach a D-shaped handle to a cable machine. Grab the handle with an underhand grip, and with your back to the pulley, take a step forward into a split stance for better balance. This stance will help with stability when dealing with heavier weights. The elbow should be behind the body with the arm extended.
Bend the elbow while maintaining its position and bring the handle up to shoulder height. Next, extend the arm down and back. Repeat until a set is completed and do the same number of reps and sets on the other arm.
After a warmup, always begin the session with exercises that allow the heaviest possible weight lifted. This way, the muscles have not yet been fatigued and will not compromise how much weight can be lifted. Push your limits on those first sets before fatigue gets in the way.
Barbell curls are one of the most adaptable bicep exercises that let you lift more weight than a dumbbell. By altering the grip width, the focus of the movement can shift from the short head to the long head.
Choose exercises that position the elbow behind the body to engage the long head better. When performing curls this way, the long head will be in a more significant stretch position and better activation than the short head.
Hammer curls are a long-time favorite for bodybuilders. They target the long head bicep and position the brachialis' mechanical momentum at an advantage for maximal force to lift heavier weights.
The short and long heads are both responsible for supination. However, in a study by Jarret, et al., it was found that the short head is a superior supinator in the neutral and pronated forearm, but the long head becomes a more efficient supinator in the supinated forearm.
Incorporating any of these exercises into a regular workout program will help build up bicep peaks and improve the aesthetic of the upper arm. It will also aid in the protection of the long head tendon and the prevention of a potentially catastrophic shoulder injury.
Remember that even little changes in the range of motion, hand location, or grip can have a large impact on training the biceps.
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2. Jarrett CD, Weir DM, Stuffmann ES, Jain S, Miller MC, Schmidt CC. Anatomic and biomechanical analysis of the short and long head components of the distal biceps tendon. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2012;21(7):942-948. doi:10.1016/j.jse.2011.04.030
3. Oliveira LF, Matta TT, Alves DS, Garcia MA, Vieira TM. Effect of the shoulder position on the biceps brachii emg in different dumbbell curls. J Sports Sci Med. 2009;8(1):24-29. Published 2009 Mar 1.
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