Most trainees fail to target the long head of the biceps in their training. This is rather surprising given that the biceps is one of the most popular muscle groups in the world to train!
- Part 1: Functional Anatomy Of The Biceps
- Part 2: Long Head Exercise Selection
- Part 3: Optimal Loading Parameters
- Part 4: Training For Structural Balance
- Part 5: Sample Bicep Training Routines
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about training the long head of the biceps.
The long head of the biceps is located on the outside of the upper arm. It forms the coveted biceps peak and is a very important muscle group for both bodybuilders and strength athletes.
In this comprehensive guide we are going to cover the anatomy of the biceps brachii, the best exercises and loading parameters for blasting the long head, and several sample training routines. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this cutting edge information!
Please note that the sample routines provided in this article are written such that all of the loading parameters are clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then please consult this article.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Functional Anatomy
The formal name for the biceps is the biceps brachii. As the name suggests there are two separate heads to the muscle (hence the “bi” in “biceps).
The long head is located on the outside of the arm. It is also the head of the biceps that contributes the most to the much sought-after biceps peak.
Bodybuilders should be paying attention: if you want a bigger biceps peak (and who doesn’t?), then you need to perform targeted exercises to train the often-neglected long head.
The long head of the biceps is a rather unique muscle. Unlike the short head of the biceps the long head actually crosses the shoulder joint and plays an important role in overall shoulder health.
It is not at all uncommon for individuals with shoulder labral injuries to also suffer issues with the long head of their biceps as these two structures share a similar attachment site in the shoulder.
Perhaps these two strength athletes could have avoided their respective muscle tears if they knew how to train the biceps properly?
This is not a knock against Eddie or Larry. Both of these men are obviously quite a bit stronger than me. Sometimes even the best athletes in the world experience injuries that could have been avoided if they only trained a little bit smarter.
Part 2: Exercise Selection
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the long head of the biceps brachii can be targeted with specific exercises.
I know there are a lot of guys who would argue that you cannot fully isolate the long (or short) head of the biceps. As long as you are doing a curling movement both of these muscle heads will be activated to some extent.
This is true – you cannot fully isolate the long head. However it is entirely possible to shift emphasis onto one head or the other by manipulating your exercise selection.
There are two main strategies that you can use to increase emphasis on the long head of the biceps during curling exercises:
- Place the elbows behind the body
- Bring your hands closer together
The short answer is that exercises such as incline dumbbell curls and close grip ez-bar curls are excellent for emphasizing the long head of the biceps. Now let’s take a deeper dive into both of these points.
Strategy #1: Place The Elbows Behind The Body
The long head of the biceps is more strongly recruited when your elbows are placed behind your torso. One of the best ways to accomplish this is with an incline dumbbell curl.
Incline dumbbell curls are the absolute king of exercises for targeting the long head of the biceps! Of course there are many benefits to incline curls beyond targeting the long head of the biceps. To learn all of the benefits of incline curls I suggest you check out the following article:
One of the main advantages of incline dumbbell curls is their versatility. You can vary both the angle of the bench and the grip you are using to hold the dumbbell.
For example there are 4 major bench angles you can use:
- 30 degree incline
- 45 degree incline
- 60 degree incline
- 75 degree incline
For example, here is Dr. John Rusin demonstrating the 30 degree incline DB curl:
The 30 degree incline bench places an absolutely enormous stretch on the biceps and is a very powerful weapon for recruiting the long head. This exercise does require superior flexibility in the shoulder joint and the biceps brachii. Please keep this in mind before attempting this exercise!
Here is a great demonstration of the 75 degree incline DB curl:
As a rule of thumb the further your elbow is behind your body the more you will recruit the long head of the biceps. This means that the 75 degree incline dumbbell curl is somewhat less effective than the other bench angles at recruiting the long head of the biceps.
However, all of these incline curl exercise variations deserve a place in your long-term programming.
There are also 3 major grips that you can use while holding the dumbbell:
- Supinated (underhand grip)
- Neutral (hammer grip)
- Supinating (start with a neutral grip and finish with a supinated grip)
Here is a video of supinating DB curls:
The act of supinating the dumbbells while you curl will increase emphasis on the short head of the biceps. After all, the short head of the biceps is the muscle primarily responsible for supinating the forearm.
Even though this variation does not directly increase recruitment of the long head it is still a viable exercise variation. At the very least it will help you to tap into a different portion of the motor unit pool of the long head of the biceps.
In summary this all means there are (4 bench angles) x (3 grips) = 12 different variations of incline dumbbell curls that you can use to target the long head of the biceps!
I strongly recommend you rotate through these different variations in your long-term biceps programming. Each variation will tap into a slightly different portion of the motor unit pool.
Using new exercise variations that allow you to recruit new motor units is one of the keys to long-term progress. This is true regardless of whether your primary training goal is size or strength.
Of course there are other fantastic biceps exercises besides the incline dumbbell curl that place your elbows behind your torso. Another great exercise is the incline cable curl. For example:
Notice how the elbows are held *behind* the body in the above video! This is the key to the exercise!
The fact that you are working with cables rather than dumbbells means you will be able to overload a different part of the strength curve. This is very helpful for fostering long-term strength and size gains.
One of the other nice things about the incline cable curl is that you can adjust the angle of the bench for increased exercise variety.
Strategy #2: Bring Your Hands Closer Together
The closer your hands are to each other during barbell and ez-bar curls the more you will recruit the long head of the biceps.
For example, the standing ez-bar curl with a close / supinated grip is a fantastic choice for targeting the long head:
Of course, the reverse is also true: the wider you grip an ez-bar during curling exercises the more you recruit the short head.
In my experience close-grip ez-bar and barbell curls are slightly less effective at training the long head of the biceps relative to incline dumbbell curls and incline cable curls. However, they still deserve a place in your overall training program.
Part 3: Optimal Loading Parameters
Optimal loading parameters vary for each body part. The long head of the biceps is definitely no exception to this rule.
There are three loading parameters that I really want you to think about when designing workouts for the long head of your biceps:
- Rep ranges
- Rest intervals
Let’s take a closer look at each of these variables.
Loading Parameter #1: Rep Ranges
One of the most important factors when it comes to optimal rep ranges is the ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers in the target muscle. The biceps brachii tends to have a larger percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers.
As many bodybuilders have intuitively figured out the long head of the biceps responds best to somewhat higher rep ranges.
Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. If you are a fast-twitch freak or have a more dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profile then you may get better results sticking with sets of 1-3 reps during strength phases and sets of 4-8 reps during hypertrophy phases.
However, I am willing to bet that you are not the exception to the rule.
Loading Parameter #2: Tempo
As a rule of thumb, the long head responds somewhat better to faster eccentric tempos than the short head. This has been repeatedly confirmed using electromyography (EMG) studies.
For optimal results you should primarily use eccentric tempos lasting 1-3 seconds for exercises targeting the long head of the biceps. Eccentric tempos lasting 4-5 seconds can be used on occasion but should not constitute the majority of your sets.
Loading Parameter #3: Rest Periods
The muscles of the upper arm tend to respond well to relatively shorter rest periods relative to larger muscle groups such as the legs and back.
There are many reasons for this. Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons is that you are recruiting far fewer motor units during a set of curls than you are during a set of deadlifts.
It simply does not take your body as long to fully recover between sets of bicep curls. Anyone who has been training for a long time has probably figured this out on their own.
In my experience one of the best ways to train arms is to use antagonistic supersets. For example, you could perform a set of biceps, rest 1-2 minutes, perform a set of triceps, rest 1-2 minutes, and repeat with another set of biceps.
If you train this way then I recommend you use the following rest periods between sets:
- Sets of 1 rep = rest 120 seconds between sets
- Sets of 2-3 reps = rest 100 seconds between sets
- Sets of 4-6 reps = rest 90 seconds between sets
- Sets of 7-8 reps = rest 75 seconds between sets
- Sets of 9-12 reps = rest 60 seconds between sets
- Sets of 13-15 reps = rest 45 seconds between sets
- Sets of 20+ reps = rest 30 seconds between sets
Of course there are exceptions. The rest periods following high-intensity bodybuilding techniques such as tri-sets and forced reps etc. might be a little different. However, if you are using mostly straight sets in your routines then these will serve as a useful starting point.
Arm exercises such as incline curls etc. tend to recruit a much smaller number of motor units than squats, chin ups etc. Therefore the demands on the neuromuscular system are greatly reduced, and you can recover slightly more quickly between sets.
Part 4: Structural Balance
If you are a long-time reader of my blog, then you are probably sick and tired of me going on and on about the importance of structural balance.
Well, I’ve got some bad news for you! Human anatomy has not dramatically changed sense the genesis of Revolutionary Program Design so the concept of structural balance is still of extreme importance.
How Strong Should The Long Head Of Your Biceps Be?
In an ideal world the long head of your biceps brachii should be just as strong as your short head.
This means that the loads you use on 45 degree incline dumbbell curls should perfectly match the loads you use on 45 degree unilateral preacher dumbbell curls.
The procedure for testing this is simple: you would perform a set of incline DB curls with your 6-rep max. Then you would rest 3-5 minutes and perform a set of unilateral preacher DB curls for 6 reps. In an ideal world you would be equally strong on these two exercises.
For example, here is another video of the 45 degree incline DB curl:
And here is a video of the unilateral preacher DB curl:
In case you were wondering IFBB professional bodybuilder Ben Pakulski is training with the legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin in this second video.
If you perform this test in your gym I am willing to bet that you will be FAR stronger on preacher curls than incline curls. In my experience coaching hundreds of athletes it is extremely rare for a first-time client to demonstrate a balanced level of strength on incline curls and preacher curls.
If this describes you then you need to start prioritizing incline curls and incline cable curls in your training program.
This is the fastest way to correct this structural imbalance and get back on the fast track to gains in strength and size!
Part 5: Sample Bicep Training Routines
Let’s go over some absolutely brutal strength and hypertrophy workouts you can use to train the long of the two biceps heads! OK, “train” is probably an understatement. We are going to annihilate them!
The first two workouts are going to be geared towards hypertrophy gains while the last two are more geared towards strength gains. I am confident that you will find at least a couple of these routines useful no matter what your goal is.
If for some reason you are looking for even more bicep training routines then I highly recommend the following article:
I am going to write these workouts assuming you are training your biceps and triceps together once every 4-7 days. For example, here is one possible split that you might want to use:
- Day 1: Arms
- Day 2: Legs
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Chest/Back/Shoulders
- Day 5: Off
- Day 6: Repeat!
This Poliquin-style training split was a favourite of the legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin. It let’s you train body parts once every five days which is an incredibly effective training frequency for many trainees.
Now let’s get to the action!
Biceps Hypertrophy Routine #1: Tri-Sets
Tri-sets are definitely one of the hypertrophy training protocols for building bigger biceps.
The idea is simple: you are going to perform three separate exercises for the biceps back-to-back with only 10 seconds rest in between sets. After the third exercise you will rest for 3 minutes and repeat the entire circuit.
Tri-sets do a great job of prolonging the time under tension of a set. They also give you an incredible pump!
Biceps Long Head Tri-Set Routine
- A1: 30 degree incline DB curl (supinated grip), 3-5 x 8-12, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: 60 degree incline DB curl (supinated grip), 3-5 x 8-12, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Standing ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 3-5 x 8-12, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
One of the reasons this routine works so well is it uses some of the best exercises for targeting the long head of the biceps!
You are going to use two different variations of incline DB curls followed by standing close-grip ez-bar curls. All of these exercises make your long head work extremely hard.
Performing any one of them alone would make your long head work pretty hard. But performing all of them back-to-back as part of a tri-set is absolutely brutal! I guarantee you that your bicep peaks will be exploding with growth after 2-4 weeks on this routine!
If you want to learn more about tri-sets then I highly recommend the following article:
Hypertrophy Routine #2: Supersets
Another great way to structure a hypertrophy workout for the biceps is with the use of supersets. Supersets are a lot like tri-sets except you will be performing 2 exercises back-to-back instead of three.
Here is a supersets routine for the long head of your biceps that you may want to try. Check it out:
Biceps Long Head Superset Routine
- A1: Incline cable curl, 4-5 x 6-8, 2/0/X/2, 180 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree incline DB curl supinated grip, 3-4 x 10-12, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: 30 degree incline DB curl hammer grip, 3-4 x 12-15, 4/0/X/0 180 seconds rest
This is another extremely effective hypertrophy routine to train the longer head of the biceps.
Actually, this routine takes a page out of Doug Hepburn’s book.
Early in the routine, when we are fresh, we activate the higher threshold motor units. This is accomplished with the A1 exercise.
Then, when our central nervous system is primed and firing on all cylinders, we move onto the hypertrophy work for the lower threshold motor units.
There are many very accomplished bodybuilding coaches touting the benefits of performing higher-rep, pumping, squeezing type exercises early in the workout, followed by your big “money” movements a little bit later.
While this approach certainly has merits for injury prevention, it is clearly suboptimal as a stimulus for strength and size gains.
The above routine is a much more effective way to go about it.
If you want to learn more about using supersets then you must check out the following article:
Strength Routine #1: 10 x 3
There are lots of different ways to train for strength. However, in my experience the 10 x 3 set / rep scheme is one of the best methods! The idea is rather simple: you are going to perform ten sets of three reps on one key exercise per muscle group.
In my experience this type of routine works best when you are alternating sets between antagonistic body parts. For example, you could perform one set of three reps for the biceps, rest 100 seconds, perform one set of three reps for the triceps, rest 100 seconds, and repeat the process.
Training antagonistic body parts together in this manner has at least three major benefits:
- Increased motor unit recruitment
- Improved muscular endurance
- Increased training density
For the purposes of this routine I have provided you with exercises for both the biceps and the triceps to form a more complete arm routine. Check it out:
10 x 3 Biceps Long Head Routine
- A1: 60 degree incline DB curl (supinating grip), 10 x 3, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: V-bar dips (upright torso), 10 x 3, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Seated zottman curl, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Ez-bar french press, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
It is very important during a 10 x 3 routine to choose your exercise loads carefully. I recommend starting off with a weight that is around your 4-rep max and slowly increasing the weight every 1-3 sets as long as the weights still feel relatively light.
Training in this way prevents you from accumulating too much nervous system fatigue on the earlier sets and ultimately results in faster progress.
If you want to learn more about the 10 x 3 method then I highly recommend you check out the following article:
Strength Routine #2: 5/3/2 Wave Loading
- Set #1: 5 reps
- Set #2: 3 reps
- Set #3: 2 reps
- Set #4: 5 reps
- Set #5: 3 reps
- Set #6: 2 reps
One of the reasons wave loading works so well is that it “excites” your nervous system. Do not be surprised if you can lift slightly more weight on sets 4-6 relative to what you could lift on sets 1-3!
Here is the actual routine. Check it out:
5/3/2 Wave Loading Biceps Long Head Routine
- A1: Standing ez-bar curl (close / supinated grip), 6 x 5/3/2/5/3/2**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Decline close grip bench press (shoulder-width grip), 6 x 5/3/2/5/3/2**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Unilateral preacher DB curl (hammer grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree incline DB extension (hammer grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a 5/3/2 wave loading protocol as described above.
One of the nice things about 5/3/2 wave loading (and wave loading in general) is that it lets you “flirt” with lower rep sets without accumulating too much fatigue. If the long head of your biceps is lagging behind in strength then I highly recommend you give this routine a shot!
If you want to learn more about wave loading then I highly recommend you check out the following two resources:
You are now “armed” with the knowledge necessary to train the long head of the biceps with the attention it deserves.
So go out there and start building up some bicep peaks that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous!
If you enjoyed this article then you may also find the following bicep training articles helpful:
Always remember: the mind is more important than the body. Where the mind goes the body will follow. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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