The short head of the biceps is a very difficult muscle group for many individuals to train. This is unfortunate as a well-developed short head really improves the overall thickness and fullness of the upper arm.
One of the biggest reasons people have a hard time training the short head is that the most popular biceps exercises do a poor job of targeting this muscle!
- Part 1: Preacher Curls
- Part 2: Spider Curls
- Part 3: Wide-Grip Curls
- Part 4: Chin Ups
- Part 5: Sample Training Routines
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about how to pick the best short head bicep exercises.
The short head of the biceps is located on the inside of the upper arm. It is a very important muscle group for bodybuilders and physique athletes as it contributes towards the “width” of the upper arm.
The best exercises for developing the short head of the biceps are as follows:
Here is a perfect demonstration of the preacher curl:
I highly recommend you focus on these four exercises in order to maximally develop this muscle group. Of course it is critical that you understand why these exercises are so effective.
The short head has two primary functions: elbow flexion and forearm supination. This simply means the short head helps to bend your elbows and helps to rotate your forearm into an “underhand” position.
There are three main ways that you can manipulate a biceps exercise to stress the short head more:
- Place the elbows in front of the body
- Bring the hands closer together
- Use different grips and implements to stress the supination function of the muscle
Whenever you perform a curling movement with your elbows in front of your body you place the short head in a mechanically advantageous position.
For example all variations of preacher curls and spider curls force you to place your elbows in front of your body during the entire exercise. Research has shown that spacing your hands far apart during any barbell or ez-bar curl also increases recruitment of the short head.
Finally there are various ways to stress the supination function of the short head with different grips and implements.
For example you can use an offset grip where your pinky is touching the inside of a dumbbell. You can also use a supinating grip on dumbbell curls where you initiate the curl with a neutral grip and finish the movement with a supinated grip.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these four exercises and how to manipulate them to annihilate the short head of the biceps!
Part 1: Preacher Curls
Preacher curls were popularized by Larry Scott in the 1960s. Larry was the first-ever Mr. Olympia winner and had a pair of unbelievable biceps. Even by today’s standards his arms were absolutely jaw-dropping!
Larry was absolutely correct in using the preacher curl to perform a large percentage of his biceps exercises. Research has clearly shown that the preacher curl is the #1 exercise for targeting the short head of the biceps!
As we discussed earlier the preacher curl places your elbows far in front of your body. This mechanical position forces your short heads to work extremely hard.
The preacher curl has some other benefits such as preventing you from cheating and placing a tremendous stretch on the biceps in the stretched position. This is important because more and more research is coming out to suggest that loaded stretches during an exercise have a synergistic effect on muscle growth.
There are many variations of preacher curls that you can perform to target the short head. The main variations are as follows:
- Preacher dumbbell curls
- Preacher ez-bar curls
- Preacher cable curls
- Preacher one-arm barbell curls
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises:
Preacher Dumbbell Curls
Dumbbells offer many advantages when it comes to training the arms. Dumbbells offer a much more natural movement pattern and have been shown to be a superior tool for recruiting the biceps brachii muscle.
They are also an extremely flexible training tool! In fact there are four major grips that you can use on preacher DB curls to target the short head:
If you aren’t familiar with these grips then click on the 4 links above for a helpful video demonstration. Each of these grips offers their own advantages and disadvantages.
Grip #1: Supinated
A supinated (or underhand) grip is very commonly used when training the biceps brachii muscle. And for good reason: the supinated grip has been shown to activate the biceps more than either neutral or pronated grip curls.
Of course it is not the only viable option.
Grip #2: Supinating
A supinating grip involves starting the movement with a hammer grip and finishing the movement with a supinated grip. This grip stresses the short head as both an elbow flexor AND a forearm supinator!
This makes the supinating grip a very valuable tool for targeting the short head.
Grip #3: Offset
I am willing to bet that many of you reading this article have never heard of an “offset” grip. Normally you hold the dumbbell handle right at the middle of the dumbbell handle. This only makes sense as you want the dumbbell to be balanced in your hand.
However, with an offset grip you are actually going to place your pinky finger firmly against the inside of the dumbbell.
It is hard to tell but Ben Pakulski is doing exactly this in the above video. The center of gravity of the dumbbell will be shifted during your set and this will force the short head of the biceps to work even harder as a forearm supinator.
This is a very effective and highly underrated grip for all curling exercises.
Grip #4: Hammer
The hammer grip is normally thought of as a grip for targeting the brachioradialis rather than the biceps brachii. This is accurate as the neutral grip recruits the brachioradialis more than any other grip.
However, the short head of the biceps is still recruited reasonably well with this grip. I recommend you incorporate hammer grip curls at least a little bit when targeting your short head.
Of course you will get better results focusing the lion’s share of your efforts on the supinated, supinating, and offset grips for training the short head.
Preacher Ez-Bar Curls
Performing preacher curls with an ez-bar rather than dumbbells is of course a viable option. There are at least a couple of benefits for using the ez-bar instead of dumbbells during preacher curls:
- It is easier to perform lower-rep sets in the 1-3 rep range.
- It is easier to make small weight jumps. This is especially true if you are using micro-loading where you can make weight jumps as small as .5 pounds per set.
If you were to design an arm training routine with something like cluster sets then you could argue that an ez-bar preacher curl makes more sense than a dumbbell preacher curl.
There are two main grips that you can use with ez-bar preacher curls to target the short head of the biceps:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these variations.
Using a wider grip with any type of ez-bar or barbell curl will automatically recruit the short head of the biceps to a greater degree. This makes the wide-grip preacher ez-bar curl one of the most bang-for-your-buck exercises that you can do to train the short head.
The narrow grip tends to recruit the long head of the biceps a little more at the expense of the short head. Overall the short head of the biceps still has to do the lion’s share of the work which makes this another viable option.
Preacher Cable Curls
Normally preacher curls are most difficult towards the beginning of the movement when your forearms are parallel to the ground. Another way to say this is that preacher curls overload the stretched position of the strength curve.
Overloading the stretched position of an exercise in this manner is a very powerful way to stimulate size and strength gains in a muscle. After all, more and more research is coming out showing the benefits of loaded stretches for hypertrophy development.
However, you will make faster overall progress if you vary which part of the strength curve you emphasize over time. A great way to overload the shortened position of preacher curls is to use a cable attachment.
Here are some great videos for the preacher cable curl:
If you have ever performed either of these movements then you will now that the top of the exercise is MUCH harder than the bottom. This is the complete opposite of regular preacher curls! Over the long run you will make faster progress if you perform both regular preacher curls and cable preacher curls.
One-Arm Barbell Preacher Curl
If I was forced to pick one exercise as the king of all exercises for the short head of the biceps then this would be it:
No, that was not a typo. You are going to be performing preacher barbell curls with one arm! A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds so you need to have the strength to preacher curl a 45 pound dumbbell in strict form before attempting this exercise.
Let’s take a look at a video demonstration:
This exercise is so challenging because you are constantly forced to balance the barbell in your hand. Whenever the barbell wobbles to one side or the other your biceps have to contract very hard to re balance the weight.
This is a very demanding exercise but the results are more than worth the effort. If you are really looking for a challenge then you may want to try eccentric-only repetitions on the one-arm barbell preacher curl.
You can click right here to watch Josh Bryant demonstrate the eccentric 1-arm barbell preacher curl.
This is really a form of supra-maximal eccentric training and should only be attempted by trainees with at least 2 years of hardcore training experience under their belts. I recommend you perform anywhere from 1-6 reps per set.
Make sure that you use a true 8-10 second eccentric phase on every repetition. The slower reps will increase the effectiveness of the exercise and lower your risk of injury.
There is one last “trick” I want to teach you. Whenever you are performing preacher curls you want to make sure that you are looking straight ahead during the entire set.
When you keep your head up you are able to recruit more motor units in the elbow flexors. If your head starts to look down then you start to impinge the nerve roots that are responsible for activating the biceps.
Even if you don’t remember the reasoning for it I want you to keep your head up on every rep of preacher curls! You will progress much faster from workout to workout if you remember this simple tip.
Part 2: Spider Curls
Spider curls are another excellent exercise for targeting the short head of the biceps. Just like with preacher curls your elbows are going to be in front of your torso throughout the entire set.
This places the short heads of your biceps in a strong mechanical position so they take over the lion’s share of the work.
There are two variations of spider curls:
- Incline bench spider curls
- Preacher bench spider curls
Performing spider curls on an incline bench is perhaps the more popular of the two methods. You simply lay down on an incline bench with your chest on the bench. Then with your elbows pointing straight down to the ground you curl the weight up.
Incline bench spider curls can be performed with either dumbbells or an ez-curl bar:
Of course all of the different possible grips discussed with preacher curls are possible with spider curls as well. Even though this variation of spider curls is rather popular I find that it is less effective than preacher spider curls.
To perform preacher spider curls you simply use a preacher bench where the padding is completely vertical. This way your elbows are pointing straight down to the ground but your upper arms are firmly fixed against the padding.
Here are the training videos:
By fixing your upper arms against the vertical preacher bench you are able to get a much stronger contraction in the biceps.
Both of these variations of preacher curls deserve a place in your long-term biceps programming. However, when pressed for time the preacher spider curls are a better choice.
Part 3: Wide-Grip Curls
As I mentioned earlier any time you perform a curling exercise with a wider grip you are forcing the short head of the biceps to work harder. If your goal is to train your short heads then a wide-grip ez-bar curl is a reasonable choice.
I should warn you that standing barbell or ez-bar curls are generally less effective than preacher curls or even spider curls. There are two main drawbacks to any type of standing barbell or ez-bar curl:
- You waste neural drive on the postural muscles
- It is very easy to cheat during the exercise
Whenever you perform a movement in the standing position you have to “waste” some amount of neural drive to maintain that standing position. Your legs, lower back, and core are all activated during standing curling movements to keep you from falling over.
This is obviously a good thing as you wouldn’t want to fall over mid-exercise. However, there is a drawback: your body only has so much neural drive at its disposal.
If it is wasting energy activating motor units in the legs and lower back then it cannot use that energy to actually curl the weight.
Overall standing curling exercises recruit fewer motor units in the elbow flexors than seated curling movements because of this wasted neural drive. The other main drawback is that it is very easy to cheat during standing curls.
For most trainees it is impossible to prevent their lower back or shoulders from assisting their biceps as they curl the weight up. In contrast seated curling exercises such as preacher curls and spider curls make cheating practically impossible.
The wide-grip ez-bar curl does deserve a place in your long-term biceps programming. However, it is not quite as effective as the other exercises covered so far in this article.
Part 4: Chin Ups
I am constantly amazed at the number of people that completely ignore chin ups when it comes to increasing the size and strength of their biceps. Chin ups are some of the most bang-for-your-buck exercises and can be very effective at targeting the short head.
Of course during a chin up you are using a supinated (underhand) grip. This is in contrast to a pull up where you are using a pronated (overhand) grip.
Chin ups are normally performed with a narrow grip or a shoulder-width grip.
Here is the narrow grip chin up:
And here is the shoulder-width grip chin up:
The short head of the biceps is strongly activated during both of these exercises. I am NOT recommending that you go out and perform a bunch of chin ups on your arm day.
However, using chin ups as a staple exercise for your upper back work will go a long ways in maximizing the development of your biceps muscles.
Part 5: Sample Training Routines
By now you should be very familiar with four of the best exercises to train the short head of the biceps:
- Preacher curls
- Spider curls
- Wide grip ez-bar curls
- Chin ups
I would like to show you a couple of very effective bicep training routines featuring some of these exercises. The first routine is more geared towards muscular hypertrophy while the second routine works best for all-out strength gains.
I am confident that at least one of these routines will work AWESOME for you regardless of your training goals.
If you are looking for even more results-producing routines to train the short head of your biceps then I highly recommend the following article:
Please note: the following routines are written with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then please consult this article.
Routine #1: Uni-angular tri-sets
Larry used preacher curls so much that many people actually call this exercise “Scott curls!” While I wouldn’t go this far I do agree that preacher curls are one of the best biceps exercises that you can do.
This routine features uni-angular tri-sets and is extremely demanding.
Check it out:
- A1: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Bilateral preacher DB curl (supinated grip), 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
The basic idea behind this tri-set is to perform all three exercises back-to-back with only ten seconds rest in between sets. This creates a horrible amount of metabolic stress in the biceps and allows you to knock off a huge number of motor units.
If you have the guts to complete it then this routine will work wonders for building bigger arms!
Routine #2: Accentuated Eccentrics
I mentioned earlier that the one-arm barbell preacher curl can be performed for eccentric-only reps to really blast the biceps. Here is a full biceps routine featuring this exercise that you may want to try.
Check it out:
- A1: Unilateral barbell preacher curl (eccentric-only reps)**, 6 x 3, 10/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: Bilateral preacher DB spider curl (supinated grip), 3 x 5-7, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
The most important part of this routine is the ten-second eccentric phase on the one-arm barbell preacher curl. This is not an exaggeration – I want you to lower the weight over 10 seconds!
Trust me when I say no other exercise will strengthen your biceps like this one. You may find that your training weights skyrocket from one workout to the next!
I recommend you focus on the following four exercises when targeting the short head of the biceps:
- Preacher curls
- Spider curls
- Wide grip ez-bar curls
- Chin ups
There are of course many variations of each of these exercises. I covered 8 different variations of the preacher curl alone!
However, as long as you emphasize these exercises in your training then you are on the fast-track to a pair of bigger, stronger biceps muscles!
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 in 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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