A lot of things go into developing an impressive physique, but biceps are one of the most important and apparent ones. It’s not a surprise that every gym-goer wants to have jacked-up biceps after all.
Now when it comes to improving the size and strength of your biceps, there are a few exercises you can include in your workout.
There are compound exercises like chin-ups and pull-ups which are great for your entire upper back. Keep in mind that with pull-ups and chin-ups, the major work is done by muscles in your shoulder, chest and upper back like the lats apart from biceps.
On the other hand, you have your typical bicep curls, which are lighter isolated exercises that purely focus on your biceps as well as the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles.
This will lead you to ask what’s better between curls, chin ups and pull ups for biceps growth?
Well, there’s more to them than just muscle activation. In this article, we’ll talk about which of these exercises is better for your biceps, and whether you should be prioritizing while building your biceps workout routine.
The Structure of the Biceps
Your Bicep muscles are responsible for moving the elbow and shoulder joints, as well as twisting the forearm. As the biceps control a lot of the arm movement, it’s important to understand the structure of the biceps to help you target specific muscles and achieve maximum gains.
The main muscle in question is the biceps brachii, which is the most visible one situated on the front side of your arm. This muscle is supported by the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles in your forearm.
The brachii is two-headed: The short head is present at the inner portion of the arm, while the long head sits on the outer side on the front. Both long head and short head extend from the elbow up to the shoulder joint. The brachialis, on the other hand, sits nearer to the elbow joints and supports elbow flexing, with the brachioradialis situated further deep in the forearm.
In order to get bigger and stronger biceps, it’s important to stimulate and train all these muscles to an extent. You can get the muscles to work by movements like bending the elbow, twisting the forearm and flexing the shoulder. Apart from that, you need to focus on their full range of movement, i.e. from being completely contracted to fully stretched.
Now you need to challenge the muscle by gradually elevating the intensity of these movements, and that’s where compound lifts and bicep curls come into play by loading your biceps with weighted movements. You have the typical curls, which are great for explicitly targeting the brachii, and then compound lifts like pull-ups and chin-ups which work the biceps through multiple functions.
Pull-ups Vs. Chin-ups Vs. Curls: Which is the Best for Biceps Growth?
1. Pull-ups for Biceps Growth
Pull ups are one of the most difficult upper body training exercises, and the reason for that is performing the lift with overhand (pronated) grip. This involves holding the bar slightly wider than shoulder width apart with the palm facing away from you.
The overhand grip takes much of the emphasis away from your biceps to the lats and brachioradialis. The wider your grip is, the less elbow flexion will be required to complete a full-range pull up. Pull-ups also improve your posterior chain activation, which are the muscles on the back side of the body. But that might lead you to ask – “Are pull-ups good for biceps?”
Turns out that pull ups are not that efficient if you only want to build biceps, but they work better as a whole. Due to the type and range of movement, pull ups help develop much more functional strength as well as your grip.
Pulls ups also have an advantage when it comes to carrying over to muscle-ups or real life climbing skills. You will have to improve your posture by pushing your shoulders back and down which is better suitable for getting your chin over the bar. If you spend all your time hunched forward, it results in a rolled-forward back which is not the best for doing pull-ups or chin-ups.
So pull-ups clearly are the way to go if you want to develop your back and increase the relative strength. These are great warm-up exercises, but there are better lifts purely for your biceps, which we will discuss now.
2. Chin-ups for Biceps Growth
The main difference between pull ups and chin-ups is that the latter uses the underhand (supinated) grip, which makes them much easier for a beginner as compared to pull ups. Chin ups work your upper back and core and activate much more of the biceps than pull-ups.
Chin-ups stress your biceps and lats at the same time, and hence act as both bicep and back builders. This is the reason why compound lifts like these have a wider range of benefits that an isolated exercise like curls don’t.
As a matter of fact, chin ups involve a superior range of motion as compared to pull ups or curls. This is important for muscle growth as your biceps start from being fully stretched out to 180 degrees, and contract all the way as your shoulder touches the bar.
You can also try neutral grip chin-ups, which will involve more of your arm muscles like the brachialis and your brachioradialis. Some beginners may even find neutral grip lifts to be easier than overhand or underhand positions.
So if activation is what you want, chin ups for biceps are the way to go instead of pull-ups. But there is a chance your biceps might not feel exhausted even when your body or back does. This is because the biceps are not the primary muscles being worked, and you need an “isolation” exercise to achieve that.
3. Curls for Biceps Growth
The bicep curl is an iconic exercise, and a typical way for most to get stronger arms and develop some solid biceps. Unlike compound lifts like we discussed above, curls simply involve the motion of your arm with a weight like a barbell, dumbbells, a low cable machine or a resistance band, while the rest of the body stays still.
This way, the curls target typically the biceps brachii and often the brachialis muscle in your upper arm depending on the type of curl. So for example, Barbell curls also work the brachioradialis muscles which connect to your upper arm and extend to the wrist, while the anterior deltoids act as stabilizers during the motion. The latter are the wrist flexors present in your forearms and some back muscles.
There are several variations that can be utilized to target specific muscles, like the hammer curls which enable more of your forearm taking a slight focus away from the biceps. The key takeaway with any type of curl is that your biceps will always be the first to gas out. So if you find yourself getting stronger and increasing the weight for the curls, it’s a sign that your biceps are experiencing the most gains and not the forearms or lats.
Curls are also less fatiguing, which means they are great to do at the end of your workout when you’ve exhausted all the other muscles with the heavier and compound exercises. When it comes to solely bicep activation, curls are the way to go. With chin-ups, there is a chance you could fail when your upper back gives way, but your biceps are still not challenged enough.
So, What are the Best Exercises for Growing the Biceps?
This research on isometric training shows that longer length lift training results in greater bicep hypertrophy (0.86%-1.69% muscle growth/week) than shorter length training (0.08%-0.83%/week). Now in order to choose the lifts that allow us to stimulate a good activation and bring them close to failure, you have got a few options.
Both pull-ups and chin-ups help in biceps growth to an extent, but chin-ups are slightly better. You should be adding high reps of isolation work too, to see even better results. Include exercises which stimulate the short head, long head and brachialis, for this you can try switching up the grip and hand position.
Studies have found that weighted chin-ups have the most mean and peak biceps EMG activation, followed by weighted wide parallel-grip pull-ups and then curls. You probably already know that there are a few different variations of curls, among which the best activations ones are Cheat Curl, Barbell Curl, EZ-Bar Curl and 1-Arm Preacher Curl.
To summarize, pull-ups are great for building overall strength and the upper back, while chin-ups work well for both strengthening the upper back as well as stimulating bicep growth to a good extent. On the other hand, curls are fundamental exercises to prioritize bicep growth and are usually an easier and reliable way for beginners.
Of course, it’s a good idea to have a balance and program each exercise in your workout routine to maximize the gains. A routine involving chin-ups for the main compound lifts followed by curls at the end will give you significant gains. Just remember to supplement that with right eating and adequate rest to achieve desired results.