The bicep is a muscle group that is made up of two heads (bicep long head and bicep short head) and both heads have a different function and are more active during specific exercises.
If you have been doing dumbbell curls, barbell curls, cable curls and alternating dumbbell curls but are not seeing the bicep growth that you want then it’s the result of two things:
- These exercises all work the bicep in the same resistance at the mid point of the lift (when the lift is hardest/heaviest)
- The mid range range of motion for these exercises doesn’t train both heads optimally (fully contracted of fully stretched)
If you are finding that the inner bicep is growing at a quicker rate, meaning that your bicep peak looks developed when flexing, but your arms don’t look noticeable when relaxed and by your side then it’s likely that you need to focus on bringing up the outer bicep.
The outer bicep is more specifically known as the long head of the bicep and while the bicep short head (inner bicep) will make your arms look larger when flexed, it’s actually a well developed long head that will give your arms a fuller and more developed look.
Outer bicep workout? To target the outer bicep you will need to use exercises that work the bicep in a fully lengthened position. This is because one of the functions of the bicep is shoulder flexion and therefore your upper arm and elbow need to be behind your torso in order to contract the bicep in the fully lengthened position.
Targeting the outer bicep isn’t overly complicated and you won’t need to do any specialist exercises or advanced techniques in order to see growth. Therefore in this article I’ll list a few of the best exercises to target the bicep long head and also some body adjustments that you can make in order to maximally fatigue and grow your biceps.
Outer Bicep Not Growing
The most popular bicep exercises are the barbell curl and dumbbell curl and for good reason. If you get progressively stronger in these exercises and use good form then it’s likely you will have some bicep growth as a result.
If however, you don’t supplement this with exercises that specifically target the bicep long head and short head then you are missing out on a huge amount of growth potential.
If your outer bicep isn’t growing the reason for this is that the long head of the bicep isn’t being sufficiently stimulated and fatigued. To demonstrate this point clearly I’ll use the calves as an example.
The calves are made up of two muscle heads (much like the biceps) and consist of the gastrocnemius and soleus. Both have specific functions and are less, or more engaged depending on your body positioning.
If the majority of your calf training is done with a straight leg (standing calf raise, smith machine calf raise, single leg calf raise, calf raise in the leg press machine) then you will never fully develop your calf.
Training the same movement on a different machine does not target a different head, the soleus is active when the knee is bent so in order to fully develop the calves you will need to train them with straight leg and bent leg exercises.
Moving back to the biceps, if you only ever perform a basic curling action then it doesn’t matter if you use a barbell, dumbbell, EZ curl bar or cable machine because you will always be performing the same movement pattern.
You’ll notice that the sticking point on a basic bicep curl is the mid portion when your arms are at a 45 degree angle. This means you are training the mid range of the resistance however when your arms are fully flexed or hanging by your side in the top and bottom portion of the movement there is minimal tension.
While the resistance curve and muscle groups worked are not always related, when it comes to the biceps they actually are and that is why it’s an important point to note.
If you are struggling to see any growth in your bicep long head then it’s likely you are not positioning your body correctly to target it (similar to the soleus example of the calves) and you are also not target a specific resistance curve to recruit more muscle fibres.
How to Target the Outer Bicep
To target the outer bicep your upper arm and elbow will need to be positioned behind your torso. This is because the long head of the bicep runs over the humerus and attaches to the top of the shoulder socket (glenoid) meaning that one of the functions of the long head is shoulder flexion.
To fully engage and stimulate a muscle group you need to work it through it’s full range of motion and this is why I kept mentioning that standard bicep curls will only work the mid range despite the fact that you might fully straighten and fully contract the bicep when doing them.
A fully shortened bicep occurs when your arms are overhead and you curl behind your torso (this will fully target and contract the bicep short head) and a fully lengthened bicep occurs with your upper arms behind your torso.
Therefore it’s easy to think that during a standard barbell curl that you are using a full range of motion and that might be true for that specific exercise but it’s also true that you are not using a full range of motion for the actual muscle.
To target the bicep long your upper arms will need to be behind your torso and you’ll find that the exercises that I’m about to list will mean that the weight feels heavier for the first ⅓ of the movement. Here you will be recruiting muscle fibres in the fully lengthened position and that is also how you are going to target the bicep long head.
Outer Bicep Exercises
Hopefully you’ll now have a better understanding of the functions of the bicep and if you have been struggling to see any growth in the outer bicep then it will be more obvious that you’ve neglected to directly training the bicep long head.
The following are some exercises that will place more emphasis on the bicep long head and it’s worth noting that you don’t need to use these in place of your regular curls but if you do three variations of the same movement (like a barbell curl followed by a dumbbell curl) then it’s time to mix your exercise selection up.
Incline Dumbbell Curl
The best exercise for targeting the growing the outer bicep is the incline dumbbell curl. Setting the bench to a 30 degree – 40 degree angle will mean that your arms hang behind your body when doing this exercise and this will allow you to work the fully lengthened position.
You’ll still perform a curl as normal but your arm positioning in relation to your torso will make this exercise incredibly difficult for the first part of the movement and therefore you will need to get your ego in check and reduce the weight from what you would use for a regular standing dumbbell curl.
You’ll also find that as you get past the midpoint of the movement that the curl will become increasingly easier. you’ll find it harder to contract and maintain tension on the bicep and at the top there will be almost no active tension on the bicep.
The key is to keep your elbows locked into the same position and focus on bringing your forearm upwards (aim to touch your forearm to your bicep). If you start to bring your elbow forward in order to finish the curl then this small movement will actually shift the tension from your bicep onto your front delt.
When your elbows are already in the forward position (like a seated preacher curl) then this will negate any shoulder engagement but as your arms are hanging by your side on an incline curl, any elbow movement will be initiated by the shoulder and a muscle that initiates the movement is the one that is being recruited.
Therefore you could already be doing incline curls in your routing but if you aren’t using the correct from then this is likely why you aren’t seeing much growth in the outer bicep area.
The bayesian curl is a modified version of the standing cable curl but places your body in a better position to target the outer bicep. For the bayesian curl you will take a single handed approach and start by facing away from the machine.
After grasping the weight it’s best to take a step forward and you’ll now see that the resistance of the cable (as well as the actual weight) will be pulling your arm backwards and placing the bicep under a great stretch.
This is the key difference between this exercise and a cable curl where you face the machine. With the tension now behind you, this will now make the exercise much more difficult at the bottom of the movement and maximally engage the bicep long head.
The reason I like this exercise is because the cable means that it is easier to maintain tension at the top of the movement unlike with the incline dumbbell curl variation.
Close Grip Barbell Curl
Changing your arm position in relation to your torso Is only one way to shift the tension onto a specific muscle head, another technique that can be used is to vary your grip and hand position.
A close grip barbell curl will place more emphasis on the outer bicep whereas a wide grip will place more emphasis on the inner bicep. Therefore, if you are using the barbell curl as the main compound exercise in your bicep program narrowing the grip will allow you to place more emphasis onto the long head.
This won’t isolate the long head like the two previous exercises however the shift in emphasis of the narrow grip will mean that the long head takes more of the load. It’s a minor adjustment that you can make to an exercise you likely already do in order to better target the bicep long head.
This can be applied to an EZ curl as well, the EZ curl has numerous ridges for hand positioning and choosing the narrow grip will again allow you to place more emphasis on the bicep long head.
To target the long head more you don’t necessarily need to change up all the exercises that you currently do and some modifications to hand positioning will allow you to focus more on the outer bicep without having to change up your whole routine.
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
The dumbbell hammer curl performed with a neutral grip is an exercise that actually targets the brachioradialis muscle that is located on the outside of the bicep but runs directly underneath the bicep.
The reason I’m including it here is because the neutral grip slightly alters the elbow position and places a bit more emphasis on the bicep long head.
If I’m honest, the hammer curl is a great exercise in it’s own right and it isn’t going to be a main long head developer but I wanted to include it just to demonstrate how hand and elbow positioning alters the active muscle.
As a demonstration, take the position of a standard barbell curl. You don’t need weights for this, just place your hands by your side with palms facing forwards as though you are grasping a barbell (do this seated for a better understanding).
Now simply turn your hands so that your palms face inwards and you are imitating a neutral grip. Turn them from underhand to neutral a few times and take note of your arms movement during this.
With a hammer curl your elbow positioning will be slightly further back, as you transition to an underhand grip you should notice that your elbow moves forward slightly to accommodate this. The less flexibility you have in your wrist joint and bicep muscle the more noticeable this movement will be.
I personally don’t have the greatest wrist flexibility and therefore when I turn my palms outwards it naturally pulls my elbow forward due to the low level of flexibility. This is a minor thing but a hammer curl allows you to curl with your elbow and upper arm slightly behind your torso and as we know this will increase the long head activation.
This is nothing groundbreaking but it’s minor adjustments like these that can be the difference between working your targeted muscle or not working it at all.
Outer Bicep Workout
You don’t need to change up your bicep workout to target the outer bicep more however some adjustments will go a long way towards seeing some growth. The following are two example workouts that you could use to hit both heads effectively whilst placing a bit more emphasis on the long head.
I didn’t mention this earlier but keep your exercises that work the lengthened position towards the end so that you have blood in the muscle and are fully warmed up because the lengthened position is essentially the stretched position so training this when not warmed up could put you at risk of muscle strains or tears.
These are higher volume workouts so other muscle groups will need to have volume reduced in order to maintain your total workout volume. You could alternatively increase the frequency and do fewer sets but spread over more workouts.
Narrow grip barbell curl – 3 sets x 8 reps
Dumbbell hammer curl – 4 sets x 10 reps
Seated preacher curl – 3 sets x 8 reps
Lying dumbbell curl – 4 sets x 12 reps
Narrow grip EZ curl – 3 sets x 8 reps
Cable rope hammer curl – 3 sets x 12 reps
Cable overhead curl – 3 sets x 8 reps
Bayesian curl – 3 sets x 8 reps
Reverse grip EZ curl – 3 sets x 12 reps
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