Military Muscle: Three drills for bigger, better biceps

Milmuscle curls

There’s no denying that when you look around the gym, most guys are working their biceps, flexing in the wall mirrors as they walk to the next exercise station. In virtually everyone’s mind, “guns” can never be big enough.

The central mission of the biceps is elbow flexion regardless of arm position. These three exercises will get all aspects of the biceps involved and produce maximum results. Flexion strength numbers below demonstrate power available — you get more power with arms up high than at your sides.

If the arm is above the shoulder (chin-ups, palms facing in), arm flexion strength is 184 pounds.


If the arm is level with the shoulder (horizontal preacher curl), arm flexion strength is 146 pounds.

If the arm is at the side (standard curl), arm flexion strength is 115 pounds.

A few exercises for bigger — and more importantly, stronger — biceps:

Standing alternating dumbbell curls

A huge bang for the buck, this exercise is excellent for emphasizing the biceps in all its actions and involves the short head, the long head, the brachioradialis (the muscle that extends partway down the forearm), the front deltoids and just touches the upper pectorals. Pick a weight that will have you struggling just a bit on reps 9 and 10.

Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms extended along your side, palms facing inward.

Inhale and raise one arm, turning the palm upward as you pass your waist.

Raise your elbow as you continue to curl the dumbbell. Raising the elbow allows for a better biceps contraction and brings the front deltoids into play.

Return to the start position, turning your palm back inward as you come to your waist.

Repeat on the other arm for a total of 10 reps on each arm.

Remember to fully extend the arm before you begin its next repetition. This ensures a pre-stretch that will give full range of motion to the muscle.

Changing this to a barbell curl requires palms up, which de-emphasizes the brachioradialis. Taking a wide grip on the bar (wider than shoulder width) emphasizes the inside head (short head) of the biceps, while taking a narrow grip (inside shoulder width) emphasizes the outside head (long head).

Preacher curls

This is one of the top isolation exercises for the biceps. It’s important to make adjustments to the machine’s seat and pad (if available) so that your elbows are not at the bottom of the pad. If they are, you risk hyperextending the elbows and a neck injury since the head is forward and shoulders rounded. Your elbows should be at top of the pad so that it supports your forearms in the start position. Same idea as the previous exercise for weight.

Stand or sit with arms resting on the pad in proper position.

Inhale, then exhale as you curl the bar up until forearms are in a vertical position.

Max development occurs if you stop for a two-count on the way up, just before your elbows are at 90 degrees. This is the apex of the stress on the biceps.

Return the arms to the start position, keeping about a 5-degree bend in the elbows.

Repeat for 10 reps.


This exercise not only involves the lats, but it also places intense focus on both heads of the biceps. If you can’t use body weight, use a pullup-assist machine (a gravitron) or bands. I’ve found that you develop your pullups/chin-ups faster if you use an explosive motion to get yourself up to the bar.

Extend your arms and grip the bar with palms facing you.

Inhale, stick your chest out and pull upward with your arms while exhaling, until your chin is at or over the bar.

Release back to the arms-extended position.


Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas has been our Military Muscle columnist since 2007. He’s the director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. He’s his base’s lead trainer, a wounded warrior program facilitator and the Navy nutrition counselor there. His special emphasis is on fitness for the military retired population. Find his Military Muscle columns here.