Curls for the Girls: The Ultimate Back and Bicep Workout Guide

Back and Biceps

A "roadmap" back and "sleeve-stretching" biceps make for quite the visual appeal which is why back and bicep workouts are a popular combination.

Now, of course, the chest and triceps combo gets most of the attention but you’re leaving gains on the table just by having this mindset. Equal priority should be given to your back and bicep workouts if you want to be well-rounded and aesthetic.

But, it’s not as simple as just going into the gym and winging it… the back is a large area of muscle with many pieces. And although a bicep consists of two heads, proper training can also bring out the brachialis muscle located beneath it for even bigger arm gains.

So, let’s dissect these two important muscle groups and break down what yields results when it comes to training…

1. BACK MUSCLE ANATOMY 

The back or upper posterior chain (Backside of the body) is composed of many different muscles which include…

  • Rhomboids - Located below the traps and responsible for scapular retraction
  • Trapezius - Muscles near the neck responsible for neck rotation/lateral flexion, scapular retraction/depression, shoulder stabilization, and arm rotation
  • Erector Spinae - Muscles located along the spinal column responsible for lumbar spine function like lateral flexion, bending, and twisting
  • Latissimus Dorsi - The largest muscle of the upper body which performs the functions of adduction, extension, and horizontal abduction of the humerus 

2. BICEP MUSCLE ANATOMY 

The bicep or biceps brachii is a rather small muscle with two heads (Long and short). Both heads work together as one muscle to bend and rotate the forearm.  But, beneath the bicep muscle is the brachialis which is the prime mover of the elbow. Now, if well developed, the brachialis bulges from the short head side of the bicep and reaches down by the elbow.

 

 

However, not everyone has a prominent brachialis muscle. But training it sufficiently will, of course, result in maximal development.

What’s The Method Behind Back and Bicep Workouts?

So, you were probably wondering why this method of training is popular? Well, it’s simple. Your back and biceps muscles are involved in movements which require you to pull.

The theory is that if you’re already training back (Or vice versa) which involves the biceps as secondary movers; then you might as well finish them off with some direct bicep work since your biceps are heavily engaged during back training.

You also save time and don’t have to designate a day just for bicep training. But, you never want to train biceps first if doing a back and bicep workout. And that’s because the larger, back muscles need the biceps to have adequate strength to assist with the movement.

3. 7 BEST BACK EXERCISES

In an ACE-sponsored study, 15 young, healthy males performed multiple back exercises and the barbell bent-over row proved to be the best overall back exercise when compared to the others.

But, depending on the exercise, electromyographic (EMG) varied between the different muscle groups of the back. EMG testing is performed by attaching electrodes to the skin which measure muscle activation during a contraction.

Keep in mind that doing any type of pulling movement, the biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscles will get stimulated too.

So, here are some of the best back exercises you can do with the primary target muscles…

BENT-OVER ROW

The bent-over row works all of the upper posterior chain muscles of the back.

In fact, a study showed the bent-over row to elicit symmetrical stimulation to both the upper and lower back muscles.

And another great benefit is that this movement is performed with a free weight barbell. So what does that mean? Free weights allow you to train and move more naturally. They also engage stabilizer muscles, improve balance, and help with performance-based activities (Team sports, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc).

But, you must practice proper form for your safety and maximum effectiveness, as any form of weight training comes with some form of risk.

The bent-over row is the perfect all-around back exercise and if you’re looking to put on maximum size and strength then look no further.

Movement execution: Bend your knees and keep your back straight with your torso bent over during the movement. Pull the barbell to a few inches from your lower ribcage and when you lower it back down avoid locking out your elbows.

Keep your shoulders blades retracted during the movement.

Variations: Dumbbell bent-over row, Smith machine bent-over row, cable bent-over row, machine row

BARBELL DEADLIFT

Before we get to the other back movements, we cannot forget the king of posterior chain exercises… the barbell deadlift!

Now, there probably isn’t one muscle left out during the full body deadlift. And a lot of people will say it’s not a real back exercise, but they’re sadly mistaken

The deadlift will work everything from your calves all the way up to your traps ... effectively!

But, because of the major stress from the full body load of performing a deadlift, one must work up in weight very slowly. This will protect your joints, hips, ensure optimal safety and allow you to progress effectively.

Movement execution: Grip the barbell so hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart. You can use a mixed grip too (Hands are not facing the same direction).

Drive up through your heels and midfoot with your lower back arched and upper back slightly rounded for maximum power. Thrust your hips forward and keep your shoulders blades back with chest up.

Variations: Sumo deadlift, dumbbell deadlift, hex bar deadlift, cable deadlift, dumbbell single-leg deadlift

PULL-UP/CHIN-UP

Few exercises can beat the pull-up when it comes to building impressive wings.

The ACE-sponsored study showed significant muscle stimulation when performing the pull-up but the chin-up also did well coming in second.

The pull-up is performed with an overhand grip and the chin-up uses an underhand grip.

And you don’t necessarily need a lot of upper body strength either because if you can’t do a bodyweight pull-up; there is the pull-up assist machine. However, the effectiveness of the bodyweight pull-up likely results from the stabilization required to perform the movement.

But, building upper body strength through assisted movements by using a machine or doing inverted rows will allow you to eventually do a bodyweight pull-up if you’re consistent.

Movement execution: A pull-up variation is rather simple. Grip the bar (Overhand grip) and pull yourself up as high as you can. Avoid swinging but a little momentum is ok.

If the reps become too easy and/or if you can do more than 10 reps, add a little more resistance with a weight belt or dumbbell in between your feet.

Variations: Assisted pull-up/chin-up, inverted row, seated cable pulldown, machine pulldown

I-Y-T RAISE

The I-Y-T raise is a pretty unconventional movement but it’s actually pretty darn effective

The ACE-sponsored study showed this exercise to outperform when it came to stimulating the traps and infraspinatus (Muscle of the rotator cuff) muscles. But, it’s also great for working erector spinae coming in second for EMG activity.

Movement execution: Lie face down on an incline bench (Or sit upright) while holding a 10-pound plate in each hand. Arms should be hanging down relaxed. Keep your arms straight and raise the plates directly in front of you until they reach overhead to form an “I”. Lower the plates back down. Now, do the same but form a “y”. Finally, bring the plates back down and form a “T” with your arms.

INVERTED ROW

The inverted row or Australian pull-up is an excellent exercise on its own, but it’s especially beneficial for those with not as much upper body strength.

They are very effective for working the traps and lats so it’s a good idea to switch things up and include the inverted row every now and then even if you think it’s too “unconventional”.

Movement execution: Set up the Smith machine bar so that you can hang with arms straight while underneath it. Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width, overhand grip. Body should be straight and heels on the ground. Pull yourself up until your chest reaches a few inches from the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades together.

Avoid locking out your elbows when you perform the negatives.

DUMBBELL BENT-OVER ROW

So, it wouldn’t feel right to leave out dumbbells since they do build more stabilization and allow a freer range of movement than barbells and pull-up bars.

Dumbbells allow you to move how you would naturally and you can get a really deep stretch during the negative portion of a repetition.

Movement execution: The dumbbell bent-over row involves doing the same movement as if you were using a barbell. And you can use a neutral grip if it’s more comfortable for you. Pull the dumbbells toward your lower ribcage and squeeze shoulder blades.

Variations: Barbell bent-over row, Smith machine bent-over row, dumbbell bent-over row, cable bent-over row

BARBELL SHRUG

Ok, so a lot of people train traps with shoulders but it’s technically a back muscle. And shrugs are non-negotiable if you want to have the biggest traps possible!

Movement execution: Hold two dumbbells with arms straight down by your sides relaxed. Now, shrug your shoulders up and slightly back then hold for a count of 2. You should feel your traps being engaged. If you’re not feeling your traps work, then lighten the resistance.

Variations: Dumbbell shrug, Smith machine shrug, cable shrug

4. 5 BEST BICEP EXERCISES

Another study by ACE compared the effectiveness of the most common biceps exercises. And you wouldn’t believe which one showed the highest muscle activation.

CONCENTRATION CURL

That’s right, an isolation exercise.

According to John Porcari, Ph.D., (Head researcher at the University of Wisconsin—LaCrosse and its Clinical Exercise Physiology program) the anterior deltoids, and brachioradialis take some of the load from the biceps during compound bicep exercises.

And that’s why the concentration curl elicited significant activation in the bicep muscles during the study. While other movements like the barbell curl and chin-up involved more of the front shoulders and forearms.

Movement execution: Place the tricep of the working arm on your inner thigh and hunch over while keeping your back straight. Curl the dumbbell as high as you can and contract your biceps at the top. When you lower the dumbbell, do not lock out your elbow. Twist your wrist inward during the curl for a bigger contraction in your bicep.

Repeat the exercise with your other arm.

Variations: Cable concentration curl, preacher curl

CABLE CURL

The cable curl is an awesome exercise which no one should neglectbut why? Cables isolate; they allow you to work through a more natural movement than machine do, and they allow for longer time under tension on the target muscle/s.

Sounds like the perfect training tool right?... that’s because it is.

But since time under tension may promote even great muscle growth according to one study, cable training is an ideal way to achieve this.

Movement execution: Attach a long bar or single grip handle to the lowest notch of the cable pulley bar. When you curl the weight, keep your elbows by your sides and hold at the top for a few seconds. Lower the weight slowly and avoid locking out your elbows during the negatives.

Variations: Single grip cable curl

BARBELL CURL 

The barbell curl is a beast of a bicep exercise. If you want bigger guns, then it’s a must. Now, the benefit of training with a barbell is that you can perform the lift with a maximum resistance load.

And… muscle overload = gains!

The weight is distributed equally between both bicep muscles using a barbell, so you can lift more weight without having to stabilize the weight.

Movement execution: Grip the barbell with hands shoulder-width distance apart from each other. Pin your upper arms to your side and curl the barbell while contracting your biceps. Don’t lock out the bottom (Eccentric phase) of the rep.

Keeping your upper arms stationary by your sides will prevent you from engaging the anterior deltoids.

Variations: EZ bar curl

EZ BAR CURL

A study compared EMG activity for 12 participants during the EZ curl, barbell curl, and dumbbell curl for ten reps. The EZ curl, and barbell curl resulted in similar bicep EMG activity and the dumbbell curl was not as effective as the other two exercises.

So, the EZ bar curl is an ideal bicep exercise when building muscle and strength. But, it’s main purpose is to alleviate wrist stress that a straight barbell can often cause. This makes the movement easier and less painful.

Movement execution: Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart with hands in the grooves. Then, perform the curl with upper arms stationary by your sides. Allow your hands to move with the bar since it often rotates during the positive part of the rep.

Variations: Barbell curl

DUMBBELL HAMMER CURL 

To fully develop your brachioradialis muscles, you need to include an exercise which involves doing curls with a pronated (Overhand) or neutral grip.

But don’t take our word for it, research proves that hand position activates the brachioradialis and biceps differently. The brachioradialis is the primary mover during wrist pronation, and therefore, the biceps are less dominant.

The brachialis muscle adds dimension and width to your biceps and you want to take complete advantage of this hidden, yet crucial muscle. So, the hammer curl is the perfect exercise to accomplish this added size…

Movement execution: With a neutral grip, curl the weight across your body by alternating arms. Turn your wrists away from your body to use less bicep and more of your forearm.

Variations: Cable rope hammer curl, reverse curl, machine hammer curl

5. SETS AND REPS 

Your training volume will depend on your current level of training experience, nutrition, goals, and training frequency.

But, let’s say you’re a beginner, intermediate lifter, or advanced lifter… you’ll need to schedule your training volume accordingly.

Note: Your overall training volume will depend on how many times you train a muscle per week. The more days in the gym means you should do less sets/reps.

But, the following sets/reps are based on a once per week training routine.

SETS/REPS FOR BACK

Beginner – Beginners should stick with 2-3 exercises, 3 sets, and anywhere from 10-20 reps. Then, as you advance and your nervous system adapts to the new training stimulus, you can move to a more intermediate training structure.

Intermediate – Intermediate lifters with some experience and knowledge of how to properly train can pick 3-4 exercises, do 3-4 sets each with a rep range of 8-15.  But, you can still get results with higher rep ranges so feel free to change it up every now and then.

Some days you can go a little lower (5-6 reps) or higher (20-25 reps).

Give your training a little more gas as you’ve adapted to the stresses of progressive overload.

Advanced – If you’re advanced then chances are you know what you’re doing by now. You can handle more overall work volume. But, you still want to avoid overtraining.

Choose 4 exercises, and do 4 sets with a lower rep range for size and strength gains. But, of course, if you feel like you can do more; it’s fine if you’re not overtraining. Reps can vary as well to stimulate different muscle fiber types.

SETS/REPS FOR BICEPS

Since biceps are one of the smaller muscle groups which are heavily stimulated during back training, less volume is ideal most of the time. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train them with the same intensity.

Now, training frequency depends on the person but here’s a sample sets/reps scheme if working the biceps twice per week based on training experience…

Beginner – Beginner’s should keep volume low and intensity high. So, 2 exercises, with 2-3 sets, and 10-20 reps should be plenty of stimulation in combination with your back training.

Intermediate – Once you’re a little more experienced, you can up the volume. Stay around 2-3 exercises, 3 sets, and 8-15 reps if you’re at an intermediate level of training.   

Advanced – Again, the more advanced you are the better you know what works for you body. But, 3 exercises with 3-4 sets are more than enough if intensity is high.

Reps should be mixed up often to continuously introduce new challenges to the muscle fibers.

6. BACK AND BICEP TRAINING FREQUENCY 

Since the back is a large group of muscles, you’ll have to be strategic about training them since they need more attention than the biceps.

How often you train depends on the muscle, your schedule, and your goals.

So, if you can only make it to the gym once per week, then you need to up your volume. But, if you train multiple times per week, then just train a muscle to the start of exhaustion and quit.

7. ROUTINES 

[DOWNLOAD] Back and Bicep Google Sheet

So you want to know what it takes to get a roadmap back and mountain top peak biceps huh?...

Well, we’ve got some effective workouts to share with you which include the exercises, sets, reps, and periodization so you can keep making progress.

But, before you get into your working sets, make sure to warm-up with at least two lighter sets pyramiding up in weight from 30 to 50-60% of your one-rep max. Keep the working sets (Outlined below) to no higher than 80-85% of your one-rep max.

Train to failure for each set and allow at least 4 four days of rest in between workouts.

Basic beginner back and bicep workout

A beginner should start slow and practice good form before training with heavy weight for lower reps. Volume should be kept relatively low to moderate with high intensity.

This beginner routine should be performed no more than once per week for one month. But after a month, you can start to add more volume. Keeping the workout consistent for at least a month will allow your muscles to adapt to the training stimulus safely.

LIFT

SETS

REPS

REST

Bent-Over Row

3

15

45 sec.

Pull-Up/Assisted

2

AMRAP

1 min.

I-Y-T Raise

3

12-15

45 sec.

EZ Bar Curl

2

15-20

45 sec.

Dumbbell Hammer Curl

2

12-15

30 sec.

    Intermediate and advanced lifters should add a few more sets and even an additional exercise when doing this back and bicep workout routine. But, the exercise selection can be a little different and here’s a sample routine for intermediate and advanced lifters.

    This routine is for the twice weekly back training session…

    Basic intermediate/advanced back and bicep workout

    LIFT

    SETS

    REPS

    REST

    Deadlift

    3

    10-12

    1 min. 30 sec.

    Pull-Up/Assisted

    3

    8-12

    1 min.

    Dumbbell Bent-Over Row  

    3

    8-12

    1 min.

    Face Pull

    2

    15-20

    30 sec.

    Barbell Curl

    3

    8-10

    45 sec.

    Concentration Curl

    2

    8-12

    45 sec.

    Hammer Curl

    3

    8-10

    45 sec.

      Progressive beginner back and bicep workout

      When we train with the same routine for a certain period of time, our muscles adapt and stop responding. So, we need to implement a more intense routine through progressive overload. This can be achieved through increased sets, reps, less rest, more weight, and higher training frequency.

      LIFT

      SETS

      REPS

      REST

      Deadlift

      3

      12

      1 min. 30 sec.

      Inverted Row

      4

      10-12

      45 sec.

      Barbell Shrug

      3

      12-15

      30 sec.

      Cable Curl

      3

      12

      30 sec.

      Hammer Curl

      3

      10-12

      45 sec.

        Progressive intermediate/Advanced back and bicep workout

        LIFT

        SETS

        REPS

        REST

        Deadlift

        4

        8-10

        1 min. 30 sec.

        Weighted Pull-Up

        3

        AMRAP

        1 min.

        Barbell Shrug

        4

        8

        30 sec.

        Weighted Chin-Up

        3

        AMRAP

        1 min.

        Hammer Curl

        2

        8-10

        30 sec.

        Concentration Curl

        2

        10-12

        30 sec.

          Now, generally, one compound (Multi-joint) movement per workout is enough. But, the more advanced in your training, the more compound exercises you can implement. This will allow you to stimulate your nervous system and take your progress to the next level.

          More volume is necessary at some point, and muscle growth has been shown to be dose dependant, specifically when referring to more training volume over time.

          And according to Dewayne Smith, MS, NASM-ce, pes, PNS; Muscle hypertrophy occurs through physiological adaptation to physical and metabolic stress during resistance training.

          So, in other words… consistent training which involves progressive overload will result in gains!

          [DOWNLOAD] Back and Bicep Google Sheet


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