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My progress on bar curls has dropped. I understand any form of bar curl is the staple bicep exercise so i'm wondering what is a good change up or strategy to improve (increase) the weight I can curl?

I don't have a separate day for arms so I target biceps with back. This typically involves starting with 4 sets of pull ups, then a 2 back exercises (4 sets each) such as rows, deadlift or lat pulls. I then move onto biceps and do 4 sets wide grip ez bar curls followed by 3 sets with the narrow grip. By the end my forearms are aching and I have a good pump in my biceps. However the weight isn't really increasing.

As my train back and biceps together i'm hesitant to target arms first, to avoid fatiguing them and subsequently not hitting the back hard enough.

What can I try?

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You haven't mentioned what your strength levels are, so I will answer your question assuming you are not an advanced or elite athlete.

  1. The number one key for your workout to be effective is to progressively increase volume. If you want to gain size you have to lift more than you used to. If you cannot add weight or do more reps you can try adding one more set in your workout. You also have to be patient. Don't expect to gain strength very fast especially in a small group like biceps. If you are doing a lot of volume for a long period of time do not forget to deload/take a week off. You will come back stronger and avoid stalling.

  2. A good pump doesn't imply gains. The fact that your forearms are aching and you have a good pump on your biceps doesn't necessarily mean that your workout is effective. As I said above the key is volume. I could be doing 10 sets of 10 with minimum rest and get a crazy pump. Yet I would have no results if the weight is insufficient. Make sure you don't take very small amounts of rest between sets.If your rests are too brief then you will not be able to accumulate enough volume to grow your muscles. Anything less than a minute is waste of time if you do not pursue endurance (well you will grow but it will take a lot longer).

  3. This is kinda obvious, but do not expect to gain strength or muscle if you are losing weight, except if you are a beginner. I would advise you to be on a caloric surplus of +300-500 calories. You could also gain strength eating around your caloric maintenance but that would take a lot of time.

  4. Unless your primary goal is increasing your biceps strength you should not do bicep isolation first and then back compound movements. By doing compound movements like lat pulldowns first you can still exhaust your biceps later on even though you will be using less weight. However, if you start with bicep curls your biceps will get exhausted before your back and hence your back gains will suffer.

All in all you have to be realistic and don't expect that you will put on 5kg every single month on the barbell curl. It might even take 2-3 months to add 2.5kg if you have reached an advanced strength level so just make sure you are consistent and patient. Accumulate more volume over time by adding more sets if you are not able to do more reps and do not forget to eat and sleep well.

  • Agree, except for 4. Lat pulldowns are very much a isolation movement. Barbell bent over row is a compound back exercise that also hits biceps. Chinups are too. – Gunge Nov 18 '16 at 8:03
  • The only difference between chin ups and lat pulldowns is that you actually have a double overhand grip and you work less on your biceps. However you are still working on your biceps since you have elbow flexion. Any exercise that targets more than one muscle group is a compound. A better definition is that a compound exercise involves two or more joint movements while an isolation involves only one. – MattSt Nov 18 '16 at 15:04
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Biceps are 1, small muscle. Growing strength and size in that muscle after noob gains have passed is a lot slower than legs because there is simply more muscle mass on your legs to grow. The same goes for shoulders, If I could add 2.5kg onto my overhead press for 6 weeks on the trot, I would be at an Olympic level in a very sort amount of time.

To combat the diffuclty in adding weight to bicep curls, I suggest weight-rep modification. For example:

  • Week 1: 20kg 4x10 (4 sets of 10)
  • Week 2: 20kg 4x12
  • Week 3: 22.5kg 4x8
  • Week 4: 22.5kg 4x10
  • Week 5: 22.5kg 4x12

If you fail a week, keep going at it until you can reach that rep-weight goal. If you are still stalling, remember that to grow muscle you need to eat a lot and to grow really strong, you may not achieve the 'ripped bodybuilder look' but will get the 'strongman' aesthetic.

  • thanks. any idea how much an ez bar weighs? i'm thinking 15 but not sure – clicky Nov 9 '16 at 12:25
  • You will have a scale in the gym usually, use that. – Gunge Nov 10 '16 at 7:51

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