For a relatively small muscle, the biceps garners plenty of publicity and controversy in the fitness world. The debate about whether to train the biceps directly involves the muscle’s appearance, as well as its importance relative to other muscles. In the end, however, the question of whether biceps exercise is worth your time depends on your fitness goals.
Defining the Biceps
The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle on top of your upper arm. In common practice, however, the term “biceps” typically includes underlying upper-arm muscles, such as the brachialis and brachioradialis, the latter of which extends into your forearms. Together, the three muscles are responsible for flexing your elbows. The biceps brachii also rotates your forearms, while the muscle’s short head plays a small role in flexing your shoulders.
How to Target Your Biceps
To target your biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis directly, you must perform arm curls. To perform a basic dumbbell curl, for example, stand and hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms hanging at your sides and your palms facing your body. Flex your elbows to raise the dumbbells. Rotate your forearm as the dumbbells ascend, so your palm faces your shoulder at the peak of your movement. Return the weight slowly to the starting position. Try not to move your upper arms during the exercise. Standard curls target the biceps brachii. Do preacher or concentration curls to emphasize the brachialis. Perform hammer or reverse curls to focus on the brachioradialis.
When performed properly, arm curls will strengthen the three muscles in front of your upper arms, but they won’t have a major impact elsewhere. A few other muscles are typically engaged as stabilizers -- the anterior deltoid, upper and middle trapezius, levator scapulae and wrist flexors during standard curls, for example. But you have many other options if you want to strengthen those stabilizers. The sole reason to perform biceps exercises is to strengthen your biceps.
Isolation vs. Compound Exercise
The question of whether to perform biceps exercises is part of the larger debate on the merits of isolation vs. compound exercises. Isolation activities -- including biceps exercises -- target a single muscle group, while compound exercises work multiple groups. If you’re looking to strengthen your entire body and your time is limited, compound exercises are typically recommended because you work more of your body in the same amount of time. Pullups, for example, target your back but offer an excellent biceps workout, while also strengthening your shoulders and chest.
Return on Time Investment
Ultimately, your goals, fitness level and the amount of time you train will determine whether biceps exercises are a good use of your time. Beginners will typically do better by focusing on compound exercises to build overall fitness. If you’re in good shape and have time to spare, you may wish to supplement your compound exercises with a few isolation activities, such as biceps curls. “Men’s Fitness” magazine recommends doing at least two compound exercises for every isolation move. If you’re a bodybuilder or if the appearance of your biceps is very important to you, then biceps exercises will not be a waste of time.