Best Back And Bicep Workout [One Thing They Didn’t Tell You About Back and Bicep Workouts]
If you’ve had any experience with pairing complementary muscle groups, you may have already stumbled on the Back and Biceps duo. Even if you haven’t:
You probably know that building a thick back and bulging biceps won’t happen overnight.
Any teenager in his bedroom can find a pair of dumbbells to curl, but sculpting your upper arms takes the same dedication as perfecting your squat technique, or shaping a defined six pack. This holds especially true for stacking meat on your back; it also requires an emphasis on quality repetitions over weight or quantity.
The Bottom Line
This post will tell you the most important things to focus on when working your back and biceps, including:
- How much weight?
- How many repetitions?
- How often per week? and
- Which exercises work best?
I’ll also explain the most underrated and simplest fact about seeing serious gains to your back and biceps:
It’s all about focused contractions. The critical ingredient to the best back and bicep workouts!
Also, I will explain why weight-heavy sessions, repetition-loaded training and grueling circuits won’t necessarily get you the results you’re after. But first, a little about each muscle group.
Strengthen Your Back Muscles
Your back is made up of three different layers of muscle; the superficial, intermediate and deep groups. Together, they combine to create an incredibly diverse and large muscle group. Giving it a good workout will take more than a few pull-ups.
If you want to see significant growth, you’ll need to show each muscle a little bit of love and care--which can be done in two ways:
- Devise a painstakingly specific, rigorous workout that will target each muscle individually; or
- Learn how to engage each muscle in a variety of broad exercises, so that you are in control of which muscles are working in which positions.
Unless you’re entirely masochistic and want to spend 3 hours with therobands and 5-15 pound dumbbells; you’ll opt for the second choice.
The truth is, some traditional ‘back’ exercises make it incredibly easy to recruit power from other large muscle groups. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Take pull-ups, for example: when your lats begin to fatigue, you can rely more heavily on the strength of your upper arms and biceps to pull you through the movement. While this is great for a back/bicep combination day, it doesn’t necessarily help you build your latissimus dorsi.
What you need is focused reps.
The key to building your back is to perform your sets within a controlled range (whether that’s by weight or repetition is up to you), while keeping a direct focus on engaging your back muscles throughout the entire exercise.
You can go for a long time lifting heavier and heavier weights without seeing any real gains to your back strength, simply because you’re using poor technique. If you’re lifting heavier weight, yes, you’re getting stronger--but if you rely on assisting muscles to get the job done, then your back will be taking a back seat while the rest of your body is working.
Do this for results!
Try focusing on the contraction of your back muscles through the exercise and the quality of the contraction, rather than getting caught up in how much weight you’re lifting.
Ideal weight for back exercises
This will vary from person to person, and exercise to exercise. A good answer for back exercises is to lift a weight that you could use for 12 reps, but to stop the exercise when you cannot perform the rep with perfect form. That might mean pulling out at repetition 6 for the first week, then building up to your usual 12 with perfect technique.
Remember, good form isn’t just about striking a picture perfect pose at the top and bottom of an exercise.
It’s about working efficiently, so that every inch of the movement is benefiting your workout--not just the beginning and end.
Exercises to get results
Here are 3 great back exercises you should be including in your weekly routine, along with how many reps, sets and how often per week you want to be doing them.
Here’s a golden tip for focusing the exercise on your back, and keeping your biceps out of the game.
Try to imagine that everything from your hands down to your forearms is deadweight (like a hook or metallic arm hanging from the elbow). Then pull from the elbows to complete the movement, rather than pulling from your hands. This will focus your energy on pulling from the lats and building your back muscles without assisting from your upper arms (which will fatigue more quickly than the massive muscle groups in your back, anyway!).
I suggest 3 x 8 focused repetitions, at a weight you could finish 2 x 12 reps on.
Lat Pulldowns are a twice per week exercise.
These are great because they keep your back activated for the entire set--from the beginning to the end of each repetition. Sit up straight and keep your lower back tight (so that you don’t slouch at the waist), then pull the weight back directly back to your hips. The more you raise your arms in the movement, the more you will be recruiting shoulder and upper arm muscles. Again: try pulling directly from the elbow to keep your back working overtime.
I suggest 4 x 6 slow repetitions at a weight that you could pump out 10 repetitions.
These are also a main course lift and should be performed twice per week.
This is a bodyweight exercise you’ll want to become familiar with. It not only targets and strengthens your lower back, but it gets at some of the deeper layers of back muscle that surround your spine. This movement is all about control, and you should be able to get a nice focus on each contraction--holding the position at the top as you progress with training.
I suggest 2 x 12 repetitions, and if you’re really game holding some 5 lb weights in each hand as you level up.
This is an exercise you can realistically do each morning, but is an accessory exercise, rather than a main course.
Biceps Strengthening 101
Something about the biceps has captured male fascination since before gyms were invented--big arms are a sign of strength and domination, and bulging biceps are half of the battle.
Okay, enough pump speech--how do you actually work your biceps to good effect?
The truth is, traditional bicep and Zottman curls are a pretty good start. Standard bicep curls are a remarkably targeted bicep exercise--depending on the range, weight, and focus of contraction, simple variations on the bicep curl can actually cover all bases when it comes to building those beach body guns for exhibition.
Activating Biceps Is Simple
This is because, unlike the back, the biceps aren’t so complicated. As the root word suggest, we’re really only talking about a muscle with two heads. Activating these is relatively simple, but testing them and forcing your body to react to stimuli in a way that will promote positive growth takes a few tips and techniques.
Here are three of the best bicep-specific exercises, along with some guidelines for how to get the most out of each.
Dumbbell concentration curl
Your upper body weight should be hanging forward over you shoulders, with your elbow resting on the inside of your knee. Start with a neutral grip, then rotate the dumbbell up, twisting your thumb out so that you finish the top of the movement with your thumb facing out. Seated curls are a great way to slow down your bicep workout, focusing in on each part of the movement and getting a nice squeeze at the top of the exercise.
I suggest 3 x 8 good repetitions on each arm with 50% of your maximum curl weight
This can be a regular lift, done twice or three times per week.
EZ-bar pronated curls
Perfect for targeting the long head of your biceps muscle, pronated curls also let you lift a decent amount of weight with good form. EZ-bars are great for variety, so feel free to shift your grip on this exercise with each set: start wide, move to neutral, then finish with one close-grip set (all pronated).
That gives you 3 x 10 repetitions, and can serve as one of your major bicep lifts.
Overhead Cable curls
These are great for targeting your biceps without needing to focus too hard on it. The exercise itself puts you in a position where it’s very difficult to rely on other muscle to complete the movement--meaning that your biceps are bound to be doing most of the work.
Go for 3 x 8 reps at a weight/resistance you could perform 12 repetitions with.
The biceps really aren’t a large muscle group, and so the weights that you’re handling won’t ever be very impressive. For example, squatting your bodyweight is normal; but if you ever get close to bicep curling your bodyweight, then you need to get in contact with the Guiness World Record Book, because you’re on the verge of something very special in human achievement.
For this reason, bicep exercises are particularly repetition focused. It isn’t about lifting heavy weights for ridiculous amounts of repetitions--it’s about lifting smart and focusing on each contraction. I’ve suggested some weighting guidelines for each of the above exercises: feel free to begin with those and build up as you progress.
Putting it all together
I’ve talked a lot about focused repetitions, so that when you’re working your back, you think about your back; and the same goes for when working your biceps. This doesn’t mean you can’t combine exercises in the same workout session.
Some of my favorite back and bicep workouts with dumbbells utilize a superset method. And here’s why everything up until now is important:
By focusing entirely on the working muscle group, you won’t be fatiguing other muscles during their ‘rest’ exercises.
This will let you get more out of your back and bicep superset workout.
A good back and bicep superset workout from the exercises listed above would be:
Block #1: Lat Pulldowns & Dumbbell Concentration Curls
Block #2: Seated Row & EZ-Bar Pronated Curls
Block #3: Supermans & Overhead Cable Curls
Finishing with the overhead cable curls will give your biceps a great fatiguing pump: but given the nature of the exercise, you won’t be able to cheat your way out of it--even if you’re tired.
Building your back and biceps takes focused repetitions. The problem with these muscles is also their greatest strength--they are involved in so many bodily movements that, depending on how you use them:
They can either get in the way, or work for you when you want them to.
My final tip would be to begin any back and bicep superset workout with a pull-ups warm-up. Alternate between sets, switching the mental focus from your lats to your upper arms and see how much of a difference it makes. It’s a great way to get you body thinking, while also warming up for the lift to come.
Quality of contraction is the goal, and it can be the difference between being stuck with the same physique for months and promoting powerful changes to your musculature.
Try out these back and bicep workouts with dumbbells, then stay posted for later posts where I’ll go into some bodyweight alternatives: so that you get a great back and bicep workout at home.