Biceps Training Principles, Part One – Pinkies Over Thumbs, Dumbbells Over Barbells, and Contract the Biceps

Frank Zane Bicep Pose
Image: Frank Zane

Well sculpted arms are not hard to come by, but utilizing these three key principles will greatly improve your development and significantly reduce the amount of time it takes, as well as the risk of injury.

“It’s not good enough merely to keep your mind on each set you do. I try to visualize each rep doing exactly what I want. I don’t take mental pauses between sets. My mind is deep into my training even though I might be resting my body between sets. I am always preparing myself mentally for what’s coming next and so I cannot allow irrelevant thoughts to steal into my head. Long after my workout is over my mind is still in contact with the training session.” Frank Zane, Training Strategies of Frank Zane by Rick Wayne, 1979

Vince Gironda Performing an Incline Biceps Curl
Image: Vince Gironda, “Incline Alternating Curl”

“We learned a lot from each other. For example, he (Arnold Schwarzenegger) showed me how to get a biceps peak by supinating my wrist as I curled the weight.” Frank Zane, Oak & Iron: Frank Zane Talks Training With Arnold


To improve the development of the upper arms, specifically the biceps, focus on lifting (supinating) the pinky side of the hand higher than the thumb side of the hand during the concentric (lifting) phase, as well as the eccentric (lowering) phase, of the movement. This would be for a greater stimulus and more recruitment of muscle fibers. The main reason this brings greater results is because it helps create more tension in the biceps.

Carla Dunlap Incline Bicep Curl
Image: Carla Dunlap, “Incline Curl”

This isn’t always black and white, as there are specific times and reasons for allowing the pinky side to dip below the thumb side of the hand. One instance being when you are performing a hammer (neutral grip) curl.


If given a choice, I would almost always select dumbbells over barbells. I am not anti-barbell, just pro optimal output. This principle of supination can still be applied when using a straight bar and/or ez curl bar simply by pushing the pinky side of the hand up through the bar. Although the hand remains in an unaltered position throughout the movement, the force being applied to the bar greatly activates and fatigues the biceps.

Larry Scott Supine Curl
Image: Larry Scott, “Supine Curl

Dumbbells also allow for more elbow positioning variety (behind the body, directly to the side, and out in front), as well as quick transitions from movement to movement which keep rest periods as minimal as possible which is critical when sculpting the physique.

When we vary the elbow position in relation to the body we allow optimal development because we can sculpt different areas of the biceps. More specifically, when training the arms with the elbows behind the body, exercises like incline curls or cable curls with the pulley well behind you, work the long outer head of the bicep giving it length and profile when viewed with the arms hanging at the side. Versus when training the arms with the elbows in front of the body, exercises such assupinated chin ups (biceps focus) to all variations of preacher curls, having the humerus in front of the body while curling tends to activate more of and stimulate the short inner head which can create bicep height. This is why variety and smart training will always lead the way for better developed, sculpted well balanced aesthetics.

Larry Scott Dumbbell Preacher Curl
Image: Larry Scott, “Dumbbell Preach Bench Curl”

Dumbbells also allow for each muscle to do the work. When using a barbell, the stronger side can sometimes mask weaknesses in the non-dominant side. This will limit strength and development on one side. When using dumbbells, the weaker or non-dominant side will have to improve because it is no longer being assisted and doing all of the work.


Always contract the working muscle as hard as possible during the movement, as the body does not know how much weight is being lifted, but how much tension is being generated. In this instance for the biceps, before even starting to bring the forearm up to the bicep, contract the triceps to make sure your fully lengthening the biceps. This is then followed by contracting or squeezing the biceps and then shortening the biceps by bringing the forearms to the biceps. This does not mean that weight isn’t important, because it is. However, it is choosing the appropriate weight for the amount of desired repetitions, while still maintaining optimal form, posture and optimal force imposed upon the muscle which will allow for the greatest development.

Peggy Bundy Bicep Curl from Married with Children
Image: Katey Sagal, “Married… with Children” (1987)

As much as this is implied, I want to state this just so there is no confusion, and this applies for every muscle. Do not just aimlessly move the weight from start to completion. Contract the muscle and create as much tension as possible, internally and externally.

“It is the brain that develops the muscle—remember that whilst the effect of the weightlifting is to contract the muscles, the same effect is produced by merely contracting the muscles without the weightlifting.” Eugen Sandow

Take note that there are times to strategically implement when to create more tension by contracting harder at different points of the range (e.g, contract harder at the top of the range on one set/exercise and then focus more on the lengthened range, etc.)

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