6 Back and Bicep Workouts
Almost every guy that first enters the gym for the first time selects bicep curls as their first exercise. Perhaps because it’s a rather simple exercise to perform. Or maybe because the super heroes, action figures and athletes we admired growing up all had these iconic arms.
In this guide you will be able to choose 2 back and bicep workouts from three different training levels:
Maybe you have dabbled with a back and bicep workout before. Or maybe you just wing it in the gym, you pick whatever machine is empty and then you go for it. Either way, I’m sure you will find this guide extremely helpful. Be warned though, I will go over many details in the following programs.
I will cover different training parameters such as rest periods, repetition range, volume, exercise selection, tempo and even hand positions. All these factors will contribute to the success of your training.
If you thought you were simply going to receive generic advice like do 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions of each exercise then guess again.
Quality over quantity
A few years ago I was training a rather fit male client at Equinox South Beach and he was performing heavy bicep curls with sloppy form. In fact, his hips and shoulders were doing most of the lifting. When I told him that his form needed work, he looked at me as if I asked to go out on a date with his mom.
He then told me in the years that he has been training, not one single trainer has corrected his bicep curl form. I said, “well those are some pretty bad trainers.” The truth is I don’t have a problem with cheat reps.
If you don’t know what cheat reps are, they are simply repetitions where you are using momentum to lift the weights. This might include jerking the shoulder and legs while doing barbell rows, or throwing your torso back while doing lat pull downs.
Let’s say your workout calls to do 3 sets and 8-10 repetitions of dumbbell rows. First you always start with strict form. But let’s also say you have nailed 2 of your sets with really good form but on your third set you are fatiguing around 7 repetitions. You don’t have enough raw strength to perform the last 3 reps so you choose to use some momentum to row the dumbbell. This is ok!
In this scenario, cheat reps work. They are great way to overcome plateaus but don’t overuse them.
However, some exercises are not worth performing with cheat reps. Dumbbells rows are ok because at least you have some support from a bench. You don’t want to do cheat reps with barbell bent over rows because doing so might cause lower back injury.
The pattern to achieve a barbell bent over row is somewhat of an advanced one because it includes hinging at the hips properly. Most people don’t really grasp this pattern easily.
Quality reps as a progression method
Another reason why i’m bringing up quality reps in this post is because a good portion of people in gyms don’t (or don’t want to) lift weights properly. A simple way to advance a current exercise is by simply doing it well!! What a concept right? It might seem trivial but using the proper muscles for that specific exercise can help you achieve better results.
Upper Body Specific Warm Ups
No workout is complete without a proper and specific warm up. By specific, I don’t mean going for a jog when you’re about to do an upper body workout. If you don’t like the idea of warming up or don’t know how to, don’t worry, this warm up will take you less than 5 minutes to complete.
The Cat Camel warm up will help wake up and stretch the muscles of the back. Performing this movement often can help improve improve back function. This movement is also a great tool to increase spinal awareness. Having really good spinal awareness allows us to place our spine under favorable and proper positions to lift weights. If you suffer from chronic back pain please consult a doctor first before trying this or any exercise in this article.
How to do it:
- Get on the floor and place your hands, knees and foot down. Your hands should be underneath your shoulders and your knees should be placed about shoulder width.
- Take a big inhale and begin the exercise by rounding your upper back (kind of like this guy right here). You can stay here for about 1-3 seconds.
- Then exhale and reverse the movement by bringing your stomach and chest back towards the floor and arching your lower back with your head up. This is a subtle arch, don’t over do it.
- Repeat the entire sequence about 10 times.
Kneeling Thoracic Rotation & Extension
We live in a culture where sitting in front of computers is the norm. I get it, we need to get work done. But having this posture for long periods of time can affect our shoulder health and decrease thoracic (upper spine) mobility. This warm up serves as a great tool to combat those effects. It also does a great job at dynamically stretching the lats and pecs. Avoid performing this warm up with haste. Take your time through the motions.
How to do it:
- Get on the floor in a kneeling position. Shoot your hips back towards your heels to avoid lumbar (lower spine) rotation.
- Place one hand on the back of your head. Opposite hand is placed on the floor.
- Rotate your upper back towards the ceiling, let your eyes follow your elbow. Rotate inward and repeat the pattern again.
Muscles of the back
You don’t need to know all the names of the muscles of the back. I simply wanted you to be aware of all the different layers of muscles through the back region. Exercises like the pull ups and different row variations use many muscles at once to perform a given task. These group of muscles are usually called synergists, because they work together.
As you probably already know, the biceps is composed of two muscles. They are described as the long head and the short head. They are used in basically all pulling movements. This is especially true when exercises require your palms to face up as seen in the chin up or underhand barbell row, and this is why training back and biceps is ideal.
In the following workouts you will notice some exercises call for specific hand positions and widths. For example, a chin-up variation that calls for a narrow supinated grip (palms facing you) will recruit more of the biceps than a semi-supinated grip (palms facing each other).
A pull-up example might include a wide pronated grip (palms facing away from you). This set up will require the muscles of the forearm to work harder.
In my opinion, using different hand orientations and grip positions is an underutilized technique in strength training as it targets different areas of the muscle.
All exercises are not created equal
I think it’s important to know which muscles are firing in a specific exercise. Wouldn’t you want to know which exercise effectively hits the two heads of the biceps muscle?
I want to give you the best training advice that I can possibly give you. Some of the exercises listed here are inspired from the book, “Target Bodybuilding” by Per A. Tesch, Phd.
The book goes in depth on which muscles fire during different exercises. It highlights the effectiveness of an exercise by using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology.
MRI is most commonly used as an important tool to diagnose disease. However in his book, the author illustrates the following:
Researchers found that muscles that had performed contractile activity showed a contrast shift; those involved became lighter in images obtained immediately after exercise, and muscles not used remained dark gray, as before exercise. .
Here’s an image describing what the author meant above:
Some of these exercises are not ideal for beginners as they will require more experience. The beginner workouts in the next section will include mostly machines. Though not the most effective option, a well structured training plan can still provide good results.
Pull Up Variations
Tracking your workouts
There’s tons of ways to track you workouts. I like using Google Sheets. There’s also tons of workout log apps in the app store. If you wish to use Google Sheets, please visit the following link so that you can understand how to read and update your training log. This is important if you wish to get the most of your workouts.
At the end of this article you will be able to download all the workouts in this post. If you wish to go there now click here.
Back and Bicep Workouts
All the upcoming workouts have different variables. Some will require you to rest up to two minutes, others will ask you to rest only sixty seconds. You will notice most exercises will require you to grab the bar or dumbbells with a specific hand position or grip.
Tempo training is another variable that you will need to take into account. Tempo training involves how long it takes to complete a single rep. Lowering a loaded barbell for 4 seconds is not the same as lowering it for 2 seconds using the same exercise and with the same weight. Tempo training can be a grueling factor. Therefore the beginner workouts will have a tolerable tempo range.
I placed the most difficult exercise at the beginning of the workout. The beginner template #1 is the only one that starts with a machine. The intermediate and advanced templates will start with either a pull up variation or a row variation with a barbell. Intensity in the workouts will increase according to the experience level.
Please try you very best to adhere to all the training parameters in the workouts.
Beginner back and bicep workouts
The following workouts are for guys that are relatively new to strength training, or for guys that are coming back from a long training hiatus. This training plan will include more machines than the other ones on this post.
Please keep in mind that while machines are absolutely useful and have their place in strength training plans, prioritizing free weights (dumbbells, barbells) will induce a better training stimulus.
Using free weights allows us to stimulate our central nervous system and work on our stabilizing muscles. Training machines remove most of the stability needed in order to execute the movement.
Machines are especially useful for people that just want to focus on the effort and not on the mechanics of the movement. Or perhaps are not too familiar with the proper way in doing other exercises for the targeted muscle or muscle group. Either way, this workout can provide a good starting point for some of you.
Beginner Back & Bicep Workout #1
This is the shortest workout in this article. It contains three back exercises and only one bicep exercise. You will notice that the tempo for this entire workout is “2-1-x-0”. Again, please refer to this page to understand what this number format means.
Beginner Back & Bicep Workout #2
This workout contains four exercises like the previous one; two for back and two for biceps. The weight is slightly heavier as you have to perform 8-10 reps and not 10-12 like the previous workout. You will also have to rest 60 seconds and not 70 seconds.
Intermediate Back & Bicep Workout #1
The intermediate workouts will require you to feel comfortable using a barbell. There’s no strength training machines in this particular one or in the upcoming ones. I added one more exercise and more volume to this workout. The reps are somewhat heavy but the rest periods are a bit longer.
If you download the workout templates at the end of this article you will notice that the first two exercises in this workout will call for an under hand grip.
Intermediate Back & Bicep Workout #2
This is the first workout that contains pull ups. I designed this workout assuming you can only execute around 3-5 pull ups, since again, it’s an intermediate level. That’s totally fine because as you will notice with the first exercise, you only have to to do 3 repetitions per set.
However, you have 10 sets to complete. When you perform the pull up you have to lower yourself under control for a 3 second count. See the image below to take a look at what I’m referring to.
The first three exercises are done with an over hand grip.
Advanced Back & Bicep Workout #1
In this workout we have 3 back exercises and 2 bicep ones. All the back exercises are considered advanced and should be done for 8 repetitions per set, and 4 sets per exercise. If you consistently perform more than 8 reps per set, then gradually increase the load.
Unlike the shoulder width pull ups in the previous example, you will have to contract and pause one second at the top position (where your chin is hopefully above the bar).
If you don’t have access to gymnastic rings for the third exercise then a TRX band will do or any other suspension trainer. As mentioned in the video, it is important not to use your hips to bring yourself up. A cue I like to use with a clients is, “Keep your chin away from your chest, stay on your heels and as you row yourself up, try to let your chest get to the top position before your hips do.” If this doesn’t seem possible then regress the exercise by placing your body closer to vertical.
Advanced Back & Bicep Workout #2
If you’re crazy enough here’s another workout that you can do. You’ll notice that it’s only compromised of different pull up variations. So you might be thinking where are the bicep exercises? Short answer, you don’t need them for this particular workout.
Your biceps will be heavily taxed, especially with the last two exercises. You’re going to start with pull ups which are obviously more difficult to do than chin ups.
AMRAP stands for As Many Reps As Possible. That being said, once you hop on the pull up bar, you’re going to perform as many wide-grip pull ups with good form. Then stop as you fatigued and rest for 20 secs.
Hop back on the pull up bar and continue with the next pull up variation. Once you complete the fourth exercise, rest 3 minutes and complete the entire workout one more time.
Download all the workout templates