It takes more than bench presses and leg raises to develop the perfect physique. It also takes time under the bar and, most importantly, effective back and bicep workout programming.
The back and biceps are the muscles to develop if you want an athletic upper body. However, these muscle groups deliver more than just aesthetic appeal; they’re also among the most functional, with the back forming half of your posterior chain. Because of this, lifters who make bicep and back workouts a part of their routine don’t just look better — they also perform better.
Luckily, workout programming for massive guns isn’t rocket science. This article will dig into ultimate back and bicep workout programming. But first, let’s kick things off with the basics.
Back and Bicep Anatomy 101
There’s a reason we plan to work on our back and biceps on the same day. Beyond time efficiency, there’s a method to the madness.
Training the back has a spillover effect on bicep development. Depending on how a trainee executes moves like a bicep curl, the inverse also holds. This effect has a lot to do with anatomy. But no worries, there’s no need for anatomy textbooks or notepads. Here’s a crash course.
The back is a collection of muscles consisting of the latissimus dorsi (lats), the trapezius (traps), the erector spinae, and the rhomboids. These muscles run from the tip of your glutes to the base of the neck.
These muscles are responsible for stabilizing the spine and shoulders, and they’re the prime movers for any movements that involve pulling.
The latissimus dorsi contracts during vertical pulling movements like pull-ups and chin-ups. This is why calisthenics athletes and gymnasts have some of the most developed lat muscles of any athlete.
During vertical pulls, the rhomboids stabilize the scapula, or the shoulder blades. Without rhomboid involvement, pull-ups become one of two things — undone or unstable. The rhomboids do more than stabilize the shoulder blades; they also contract during horizontal pulls, like rows.
The traps get their fair share of involvement during pulls of any kind. However, they contract the most for vertical pulls that move the weight upward. This is why powerlifters and weightlifters have impressive trap development.
Last, but surely not least, is the erector spinae. This muscle lines up the periphery of the lower back, stabilizing the lumbar segment of the spine during deadlifts and hinges like kettlebell swings.
Developing the erector spinae results in better pulls and fewer trips to the emergency room following a deadlift session.
The biceps consist of two muscle heads (hence the“bi”) that insert into the elbow and start at the coracoid process. That’s the frontal part of the shoulder that shares the same bony attachment to the clavicle.
The most important part of the bicep is the brachialis. This is a deep muscle that pops up only at the end of a pre-comp cut. It’s responsible for flexing the elbow. Without it, the entire elbow wouldn’t be able to pull or flex, resulting in no bicep pump.
The biceps, given their anatomy, “pump” with exercises that require the elbow to close or flex. Right off the bat, an example of such an exercise is the bicep curl. However, because most pulling movements require a significant degree of elbow flexion, trainees get a residual bicep pump from pulling exercises like pull-ups and chin-ups, too.
Back and Bicep Workout Fundamentals for Mass
The back and biceps activate during pulling movements. However, there are two ways to pull, and they both elicit different muscular and neurological responses.
Heavy and low-rep pulling results in neuromuscular efficiency and strength of movement. On the other hand, moderate weight sets consisting of eight to 12 repetitions are the way to go for muscle mass.
This is what it takes to gain some inches without the benches:
Go Moderate in Weight
Moderate means anywhere from 60% to 70% of a one-rep max. For trainees who haven’t discovered their maxes yet, there’s the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) test.
The RPE test works this way: Try a weight that’s challenging on the last rep of a set of 10 to 12. Whatever that weight is, that’s the one to use for hypertrophy training.
Rep Out (But Not Too Much)
As mentioned earlier, sets of eight to 12 are the best for eliciting a hypertrophic response. Now, there’s nothing magical about these numbers. However, they’re the rep ranges for a muscle to undergo tension for a longer period of time. And as science has proven time and time again, time under tension is the key to larger muscles.
Beyond the Bicep Curl: The Ultimate Back and Bicep Program
This is an eight-step program that will add mass to your biceps and girth to your back. Many of the movements in the program will be pulling movements, except for the bicep curl and its variations.
The back and bicep program consists of two workouts that trainees can alternate between. These workouts will be workouts A and B.
Workout A will be the first back and bicep workout session, meaning it will have more volume. In a nutshell, here’s what workout A looks like:
- Pull-ups or chin-ups: three sets of eight to 10 reps
- Ring or TRX rows: three sets of eight to 10 reps
- One-arm dumbbell row: three sets of eight to 10 reps per side
- Trap bar shrugs: three sets of eight to 10 reps
- Dumbbell curls: three sets of eight to 10 reps per side
Workout B will have less volume, and will consist of the following exercises and rep schemes:
- Bent over row with a barbell: three sets of six to 10 reps
- Ring or TRX curls: three sets of 10 to 12 reps
- Lat pulldown: three sets of 10 to 15 reps
These two workouts need to be at least a day apart from each other.
Below, we’ll lay out how to perform all of these exercises safely.
Pull-ups or Chin-ups
Pull-ups and chin-ups are simple, but this doesn’t mean that they’re easy to perform. Trainees who haven’t mastered pull-ups can use bands to support part of their weight.
To perform pull-ups or chin-ups, it’s important to keep the core braced and the shoulder blades squeezed. From a dead hang, trainees must pull themselves up until the chin goes over the bar. From here, trainees lower themselves in a controlled way to prevent shoulder problems.
Ring or TRX Rows
Trainees can opt for gymnastics rings or any suspension training kit to perform rows. Setting the rings or kit on a stable post, trainees must grab the rings or handles. From here, trainees need to lie back, relaxing their arms. They also need to engage the core and the back.
Trainees must then pull themselves forward, into the rings or handles, until the hands make contact with the sides of the chest.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row and Bent Over Barbell Row
Bending forward, trainees need to grab a dumbbell or a kettlebell with one hand. The other hand will be for support. They must engage their core and pull the dumbbell with the elbows bending at a 90-degree angle. Trainees then do the same with the other side.
The same mechanics apply to the bent-over barbell row. The only difference is that both hands will be pulling the barbell towards the stomach.
Trap Bar Shrugs
Trainees need to load the trap bar to get the full benefits of the exercise. They must grab the sides of the trap bar and stand up with their core engaged to prevent injury.
Trainees must then retract the shoulders back and shrug with the trap bar in hand. Trainees must also lower the weight slowly to increase the time under tension and keep the lower back and shoulders safe.
Dumbbell Bicep Curls
With a dumbbell in hand, the trainee can perform curls either in a standing position or a seated position. The movement starts with the arms fully extended. The trainee must then bring the dumbbell up with little to no shoulder movement or shrugging. From here, the trainee returns to the start position by controlling the descent of the dumbbell.
If you’d like to change it up, you can try replacing this with cable bicep curls.
Ring or TRX Curls
The setup will be similar to that of doing ring or TRX rows. The difference is the grip. This time, trainees must grip the handles or rings with their palms facing the ceiling. After taking a few steps forward, trainees need to lie as far back as possible with their arms fully extended
Once they’ve laid back, trainees need to curl themselves closer to the handles. Control during the lowering phase is key for safety.
This is the machine version of a pullup. Using a lat pulldown machine, trainees must sit erect and grab the handle above them. From here, the trainee simply pulls the handle down until it gets past their chin.
Build a Back That Grabs Attention and Guns That Show
A solid back and bicep workout is essential for lifters of all skill levels. These muscles are some of the most aesthetic and functional muscles in the entire human body.
Here, we’ve given you a program that you can run for a whole year. With proper deloads and nutrition, you’ll build a physique that draws eyes as you flex your bis.
If you’re looking for smart workout programming coupled with a supportive community of like-minded liftiers, try a free week with us.