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Are Biceps Isolation Exercises Necessary For Growth?

All the gym bros are training their biceps but is this actually necessary and useful if you just want to play sports or have some real world strength or is is just for aesthetics? Here’s what you want to know. 

If bigger biceps are a goal, direct isolation training is the best and fastest way to reach this. For athletic performance and strength that’s useful in daily life, isolation exercises aren’t necessary but don’t hurt anything either although compound exercises that include the biceps are better.

Let’s dive a little deeper into why certain ways of working out are better for certain goals. 

Is Isolating The Biceps Necessary?

If training any body part is necessary depends on what your needs/goals are. Unless your life depends on the size of your biceps, it’s probably not necessary. However, there are a lot of goals you can have that do make it necessary to directly train the biceps to reach those goals. 

The most common goals people have is to have bigger arms or biceps specifically or to perform better in their respective sports. Do you have to train your biceps to reach either of those goals? 

Most upper body exercise that involves any pulling will use the biceps as well. A bent over row targets the biceps pretty heavily and even something like boxing uses your biceps to pull back your arms after a punch. 

Diagram with the biceps muscles highlighted red.
The biceps are highlighted red

So with most sports and weightlifting you’ll use your biceps to some degree and train them to some degree without targeting them directly. The other movements you do aren’t traditional bicep exercises but the muscle is still used enough to make it a little bigger and/or stronger. 

After a while though, you might start feeling you run into the limits of your bicep strength or endurance. That is the moment you should start considering adding some extra bicep training. If a single part of your body is holding you back in your athletic performance, training that muscle extra is a good idea. In most situations outside of weightlifting just doing the sport is enough to give the biceps enough of a training impulse. 

That’s for athletic performance. However, many people want to have bigger arms for aesthetic reasons. This changes things a little bit. Most upper body exercises that work the biceps, mostly improve the endurance and strength of the muscle. While in the beginning this will also automatically translate into larger biceps for most people, the growth is quite limited in most cases. 

To get bigger biceps, doing some direct isolation workouts on top of your other exercise will help quite a lot. Muscles grow when you give them the right combination of sets, repetitions and resistance. That has to be combined with training in the right range of motion. You want to use as much of the range of motion of the muscle to maximize growth. Most other ‘accidental’ bicep training doesn’t use the full range of motion. Or if it does, you don’t use the optimal amount or sets, reps and resistance for biceps growth. 

By focussing only on the biceps, you can get all the other parameters just right to optimize growth in a way that is not possible with most other exercise. 

Is Training Biceps Useful In The Real World? 

So if you want bigger biceps, the best way to get them is to train them directly. For athletic performance it’s not strictly necessary in most situation unless you notice your biceps to be a restriction on performance. But what about normal people? You go to the gym to be in better shape and have some real world strength but don’t care about athletic performance or how big your arms are. Is bicep training useful for you? 

Man doing a bicep curl

Suggested: How many sets for optimal bicep growth?

If you want to build some useful real world strength but don’t care about looks, using your time to do compound exercises for your upper body will yield more time efficient result. You won’t see the muscle growth like with direct isolation exercises but it will improve the strength and endurance. 

Compound exercises are exercises that move more than one joint at the same time. Isolation exercises only move one joint at the same time. Compound exercises use more muscle mass at the same time which means you can move more weight and build more strength. Often these movements are done in a way that focusses more on building strength and less on building muscle. Also, the way you perform the exercises often means it’s suboptimal for biceps growth. 

Compound exercises are the way you usually use your strength in the real world. You pick up a heavy box from the floor, pull something towards you or jump on something. Almost nothing you do in daily life requires just the use of a single muscle. Training a single muscle in isolation will make it stronger but if the surrounding muscles aren’t any stronger, you can’t really use that strength. 

Examples of compound exercises that use the biceps as one of the muscles are; Pull-ups, bent over rows, face pulls, one arm rows. 

Again, just like with athletic performance, there might be a point where your biceps are the limiting factor to performing one of the exercises above. If that is the case and you want to get stronger, training the biceps in isolation will help you improve your weak points and improve your overall strength. 

Is Training Biceps Directly Bad? 

So compound exercises are the way to go for athletic performance and real world strength. But if you just like to work out your biceps, does this hurt anything or cause problems? 

Woman flexing bicep

In most cases, training your biceps directly with isolation exercises doesn’t hurt anything or have any drawbacks. Your biceps will be a bit bigger and stronger and your arms fill out the sleeves of your shirt a bit more. As long as you keep the isolation movements to a normal level, there isn’t much that can go wrong with this. 

If you go overboard with the direct exercises, it could start impeding the recovery for the compound exercises. Overuse injuries could also become a problem.

Also, for some sports where speed is very important, the extra weight on your arms could actually slow you down a little bit. This is probably offset by the extra strength and endurance but in extreme cases it could be a problem. 

If aesthetics really aren’t a goal (they are for most people even if they don’t want huge arms), the extra exercises just take up time, energy and recovery capacity you could use for other things. However, just adding one or two isolation exercises after a workout doesn’t take much time or recovery capacity. 

Bicep Training Resources

If you want to know more about how to train your biceps, here are the links to a few posts that might be helpful.

Is Training Biceps Twice a Week Enough?

Is Training Biceps Every Day OK?