Brachialis: Why It's Important for Big Arms

If you looking to get bigger arms and a better peak on your biceps, you want to read this article.

 

If there’s one body part that every lifter out there, including everyone from gym newbie to Mr. Olympia, would like to have bigger, it’s without question the biceps.

 

Whether it’s due to the iconic double biceps pose made famous by bodybuilders, action movie stars of the 80s, or some sort of ancient archetype of mankind, we all want bigger, stronger biceps.

 

Now, the way most of us go about building an impressive set of biceps is by doing umpteen variations of curls, using all manner of barbell, dumbbell, cable, or band. And, while this might do some good for building up your biceps, chances are you’re not really building up all of the muscles on the upper half of your arm.

 

You see, when we think of the muscles on the front of the upper arm, we tend to only think of the biceps. But, there’s another muscle, a “supporting” muscle you could say, that not only makes your biceps have a better peak, but also makes your arm bigg all around.

 

The muscle we’re talking about is the brachialis.

 

If you’ve never heard of this muscle, or not quite sure what it does and why it helps you have a bigger, stronger-looking bicep, don’t worry.

 

We’ve got you covered with all the information about this underrated muscle along with some exercises to help “emphasize” it during your arm workouts.

 

Best of all, the tips, tricks, and exercises discussed below will benefit you regardless of your workout experience, too.

 

Whether you’re new to lifting, a grizzled veteran of the iron who’s hit a plateau, or somewhere in between, you’ll be able to incorporate the information below to grow a more impressive set of biceps.

 

So, let’s start at the top with a deep dive into this unsung hero muscle of the arm!

 

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What is the Brachialis?

 

Just like your biceps, the brachialis is located on the upper arm between the shoulder and elbow. But, chances are you probably won’t see it so easily, especially if you haven’t spent much time targeting your brachialis.

 

When looking at the muscles on the front of the upper arm, to find the brachialis, you’ll have to look beneath your biceps brachii (i.e. your biceps). FYI, the brachialis tendon inserts distally to the coronoid process at the tuberosity of the ulna.

 

While the brachialis might not be the biggest muscle of the upper (far from it actually), it still plays a significant role in the function and appearance of your arms.

 

For starters, the brachialis is the major flexor of the elbow.

 

Second, when adequately developed, the brachialis looks like a giant “knot” on the outside of your arm that helps separate your biceps and triceps when flexed, which makes each side stand out more as well as make your arm look wider.

 

On top of that, having a well-developed brachialis also gives you a better biceps peak. Since it lies underneath the biceps, having a bigger brachialis helps “push up” the biceps.

 

So in order for you to have the most well-developed set of arm possible, you need to not only train your biceps and triceps, but you also need to train the brachialis.

 

There’s no other way to say it, if you want bigger, beefier biceps, you need to train the brachialis.

 

So, the next question is...

 

How to Target the Biceps Brachialis

To understand how to best emphasize the brachialis in our arm training, we need to gain a better understanding of how hand position and grip affect muscle recruitment. Now, before we go any further, realize that there is no way to completely isolate the brachialis and deactivate the biceps. They work in conjunction to flex the elbow, so you’ll never be able to completely “turn off” the biceps when doing any type of curling motion.

 

However, by choosing the right exercises, hand position and width, we can preferentially place the brunt of the load on the brachialis and direct away from the biceps.

 

So, how do we do that?

 

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Use Neutral & Pronated Grip Bicep Curls

 

Various EMG studies have noted that the biceps are maximally activated when the palm is supinated (palm facing you).

 

That means in order to reduce recruitment of the biceps, as well as shift more of the load to the brachialis, we need to pronate (palms facing down) our hands. The more we pronate our hands, the more the biceps tendon winds around the radius, reducing the potential for maximal force development. This forces the brachialis (and brachioradialis) to take on the majority of the load.

 

You’ve witness this first hand if you’ve ever switched between chin ups, neutral grip pull ups and pull ups. As you move from supinated grip (chin up) to a fully pronated one (pull up), you notice that the biceps are less and less involved.

 

Use a Narrow Grip

 

Just as the degree of supination/pronation affects brachialis recruitment, so too does the width with which you grab the bar. The wider you grip a bar, the more you activate the long head of the bicep compared to the short head. As you bring your hands closer together, say just about shoulder width, you increase activation of the short head.

 

When using a very narrow grip, you shift more of the focus onto the brachialis.

 

Hint: This is exactly what we want when trying to build up our brachialis.

 

Using a shoulder-width neutral grip “splits the difference” more or less, giving equal engagement of the major elbow flexors.

 

Don’t Forget About the Shoulder

 

One last crucial aspect we need to discuss regarding biceps and brachialis development concerns the shoulder. If you’ve ever seen the gym bros swinging the weights up, flailing and convulsing, and allowing their elbows to drive forward, just realize they’re not working their biceps as efficiently as they could. This is due to the fact that when your elbows drift forward, the shoulder is flexed, which reduces activation of the biceps.

 

Now, while this is bad for focusing on your biceps, it can be a very good thing for the brachialis, as the more the shoulder is flexed, the harder the brachialis has to work.



Using these three pointers, we can compile a list of exercises that preferentially work the brachialis...

 

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Best Biceps Brachialis Exercises

Cross-Body Dumbbell Hammer Curl

This is a staple brachialis builder of top athletes and bodybuilders like KC Mitchell and The Mountain Dog John Meadows. The reason the cross-body dumbbell hammer curl works so well compared to standard hammer curls, is that it shifts even more tension to the brachialis than the standard forward dumbbell curl.

 

One other “pro tip” when it comes to emphasizing the brachialis -- squeeze the dumbbell as hard as you can while curling across your body

 

Note: Due to the fact that you’re doing these curls across your body, you will need to do one arm at a time.

 

Narrow Grip Barbell Curl

 

Over the past few decades, the barbell curl has been the bread-and-butter bicep builder for lifters. And while no one can dispute the effectiveness of the barbell curl when it comes to overloading the biceps, performed in its typical fashion, it’s not the best for emphasizing the brachialis.

 

But, with a few subtle tweaks, we can transform this classic muscle building exercise into a supreme brachialis builder.

 

As we mentioned before, not only does the degree of pronation / supination affect which muscle does more of the work (biceps or brachialis), but so too does your grip width. Remember, the wider you grip the bar, the more you’re going to focus on the biceps, while the more narrow you grip the bar, the more work the brachialis has to perform.

 

This is even backed up by EMG studies that have hooked electrodes up to the muscles of the arm to verify which muscles are most activated during different curl variations.



Reverse EZ Bar Curl / Zottman Curl

Building off the previous point, performing any sort of curl using a pronated grip (i.e. a reverse curl), or even something like a Zottman curl, which has you supinated on the concentric phase and pronated on the eccentric phase is great for building the brachialis.

Since the brachialis has essentially no role in supinating the wrist (i.e. turning the palm up) like the biceps do, flexing the arm using a pronated grip shifts a good deal of the load away from the biceps and towards the brachialis -- precisely what we want when trying to build a bigger brachialis.

 

Chances are you’re familiar with reverse curls. Simply grab the bar with a pronated grip, and perform bicep curls.

 

The issue you run into with the standard reverse curl is that it can’t be done with as much weight as a standard bicep curl.

 

Here’s where the real beauty of the Zottman curl shines.

 

As you probably know, muscles are considerable stronger during the eccentric (lowering) phase of a lift compared to the concentric. By performing the Zottman curl, you begin the lift using a pronated grip, which allows you to use your biceps to curl the weight up, then at the top, you pronate your hands and lower the weights using a “reverse grip.” In doing so, you’re shifting the load more onto the brachialis and providing greater overload.

 

Ultimately this allows you to use greater load compared to the standard reverse curl, which is ideal if you want bigger, beefier arms.

 

Here’s how to do a classic Zottman curl:

  1. Begin with two dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forward.

  2. Keeping the elbows tucked to your sides, curl both dumbbells up to your shoulders.

  3. Once you reach to point of peak contraction, squeeze for a full second, then rotate your wrists (and dumbbells), so that your hand is pronated.

  4. Lower the dumbbells slowly back to the starting position.

  5. At the bottom, rotate your hands back into a supinated (palms-up) position and repeat for prescribed reps.

 

Drag Curl

The drag curl is an old school bodybuilding favorite for building the brachialis and long head (outer portion) of the biceps, yet these days it’s rarely used, most likely because it requires gym bros to check their ego and lift a lighter weight. And, since this exercise requires near-perfect execution, that’s yet another reason the modern day gym bro avoids this classic bicep and brachialis building exercise./

 

As with nearly all bicep exercises, the number one rule is -- squeeze the ever living hell out of your biceps at the top and fight like hell to not let gravity pull the weight down.

 

If you’re not familiar with the drag curl, here’s how to do it:

 

  1. Start with the bar (barbell, EZ bar, or dumbbells) in contact with your upper quadriceps. Shoulders, hips and knees should all be in a straight line.

  2. Begin to curl the weight up, while doing so, allow the elbows to drift back, behind your torso. As you continue to curl the weight up, the bar should remain in contact with your body the entire time, hence the the “drag curl”. You’re literally dragging the bar up your torso.

  3. The drag curl has a shorter range of motion than a regular curl, especially if you’re a lifter with massive arms. As such, to compensate for the limited range of motion, make sure to hold the peak contraction for a full two seconds before slowly lowering the bar.

  4. Lower the bar in the same manner as you raised it, by keeping it in contact with your body throughout the entire lowering portion.

 

Close Grip Pull Ups

Similar to reverse curls and Zottman curls, the close grip pull up takes advantage of both the grip and hand positions that provide for the greatest activation of the brachialis. The other great thing about pull ups, is that they can be done both weighted and unweighted, which means they can be used first in your workout as a way to really overload the biceps and brachialis, or as a “burnout” at the end of your workout.

 

Bigger Biceps Brachialis Workout

 

Narrow Grip Weighted Pull Ups: 3 sets of 6-8 reps

Cross-Body Dumbbell Curls: 3 sets of 8-10 reps

Narrow Grip Barbell Curls: 3 sets of 6-8 reps

Drag Curls: 2 sets of 10 reps

Zottman Curls: 2 sets of 12 reps

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References

  1. Kamineni S, Bachoura A, Behrens W, Kamineni E, Deane A. Distal Insertional Footprint of the Brachialis Muscle: 3D Morphometric Study. Anatomy Research International. 2015;2015:786508. doi:10.1155/2015/786508.

  2. Sanal H, et al. Distal Attachment of the Brachialis Muscle: Anatomic and MRI Study in Cadavers. American Journal of Roentgenology. 2009;192: 468-472. 10.2214/AJR.08.1150

  3. Kleiber T, Kunz L, Disselhorst-Klug C. Muscular coordination of biceps brachii and brachioradialis in elbow flexion with respect to hand position. Frontiers in Physiology. 2015;6:215. doi:10.3389/fphys.2015.00215.

  4. Kulig, K., Powers, C. M., Shellock, F. G., & Terk, M. (2001). The effects of eccentric velocity on activation of elbow flexors: evaluation by magnetic resonance imaging. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(2), 196–200.

  5. Naito, A., Yajima, M., Fukamachi, H., Ushikoshi, K., Sun, Y. J., & Shimizu, Y. (1995). Electromyographic (EMG) study of the elbow flexors during supination and pronation of the forearm. The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, 175(4), 285–288.