It’s hard to dislike biceps curls. They’re simple to do, lead to a killer pump, and won’t leave you questioning your existence like a 20-rep set of squats will. (Hey, it’s ok not to go balls to the wall every training session.) The thing is, biceps curls may be simple — but there are plenty of variations that may better suit your particular training goals. Some curls are better for arm thickness. Some curls build up your forearms. Some curls are easier on the wrists.
Feeling overwhelmed by the borderline unnecessary number of curl variations that exist? Don’t sweat it. Below, we’ll break down 10 variations that we think are worth knowing about and then give you some reasons to try them (or not try them).
Biceps Curl Variations
- Barbell Curl
- Reverse Barbell Curl
- Seated Incline Hammer Curl
- Preacher Curl
- EZ-Bar Curl
- Dumbbell Curl
- Cable Curl
- Thick Bar Curl
- Suspension Trainer Curl
- Accommodating Resistance Curl
Why Do It: The barbell curl is a well-known biceps exercise variation that can be trained with various grips, tempos, and loads. This will be one of the best general strength and mass-building biceps movements for most individuals since it allows lifters to load up with significant amounts of weight. Simply put, you can lift more weight with this variation than any other on this list.
Exercise Tip: Be sure to stabilize your elbows, so you don’t sway and use momentum to lift the barbell. This will take the stress off of your biceps off — which is exactly what you don’t want.
Sets and Reps: four sets of eight to 10 reps.
Why Do it: For this curl, you’ll flip your palms down. Using a palms-down (or pronated) grip engages the forearms to increase grip strength and forearm size. This is a great variation for lifters who need a strong grip — and nearly every strength and power-based athlete does — and athletes like rock climbers and grapplers. As a bonus, this move is a little more wrist-friendly as the load isn’t bearing down on your wrist.
Exercise Tip: You are weaker due to the pronated grip, so lighten the load and focus on feeling the burn in your biceps and forearms.
Sets and Reps: two sets of 15 reps.
Why Do It: The hammer curl target the long head of your biceps, responsible for arm thickness. Doing hammer curls positioned on an incline bench increases the range of motion of the curl, which stretches the biceps muscles more. And a greater stretch allows you to increase your muscle’s time under tension when curling at an incline, and more time under tension means more muscle growth.
Exercise Tip: Don’t let your elbows track back during the lowering phase of the movement. You’ll build up momentum and disengage your biceps muscle.
Sets and Reps: three sets of 10 to 12 reps.
Why Do It: The preacher cul has you curl a weight with your elbows fixed on a preacher bench. “This move allows you to take the stability factor out of the exercises, which concentrates almost all of the force on the biceps,” says Cody Braun, Openfit fitness specialist. Since you have to stabilize your elbows on the bench for this movement, you’ll also target your brachialis and brachioradialis — the elbow flexors. This movement’s unique setup makes the preacher curl exercise very versatile, one that can be done using a wide array of equipment, such as barbells, dumbbells, cables, and specialty bars.
Exercise Tip: Don’t expect to lift as much weight on the preacher curl as you do on the standard dumbbell curl since you won’t be able to rely on momentum to lift the weight up.
Sets and Reps: three sets of 12 reps.
Why Do It: The EZ bar is a specialty bar that is designed to have the lifter use a slightly angled grip which can target the biceps differently. Also, the slightly inward angle of the bar takes the pressure off your wrists. A straight bar makes you stabilize your wrists in a straight position, which increases the torque placed upon them — making it an uncomfortable movement for some, especially if you’re using heavier weight. This movement is often done either standing or seated in a preacher curl setup. However, some companies do also make EZ-bar cable attachments as well.
Exercise Tip: If you’re going to go heavy, use the EZ-bar. Because it’s essentially a more wrist-friendly barbell curl, many lifters will find themselves able to lift a bit more weight than they can with a straight barbell.
Sets and Reps: four sets of eight reps.
Why Do It: Probably the best benefit of the dumbbell curl — which has you curl a dumbbell from your thigh to your shoulder — is that you can focus on one arm at a time. This allows you to bring a weaker arm up to speed. Also, because the dumbbell isn’t fixed into position like a barbell, you can use a neutral grip, reverse grip, or standard palms-up grip.
Exercise Tip: Squeeze your shoulder blades together so that your shoulders won’t move during the lift. This will ensure that your biceps are doing all of the work.
Sets and Reps: three sets of 10 to 12 reps.
Why Do It: Cable machines offer lifters a way to challenging the muscle with continuous-time under tension — keeping the difficulty the same throughout the movement — and the ability to target the biceps from various angles. They work, too. ACE Fitness concluded that compared to the cable curl, barbell curl, concentration curl, chin-up, and EZ bar curl, cable curls activated 80 percent of the maximum biceps brachii’s maximum voluntary contraction.
Exercise Tip: Cable machines are perfect for drop sets as you can quickly adjust the weight stack. Try doing 10 reps with a heavy weight, then drop 20 pounds and do 10 more reps. Repeat once more for a triple drop set.
Sets and Reps: three sets of 15 reps.
Why Do It: As the name implies, a thick bar is girthier than a standard barbell. You can use either a pair of fat bar grips (which clip onto a barbell to make them thicker) or curl an axle bar if you have access to one. Curling a thick bar activates the muscles in the forearm and hands, which in turn enhances grip strength. It’s also thought that your biceps will be more engaged as your entire arm is working harder to squeeze the thick bar (or grip).
Exercise Tip: You’re going to find these incredibly taxing on your forearms, so use a lighter weight and do fewer reps.
Sets and Reps: two sets of eight to 10 reps.
Why Do It: A biceps curl on a suspension trainer may sound easy since you’re using just your bodyweight, but it’s not. In fact, your bodyweight is probably more than what you’d normally curl using dumbbells or a barbell. So, you’re in fact overloading your biceps with a lot of weight —it’s just your weight. You’ll also improve your balance and core strength with this exercise, as being suspended puts your body in an unstable position.
Exercise Tip: The closer your feet are to the anchor point, the more difficult the movement is. If you’re new to this curl variation, start with your feet further from the anchor point and gradually scootch them closer.
Sets and Reps: three sets of 10 reps.
Why Do it: Accommodating resistance in the form of resistance bands and chains can be used with most variations on this list. By adding chains and/or bands to barbells, specialty bars, and even dumbbells, you can stimulate new muscle growth, increase the rate of force production, and exhaust a muscle throughout the entire range of motion. Resistance bands force you to exert more force in ranges of motion that aren’t necessary with band-free movements. This can be a great way to push past plateaus and ignite muscle growth.
Form Tip: Try training with accommodating resistance for two weeks every couple of months once you feel your arm training has plateaued.
Sets and Reps: two sets of 10 to 12 reps.
Why Train Biceps?
The biceps muscle has a small but important job — to flex your elbow. Think about that for a moment. How often do you flex your elbow on a given day? We can assure you it’s a lot. Anytime you bring a protein shake to your lips or pick up your phone, you’re performing a curl. When it comes to training, your biceps assist in pulling movements such as deadlifts, cleans, and pull-ups.
A stronger pair of biceps means you’ll be more able to handle heavier loads for those aforementioned movements. Also, you’ll get bigger biceps. Really, the main selling points are bigger and stronger biceps. And that’s not a hard sell. A nice bonus is that curling will grant you better grip strength as your hand grasps the handle tightly and your forearms — which act as the bridge between your elbows and hands — are engaged throughout the movement.
How to Train Your Biceps
This really depends on your goals. If you’re a bodybuilder, then you’ll most likely follow a workout split that has you train your arms on one day or pair your biceps with your back and triceps with your chest. Strength athletes or general gym-goers can tack two to three biceps exercises onto the end of any workout. Most folks typically pair their biceps and back training together since your biceps are already working a bit. If you’re a powerlifter, feel free to train your biceps on your pull (deadlift) day.
As for how many sets and reps to do, this meta-analysis demonstrates similar muscular hypertrophy in two to three sets per exercise and four to six sets per exercise. So, if you’re new, start on the low end with two to three sets. If you’re more advanced, then up the ante to four to six sets. As for reps, stick to the eight to 15 rep range.
More Biceps Training Tips
These biceps curl variations are a good starting point if you’re looking to build up your arms. You should also check out these other articles from BarBend.
- The 10 Commandments of Biceps Training
- Try These Exercises to Maintain Your Biceps Without Weights
- 3 Reasons Why Biceps Curls Are Good For Your Shoulders
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