Think back to your very first days in the weight room. Unless you somehow found yourself wandering over to the squat rack, you probably bee-lined to the dumbbells and started banging out some curls.
With some experience under your belt, you opened yourself up to different movement patterns and adopted a sensible workout split. But when it comes to training arms, chances are you’ve never left the dumbbell curl behind — until now.
Next time you train your biceps, leave the dumbbells where they are and head to the cable station instead. The cable biceps curl can take your arm workouts to the next level and give you the pump of your life to boot.
- How to Do the Cable Biceps Curl
- Cable Biceps Curl Sets and Reps
- Common Cable Biceps Curl Mistakes
- Cable Biceps Curl Variations
- Cable Biceps Curl Alternatives
- Muscles Worked By the Cable Biceps Curl
- Benefits of the Cable Biceps Curl
- Who Should Do the Cable Biceps Curl
- Frequently Asked Questions
Just like with free weights, you could jump over to the cable machine and start ripping some biceps curls. Doing so would probably net you a decent arm workout. But when it comes to the cable biceps curl, the devil’s in the details.
Step 1 — Set Up
Get started by setting the pin of the cable tree to the lowest height. Grab the straight bar attachment with both hands using a supinated grip and take a few steps away from the cable tree. Then, plant your feet into the ground and brace your core.
Coach’s Tip: Consider taking a wider stance to improve stability while performing the cable biceps curl.
Step 2 — Perform the Curl
Keeping your upper arms still, contract your biceps by bending your elbows, and slowly bring the bar upwards and towards your chest. Once you’ve reached the top of the repetition, squeeze for a moment before beginning the descent. Lower the weight back to the starting position, making sure to fully extend your arms at the bottom.
Coach’s Tip: Take advantage of the tension cables provided through the entire range of motion by focusing on the eccentric and fully extending your elbows at the bottom of each repetition.
As an isolation exercise, you can incorporate the cable biceps curl into your routine in a few different ways depending on your goals.
- For Beginners: Three sets of 10 reps to keep things simple.
- For Hypertrophy: Four sets of 12 to 15 reps, focusing on moving slow and controlled through the eccentric phase of the lift
- For Endurance: Three sets to failure (with a weight light enough to do 20+ reps).
The biceps curl is one of the easiest lifts to pick up. But if you want to make the most out of the cable biceps curl, making these mistakes could mean leaving gains on the gym floor.
Going Too Heavy
A little humility goes a long way in the gym. While going too heavy can occasionally be disastrous, typically it just means you’re giving up some valuable strength or muscle gains.
When you perform the cable biceps curl, your elbow should be the only joint moving. Avoid pushing your upper arm forward, which will involve muscles other than your biceps. If you need to engage other joints or muscles while performing the lift, you should probably lower the weight.
Lifting Too Close to the Cable Tree
Unlike free weights, cables offer a consistent tension curve (they let you put your muscles under continuous tension across the full range of motion of a lift). If you stand too close to the cable tree while performing the cable biceps curl, you’ll have trouble maintaining tension during the eccentric portion of the lift, and as a result, you’ll miss out on one of the main benefits of the exercise.
Luckily, the solution is simple. You can fix this issue by taking an extra step back from the cable tree during your setup. Leaning backward slightly may help as well.
Ignoring the Eccentric
If you were to think of the eccentric portion of the cable biceps curl as moments between the concentric phase of the lift, you would be doing yourself a major disservice. Keeping movement slow and controlled as you lower the weight may not only improve your mind-muscle connection but also lead to greater levels of hypertrophy. (1) You should apply as much effort to controlling the eccentric as you do lifting the weight in the first place.
Between the various cable attachments and configurations, the cable tree can be overwhelming if you’re just starting out at the gym. Once you know how to use it, though, the cable tree becomes a surprisingly versatile piece of equipment. Here are a few different ways to work your biceps with cables.
Cable Hammer Curl
Strikingly similar to the cable biceps curl, you’ll typically perform the cable hammer curl with the rope attachment instead of a straight bar.
Using the rope allows you to keep a neutral wrist position, which should help you engage muscles other than your biceps during the curl. Expect some extra forearm stimulation with this one.
Cable Reverse Curl
You can perform the cable reverse curl by switching out your supinated grip for a pronated grip.
This change in grip turns the curl into an overall arm-builder, hitting your forearms and your wrist extensors as well as your biceps. It will, however, dramatically limit the amount of weight you can work with.
Behind-the-Back Cable Curl
If you’re looking for a little more of a challenge, consider the behind-the-back cable curl. Setup with your back to the cable tree with your arm holding onto the cable behind you. Then, perform a curl, keeping your arm behind your shoulder for the duration of the lift.
Since the behind-the-back curl is performed with the long head of the biceps in a fully-lengthened position, this variation can help you sculpt your biceps and add shape and volume in a new way.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, or you just want to mix things up, here are a few curl variations that offer similar benefits to the cable biceps curl.
If you want a biceps pump on the go, it’s time to invest in some resistance bands. Like the cable biceps curl, the banded curl offers improved stability in comparison to free weights, while having the added benefit of being highly mobile.
While resistance bands don’t offer the same consistency in tension that you can get from cables, they can be an excellent tool for building muscular endurance.
TRX Biceps Curl
Harness your body weight to build bigger arms with the TRX biceps curl. Like the cable biceps curl, the TRX biceps curl offers a relatively consistent tension curve. You can come up with nearly endless variations on TRX biceps curls by adjusting body position and grip. In addition to working your biceps, the TRX biceps curl builds tremendous core strength.
If you find the lift either too easy or too difficult, you can increase and decrease the overall resistance by adjusting the angle of your torso relative to the ground.
The spider curl can partially address the inconsistent tension curve that free weights provide by adjusting the position of your body relative to the weights you’re lifting. Rather than performing the curl from a standing position, you perform the spider curl lying on a 45-degree incline bench, with your arms perpendicular to the floor.
You might find that you can’t curl nearly as much as you would while standing when performing the spider curl. If you find yourself pulling your elbows in towards you, as you would during a row, you might want to lower the weight to better isolate your biceps.
Surprise, the cable biceps curl primarily targets… your biceps. They’re not the only muscles worked, though. Depending on the grip you use, all of the following muscles play a part in the curl to some degree.
The biceps are responsible for elbow flexion. Changing your grip may allow for subtle differences in how the cable biceps curl hits your biceps, focusing more on either the long or short head.
Lying beneath the biceps, you find the brachialis, which are actually the primary muscle responsible for bending your elbow when your wrist is in a neutral position. (2) As a result, you’ll get some degree of brachialis stimulation during any form of biceps curl.
The brachioradialis is the big meaty muscle on the top of your forearm and helps to stabilize your elbow joint during the cable biceps curl. If you’re interested in growing your forearms, consider performing the lift with a reverse grip.
While you can target the brachioradialis to a greater degree by performing the cable biceps curl with a reverse grip, the muscle mostly stabilizes the elbow joint during the lift.
The cable biceps curl does everything that free-weight curls do and more; and it does them better. If you’re still not sold on the cable biceps curl, consider some of the following benefits.
When you perform a biceps curl with free weights, resistance will wax and wane across each rep as the moment arm — as in, how far the weight is from the joint that moves — grows and shrinks.
By contrast, the cable biceps curl maintains near-consistent tension across the entire range of motion since the weight isn’t fighting the downward force of gravity. As a result, your biceps not only spend more time under tension, which in turn can lead to a greater level of strength and hypertrophy gains.
Better Mind-Muscle Connection
Working with cables lets you cut out the noise and deliberately focus on feeling your biceps across the entire movement. By slowing down and feeling the resistance in your biceps for both the concentric and eccentric portions of the lift, you can actually increase muscle activation in your biceps. (3)
If you recruit a larger percentage of the muscle fibers in your biceps, you can lift heavier weights, which in turn means your biceps can grow even more.
If you experience joint pain or discomfort while performing curls with free weights, the improved stability that cables provide might offer you some relief. Consistent mechanical tension means consistent torque applied to your joints, which may equate to a more comfortable training experience.
You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to want bigger, stronger, or more toned biceps. Biceps training is ubiquitous in the world of fitness and athletics, and the cable biceps curl remains one of the best ways to train your arms.
While the cable biceps curl probably won’t be the first curl variation you learn, it might be your favorite. The cable biceps curl presents important lifting lessons, like helping you develop a good mind-muscle connection, reinforces good curling technique, and emphasizes the essential eccentric phase.
The biceps are small muscles that, nonetheless, make a big impact on your physique. Sculpting competition-worthy biceps takes hours of dedicated work in the gym. The cable biceps curl can reduce the involvement of muscle groups like the shoulders or back that might come into play when performing other curl variations like the barbell curl or the dumbbell curl, allowing you to devote your focus to beefing up your guns.
If Your Gym Is Busy
In a crowded gym at peak hours, it’s not all that uncommon for the dumbbell rack to be stripped bare. In some cases, this means having to abandon your hopes of performing dumbbell curls.
Luckily, the cable biceps curl serves as a phenomenal substitute if you can get ahold of a station for yourself. The movement pattern is functionally identical, and some variety might do you some good as well.
Leverage Your Gains
Think of learning the cable biceps curl as an investment. It might not be as flashy as the dumbbell or barbell biceps curls, but the time spent will pay serious dividends over time if you’re willing to focus on the finer details and perfect your form. Unless the cable biceps curl is something you’re familiar with, chances are you’re leaving money on the table.
Still unsure if the cable biceps curl is right for you? Don’t fret. Read on and have your questions answered.
Which handle is the best for the cable biceps curl?
Generally speaking, you’ll want to use the straight bar attachment when doing cable curls. This closely replicates how you’d curl a barbell and places your wrist into a supinated position, which should increase biceps activation as well.
Are cable biceps curls bad for my elbows?
Absolutely not! No movement is inherently dangerous for any joint; it’s all about managing the amount of load you work with and nailing down picture-perfect technique. If the cable curl causes you discomfort, there’s no reason to force the issue — pick another exercise instead. That said, the exercise is perfectly safe to perform if you utilize good technique.
- Hody S, Croisier JL, Bury T, Rogister B, Leprince P. Eccentric Muscle Contractions: Risks and Benefits. Front Physiol. 2019 May 3;10:536.
- Plantz MA, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Brachialis Muscle. [Updated 2023 Feb 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
- Ranganathan VK, Siemionow V, Liu JZ, Sahgal V, Yue GH. From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56.
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