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August 03, 2022
It’s no secret the biceps get a lot of attention.
Ask any kid to flex his muscles, and you will undoubtedly get a biceps shot. Being impressed with big arms is ingrained in our psyche. In fact, a lot of guys start lifting weights with hopes of getting big arms at the top of their wish list.
But, the question is, what is the best exercise to get it done? The list of curl variations is nearly endless. The trouble is not coming up with ideas. It is narrowing down the options.
A well-structured training program is built around the basics. With biceps training, nothing is more fundamental than the barbell bicep curl. If you want bigger biceps, learn how to do barbell curls perfectly, and your arms will grow.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
Although the barbell biceps curl is a simple exercise, there is more to it than curling the bar up and down. Perfect technique is an area in which advanced lifters set themselves apart from everyone else. If you look around at the people in the gym who have above average bicep sizes, they typically have flawless form.
You want to be like those people. Follow our guidance for proper barbell curl form, making sure you emphasize a mind-muscle connection for the duration of the move, and you’ll be well on your way.
How to do Barbell Curls:
Virtually all movements involve more than one muscle, barbell curls included.
There are three main arm muscles that the barbell curl targets. The biceps brachii (biceps), brachialis, and to a lesser degree, the brachioradialis.
If you have been performing barbell curls consistently but have not seen the results you want, chances are you are making one of the following mistakes. Hey, in your defense, you may not even realize it.
If you are interested in improving your lifting technique, record yourself on video. That goes for every exercise, not just curls. How a lift feels is not always how it looks. Taking it a step further, record from multiple angles. A video from the side will show certain things one from the front won't, and vice versa.
The barbell curl is not a full body lift. It is an isolation exercise, targeting arm muscles only. A killer leg workout is one of our favorite things to do, but this exercise is not the time to include your lower body muscles. We want to take the legs and lower back out of the movement. No other body part other than the arms should move while curling the weight.
Lock your legs and torso in place and prevent rocking back and forth or arching the lower back.
The good news is that using less weight usually fixes this problem. Do not let your ego get the best of you. Only use weights you can handle with good form.
Due to the angle of pull, barbell curls are increasingly more difficult at the bottom of the rep. Because of this, people often short-change the movement and stop the repetition halfway down. This may allow them to use more weight, but it's unlikely to be more effective.
Research shows that using a full range of motion induces more muscle damage than a partial range of motion in curls1. The study found that the partial range of motion group used heavier loads, but the full range of motion group still had more muscle damage, leading to muscle hypertrophy.
Use a lighter weight and get a full range of motion to make the most out of your bicep curls.
In the barbell curl, the upper arm needs to stay still while the elbow flexes and extends.
It is common for the elbow to drift forward or out to the sides during the rep. This takes tension off the biceps and shifts it to the shoulders. To avoid this, lock the elbow in place for the duration of the set.
Adaptation comes from training that challenges the muscles beyond their current ability. Doing more work over time is one of the fundamental principles of making progress. If you continuously provide a muscle with the same stimulus, it won't have any reason to get bigger or stronger.
Training needs to be progressive. Progressive overload can be achieved by adding five pounds, doing another set, or completing more reps.
So, how does this apply to the barbell curl?
Due to the straight bar and when using proper form, the barbell curl allows you to use more absolute load than any other biceps exercise, including dumbbells and the cable curl, making progressions easier. This means your curls will hit more muscle fibers and allow you to use heavy weights.
Once again, though, we want to reiterate that you shouldn’t expect to lift as heavy with isolation exercises as you would with main compound lifts. You may be able to lift heavier with the barbell curl, then let’s say when using dumbbells for the spider curl, but you should still make sure to avoid going overly heavy so you’re not sacrificing form.
Progress is not always linear. If it was, we would all be able to curl a thousand pounds. With that said, keep track of the weights you use in a logbook. When you look back over previous months, there should be notable progression. You do not always need to hit personal records, but you should always be striving to.
Additionally, the best aspect of the barbell curl is accessibility. All you need to perform the lift is a barbell and some weight plates. It’s an exercise you can do at basically any gym in the world, and it works if you train at home, too.
There is an endless assortment of barbell curl variations to spice up your biceps workout, particularly when you’re hoping to skip the free weights for a few sessions. Whether you opt for the standing barbell curl, seated barbell curl, or choose EZ bar curls instead, there are plenty of barbell curl alternatives to work your biceps brachii.
The barbell curl allows for multiple grips ranging from narrow to wide. The closer grip, with hands about an inch apart, emphasizes the long head of the biceps.
Looking for some short head love to counter the long head work you just put in? That leads us to…
On opposite sides of the barbell spectrum is the wider grip, which emphasizes the short head of the biceps. If your current (or upcoming) goal is to make serious biceps gains, consider adding the close grip variation to one upper body workout, and the wide grip version to your second arm workout of the week.
Sometimes straight barbell curls can put too much pressure on the wrists and elbows. If this is the case, you can use an EZ Curl Bar instead. An EZ Curl bar has slanted handles which put your hands in a more natural position to curl with. First time using the EZ bar? Read up on EZ curl bar weight to ensure you're using the right amount for you.
The barbell reverse curl is unique in that it incorporates the forearms more than any other biceps exercise. Forearm exercises designed to develop big forearms not only help improve your grip, but also give you a powerful look.
On the reverse curl, we use what’s called an open grip. This means you don’t wrap your thumb around the bar, instead, your thumb goes on the same side as the rest of your fingers. This helps add extra emphasis to the forearms. Lower the bar slowly down during this movement. The barbell reverse curl is a great exercise for improving arm and grip strength.
The preacher curl was made famous by the first bodybuilder to win the Mr. Olympia contest, Larry Scott.
The preacher curl provides a unique angle to work the bicep muscle and does so in a way that almost makes it impossible to cheat. With regular barbell curls, there are a lot of moving parts. Even a slight shift in elbow position can negate some of the benefits of the movement. With preacher curls, you do not have to worry about that. You may not be able to lift as much weight on a preacher curl, but it keeps the elbow fixed, focusing on the biceps better than any other exercise.
To perform the exercise, you’ll utilize a preacher bench. Place your upper arms and chest so they’re in contact with the pad on the preacher bench, grasping the barbell with an underhand grip. Curl the barbell toward your shoulders, squeezing at the top before lowering it back down. Keep the biceps tensed the entire move to really work your muscle fibers and get that muscle growth you’re striving for.
The spider curl is arguably one of the most underrated biceps exercises. To perform the movement, lie prone on an incline bench, with your arms hanging toward the floor. With your chest firmly against the pad, curl the weight toward your shoulders.
The spider curl is similar to the preacher curl in that it does a great job of preventing form breakdown. For injury prevention, slowly lower the weight, using less weight and emphasizing good technique. If you feel there's too much pressure on your elbows and wrist, you can also use the EZ bar for this variation.
A barbell drag curl is a unique variation where you bring your elbows behind your body, dragging the bar up your torso. The change in elbow positioning shifts more focus onto the long head of the biceps.
Although not a barbell curl variation, the chin-up is a great biceps exercise to throw into the rotation.
When it comes to biceps exercises, it is hard to get creative. Most movements are simply curling variations. However, chin-ups offer an outside-the-box option.
Similar to a barbell curl, a supinated (underhand) grip is more effective at targeting the biceps than a pronated (overhand) grip. Research shows that when comparing pull ups vs. chin-ups, it is just as effective at targeting the lats as a regular pull-up2.
To maximize biceps involvement, make a few form tweaks. One: Maintain a vertical torso and avoid arching the back. Two: Keep your body close to the bar. Try to get your chin over the bar at the top. Lastly, use a close grip, pointing the elbows forward during the rep.
The only drawback to chin-ups is how challenging they are. If needed, you can use a resistance band to help you get enough reps to complete a full set.
On the other hand, if you are a beast, you can add weight by wearing a weighted belt or vest.
When creating a training routine, the first question is, what rep ranges do we need?
A meta-analysis found that at least 10 weekly sets per muscle group are necessary for increasing muscle mass3. If you’re a beginner, 10 sets is a great starting point. But keep in mind that everyone responds to training a little differently.
Some people, including intermediate to advanced lifters, may need more volume, and others may need less. If you’ve been lifting for at least 6 months, you’ll likely benefit from the 14 to 20 set range per week.
The next question is, how many times are you going to train the biceps per week?
Bodybuilders, who arguably have the best biceps on the planet, typically train their biceps once or twice a week. Research shows as long as the volume is equated, training frequency does not make a difference when building muscle4. This means it doesn’t matter how many times you train each muscle when the amount of work done is the same. We recommend training your biceps once or twice a week.
Keep in mind that not all of this work will be done through isolation movements. For example, rows of any kind, like the barbell bent over row and renegade row, will hit your biceps as they work your back. The workout options listed below should be paired with a workout that targets another body part. We provide some suggestions on this below.
Pair these biceps exercises with another muscle, such as the back, chest, triceps, or shoulders.
Twice weekly bicep exercises means you'll spread your sets out, including them in two different workouts each week. Again, pair your biceps exercises with another muscle group, like the back, chest, triceps, or shoulders. If you’re figuring out an ideal routine, take a look at the best workout splits to help you make an informed decision.
Let's take a look at some frequently asked barbell curl questions and answers, so you've got all the information you need to perform this move correctly.
Although the barbell curl used to be included in some powerlifting competitions, it’s not an exercise you should test your one rep max on. Loading the biceps too heavily will cause form breakdown as other muscle groups come into play.
Research shows muscle growth (bigger arms!) is very similar regardless of repetition range as long as the volume is equated and the sets are taken close to failure5. Since muscle can be built with low and high reps, incorporate a variety of rep ranges in your routine.
With that said, there seems to be a sweet spot. When the goal is building big biceps, it makes sense for most biceps training to be between 6-20 reps per set. For hypertrophy, 6 to 12 reps are best, whereas the 12 to 20 range will work on improving muscle endurance.
As mentioned, we recommend training your biceps once or twice a week, ideally in an upper body routine. Include barbell curls in at least one of those sessions.
If you start experiencing elbow pain during the exercise, switch to an EZ Bar or dumbbells for a few weeks to see if it elevates the issue.
Barbell curls are for everyone, not just for bodybuilders. Anyone who wants bigger and stronger biceps would benefit from including barbell curls into their training routine.
Although the biceps are often seen as a vanity muscle, having strong biceps can also be considered functional training. Anytime you perform a pulling motion, your biceps are activated. Wresting, jiu-jitsu and other grappling sports rely heavily on biceps strength. The biceps even act as a stabilizing muscle in the bench press. But we also can’t deny how fantastic well-defined biceps make a basic t-shirt look either.
With hundreds of exercises to choose from, it is easy to overlook the basics. When it comes to biceps exercises, that would be a mistake.
It is hard to classify any one exercise as the best, but you would be hard pressed to find a better all-around biceps exercise than the barbell curl. And don't forget your biceps stretches after working them in the barbell bicep curl.
Author: Kyle Hunt, Hunt Fitness
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