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December 03, 2021 4 Comments
The biceps curl is a rite of passage exercise. Most lifters when they’re at the beginning of their journey only know a few exercises. And the most popular of these is the biceps curl. Walk into any gym and you’re guaranteed to find at least one lifter in front of the mirror doing biceps exercises, likely with dumbbells, to their heart's content.
And quite possibly making a lot of noise.
Barbell curls and their variations are a great way to build a set of guns because these allow you to use the most weight. But don’t forget about dumbbells. Dumbbells allow more freedom of movement and can target the biceps from a variety of angles and with different grips.
Here we’ll go into the biceps anatomy, their functions, benefits, and 12 dumbbell bicep exercise variations to build guns of steel.
Without further ado, let’s build some biceps.
The biceps brachii (or biceps/bi's for short) is a Latin term for two-headed muscle (short and long heads) of the anterior upper arm. The short head of the biceps originates on the scapula (near the ball and socket joint) and inserts on the forearm bone the radius. The long head of the biceps originates on the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (a small projection of the scapula near the shoulder joint) and inserts on the radius bone.
Both of the bicep heads come together at the radius bone of the forearm to form the biceps peak we love so much.
Because the biceps crosses the shoulder and elbow joint it acts on both joints. The long head of the biceps assists in pulling the arm away from the torso (shoulder abduction) and helps with the inward rotation of the arm. The biceps short head assists with pulling the arm back to the torso (shoulder adduction).
When both biceps heads contract at the same time this leads to elbow flexion which is the primary function of the biceps (along with the brachialis). The biceps rotate the forearm outwards (supination) and this movement is better when the elbow is flexed. Because the biceps also cross the shoulder joint, it assists the anterior deltoid with shoulder flexion.
The biceps and triceps muscles work together to support the humeral head in the shoulder joint otherwise known as shoulder stability.
Besides vanity reasons, there are four important reasons why you need to include the biceps curl as an accessory exercise in your routine.
Better Shoulder Stability
The biceps are a double-headed muscle, which attaches to the scapula and shoulder joint and helps the rotator cuff with shoulder stability, particularly through the front deltoid. This is because the rotator cuff secures the humerus to the shoulder joint and the biceps secures the shoulder joint to the humerus and this compression from both sides benefits your shoulder stability.
Great For Shoulder Rehab
Although the biceps main function is flexing the elbow, they also play a minor role in shoulder flexion. The biceps muscles are engaged along with your anterior deltoid when your shoulder goes into flexion. Plus, when you’re performing curls, your upper back muscles (rhomboids and traps) contract isometrically to keep you in good posture and prevent the shoulders from rolling forward.
These are the reasons why biceps curls are programmed into the later stages of a rehab program as a way to strengthen the rotator cuff and the upper back1-2.
Helps Lift More Weight
Exercises that involve elbow flexion like chin-ups, pull-ups, and dumbbell rows benefit from stronger biceps and grip. Because you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It would be a shame for your biceps to give out before you’ve exhausted your shoulders and back. While you're at it, throw in some dumbbell forearm exercises, so a weak grip doesn't limit your lifts either.
Helps Prevent Biceps Tendon Tears
Strong biceps help keep the elbow stable when you're deadlifting with a mixed grip because you are more susceptible to bicep tendon tears when using this grip. Biceps tendon rupture is a common injury that happens to power and Olympic lifters. Stronger biceps doesn’t totally prevent this from happening, but it does play a minor role in its prevention.
Here are the 12 best dumbbell bicep exercises that you can mix into your arm day or whatever workout split routine you are doing.
A supinated grip (aka underhand grip) will place constant tension on your biceps. This grip variation also trains more forearm muscles due to this rotation of the wrist.
You can also do supinating biceps curls, which means you will start with your palms facing in and then supinating them as you curl up (rotating your wrists outward). This will add some extra range of motion to the exercise.
How to do supinated dumbbell biceps curls:
Form tips: This is performed either alternating or both at the same time. It can also be performed either seated or standing.
The reverse grip places emphasis on the long head of your biceps brachii. It also trains the smaller forearm extensor muscles which often get overpowered by the bigger and stronger forearm flexors. Strengthening these muscles will go a long way in keeping your elbows healthy.
How do dumbbell reverse biceps curls:
Form tips: This is performed either seated or standing. Because of this grip, you’ll use less weight than the other variations. Keeping your wrist neutral (no bend) is essential.
The neutral grip of the hammer curl variation is friendlier on your elbows and shoulders as your shoulder are neither externally nor internally rotated. Hammer curls emphasize the long head of the bicep and the brachioradialis which is an important forearm muscle.
We love the hammer curl so much, we've even included it as an essential exercise for bicep workouts at home.
How to do dumbbell hammer curls:
Form tips: Hold the dumbbells with an offset grip to make this more difficult.
Related: Hammer Curl vs Bicep Curl
Think of this exercise as a combination of supinated curl and reverse curl. Your biceps works as a flexor and supinator on the way up and strengthen the wrist extensors on the way down. This is a great forearm and biceps exercise. It really works your biceps through a full range of motion and targets all the muscles involved in elbow flexion.
How to do Zottman biceps curls:
Form tip: Start on the lighter side until you get the hang of the movement.
Related: 5 Best Zottman Curl Variations
All the focus is on one arm and because you are sitting down, your biceps are more engaged due to this increased stability. Plus, you’ll strengthen imbalances between sides. Try to minimize the upper body to get more out of your concentration curls.
How to do concentration curls:
Form tip: Keep your upper body stable and your triceps pressed against your inner thigh.
The dumbbell incline bicep curl is probably the toughest dumbbell biceps exercise around. Sitting on an incline puts an incredible stretch on the biceps and more range of motion. These factors will have your biceps feeling it. Go on the lighter side and feel the stretch. This can be performed as a hammer, supinated, or Zottman curl.
How to do dumbbell incline bicep curls:
Form tips: Keep your back glued to the bench the entire time and always start from the dead hand position.
The trick with doing this curl is to minimize using the momentum of your upper body so all the focus is on your biceps. Keep your head, upper and lower back against the wall at all times. Basically its a bicep exercise that does not stand for cheating, allowing you to really hone in on building big biceps.
How to do wall biceps curls with dumbbells:
Form tips: Minimizing the movement of your upper body is key here to focus on the biceps.
Adding a small step back to your biceps curl adds extra tension to your biceps (because of the increased time under tension) while training your coordination, balance, and core stability. If you want to add some spice to your curls, this variation is for you.
Note: If you want to increase the difficulty, do a reverse lunge rather than just a step back, as seen above.
How to do step back dumbbell biceps curls:
Form tips: Take only a small step back and perform this movement slowly until you get the knack for it.
The pinwheel biceps curl is a hammer curl with a twist. You curl across your body to train your biceps from a different angle. Going across your body increases the range of motion for better muscle-building potential.
How to do pinwheel dumbbell biceps curls:
Form tips: Don’t go too heavy with this variation. Concentrate on ROM
By places your hand up to the head of the dumbbell rather than directly on the center of the handle, you will force the biceps to work harder while performing the curl. This grip increases the intensity on the biceps in a supinated position because you’re resisting the wrists from rotating. It’s a great way to make a light dumbbell feel heavier and you’ll strengthen your grip (wrists/forearms).
Note: To increase the difficulty and add some core work to it, perform the exercise unilaterally.
How to do dumbbell offset bicep curls:
Form Tips: The offset grip makes it difficult to grip and curl so go a lighter than usual. Make sure to keep your wrists in neutral.
You cannot have a biceps article and not include 21’s. The increased time under tension using 3 ranges of motion will have your biceps pumped up in a hurry. This is performed with a grip of your choice and either standing or sitting. If you’re doing this right, only one set will do.
How to do dumbbell biceps 21s:
Form tips: Use either a supinated, hammer curl or reverse curl grip. Whatever is comfortable for you.
Related: Biceps 21s Workout
The fat grips increase the diameter of the dumbbells making it more difficult to grip and your forearms work harder as a result. If you need to increase grip strength and get some Popeye forearms, this grip is for you.
Note: if you don’t have fat grips, a hand towel will work also.
How to do fat grip dumbbell biceps curls:
Form tips: Use lighter dumbbells than usual because of the grip demands.
Mechanical tension (amount of weight) is the main driver for muscle growth. And nothing builds more muscle than the barbell curl. But dumbbells definitely have a place for building a big set of biceps.
Dumbbell bicep exercises allow for more range of motion for better muscle growth potential. Dumbbells provide for natural movement of the elbow joint and for this reason, they’re friendly on the elbows. Because your arms are working independently, you’ll strengthen muscle imbalances between sides.
Here are a few tips to get the best out of dumbbell biceps exercises:
Isolating The Short And Long Head
Now you cannot truly isolate each head, but you can emphasize one over the other. This is best done by changing your grip and your arm angle. A wide grip emphasizes the short head, and a narrower grip will focus on the long head. Exercises like reverse curls and hammer curls focus on the short head and exercise like incline curls and concentration curls focus on the long head.
Focus On Tension Not Weight
There’s always the temptation to focus on the weight you’re lifting and not the tension on the working muscle. Instead, use a weight that allows you to complete your reps with good form and feel your biceps working. Body English has its place in forced reps and going to failure but with the biceps, you’re better focused on tension and not weight.
Program These After Compound Exercises
Compound exercises like chin-ups and row variations are some of the best ways to build your biceps as these use the most weight. Use the dumbbell exercises here after performing compound exercises to fully exhaust and build your biceps. Doing this the other way round may result in using less weight on your compound exercises. Isolation moves complement compound moves well, enabling you to target specific muscles that may not get as much attention during larger exercises. Consider adding a few isolation exercises weekly for not only the biceps but also the triceps and shoulders with these dumbbell arm exercises.
This goes along with tension. Don’t just jack the weight up and down but lift with tempo instead. Each rep has four parts the eccentric (lowering), bottom, concentric, and lockout and each number is represented by how many seconds this takes.
For example, 3-1-3-3 concentration curl - it takes three seconds to lower the dumbbells to your elbows are straight Then of one-second pause at the bottom, followed by three seconds to lift it up, and three-second squeeze at the top of the rep.
Lifting with tempo puts the muscle under tension longer, which is a key factor in building your biceps3.
There is nothing wrong with performing curls standing up because standing will allow you to use more weight. But when you sit, you take your body’s stabilizing muscles out of the equation and this drives more action to the working muscle. In this case the biceps. Use a mix of sitting and standing biceps exercises for better development.
If your biceps are feeling tight after your workout or the next day, here are some great biceps stretches!
Want to see how you stack up with others in the biceps department? Check out this Average Biceps Size Chart for Men & Women
Related: The Ultimate Bigger Biceps Workout
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