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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
June 19, 2022
Bicep curls are an exercise that almost every lifter does. Newbies to advanced lifters all know how to work those biceps. There's arguably no more satisfying muscle to train. Who doesn't like seeing their biceps swell after each rep while watching themselves in the mirror? When it comes to this, it isn't narcassim, it's simply bodybuilding.
Now, one of the most solid variations in the biceps realm, which is often neglected, is the preacher curl. The exercise is simple, you sit down with your upper arms positioned on the preacher curl bench and then curl. It can be done with dumbbells, an EZ bar, or even a barbell. It's a great way to better isolate your biceps and forearms than other curl variations because you can't use any "body English", or in other words, you can't cheat.
On that note, let's do a deep dive on the preacher curl.
This article will cover:
Are you ready for flex-time? Let’s go.
The preacher curl is performed with a bench that is designed for you to sit down with your upper arms resting on a surface that is slightly tilted inwards. This biceps curl variation allows you to hone in on the biceps while not using any other part of your body. Because you’re sitting down and your upper arms are fixed on the pad, this drives more engagement to the biceps for better growth potential.
Here's what it looks like:
Note: This variation of the preacher curl uses an EZ-curl bar with an underhand grip (supinated grip). There are other variations later below.
It’s just a bicep curl, how hard could it be? Although this is true, there are a few things to pay attention to get the best out of this exercise.
Treating it Like a Strength Exercise: A lot of lifers mistake isolation exercises like the preacher curl and turn it into a 1RM type of exercise. It’s not that type of exercise, sorry. Going too heavy will compromise form and put you at greater injury risk. That said, over time, you will be able to preacher curl more.
Reducing Range Of Motion: Going through a full range of motion will promote better biceps growth and keep your elbows healthier during this variation. There is time to shorten the ROM for the biceps, but this is NOT one of those exercises.
Pay Attention to Your Set-Up: To get the best out of this exercise your upper arms and chest need to be glued to the pad at all times. So, take the time to adjust the pads to make this happen. Being too low or too high will put you out of position and it will be difficult to keep your body against the pad. This opens the door for body English which takes the focus off your biceps.
Not Keeping Wrists Straight: Don't allow your wrists to bend, this can put unnecessary strain on your wrists. See the pic below.
The preacher curl bench and setup make this variation a great isolation exercise for the biceps. Gluing your upper body and arms to the preacher bench and the stability of sitting down drive more engagement where you need it most, the gun show.
Biceps & Brachialis: The biceps and the brachialis are the prime movers for the preacher curl. Because of the angle of the preacher bench pad, your elbow is raised, which puts your shoulder into flexion. Since the long head crosses the shoulder joint, this will stretch the long head from the starting position. With that, this variation drives a little more activation to the long head of the biceps, but you can still mix up your grip to alter this a bit. In any case, it isn't a very significant increase in activation to either biceps muscle head; it'll work both heads effectively. If you do want to target the short head of the biceps more, a normal to wide supinated (underhand) grip is good. Narrow your grip or use a neutral or reverse grip and you'll focus even more on the long head.
Forearm Flexors: The forearms have two functions when it comes to most biceps’ variations including the preacher curl. First is the grip strength to hold the wrist in neutral while curling up. Second, the forearm flexors are involved when you extend and flex your biceps.
The EZ curl bar preachers curl is the go-to variation of preacher curls and it’s the one that allows you to use the most weight safely. It is easier on the wrist due to the partially supinated grip (the EZ curl bar has angles to it). But as great as the EZ curl bar is, it doesn’t agree with everybody or you may simply want to switch things up, and that’s where dumbbells and barbells come in. The dumbbells allow you more freedom of movement and can be easier on the wrists and elbows.
Plus, with dumbbells you can use an underhand, overhand, and neutral grip, but with the EZ curl bar, you can really only use an underhand grip (actually it's partially neutral due to the angle of the EZ bar) comfortably.
Furthermore, there are a few gyms, believe it or not, that DON'T have a preacher curl bench or machine. So, we have some more exercises of the preacher curl variety that can be done without a preacher curl bench.
Here are 10 preacher curl variations below that will continue to get your biceps ready for flex time.
This is performed the same as the EZ bar preacher curl and trains similar muscles from the same angle. The difference is you’re lifting a dumbbell in each hand which improves unilateral strength and make you aware of strength imbalances between sides.
Barbell curls on a preacher bench is almost the same as the EZ curl bar variation but for one important difference. The EZ curl bar with its wavy design makes it a little easier to grip and it’s more forgiving on the elbows. But if your elbows are good, this variation will allow you to move more weight. It also helps you avoid cheat curls, which often happens with a standing barbell curl (although that isn't always a bad thing).
Your wrist has to work harder to remain neutral, demanding more of your grip strength and your forearm extensors.
You have options with the close grip preacher curl. This exercise is either performed with dumbbells, an EZ curl bar, or a barbell. All are good and it depends on your preference and or whether your joints agree with the equipment used. The close grip focuses on the long head of the biceps because the narrow handgrip shifts the tension to the outer bicep muscle fibers.
The dumbbell hammer preacher curl has your wrists in neutral which benefits you in two ways. One, this grip is your strongest grip allowing you to do more reps. Two, your joints are neither externally nor internally rotated and this makes it easier on your wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. This hammer grip focuses more on the brachioradialis and brachialis than the biceps leading to better upper arm development.
The reverse grip preacher curl trains the forearm extensors which are often forgotten about. The overhand grip of the reverse curl trains this important group of muscles, and this had two benefits. One it leads to better forearm development and two it will lead to healthier elbows as it balances the strength between the flexors and extensors.
The biceps have two functions, flexion, and supination which is forearm rotation. This rotation trains the forearm flexors and extensors and the biceps brachii, brachioradialis, and brachialis. All this leads to better upper arm and forearm development. This variation may feel a little easier on the elbows and wrists than the EZ curl bar preacher curl. If you want bigger biceps, this is a great exercise as it hits the biceps hard.
When performing bilateral preacher curl variations, one side may take over for another and reinforce existing strength imbalances. Performing the single-arm preacher curl will strengthen these imbalances and lead to better strength and more muscle growth and development between your left and right sides.
There is a point in the range of motion with most free-weight preacher curl variations where the resistance doesn’t feel like anything. This is known as dynamic variable resistance as the resistance varies throughout the ROM. The machine preacher biceps curls the resistance is constant throughout the entire ROM which is a little better for hypertrophy.
When you don’t have a preacher curl bench or machine, this is a solid alternative. The incline weight bench mimics the slant of the preacher curl and with the weight bench, you can vary the angle to make this exercise easier or more difficult.
Like the incline version, the stability ball preacher curl is a great variation if you don’t have access to a preacher curl bench or machine. Being draped over a stability ball will prevent any body English from curling the weight up and it forces you to slow down your curl due to the instability of the ball. Because if you don’t do either, you and the floor become one. Although it may be uncomfortable for your knees your biceps will appreciate the extra time under tension.
The preacher curl is a solid bicep curl variation that belongs in your exercise program if your joints can tolerate it. It goes through and large ROM while isolating the biceps for better growth.
Assuming your shoulders are healthy, you can use this curl variation in your workout routine to add muscle, and endurance and improve grip strength. It’s advisable to go lighter here until you get used to the movement. When training for hypertrophy does 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, going to technical failure. If you want to improve your muscular endurance 2-3 sets of 12-20 reps using short rest periods will work.
Related: The Ultimate Bigger Biceps Workout
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