The humble bicep curl is your simplest lift and an essential ingredient in your quest for titanic arms. For most, the dumbbell bicep curl is where it all begins, and where the passion grows – we've all been there as a child, standing in front of our parent's mirror, curling a bag from the weekly big shop. And we've all flexed our arms pretending to be Rocky Balboa, right? Right?
But our love for bigger biceps, built from bicep curls, is only half the story. What you really need to ask yourself is this: are you really making the most out of your dumbbell curls? We've got our doubts – you've only got to walk around the gym floor for a few minutes to see why. Swaying, rocking, lifting too heavy, too fast, all factors that impact the effectiveness of your bicep curl.
This is why we've enlisted the help of top sports scientist and adventurer Ross Edgley, our fitness editor and head of the MH SQUAD membership Andrew Tracey, and some of the UK's best PTs to help you make the most of your bicep's best friend.
With several variations on the classic exercise that'll hit your arms like never before, we also got the latest advice – backed by science – on tempo and the importance of time under tension, plus form tips, dos don'ts and workouts that will take arm day (it's still a thing) to the next level.
Chaps, it really is time to start prepping for the gun show. But first, an anatomy lesson.
Your Bicep Muscles
Before we get to the good stuff, it's worth understanding a bit more about your arms and the muscles that make them up. The more you know, the easier it will be to work them, as the purpose will be much clearer.
Located on the upper arm, your biceps are made up of a “short head” and a “long head”, which work as a single muscle. The bicep heads begin at different places around your shoulder/scapula region, but they have a common insertion point on the elbow tendon, and together allow you to bend your arm at the elbow joint (crucial for flexing), as well as helping you to curl and pull weight.
How to Do a Classic Bicep Curl, Effectively
First and foremost let's learn how to do a simple bicep curl. Because there's more to it – if you are serious about building bigger biceps – than you think.
Stand by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your arms hanging by your sides.
Ensure your elbows are close to your torso and your palms facing forward.
Keeping your upper arms stationary, exhale as you curl the weights up to shoulder level while contracting your biceps.
Use a thumb-less grip, advises Edgley. “Placing your thumb on the same side of the bar as your fingers increases peak contraction in the biceps at the top point of the movement,” he says. "Hold the weight at shoulder height for a brief pause, then inhale as you slowly lower back to the start position."
5 Top Tips to Get More from Your Bicep Curls
Make sure you breathe out as you curl all the way to the top. Squeeze your biceps, then inhale as you lower over a count of three. This will help control speed, ensuring you are fully working the bicep and maintaining focus.
One of the biceps’ primary functions is to supinate, or rotate, the forearm. To bring maximum muscle into play, embrace the twist. Start with the dumbbells at your sides, then turn your wrist to face the ceiling as you curl up.
Using lighter weights and isolating your biceps are smart ways to get extra work in without damaging your body. A bench prevents swinging. Kneeling in front of it, grab a light bar on the opposite side. Rest your upper arms on the bench and isolate your biceps, slowly curling towards your forehead. Squeeze, lower and repeat to failure.
The bicep squeeze is all-important because it engages the muscle you’re wanting to build. There’s also a temptation to leave the curl at the top of the movement so you can have a little rest. Don’t do it. 'If you 'rest' at the top of the rep, the bicep is then switched off as the load is resting on your joints," saysPT Jason Patmore.
Also be sure to extend your arm fully at the end of the rep – a properly executed curl should be performed slowly with full control, working equally hard on the way down as it does on the way up.
Keep your shoulders away
Lots of people use their shoulders and rock their elbows. Keep your arms perpendicular to the ground and you force all the movement to occur at the elbow joint – one of the main functions of the bicep is to flex at the elbow.
4 Most Common Bicep Curl Mistakes
Avoid these common pitfalls to ensure you’re gunning to grow and not just putting on a show.
Using momentum might allow more weight to be lifted, but takes the focus away from the biceps. Keep your torso upright, braced and still.
Never drop the weight quickly from the top of the rep. If you don’t control the eccentric phase, you won’t get the most out of the move. Maintain tension throughout.
Many will push their elbows back and drag the barbell up the body. It’s a movement that isn’t without merit, but it’s better to screw your elbows to your torso and picture them as hinges, following a controlled arc.
Lifting too heavy
While lifting heavy is a sure-fire way to build more muscle, putting the muscle through more stress, the weight has to be manageable. If you're not in control, you may start to force the weight up using your bodyweight which will encourage rocking, putting excess stress through your back, elbows and wrists, which could cause injury. Leave your ego at the door and lift what you can until you are ready to increase the weight.
When to Do a Bicep Curl
The bicep curl is a great isolation move, but you’ll need to use in conjunction with compound exercises to gain the full benefit. The Journal of Applied Physiology states that single-joint movements like bicep curls increase strength and size by an extra 10% when added to a programme of multi-joint resistance exercises (read: pullups, squats and deads).
Ideally, you're bicep curls should be done at the end of a workout to specifically target the biceps after you have worked them through several compound ‘pulling’ exercises (such as close-grip chin-ups). Alternatively, you could superset them with tricep dips to work your entire arm musculature.
Start with a total-body exercise, then move onto an exercise that uses the bicep in conjunction with other muscles – lat pulldowns will do – and eventually get to your bicep curl of choice.
How to... Emphasise Your Outer Bicep and Make Them Look Thicker
Target your biceps brachii with the hammer curls. Hold the dumbbells with your palms facing your torso. “This targets both the outer biceps and the muscles in your forearms used to flex it at the elbow,” says Edgley.
How to... Supersize Your Shoulders
Simply perform your bicep curls lying down on a flat bench or on the floor next to a cable machine. “This will work your biceps brachii in a position they are unfamiliar with, while also taxing your front deltoids,” says Tracey.
How to... Work Your Forearms
Target your pronator muscles with Zottman curls. Perform a regular curl. Then, at the top of the movement, rotate the weights until your palms are facing forwards. Now slowly lower the dumbbells toward your thighs, stopping just short of fully extending your arms. Pause. Then turn your palms back to the starting position. And repeat.
“The rotation in the Zottman curl will train both the muscles of the biceps and of the forearms,” says Edgley.
Bicep Curl Alternatives
Maybe you've mastered the bicep curl already. Or perhaps you're simply bored of it. If so, here's some alternatives to the bicep curl that will still have the desired effect.
Sit down on a bench set to a 45-degree angle holding two dumbbells at your sides with an underhand grip.
Curl the weights up to shoulder height, squeeze your bicep then return under control to the start position.
Hold the top of a dumbbell with both hands in line with your thighs, palms facing upwards.
Curl the weight up as far as possible, squeeze your bicep then return under control to the start position.
Stand upright and grip a weight plate with your hands at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions respectively. For the start position hold the weight by your waist.
Slowly curl the plate up towards your face, squeeze your bicep then lower to the start position.
EZ Bar Drag Curl
Hold the EZ bar in front of your thighs with an underhand, shoulder-width grip.
Curl the bar and as your hands rise, drive your elbows back so the bar stays as close to your torso as possible.
Squeeze your biceps at the top, then lower under control.
Kettlebell Rope Curls
Pass a thick battle rope through the handle of a kettlebell. Grip the battle rope in both hands with your arms fully extended.
As you curl the weight up, stretch the rope apart, reaching your hands towards your shoulders. Then return under control to the start position.
Best Bicep Workouts
Here's a trio of workouts from the MH archive that will target your biceps and help build bigger arms.
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