Bicep curls are an iconic arm exercise; however, many lifters need help understanding the nuances between the variations and how to choose the right bicep curl for their goals.
Bicep curls can be done in a few ways to target the long or short head of the biceps, with your elbow positioning being a critical factor in determining the effectiveness of your curl.
A proper biceps curl will have you bend the arms at the elbows with either the elbows being kept down by your sides (in line with the body) or in front of your torso. Having the elbows to your sides targets the long head of the biceps, whereas having them supported in front of you targets the short head.
Below, I will break down biceps anatomy, explain how to perform bicep curls to target the biceps better, and share some of my favorite bicep exercises plus a sample routine to inspire your arm growth!
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Anatomy of the Biceps
The bicep is a large muscle that runs along the front of the arm between the shoulder and the elbow. It is responsible for the bending of the elbows and supination (rotating the palms upwards) of the wrist.
The biceps brachii has two main heads (sections of the muscle), each of which is targeted slightly more directly than the other.
The long head of the biceps is the larger of the two and is often the one most people refer to, as it is the more superficial of the heads (meaning it lays over top of the shorter head).
When looking to train the long head, you can choose exercises that bend the arm with the elbows by the sides of the body rather than with the elbows in front of the body, such as an incline dumbbell curl or standing curl with the elbows by your sides.
The short head is smaller and is a more hidden head of the biceps. This head lies underneath the long head and slightly more inwards towards the body.
If you are looking to target this head of the biceps, you will want to perform exercises that have you bend the arm while the elbow is in front of the body, such as a machine curl or a curl where you allow your elbows to lift in front of you.
- Related Article: Outer Bicep Workouts: 5 Exercise Examples
How To Do Bicep Curls: Step-By-Step Guide
The bicep curl can be done using a variety of equipment (barbells, dumbbells, cables, machines). However, we will discuss how to perform it with a barbell.
- Stand upright and hold a barbell across your thighs using a shoulder-width grip.
- Adjust your arms so that the elbows are in line with your stomach and pointed backward. This should place your wrist in the palms-forward position.
- Next, pull your chest up and your shoulders back, and brace your core by breathing into your stomach and pulling your ribcage into your spine.
- While keeping your elbows at your sides, bend your elbows and lift the barbell in front of you to shoulder height, making sure your elbows do not move backward and your torso does not lean backward or forward.
- Exhale and lower the barbell slowly, making sure not to let gravity accelerate the barbell toward the ground. This is key to keeping tension in the muscle. You also want to make sure that your elbows do not move back behind the body.
5 Common Bicep Curl Mistakes
Below are five of the most common bicep curl mistakes I see in most gyms that are stealing muscle growth from lifters and increasing injury risks.
Elbows Not Staying Fixed During the Movement
One of the most common mistakes when doing bicep curls is not keeping the elbows in place during the movements. Many lifters will bend the elbows while also allowing the arm to move, which can increase shoulder involvement and momentum used to lift the weight.
Ideally, you want to bend the elbows without letting the upper arm move, keeping them fixed in the original start position (either in line, behind, or in front of the body).
The only exception is when doing a bicep curl while purposely lifting the elbows in front of you, which we will discuss below in the variation section.
To fix this, decrease the weight and lift it under control with your biceps. You can also train with machine bicep curls to better understand how to use your biceps to lift the weight before transitioning to free weight variations.
Elbows Behind the Body During the Curl
Other than during a drag curl, you want to ensure that your elbows do not move backward as you perform the bicep curl. When the elbows move backward, you tend to shorten the range of motion, which can decrease the stress placed on the biceps.
This also may suggest you are leaning too far forward or letting your shoulders drop forward, placing more stress on the shoulder than the bicep.
To fix this, you can block your elbows from moving backward by doing machine curls or having a partner keep your elbows from moving backward. You can also just decrease the weight until you improve your form.
Leaning Forward During the Curl
Most lifters will produce a forward lean during the curl either at the start of the movement or when the weight gets challenging, as this shortens the range of motion that the bicep needs to perform work. It also tends to happen when the lifter is not strong enough to finish the rep by lifting the weight and instead just leans into it.
This forward lean will result in you bringing the weight to the chest, shoulders, or chest. This may look like an effective repetition, but in reality, all you did was move your body towards the weight rather than lift the weight upwards with your biceps.
To fix this, keep your back on a bench or have a partner behind you who places their hand across your upper back. That will provide you feedback so that you do not lean forward as you lift the weight.
Leaning Back During the Curl
Leaning back during a curl is another common flaw I see when the weights are too heavy and the lifter tries to use more of their back to lift the weight. This not only takes the emphasis off the biceps but also often results in more stress on the lower back.
To fix this, perform curls with a back support (like a bench) or a partner standing behind you. That will ensure you are not leaning backward as you curl. You can also decrease the weight and focus on good form first before adding more weight.
Not Lowering the Weight All the Way Down
By not lowering the weight all the way down, you minimize the amount of muscular tension placed on the biceps. Many lifters perform half reps of bicep curls, typically because they want to lift more weight rather than train the muscle throughout the full range of motion.
By not lowering the weights all the way down, you are only doing half the work and may place your body at unnecessary risk of injury, as you will often be able to train with more weight and will load the joints and connective tissues with more weight and stress. While that may seem like a good thing, you want to make sure your biceps take most of the loading, as that is the goal.
To fix this, decrease the weight so that you can train the full range of motion.
Related Article: 12 Killer Arm Exercises to Build Bigger Arms
4 Benefits of Bicep Curls
Below are four benefits of bicep curls that every lifter can expect when adding them to their workout program.
More Muscular Arms
The most obvious benefit is that bicep curls help build more muscular biceps. The bicep is one of the two main muscle groups of the arms, with bicep curl variations playing a key role in the overall development of the biceps.
If you struggle to gain arm size and strength, you may need to add more isolated arm exercises, like bicep curls, into your workout program.
This is often the case with lifters who only do pull-ups, chin-ups, and rows and struggle to see arm growth. Adding in bicep curls is the missing piece of your bigger arms workout program.
Better Pulling Abilities
The biceps work to bend the elbows and are a key muscle group in assisting the back during all pulling movements. While you still want to use your back muscles to lift the majority of the loading during a pull-up, row, or deadlift, the bicep curl is a strong assistance exercise that can further enhance pulling strength.
Some lifters may be fine not training biceps directly. However, if you struggle to lift weights due to arm strength or have discomfort in the elbows during pulls, you may want to add more isolated biceps training.
Improved Grip Strength
The biceps are responsible for bending the elbows and supinating the wrists (rotating the palms upward). Many bicep exercises train the forearm and grip muscles, too, like hammer curls, waiter curls, and Zottman curls.
You can increase grip and arm strength by including such exercises in your program and knock out both biceps and forearm training in a few time-efficient exercises.
Improved Elbow Joint Health
The biceps help to flex (bend) and stabilize the elbow during exercises where they are being bent or straightened under loads.
Many lifters fail to recognize the stability of the biceps when performing pushing movements, such as bench presses. When you perform a bench press, your biceps work to keep the elbows supported as they bend and straighten and to resist overextending the joint as you press out.
Additionally, the biceps help ensure the elbows are not over-extending during pulling movements like deadlifts and carries (like farmer carries). Strong biceps not only help your arms perform better, but they protect the connective tissues and joints from high amounts of stress, too.
How To Implement Bicep Curls In Your Training Routine
Below are general guidelines on how to include bicep curls in your training routine. We will discuss set and rep recommendations, loading, frequency, and exercise order.
I will then offer you my sample 2-day bicep curl workout program that you can incorporate into your weekly schedule using the Fitbod training app.
Most lifters can maintain biceps size by training as little as 3-4 total sets per week. If you want to gain biceps strength and size, you will need to train at least 8 total sets per week. More advanced lifters need to train as many as 15-20 total sets per week.
Most lifters should aim to add a few sets each week of the program so that over the course of 4-6 weeks, you go from 10-20 total sets per week. Then, take a week to recover and perform only 5-10 sets, and repeat.
When determining how many sets to do each workout, you will need to divide your total weekly sets by the number of times you train the bicep during the week.
For example, let’s say you are training 12 total sets of biceps per week, and you train biceps twice per week. You will then perform 6 total sets of biceps per workout, usually split between 2-3 exercises.
When training biceps, you want to make sure that you train them with a combination of both heavier and lighter weights, as this allows you to train the full spectrum of muscular development.
When training single-joint movements (exercises that move only at one joint), you don’t want to use too much weight where you can injure the joint or connective tissue. This is why your heavy rep range should be between 6-12 reps for muscle growth.
You can also include rep ranges of 10-15 and 15-20 to help you increase the amount of volume you deliver to the muscle and have a lot of fatigue build up in the muscle itself, which will increase muscle growth.
Lifting too heavy will challenge the biceps but will also add a lot of stress to the joint and connective tissue. It will also be difficult to get enough volume (work performed) to the biceps as other muscle groups will start to assist in the movement.
The key when training in various rep ranges is to lift with the heaviest weight you can within the rep range you are training while still keeping good form.
Related Article: Rep Ranges For Arm Workouts? (Everything You Need To Know)
Most lifters looking to increase biceps growth should train biceps 2-3 times a week.
Many lifters can get great arm growth training biceps two times a week, as this allows them to deliver 6-10 total sets per session and get adequate training volume without impeding recovery. If you train too much volume, especially in one day, you could hinder muscle growth.
Aim to train biceps 2-3 times per week for maximal muscle growth. If you want to maintain your biceps size, you could train them as little as once per week.
Related Article: How Often Should You Train Arms? (5 Things To Know)
Exercise order refers to the order in which you perform a movement. This can vary based on the goal of the workout.
If you are looking to train the biceps with a few movements, one being an exercise you really want to use heavier loads for, you will want to perform that exercise first.
You may also want to perform a bicep curl variation to bring up a lagging part of the bicep (for example, you want to attack the short head of the bicep). You should then perform the exercise that targets the short head of the biceps first in your workout because that was the goal of that session.
Related Article: How Many Exercises Make An Effective Arm Workout?
Sample 2-Day Biceps Workout Program
Below is a two-day workout program to help you build bigger biceps. You will perform both of these workouts throughout a 7-day period, making sure to train them with at least 2 days of rest between workouts.
Day 1 – Long Head Emphasis
- Barbell Biceps Curl: 3 sets of 8-12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Hammer Curls: 3 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Machine Biceps Curl: 3 sets of 15-20 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
Day 2 – Short Head Emphasis
- Incline Dumbbell Curl: 3 sets of 8-12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Barbell Bicep Drag Curl: 3 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Zottman Dumbbell Curl: 3 sets of 15-20 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
Related Article: The Best Compound Arm Exercises for Arm Size and Strength
10 Bicep Curl Variations
Below are bicep curl variations you can do to target both the long and short heads of the biceps.
Note that not all of the exercises below are found in the Fitbod app. However, the majority of them are.
1. Barbell Bicep Curl (Lift Elbows)
By lifting the elbows as you perform the barbell bicep curl, you place slightly more emphasis on the short head of the biceps. This may be a good option for lifters looking to develop the bicep peaks (the point and shape of them rather than how large they are).
If you do not have access to a preacher curl (a bicep curl where your arms are supported on a pad in front of you), adding in a slight elbow lift at the top of your barbell bicep curl will do the trick.
To do this, you will perform a barbell bicep curl as detailed above. However, you will start the curl with your elbows slightly in front of your torso and then lift them upwards in front of your chest for the last half of the movement.
This is a tricky variation and one that should be done slowly, as many lifters will use the elbow lift to add momentum to the exercise rather than to isolate the short head.
2. Barbell Bicep Drag Curl
The barbell bicep drag curl targets both the long and short head of the biceps and often allows you to lift more weight and place more loading on the biceps.
This is a good variation for when you want to take some stress off the shoulder, as you are able to have more shoulder stability by keeping the elbows back behind the body. You can also take the stress off the front of the shoulders since you don’t need to keep the elbows in line with or in front of the body.
This can be a tricky exercise, as some lifters may not be able to keep the bar close to them without allowing the shoulders to round forward (or they have their body get in the way). The key is to perform it slowly and focus on keeping your chest up and elbows back.
3. Seated Dumbbell Curl
The seated dumbbell curl allows you to train the biceps (mainly the long head) without the need for a heavy barbell.
This is ideal for lifters who do not have access to a barbell or find it difficult to lift a barbell as they come in 35 to 45-lb starting weights. Dumbbells are also a great option as they allow the lifter to easily change the weights and not take up as much space in a small gym or home gym.
Dumbbells allow you to train the biceps individually, even if you are doing both arms at a time. This helps you address any muscle imbalances or weaknesses you would not be able to detect when training with a barbell or machine.
The seated dumbbell curl is also a great variation to use if you experience wrist pain when using a barbell, as it allows you to rotate the wrist slightly and find the most comfortable position for your wrist.
Lastly, seated curls minimize your ability to lean back and use your back during curls. I find this very helpful for individuals who “cheat” on their curls when the movements get challenging. I also find it helpful when my lower back is sore or tired, and I want to train heavier without adding extra stress to my back.
4. Incline Dumbbell Curl
The incline dumbbell curl primarily targets the long head of the biceps, as the elbows are kept underneath the shoulder and behind the body rather than in front of the body.
Unlike the seated dumbbell bicep curl, the incline curl allows you to train a larger range of motion. This greater range of motion helps to train the long head of the biceps fully and can also minimize the amount of shoulder involvement.
This exercise is a great movement for lifters who want to isolate more of the biceps and take the stress off the shoulders. It is also a good variation if you want to train the biceps more directly but do not have heavy dumbbells, as the greater range of motion increases the stress on the muscle.
5. Standing Dumbbell Curl
The standing dumbbell curl is the standing alternative to the barbell bicep curl. This exercise allows you to train the biceps if you do not have access to a barbell but still want to do movements similar to barbell curl variations, like the barbell drag curl or the barbell bicep curl with elbow lift.
Unlike the barbell, the dumbbells provide you the ability to manipulate your wrist position, which is helpful if you feel like the barbell places your wrists in an uncomfortable position.
Dumbbells also allow you to train the arms individually to address muscle weaknesses and imbalances.
Lastly, standing dumbbell curls are a great variation to use when you want to include intensive technique protocols like drop sets.
A drop set is where you train a muscle to near failure with a weight and then immediately decrease the weight by 5-10% and perform more reps to failure. You can do one drop or many drops within a set.
Dumbbells allow you to easily change weights out and take a muscle to full failure.
6. Zottman Dumbbell Curl
The Zottman dumbbell curl takes the standing dumbbell curl to the next level but allows you to rotate the wrist positioning throughout the movement. The curl starts with the palms facing upwards at the beginning of the movement and then turning them downwards (pronation) as you lower the weights back down.
In doing so, you are able to not only target the biceps but also train the forearm muscles. This is a good hybrid exercise if you want to get some of the benefits of the hammer curl (see below) but also want to train the forearms at the same time.
It is important to note that the less supinated (palms up at the bottom of the curl), the less loading is placed on the long and short head of the biceps. If this is an issue, you may want to train the twisting curl after you have targeted those areas with some of the exercises above first.
7. Waiter Curls
Waiter curls are a dumbbell bicep curl variant that targets the outer areas of the long head of the biceps and the forearm muscles.
To do this, you only need to use one dumbbell and perform curls with the elbows tucked into the front of your body. You will hold the sides of the dumbbells and perform curls as if you were drinking something from a large jug or placing it on a table (like a waiter).
This is helpful if you want to train the outer bicep muscle and forearms but find movements like hammer curls uncomfortable.
8. Hammer Curls
Hammer curls are a dumbbell bicep curl variation that targets the outer part of the long head. They also target the forearms and grip muscles.
This bicep curl variation helps to provide more size and visual growth from the lateral view of the arm, which is done by keeping the wrist in a neutral position (palms facing the body) rather than having the palms up (supination).
Some lifters may prefer these if they want to train more of the outer biceps or include more grip strength training into their bicep curls.
9. Cable Bicep Curl
Cable bicep curls train the same muscles as the standard bicep curl. However, they often allow you to train the muscles with constant tension throughout the range of motion, which can help muscle growth and decrease joint stress.
When using cables, you are also able to quickly adjust the weights without needing to load and unload a barbell, making them very convenient.
Cable curls also offer you the ability to perform a wide variety of bicep curl variants, as you can adjust the angles and pulley positions more easily than you can with free weights.
Like the barbell and dumbbell bicep curl variations, you can also perform drag curls and curls where you lift your elbows in front of you to target more of the short head of the biceps.
10. Machine Bicep Curl
This machine bicep curl is a variation that allows you to train the biceps in a very direct manner, as the machine does not allow you to move your arms to cheat on the movement.
Machine bicep curls also place your elbows up on a support, which helps to target the short head of the biceps (elbows in front of you).
This is a great exercise vacation to target the biceps and easily adjust weights without needing dumbbells or a barbell. Additionally, the machine bicep curl is a great movement for lifters who struggle to train with intensity and maintain good form.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Proper Order of Bicep Curls?
You typically want to start with the bicep curl variations that use the most loading first, then work to lighter weights or variations. You should also first do the movements that target the head of the biceps you want to prioritize (short vs. long head emphasis).
Should I Do Bicep Curls With One Arm or Both?
You should train bicep curls with one arm and both arms in the same program. Training biceps with both arms allows you to train with hard intensity without needing as much coordination. Training them one arm at a time allows you to address muscle imbalances and any size differences you may have.
Will My Biceps Get Bigger If I Do Curls Every Day?
Training the biceps daily will not allow them to recover and rebuild new tissue. Ideally, you would train the biceps two to three times per week, allowing them to recover a full 48 hours between workouts. Each workout should include 2-3 exercises that deliver 4-8 total work sets each session.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.