The barbell curl can be a menacing exercise for stiffer lifters. Wrists and elbows can take a beating when hitting biceps with a straight bar. To fix this problem, I’m providing you with the best barbell alternatives to pump your biceps until your sleeves don’t fit.
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Barbell Curl Muscles Worked
The barbell curl targets all of the biceps muscle groups: the biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis. However, the supinated hand position preferentially targets the biceps brachii . This underhand grip is often used to target the bicep “peak” bodybuilders strive for.
12 Powerful Barbell Curl Alternatives
For an exercise to be an effective barbell curl alternative, it must be a predominantly elbow flexion exercise using a supinated grip to target the biceps brachii with the brachialis supporting the movement.
The drag curl is a biceps exercise that involves pulling the barbell up along the body while keeping it in contact with the torso. This movement pattern emphasizes the peak contraction of the biceps and minimizes the involvement of the shoulders and back. Here’s how to do it:
- Find the same starting position as the barbell curl with an underhand grip and your arms extended.
- Instead of curling the barbell while keeping your elbows by your side, keep the bar close to your shirt as you curl. This will force your elbows to move backward.
- You’ll only be able to get to upper ab height.
EZ Bar Curl
The EZ bar curl is a classic biceps exercise that uses a specialized barbell with angled grips. The angled grips place less stress on the wrists, allowing for a more comfortable grip than a straight barbell.
Further, the muscle activation of the biceps brachii during the EZ bar curl is similar to the barbell curl . This makes it a perfect alternative. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold the barbell with either angled grip, with your palms facing up. Make sure your arms are extended in this position.
- Curl the EZ bar to approximately chest height squeezing your biceps. You can add a slight shoulder flexion at the end for further biceps shortening.
- Slowly extend the elbow returning to the starting position.
The dumbbell curl is similar to the barbell curl but allows a slightly greater range of motion since the dumbbells can sit by your side. Further, it allows your wrists and elbows to move freely, so it is an excellent alternative if you suffer from wrist or elbow pain when barbell curling. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold dumbbells by your side with your palms facing forward. Curl the dumbbells to upper chest height.
- You can have the elbows move slightly forward at the end to add shoulder flexion to shorten the biceps further.
- Slowly extend your arms to the starting position and avoid swinging the dumbbells next rep.
Incline DB Curl
Research corroborates that long muscle length training is superior to short muscle length training for gaining muscle. The incline dumbbell curl places the biceps under greater stretch since the shoulder is extended.
Does that mean I believe it’s a better biceps builder than the barbell curl? No. But the extreme stretch makes an epic exercise at the end of your arm training. Here’s how to do it:
- Set the bench to a 60° incline. This is usually one hole past 45°. Sit on the bench leaning back with dumbbells in your hands and arms hanging by your side. Pinch your shoulder blades like a bench press setup to allow your shoulders to retract and stretch the biceps instead of the shoulders.
- Curl the dumbbells squeezing your biceps until your arms are perpendicular to the floor. You can keep your elbows in place to focus on elbow flexion or move your elbows forward to add a small amount of shoulder flexion.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position, emphasizing the bottom stretch.
The Bayesian curl is another option, like the incline DB curl, that places an immense stretch on the biceps. However, you need access to a cable, so if you train biceps at home, this won’t be an option. But if you’re at a gym, here’s how to do it:
- Set a cable with a single handle attachment at the bottom of the pole. Face away from the cable stack holding the handle. Stagger your legs so the leg on the side of the working arm is behind.
- Allow the cable to pull your shoulder into extension, creating a biceps stretch. Curl the cable and bring the elbow forward to flex the shoulder.
- Slowly return to the starting position emphasizing the stretch.
I love the cable curl for ridiculous bicep pumps. The tension throughout the movement feels different to the barbell, with more tension at the top of the curl where you can squeeze. Here’s how to do it:
- Place the cable to the bottom and attach a straight or curl bar. Grab the attachment with an underhand grip and take a step back. Have your elbows in front of your body, not beside it.
- Maintain this position and curl the attachment to your head. Slowly lower to the starting position.
The spider curl is a way to isolate your biceps by reducing the involvement of your upper body when doing a standing curl. Peak tension is achieved at 90° elbow angle, similar to the barbell curl making it an excellent alternative. Here’s how to do it:
- Set a bench to a low incline. Lie face down with your chest against the bench and your arms hanging, holding a barbell.
- Maintain a vertical upper arm while curling the bar. Slowly lower to the starting position.
The benefit of the preacher curl is locking your arms in place, forcing your biceps to do the work. It removes any contribution from your shoulders and traps, creating epic tension on your biceps. Here’s how to do it:
- Grab the barbell first and lean against the preacher bench with your arms against the pad. Start with an extended arm position.
- Curl the bar until your arms are perpendicular to the floor, squeezing your biceps. Slowly lower the bar to the extended position.
Bands make an excellent versatile piece of equipment for the biceps. Depending on the type of band, you can stand on it to perform a regular curl or attach at chest height, like in the video. I prefer the second option as you’re limited with tension when standing on the band. Here’s how to do it:
- Attach two bands at approximately chest height. Step back to create band tension with your arms extended in front. Hold the handles with a palms-up grip.
- Keeping the same elbow position, curl the handles toward your head. Band tension will increase with peak tension occurring approximately with your forearm perpendicular to the floor.
The TRX curl can be done with any suspension trainer. Rings included. The more horizontal you are, the harder the exercise, so it can easily be scaled based on your strength. Here’s how to do it:
- Lean back while hanging on a suspension trainer with an underhand grip. Instead of driving your elbows to your ribs, pull your body toward your hands. This will flex the elbows without the shoulders moving.
Partner Towel Curl
This was a staple for my wife and I when we were stuck in lockdown. And something I’ve prescribed for professional athletes I’ve worked with. It’s brutal since your partner can maintain hard resistance throughout the entire curl, which barbells cannot. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold a towel with your palms up with a narrow grip so the ends drape each side. Have your partner sit in front, holding the ends.
- Have your partner pull down on the towel to add resistance as you perform the curl.
While the chin-up isn’t an isolation movement, it’s the best compound movement for smashing the biceps – especially when using a narrow underhand grip. Here’s how to chin-up to emphasize the biceps:
- Hang from a bar with an underhand grip. Use a narrow grip to target your biceps further. Instead of driving your elbows to your ribs as you would when performing the chin-up for a wide back, pull yourself around the bar.
- This forces your biceps to work harder and looks similar to a barbell biceps curl, but you’re moving around the bar.
Give these barbell curl alternatives a go next time you’re hitting biceps. Whether it’s for variety, lack of equipment, or discomfort with the barbell, these alternatives will target the same muscles as the barbell curl.
1. Marcolin, G., Panizzolo, F. A., Petrone, N., Moro, T., Grigoletto, D., Piccolo, D., & Paoli, A. (2018). Differences in electromyographic activity of biceps brachii and brachioradialis while performing three variants of curl. PeerJ, 6, e5165.
2. Jarrett, C. D., Weir, D. M., Stuffmann, E. S., Jain, S., Miller, M. C., & Schmidt, C. C. (2012). Anatomic and biomechanical analysis of the short and long head components of the distal biceps tendon. Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery, 21(7), 942-948.
3. Coratella, G., Tornatore, G., Longo, S., Esposito, F., & Cè, E. (2023). Bilateral Biceps Curl Shows Distinct Biceps Brachii and Anterior Deltoid Excitation Comparing Straight vs. EZ Barbell Coupled with Arms Flexion/No-Flexion. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 8(1), 13.