There are iconic black-and-white photos of legendary bodybuilders and strength athletes performing the barbell curl. It has stood the test of time and is considered the king of biceps exercises. The barbell curl is a must-do exercise if you want to pump up your biceps and add some serious size to your upper body.
With its simplicity and effectiveness, it’s no wonder the barbell curl has been a favorite among lifters for decades. So, how do you do it effectively to maximize biceps growth?
How To Perform The Barbell Curl
The barbell curl is relatively simple since it is a single-joint isolation exercise. However, many lifters butcher the technique under stimulating their biceps. Here’s how to barbell curl to maximize biceps development:
- Hold the barbell with a narrow grip, with your palms facing up. Make sure your arms are extended in this position.
- Curl the barbell 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.
Common Barbell Curl Mistakes
While using momentum is a barbell curl variation known as the cheat curl, it is inferior for building big biceps compared to the strict barbell curl. Plus, it places you at a higher risk for injury. While an extreme example, Calum von Moger’s bicep tear after a heavy partner cheat curl showcases this.
The main issue with using momentum is cheating yourself from the curl’s most effective portion.
Long muscle lengths are superior to short muscle length training for gaining muscle; therefore, full range of motion training is likely better than partially overloading the top of the biceps curl .
Going Too Heavy
This is often the symptom that causes someone to use momentum. Going too heavy forces you to swing the barbell limiting the tension on your biceps. The issue is mechanical tension is the key mechanism of muscle growth .
Increasing the load is one way of increasing the tension on the muscle. However, going too heavy on the barbell curl and swinging the weight means your biceps don’t have this increased tension throughout the range of motion.
Performing Half Reps
As mentioned, long muscle length training is superior for muscle growth versus short muscle length training. Half reps limit the eccentric phase, an important factor when growing your biceps.
Where half reps are beneficial is as an intensity technique at the end of a set—for example, finishing a set of barbell curls with bottom range partial reps.
Not Squeezing The Biceps
Having the barbell curl under complete control means you can squeeze the biceps throughout the movement. This is referred to as the mind-muscle connection.
For example, thinking about squeezing the biceps during the curl versus focusing on moving the weight resulted in approximately double the biceps growth . Control the weight and feel the squeeze!
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.
Barbell Biceps Curl Benefits
Get Bigger Biceps
The obvious benefit is to build gigantic biceps. The barbell curl has been used for decades to build huge arms because of its simplicity. Your regular straight barbell is all you need.
Develop Forearms To Match Your Biceps
There’s nothing worse than seeing huge upper arms followed by tiny forearms. It looks weak. The barbell curl loads the forearms with the biceps, so they don’t lag behind your upper arms. You can level up the barbell curl for the forearms by adding Fat Gripz to thicken the barbell.
Use Heavier Loads
The unique characteristic of the barbell curl is the heavier loads used compared to other variations. Controlling heavier loads means greater mechanical tension and, therefore, greater muscle-building stimulus.
Barbell Curl Standards
I’ve taken these standards from my favorite strength training book “Dinosaur Training” by Brooks Kubik. If you haven’t read this book and you’re a lifting fanatic, I highly recommend it. Here are strict barbell curl standards by bodyweight:
- 160 lb lifter – 178 lbs curl
- 180 lb lifter – 200 lbs curl
- 200 lb lifter – 222 lbs curl
- 220 lb lifter – 244 lbs curl
- 240 lb lifter – 266 lbs curl
- 260 lb lifter – 289 lbs curl
These are no easy feats and are based on the old-time physical culturist’s extreme strength levels before the steroid era. Something for you to aspire to!
Barbell Curl Variations
Here are a few barbell curl alternatives you can use with the barbell.
The drag curl focuses on elbow flexion while maximizing the biceps squeeze. It’s an excellent exercise to feel the biceps working during the curl. 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.
Barbell Preacher Curl
The preacher curl targets the lower portion of the biceps . It locks your shoulders and elbows in place, completely isolating the 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.
I’ve already mentioned the cheat curl in this article as an inferior option to the strict barbell curl. But it can be used as a variation to liven up your training. Further, it makes an excellent intensity technique at the end of your barbell curl sets to eke out more forced reps. Here’s how to do it:
- Starting in the same position as the barbell curl, throw your hips back and thrust them forward to initiate the cheat curl.
- Continue curling the barbell to maintain the momentum, squeezing your biceps at the top of the movement.
- Lower the barbell as controlled as possible.
While the chin-up is a compound biceps exercise, the supinated hand position elicits greater biceps activation than lat activation . Here’s how to do it:
- Hold a pull-up bar with an underhand grip. Your hand position should be narrow, not wide. Drive your elbows to your ribs as you pull your chest to the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself until your arms are extended.
The only reason not to use the barbell curl is if it causes elbow or wrist discomfort. However, if you have healthy joints, take advantage of the king of biceps exercises to build strength and size of your upper arms.
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