Barbell Curls vs. Dumbbell Curls: Which Is Better For Big Biceps?

March 26, 2023

When you first walked into a gym, the dumbbell or barbell curl was the first exercise you likely performed. It takes little learning to perform this single-joint exercise. But is one better than the other?

The barbell curl is better for heavy loading to overload the biceps. In contrast, the dumbbell curl forces each bicep to work similarly, reducing imbalances while allowing a slightly increased range of motion.

However, both exercises are excellent for building bigger biceps. So, how do you know if you should use the barbell or dumbbell curl?

What Is The Barbell Curl?

The barbell curl is considered the king of biceps exercises. It allows heavy loading, heavily stressing the biceps and forearms. The underhand or supinated grip preferentially targets the biceps brachii [1].

It’s 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 with perfect technique:

  • 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.

What Is The Dumbbell Curl

Like the barbell curl, the dumbbell curl targets the biceps brachii due to the supinated hand position. It has advantages over the barbell biceps curl because your arms can sit directly by your side, stretching the biceps further. 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.

Barbell Curls vs. Dumbbell Curls Key Differences

Range Of Motion

The most significant difference between the two exercises is the range of motion. The dumbbell curl allows a greater range of motion as your hands can be directly by your side. The hands are slightly in front with the barbell curl because your body blocks barbell movement.

This means the dumbbell curl can place a slightly larger stretch on the biceps, which is important for stimulating muscle growth.

Weight Used

Because of the reduced range of motion and increased stability of the barbell turning the curl into a bilateral exercise, you can use more weight with the barbell curl. For improving upper body pulling strength, this is a great advantage.

It also has implications for muscle growth since heavier loads under control increase mechanical tension of the biceps stimulating a better muscle-building response [2][3]. However, the increased stretch and range of motion during the dumbbell curl potentially make up for the reduced loading.

Muscles Worked

The barbell and dumbbell curl works the same muscles of the biceps brachii. However, the dumbbell curl is a unilateral exercise meaning each limb works independently. Because the barbell is connected, both arms work together to curl the weight.

This means one bicep could be doing more work to finish the curl. As dumbbells are disconnected, each arm has to work at similar capacities reducing muscular imbalances.

Barbell Curls vs. Dumbbell Curls For Mass

Barbell Curls vs Dumbbell Curls For Mass

The great thing about gaining muscle or getting stronger is you don’t need to pick an exercise to do forever. The true answer is the barbell and dumbbell curl are both epic biceps builders. You shouldn’t only pick one.

But if they both work the same muscles, how should you program them? Typically you won’t perform the barbell and dumbbell curl in the same workout since they are similar exercises. Instead, you could use the barbell curl one day and the dumbbell curls another.

Or you can cycle the barbell and dumbbell curl between training cycles. For example, during a strength-based cycle, you may use the barbell curl to take advantage of heavier loading. Then use the dumbbell curl when increasing volume.

Barbell Curls vs. Dumbbell Curls: Which Is Better?

Neither the barbell curl nor the dumbbell curl is a better biceps exercise. You should use both to maximize biceps development. One advantage of the dumbbell curl is dumbbells are easily accessible and easy to store, making it an excellent exercise to train your biceps at home.

If you have access to barbells and dumbbells, consider using both exercises on separate days or training cycles. And don’t forget to use other biceps exercises with different hand positions to maximize biceps gains!


1. 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.

2. Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review of advanced resistance training techniques and methods. International journal of environmental research and public health16(24), 4897.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research24(10), 2857-2872.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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