A guide to bicep workouts: curls for the girls (and guys!)

Sep 23, 2021 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

Ahh, bicep curls—the target of fit culture hater-ade since the dawn of the bro sesh. If you’re not into bodybuilding, curls seem like the ultimate useless isolation movement for the sole purpose of growing big arms and a bigger ego (à la Gaston). 

Bicep workouts are where many young guys and girls start working on their first physique gains, because big arms are a decently attainable goal for looking swole. They’re also more readily noticeable in daily life than jacked legs or a six-pack. Plus, nicely developed biceps are pretty popular with the opposite sex, which is literally where the term “curls for the girls” comes from. (But let’s face it, all genders like built arms.)

We all know the type who ruined curls for everyone: skips leg day, has skinny calves, exclusively wears stringer tanks, and does curls in the squat rack. Does he even lift? A strength athlete would say ‘no’, but chances are his biceps are pretty well developed. And let’s not pretend that as athletes, we don’t want to look the part.

Read on for your guide to building bulging biceps that’ll make your mama proud.

Here’s the truth: every movement has its place, even bicep curls.

If you are into bodybuilding, bicep curls are just a normal part of the hypertrophy arsenal. Turns out, having strong biceps translates to other compound movements like pullups, chinups, rowing, and basically anything calisthenics or gymnastics-related. For every powerlifter, weightlifter, or CrossFit athlete who skips out on curls, there’s a sad pair of arms that will never reach their plumpest potential.

Training your biceps with varying grip styles is excellent accessory work that primes the arms and forearms to withstand heavier, dynamic loads (think cleans and deadlifts). Curls and isolation work can also help make the biceps more resistant to common overuse injuries.

So, if you’re ready to grow a little show muscle (don’t lie) or if you’re just looking for some inspo, check out our guide to bicep curls. First up, an anatomy refresher. 

What we see as the visible bicep connecting the shoulder and the elbow is made up of three parts: the biceps brachii long head, the biceps brachii short head, and the brachialis.

Both the long and short heads of the biceps are responsible for flexion of the elbow and rotation of the forearm outwards (supination). Whenever you bend your arms, open a jar of peanut butter, or do a chinup, your biceps are putting in work. 

The brachialis muscle sits beneath the two bicep heads and has even more elbow-flexing power. This muscle actually pushes the biceps up as it grows, giving them that tall “peak”. Developing the brachialis also increases the circumference of your arm.

Honorable mention goes to the coracobrachialis, a small muscle that attaches to the upper part of the bicep short head and chest. It’s responsible for pulling your arm in toward your torso and does some stabilizing work for the shoulder.

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Bicep workouts – all the ways to do a bicep curl

It’s easy to default to one style of bicep curls in your workouts, so we wanted to catalog all the options you can use to vary your bicep workouts.

Remember: training your arms and grips in different planes will help you avoid debilitating injuries like elbow tendonitis, bicep tears, and even shoulder injuries. Happy curling. 

Barbell bicep curls

Grip a barbell or pair of dumbbells with an underhand grip, palms facing out. Keep your shoulders down, back straight, and elbows glued to your sides. Bring the dumbbells from fully extended at your hips to fully contracted at your shoulders. Keep the movement strict! Don’t swing your arms or rock the dumbbell up. If you’re using your hips, the weight is too heavy. 

Thinking back to our anatomy, the basic bicep curl targets the main two functions of the biceps by flexing the elbow under load and holding the forearm in a rotated face-up (supinated) position. 

Hammer curl

Grip the dumbbells with your palms facing inward, like you would for a handshake or if you were holding a hammer. Just like with a standing curl, don’t swing your arms or allow your torso and hips to move—keep everything stable as you curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders.  

Hammer curls take out the supinated rotation part of the standard curl, so you can move a little more weight. 

Preacher curl

If you don’t have access to a preacher bench, you can use a GHD machine and lean over the pads. Set up so the pads are right under your armpits with your arms extended outward. Curl your dumbbells over the pads one at a time, or use a short bar to work both arms at once. Keep your shoulders down, back straight, and don’t rock your torso or let your elbows overextend.

The Preacher curl is so named because leaning over the bench resembles a preacher leaning over a pulpit. (In the name of gains, we pray.)

reverse curl

Grip your barbell or dumbbells with an overhand grip so your palms are facing toward your body (opposite of the standing bicep curl). Keeping your back straight and elbows in tight, curl the bar up toward your chest. Be aware of what your wrists are doing, don’t let them sag.

The reverse curl has slightly more effect on the brachialis, which might require you to humble yourself and lighten the weight. 

concentration curls

Concentration curls are usually done seated, one arm at a time (so you can concentrate on the working arm). Grab one dumbbell and sit on a flat bench. Lean forward just enough to plant your working elbow on the inside of your same-side thigh. Curl the dumbbell up between your legs without rocking your torso (“nothing herky-jerky”) or letting your back round.

Many bodybuilders support the notion that if you actively think about a muscle group contracting and relaxing, you get more work out of them. 

spider curl

AKA prone incline bench curl—set up a bench on an incline and lean your chest against the backrest pad. With your feet securely on the floor, curl your dumbbells or barbell up without swinging the weight. This one is great for making totally sure your shoulders aren’t taking over too much of the movement.

Try a hammer grip or reverse grip on the incline bench and go nuts.

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Mix it up for ultimate mass

We focused on using dumbbells or straight barbells in the exercises above, but don’t forget about all the other tools and techniques out there. Here are some of our favorite pieces of interchangeable equipment for bicep work:

 

Bands

Super simple finisher: 100 curls and 100 tricep extensions using a light band. Step on the band so the loop goes around both feet and adjust the tension so you can curl the band up as you would dumbbells or a barbell.

 

EZ-Curl Bar

The short, funny-looking, squiggly-shaped bar has a purpose. Use it for any curl variation to decrease the tension on your wrists and elbow joints. The inner zig-zags are the most useful for bicep work, since they set your forearm supination at a more natural angle than a straight barbell. 

 

Machines

Conventional gyms are full of machines specifically for bicep curl variations. Check your ego and don’t overload the weight so you can get the most out of using them. The point is to isolate your biceps and avoid extra movement from the rest of your body.

 

Cables

Cable machines can substitute for weight in almost any version of the curl and you can pretty much use any attachment. The possibilities are endless. Try the Behind-The-Back Cable Curl if you’re looking for something a little different. 

 

Fat Gripz

If you want to absolutely wreck your grip and grow your forearms, consider increasing the diameter of your dumbbell or barbell by attaching a Fat Gripz pad. Since you won’t be able to move as much weight with the Fat Gripz, consider doing more reps/volume while using them. 

 

Tempo

Use it! The bicep is especially challenged on the downward part of the movement also called the eccentric phase. When performing whatever curl variation, try squeezing at the top, then lowering with a 3-second count. All of a sudden it might take fewer reps to get that juicy arm pump.

In closing…

We are 100% not responsible for any stupid injuries you might sustain or gym friends you might lose for doing bicep curls on random machines.

Lily Frei Headshot

Lily frei

Lily is TrainHeroic’s Marketing Content Creator and a CF-L1 with an English background. She was a successful freelance marketer for the functional fitness industry until being scooped up by TrainHeroic. An uncommon combo of bookish, artsy word-nerd and lifelong athlete, Lily is passionately devoted to weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, dance, and aerial acrobatics. Find her showcasing her artist-athlete hobbies on IG @lilylectric.

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