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August 15, 2020 10 min read

Ok, so we’ve eaten the spinach our parents told us would give us big Popeye guns. But, come to find out, those coveted bulging biceps we see on Popeye, Arnold, and The Rock aren’t so easy to obtain as simply eating spinach and doing a few pushups. But before we put in the work, we have to first become versed in the basics of bicep curl form, which is one of the most popular arm exercises for building strength and muscle tone. Along with weight loss goals, strength is one of the most important areas of fitness!

Bicep exercises target several muscles in the arm, including the brachioradialis, front deltoid, and especially the biceps brachii, sometimes known as the two-headed muscle of the arm. The main function of the bicep brachii is the ability to bend and twist your arm. Made up of a short head and long head, the two parts work together as one muscle. Both parts extend from the shoulder region (the proximal end) to the elbow area (the distal end), allowing your arm to bend at the elbow. The short head is on the inside of the arm, while the long head is on the outside. The long head is what forms the hump of the bicep, while the short head contributes to its girth and width. Both are important for developing majorly impressive guns. 

Bicep curls to increase arm strength can be done in a variety of ways, using barbells, dumbbells, and resistance bands, among others. The common factor that each variation has is that the bicep muscles are contracted as you hold the weight, and then returned to the beginning position. Sounds simple enough right? The reality is that this exercise leads to some of the most common weightlifting injuries in the gym.

A man doing bicep curls.

Even Popeye is Prone to Injury

The most common injury from bicep curls is tendon tears or tendinopathy. This affliction can be caused by overuse or using too much weight (ego lifting). Overuse is a natural result of aging, but it can also occur by the repetition of the exercise. However, tendon tears are more often caused by using too much weight. This is sometimes called ego lifting because you are trying to lift the amount your ego wants you to, not the amount that is safe and most helpful for your level of ability. One common sign of a tendon tear can be a Popeye deformity. Often caused by overuse and repetitive motion, this occurs when the muscle bunches up after a tear, forming a large, painful ball. Yes, this happens mostly to people over 50, but it does occur in younger people as well, and sometimes requires surgery to fix. 

Tendonitis, another common injury, is an acute inflammation of the tendon caused by micro-tears due to its overuse. It can occur suddenly, or as a series of repeat micro-traumas. It is also said to be the eventual result of tendinopathy.

Other less common injuries include ulnar neuropathies and rupture of the pectoralis major.

One way to prevent tears from happening is to start new fitness routines slowly. Don’t overdo it like Popeye! Your body is not elastic and needs time to get used to new movements. Take breaks often to let your muscles rest, resist using heavier weights, and stop if you feel pain. Be patient, your body will catch up to where you want to be. 

Weird Flex, But Ok

You might have noticed some stares from a personal trainer or two eyeballing your form from across the room. It is likely they may have caught you doing one of these common mistakes. Before we tell you how to properly perform the bicep curl, it is helpful to first know what not to do, so you can avoid it. 

  • Too much weight: As mentioned before, using too much heavy weight is a common problem that often leads to injury. Another side effect of too much weight is that it can cause you to sway and you are robbing yourself of bicep activation. The most benefit comes from a full extension of the bicep in this exercise.
  • Going too far: Do not lift the dumbbell past your shoulder.
  • Not going far enough: Some lifters do not perform the full curl, and instead only do ¾. They will pull the curl to the top, but will not extend back down. This robs them of the chance to gain more functional strength. 
  • Going too fast: Slow your movement down to fully challenge your muscles.
  • Elbow movement: Elbows stay to the side of the torso and do not move. It is important that the elbows do not rise higher than the weight’s center of gravity because that will negate the full amount of tension that is placed on the bicep.  
  • Using the shoulder or torso: Do not use your shoulder or torso to help with the curl. Also, be sure not to lean forward or hunch over. This can lead to swaying. Make sure to keep shoulders over your torso. The anterior deltoid should be recruited to help stabilize the movement. If you find yourself getting into this habit, brace yourself against a wall so your back is straight. You can either sit or kneel.

Get a Grip

Another important thing to keep in mind when doing biceps exercises is how you are gripping the bar or dumbbells. Like other strength training exercises, the way you grip directly affects how effective and efficient your result will be. Changing up your grip will help you avoid plateaus. You can also target certain muscle groups just by the way you are gripping. The following are some grip variations to try out:

  • Close Grip Curl: A narrow grip will increase activity in the long head, or outside of the biceps as well as in the forearms, however is prone to put more strain on the wrists and elbows than a shoulder-width grip. If you use a narrow grip, please be sure to use a lighter weight and work your way up to avoid injury. The close grip on a straight bar would include anything within 2 inches of a shoulder-width apart or closer. A good cheat would be to try an EZ bar, with which a narrow supinated grip turns the hands inward slightly, thus taking some pressure off the wrists and elbows.
  • Wide Grip Curl: A wide grip will increase activity in the short head or inner bicep. Using a straight bar, this includes anything wider than shoulder-width. This puts extra pressure on your elbows, shoulders, and wrists. You can combat this by using an EZ bar. Supinate your grip with outside placement. This will turn your hands slightly outwards, which will take some pressure off.  
  • Standard Grip Curl: If you want to work both the long and short head of the biceps, this is the best choice. It is recommended to use it with a straight barbell, keeping hands in a supinated grip shoulder-width apart. The EZ bar does not work well with this grip since it will only allow you to comfortably place your hands in a close or wide position. Shoulder-width grip will likely feel the most comfortable for you, and thus able to pack on the most weight with it.
  • Reverse Curl: Great for grip strength, this exercise is performed with a pronated grip, rather than supinated. This means your palms are facing inwards at the beginning of the exercise. If you are using an EZ bar, place your hands on the outside of the bar. This will turn your palms slightly inward. Be sure to start with lighter weight. Your forearms will feel this one!
  • Neutral Grip Hammer Curls: A neutral grip is between a supinated and pronated grip, meaning palms face each other. This is used in what is called a hammer curl, and usually can only be done using dumbbells. Hammer curls are a good choice for targeting both the short and long head. It also targets the brachioradialis and brachialis which can push your biceps up, making them appear bigger. Hammer curls are helpful if you are looking to avoid wrist strain.
  • Offset Grip Dumbbell Curls: Holding the dumbbells, place your thumbs against the ridge of the dumbbells rather than in the center. This gives your biceps more resistance, not only in the bend of the elbow but in the supination movement. 

So now that you have a little background on where to place your grip, go grab a pair of dumbbells and let’s start our biceps workout

Standard Dumbbell Biceps Curl 

  • Starting position: Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms in a neutral grip position (palms facing each other). Do not grip your thumbs. Stand with shoulders back, feet shoulder-width apart, knees loose, squeezing your glutes. Shoulders hover over the torso while pinned back slightly. The chest is slightly raised, hinging at the hips. Elbows loosely pinned close to the torso, upper arms, and upper body unmoving. Inhale.
  • Contract: Exhale as you curl the dumbbell up to shoulder level. As you slowly curl up about halfway, supinate the arms (palms face up), keeping weight parallel with the ground. You are flexing your bicep as you bring it up to the shoulder till the bicep is fully flexed. The shoulder blades, elbows, and hips remain immobile. Do not go any higher than shoulder height. Squeeze a few seconds at the top. 
  • Control: Keep control, inhaling as you bring weight slowly back down to the starting position. Do not hunch your shoulders as you go down; you still want tension in the bicep. Repeat.

Curl Variations

Using  Dumbbells:

  • Dumbbell Incline Curl: This bicep curl is performed on a 45-degree angle adjustable bench on which the arms hang straight down as you lack back while keeping your elbows tucked into the torso. Use lighter weight.
  • Supine Dumbbell Curl: Lay in a supine position, or face-up, on a flat bench while resting your weights on your thighs with a neutral grip. Hang both arms down until there is enough tension in the shoulder, then begin the curl. 
  • Dumbbell Preacher Curl: Sit on a preacher bench, resting the back of your arm solidly against the bench with a dumbbell in hand. Extend your elbow almost fully, then perform the bicep curl
  • Dumbbell Reverse Curl: In a standing position, pronate your wrists (palms face downwards) as you reverse-grip your dumbbells at shoulder-width. Elbows should remain stationary and shoulders straight as you curl toward your shoulders in a full bicep contraction, then release to the starting position.
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curl: In a standing position, feet shoulder-width apart, grip dumbbells in a neutral position, palms facing each other. Elbows should be near the hips as you raise the dumbbells, continuing to hold the dumbbells in a neutral position up towards your shoulders. Release slowly to the starting position
  • Zottman Curl: In a standing position, supinate your wrists (palms facing forwards). Perform the curl up to your shoulder, then flip your grip 180 degrees to a pronated position (palms facing downwards). Continue down to the starting position where you will again flip your wrists to the supinated position. This variation targets the pronator muscles. 

Using  Barbells:

  • Barbell Preacher Curl: Sit on a preacher bench, resting the back of both your arms solidly against the bench with the barbell in both hands. Extend elbows almost fully, then perform the bicep curl
  • Barbell Reverse Curl: In a standing position, hold the barbell in a reverse grip, keeping your hands about shoulder-width apart. Elbows should remain stationary and shoulders straight as you curl toward your shoulders in a full bicep contraction, then release to the starting position.
  • Prone Incline Barbell Curl/Spider Curl: Lay on an incline bench in the prone position, or face down. Hold the barbell shoulder-width apart between hands, with palms supinated (facing up). Keep elbows stationary as you bring the barbell up to your shoulders while flexing the biceps. Return to starting position.
  • Drag Curl: In a standing position, hold the barbell with palms supinated (facing up) and shoulder-width apart. In this variation, it isn’t necessary to keep your elbows fixed. Raise the barbell vertically towards your shoulders while keeping it as close to your body as possible. Bring it up and over your chest to the bottom of your neck. Pause at the top and then slowly return to the starting position.

Using the Cable Machine: 

  • Overhead Cable Curl: Stand between two high pulleys, grabbing a handle in each hand. Position upper arms parallel to floor with forearms supinated (palms facing you). Exhale and curl handles toward you until they are near your ears. Keep elbows stationary as you flex your biceps. Hold for a brief moment at the top, then return slowly to the starting position
  • Cable Curl: Hold the bar that is attached to the lowest pulley while in a standing position. Step about a foot back from the pulley to make a comfortable angle. Keep the elbows stationary near the torso as you raise the bar toward your shoulders, flexing the biceps. Return to the starting position
  • Lying High Cable Curl: Lie in a prone position, or face-up, on a flat bench next to the pulley on the highest level. Grip the bar, palms facing towards you about shoulder-width apart, and pull toward your forehead. Keep your elbows fixed and curl until biceps are fully flexed. Return to the starting position.

Getting Started

We recommend working on your sweet baby biceps about once a week. Try for 4 to 5 varied curls as long as you are doing a back workout during the week. Work from your skill level: 

  • Beginner: Start at 2 sets of 12 reps at 70 to 75% of your one-repetition max, resting 90 seconds between sets. 
  • Intermediate: Start at 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, 75 to 80% of you one repetition max, resting 90 seconds between sets. 
  • Advanced: Start at 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps, 75 to 80% of your one-repetition max, 60 seconds rest between sets

When you structure your workout around biceps, we recommend ending a bicep workout with compound pulling exercises like chin-ups. You can also superset them (working them in with an opposing muscle group without a break in between; you are resting when working the opposing muscle). An example would be trying tricep dips to superset the bicep exercises on arm day. 

Tickets to the Gun Show

So now that you’ve learned all about proper bicep curl form, grip, and variations, don’t get stuck in the routine of an isolation exercise! Of course, everyone wants big guns like Popeye, but biceps should not always be the highlight of the routine. Make sure you are getting a full-body workout. Remember that squats, deadlifts, bodyweight exercises, and hang cleans should all be added to your regular well-balanced exercise routine. So get ready, grab those dumbbells and your protein shake, and hit the gym; you’re about to go make some gains!