When it comes to the muscles that give you the best aesthetic return on investment, there are few that measure up to the biceps.
Sleeve-busting arms are one of the most impressive and visible features on a guy, so it makes perfect sense to try to spoil them with attention. But obviously, you don’t want to spoil them to the point of overworking—so what is the best way to give them the TLC they deserve?
Biceps curls are the obvious answer, but they don’t address the full picture.
To properly develop a muscle (and especially one as mirror-worthy as the bicep), it’s important to hit it from every angle possible. This means variety in your bicep exercises, and you’re not going to get much variety from the humble (yet effective) curl.
Which is where the incline dumbbell curl comes in. The incline dumbbell curl is a must-have lift in every bicep gym session, giving you the finest pair of guns yet.
Since the exercise is performed on an incline, this curl’s primary benefit is that it creates a deeper stretch on the biceps muscle tissue, due to the increased range of motion.
The bicep is placed in a mechanically less advantageous position than in a regular curl, and so you have to work harder to keep the weight moving. This is an excellent way to supplement your biceps workout to get some extra thickness on your arms.
The biceps brachii are the stars of the show when it comes to the incline dumbbell curl. The bicep is a double-headed muscle that’s on the front of the upper arm, crossing both the shoulder joint and the elbow joint. It consists of the short head and the long head of the biceps. However, most of its use comes through moving the elbow joint.
Its main functions are rotating the palms up, palms down, and flexing the elbow joint.
The brachialis muscle is a muscle whose sole job is flexing the elbow. When developed to a great degree, it’ll give your upper arms a lot of width. And when it comes to training the brachialis, using grips that are either neutral or overhand is the best way to go. However, any curling or pulling movement will work this muscle as well.
The brachioradialis is a smaller muscle that’s located on the lateral part of the forearm. Its main job is to flex the elbow as well, but it’s also used for supinating and pronating the forearm.
Lastly, we’ve got the forearm muscles, which are engaged in any curling and pulling motions. They help in a wide manner of things, including moving the forearms, wrists, fingers, and elbows. Strong forearms not only look good, but a strong grip is absolutely essential (and often the limiting factor) in a wide variety of lifts and exercises, so it’s a good idea to give the forearms some attention.
You will need an incline bench with plenty of room. Adjust the back pad so that it creates a 45-60-degree angle with the ground. You don't need to exact about it, but you should be somewhere in between horizontal and vertical. The closer you put the angle of the bench away from the floor, the more it becomes upright and it will feel similar to a conventional dumbbell curl. Adjust the seat pad so that you're comfortable and not sliding off the bench.
It’s time to choose an appropriate weight. If you’ve already got some conventional curling experience under your belt, aim to start with a lower initial working weight. You’ll want to choose dumbbells with equal weights—make sure you can lift both from 8 to 12 reps.
Once you've selected the appropriate working weight grasp the dumbbells, pick them up, sit down on the seat pad, and let the dumbbells hang to your sides. Your arms should be straight but not hyperextended, the chest should be up, shoulder blades should be retracted, and glutes should be in contact with the seat pad.
Use a neutral grip, with your palms facing one another. You can also use a traditional grip which has your thumb wrap around the fingers, or a false grip that has your thumb stay on the same side as your fingers. But if you want, you can also begin the movement with palms facing away from each other, to add a little twist. Once you’ve selected your dumbbells, sit down on the bench pad and allow them to hang by your side.
While your arms are hanging, don’t let them hyperextend too far. In practice, that means your shoulder blades should be braced and retracted, instead of hanging loosely in their sockets. You should also keep your chest up and out to ensure proper form. Your butt should be firmly planted on the bench pad.
Along with your upper body, your abdominals should also be engaged throughout the whole exercise in order to maintain stability. Squeezing hard will also engage muscles around the primary muscles being worked, and effectively put out more power. Take a deep breath and initiate the movement by pulling your hands towards your shoulders.
Your hands and the weights should follow an arcing motion—however, make sure that your elbows and upper arms are fixed in one position. If your elbows and upper arms start wavering and going out of place, this will start taking the focus of exercise away from the target muscles, aka your biceps.
Continue the movement until your shoulders are between perpendicular and parallel to the floor, around a 45-degree angle. However, the ending position tends to differ with a person’s flexibility and biomechanics. For example, some people like to take the dumbbell all the way up until the forearm is pointing straight up, but for most people, this requires them to move the elbow or shoulder.
Once you’ve reached the top of the movement, pause for a count and then slowly, and in a controlled fashion, lower them back into the starting position. The movement should be directly reversed to the come-up—then, just repeat for the desired amount of reps.
When it comes to breathing during this exercise, you’ll want to find something that works for you. Some people may prefer to exhale while curling the dumbbells up, some may exhale at the top of every rep, and others might do so in between each rep. The key is to find something that works best for you.
One of the most important tips—and this goes for more than just the incline dumbbell curl—is to keep the weight lower than you’re used to, especially if you don’t have that much experience under your belt.
The angle of the bench makes this movement more demanding on your joints and your muscles, so prepare the weight accordingly.
Using a lighter weight will also minimize the chances of accidentally cheating by using momentum. As with all exercises, this movement should be performed in a controlled manner with a full range of motion. You should be focusing on keeping your muscles engaged throughout the lift—primarily your abdominals and the upper back squeezed back. This will help to prevent your shoulders from rolling forward or moving up towards the ears.
Adding on to this point, you should also ensure that your elbows aren’t flaring. If they are flaring, that usually means that the weight is too heavy. Your elbows and upper arm should stay in line with one another throughout the exercise, only moving to bring the weight straight up to your shoulders. Keeping your shoulders in one position will also help, since keeping the elbows in line with the shoulders will make sure that your biceps are getting the brunt of the engagement.
Once you get to the top of the movement without anything flaring or unnecessarily moving, it’s best to hold the squeeze at the top for a few seconds. Even ramping this time up to 5 to 10 seconds and squeezing as hard as you can, will be beneficial.
This can effectively maximize your time under tension—a big part of getting more gains. Slowing down the tempo is a good idea, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the top of the movement. With a slower tempo, your time under tension will increase, which can sometimes be a better option than simply loading on more weight.
Similarly, at the bottom of the movement, you’ll want to leave a slight bend in your elbows, so they don’t lock-out. Keeping this slight bend will allow for your biceps to be in a constant state of tension and engagement, eliciting even more gains for your development. This will also help to control tempo and overall form since you won’t be able to quickly lower weights until your elbows lock-out.
In terms of form, you’ll want to make sure that you’re keeping your back flat against the incline of the back pad throughout the entire movement.
This will ensure that your biceps remain under a constant stretch (especially if you don’t lock out your elbows and hold the squeeze at the top). Furthermore, you’ll be more stable throughout the lift and your form will thank you for it.
However, the bench angle should also be reasonable as well.
While the conventional bench angle for the incline dumbbell curl tends to be close to the 45-degree angle from the floor, some people shoulder consider bringing the bench more upright to around 60-degrees.
Especially those with significant mobility issues or people who have pre-existing shoulder injuries will benefit from a more upright bench position. This lift places a lot of stress on the shoulder and rotator cuff muscles due to the incline, so mitigating the incline will help to lessen some of these problems. But since the angle isn’t completely eliminated, lifters will still see benefits in their biceps from curling at an inclined angle.
As we mentioned above, progression can take several different forms.
One of the most important is increasing the quality of each rep. While you should already be striving to do quality over quantity with every single set, it doesn’t hurt to try to improve or ask for pointers from other gym-goers.
Improving your rep quality can also be as simple as slowing down the tempo of the exercise. Now, you don’t need to go comically slow, but increasing the time you spend in the concentric (downward) part of the movement, and also your time at the top of the movement, will go a long way over your long term bicep development.
And of course, progress can also be made by simply increasing the amount of weight your curling, increasing the number of sets, or increasing the number of reps.
You can also try decreasing the rest periods between sets. The key is to try to improve during every gym session.
Drawing off the rest periods we just mentioned, this exercise allows for a lot of options in terms of what kinds of sets you do, and to what intensity.
For example, you can use the incline dumbbell curl to do drop sets, supersets, paused reps, or sets that you pre-exhaust for. But however fast or slow you go, form is always going to be the most important thing you should be focusing on.
In terms of the rep/set count, there’s no perfect number that’ll be best for everyone. However, it’s best to not train either too light or too heavy.
Going for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps is generally a good idea—especially when it comes to an isolation exercise like the curl. Lowering the reps and increasing the weight (to between 5 to 7 reps) will place a greater focus on strength training along with hypertrophic mass gains. On the other hand, gassing out your biceps with a 15+ rep range will be good for hypertrophy and muscular endurance.
Of course, you want to push yourself hard all of the time—but also don’t go too far and injure yourself.
When it comes to other exercises that you should be using with the incline dumbbell curl, you’ll want to be focusing on hitting the biceps from different angles (if bigger biceps are your goal).
While training biceps isn’t something to make a big hubbub about (a curl is a curl), hitting them from various angles will help to develop them fully. This means including a heavier curl such as the barbell curl. You’ll also want to stretch the lower bicep with an exercise, which makes the preacher curl a good option. And of course, the incline curl will help to engage the upper bicep.
Different variations and grips can help to hit the brachialis and forearm muscles as well.
One of the most basic variations of the incline dumbbell curl is to simply alternate the side with which you’re curling with.
The biggest difference lies in the fact that you’ll only have to focus on one side at a time. Not only will this help your form since you won’t have to be thinking of both arms, but it’ll also cultivate the mind-muscle connection and it should help you eke out some extra power.
Doing just one just will also give the other arm a rest while the other one is working, so that may also help you add volume to your bicep workout routine. However, since you’ll be working out one arm at a time, your abdominals will have to stay more engaged to keep you balanced and stable. Whether that’s a trade-off you’re willing to make is up to your goals and experience level.
Another simple variation can be found in the form of changing around how you grip the dumbbells.
While simple, it does change the way your muscles engage and places emphasis on different parts. For example, using a neutral (aka, the overhand grip) when performing the incline dumbbell curl will place a greater focus on the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles, rather than just the bicep.
Substituting the dumbbells for a cable machine can also add a little something extra to this exercise.
Using the cables will make sure that your biceps are under a constant stretch throughout the entire lift, making it much more difficult to cheat with momentum or bounce. This is due to the cables always pulling back against your arms, unlike with a dumbbell.
In order to use the cable machine, you’ll want to set yourself up in front of one with a single grip handle attached to either side of it. Make sure that your bench is adjusted at an incline, and continue as you normally would.
When using the cable machine it’s important to not place the bench too far away from it. Going too far will put needless stress on your shoulders—so play around with the distancing until you’re comfortable and the exercise feels effective.
While the incline dumbbell curl promises to elevate your current guns into a pair of bazookas, you’re going to need a solid foundation to build off of.
That primarily means getting enough rest and sticking to a healthy diet. You can’t out-train a bad diet, and you definitely can’t get massive pipes eating like a bird. If you’re having trouble getting enough protein into you, it’s always a good idea to supplement with some high-quality whey protein. Get enough of the good stuff, and soon you’ll be shopping around for shirts with bigger sleeves.