In a world obsessed with new equipment, new technologies, new diets—all adding levels of complexity—sometimes it’s good to take a step back, sit down, and appreciate the basics. And we do mean quite literally, sit down.
We’ll be looking at one of the most fundamentally impressive upper body muscles on a guy, and a simple movement that builds on the conventional curl: the preacher curl.
We already know that curls are for the girls (and the bi’s), but with a slight variation, we can make the simple curl into a bicep activating juggernaut. And all it takes is a piece of equipment and taking a seat.
Curls are some of the most fundamental bodybuilding movements out there. Even those who have never worked out before can mime this simple movement—with perfect form no less.
The ubiquity of the curl means it’s a tried and tested method of training up your arms effectively. Furthermore, the fact that it’s a fundamental movement allows you to use a whole manner of equipment to make it work. From free weights such as dumbbell curls and barbell curls, to machines and cables—the possibilities really are endless. The conventional curl is a fantastic way to build arm size whether you’re in a fully equipped gym or just your own home gym.
But what if you want to give yourself that extra little something when it comes to putting on bicep mass?
That’s where the preacher curl comes in. With a few changes to form and equipment needs, you can build sleeve-tearing arms as well.
While the preacher curl is considered an isolation exercise, it does work other more minor muscles in your arm as well.
The preacher curl works the brachioradialis (a muscle in your forearm), the brachialis (a curling muscle found underneath the bicep), and of course, the biceps brachii. The bicep is the largest and the most prominent elbow flexor and it works best with an overhand grip. It consists of both the short head and the long head.
However, all three of these muscles work to bend the arm in the general curling motion you see in the majority of bicep exercises. The most prominently used muscle in the preacher curl is the brachialis and the bicep brachii, which work synergistically to move the load.
The movement also employs several stabilizing muscles along with your wrist flexors. All of these muscles together help to create the necessary motion for the exercise to be executed properly.
Although it does add a twist to the classic curl, the preacher curl is a pretty simple movement as well. Its main benefit is straightforward as well: bigger biceps.
The preacher curl’s claim to fame comes in the form of better isolating the bicep by removing your ability to use momentum. While standing, it’s sometimes tempting to start adding small swings and bounces to curls in order to get weight moving. The form of the preacher curl takes this option away and forces us into a more demanding position.
The preacher curl will also be able to hit your bicep in a slightly different way. While this might not be a good cost-to-benefit ratio for newbies, hitting muscles in different ways can lead to improved gains in a more efficient manner.
And since you use your biceps for a very wide range of activities, the movement is extremely functional. Anytime you go to pick something up in your everyday life, or in sports, you’ll be glad that you gave a little extra TLC to your biceps in the form of preacher curls.
And that’s pretty much it with the preacher curl—there’s no dressing it up. It’s simple, effective, and sure to impart some serious pipes. Now let’s take a look at how to properly perform the preacher curl.
While the movement is simple, the preacher curl’s one downside is that you’ll need to use a preacher bench to pull it off. However, most gyms should have one, and if you’ve got a particularly well-equipped home gym then that’s an option as well. The preacher bench has your arms placed in such a way that the upper arm rests on a surface that’s slanted away from you.
Along with the preacher bench, you’ll also need either a barbell, dumbbells, or an EZ bar. The E-Z bar is most commonly used and it’s the most comfortable, but some gyms also have a preacher machine you can use.
Another important point to remember before beginning is that you’ll be using a lower weight with the preacher curl than with conventional curls.
This is because the preacher curl forces you into a more unstable position, emphasizing controlled movements, and not allowing you to cheat with momentum. This greater focus on form and proper muscle activation will gas out your arms sooner, meaning less weight is better. This is also why it’s a good idea to have the preacher curl as an accessory exercise to your conventional biceps curl. Rather than replacing curls, the preacher curl should be used to add some variety to your arm training.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at how to perform the preacher curl.
The above will get you well on your way to the perfect preacher curl, but as always, there are several nuances to keep in mind in order to perfect the form. And the better the form, the easier (and faster) the gains will come.
First of all, your body needs to be stable throughout the whole motion. For one, that means feet planted solidly and fully flat on the floor. Also, your shoulders and torso should not be moving at all throughout the exercise. Maintain a straight, neutral back and rigidness throughout your body. The only thing that should be hinging are your elbows.
And building off of that, you also want to go through the full range of motion. The preacher curl already forces you to place a focus on the motion, but that doesn’t mean you can skimp on going through the full range. This means making sure that the weights are fully lowered before pausing and coming back up. However, you also want to stop just before your elbows lock-out at the bottom.
Easier means lighter weights, and if you want a challenge then up the weight. Easy enough, right?
Keep in mind that when starting out with this exercise, however, it’s best to aim for the low end to be safe. The preacher curl places a particularly high amount of stress on the elbow joints and so it’s important to be cautious (at least towards the beginning) to avoid injury. And we all know the worst thing for your gains is an injury.
If you want to ramp up the difficulty without increasing the weight, you can also consider lowering the tempo of the motion.
The preacher curl is already meant to place a focus on form and conscious movement, but further lowering the speed will make sure that you really start feeling the burn. Especially when it comes to lowering the weight back down, you’ll be increasing the time your muscles are under eccentric movement, thereby increasing both strength and size gains.
If you’re looking to add even more variety into your arm workouts, there’s a buffet of choices to pick from.
One of the most common variants of the preacher curl is simply using the EZ bar rather than the standard barbell.
For a movement that places a lot of stress on the elbow joints, the way the EZ bar is shaped allows for a more natural movement pattern—therefore decreasing the amount of stress placed on the elbows. And if you’re lucky to have a preacher curl machine at your disposal, that’s a good option as well.
Barring that, and if you want to avoid the barbell and elbow stress, it can also be a good idea to use dumbbells instead.
Dumbbells will allow for a greater degree of freedom in how your joints move, instead of both arms being locked to a single bar. Using dumbbells can also lead to other variations of the preacher curl that can hit your biceps from an even greater variety of angles.
The Zottman preacher curl is one such example.
The Zottman Preacher Curl
The Zottman approach introduces a twist into the classic preacher curl—literally. The conventional Zottman curl places an emphasis on the biceps and the forearms, but performing it on the preacher bench moves the focus up to the biceps. And since you’re rotating your arms in the movement, your biceps will be hit from different angles.
You want to start the movement by holding a pair of dumbbells on the preacher bench, with the dumbbells held up by your shoulders and palms facing away from your body. Lowering the weights as you would with a regular preacher curl, rotate your hands so your palms face each towards the bottom of the motion. Then, simply reverse the movement and rotate your palms back.
The Overhand Preacher Curl
Doing this exercise using an overhand method is sure to spice things up and really hit your biceps and forearms hard.
Once again, it’s best to use an EZ bar for this movement but any weight will do—but make sure you’ve already mastered the regular preacher curl before moving onto this. Pulling it off is simple enough, however; just grasp the weight with an overhand grip and go at it like you normally would.
If you want to up the ante once again, consider not using your thumb. This will put an even greater emphasis on your forearm strength.
So, now we know a bunch of ways to activate our biceps and arms—hitting them at every angle under the sun—but how can we actually incorporate this fundamental movement into our workouts?
As we mentioned above, the preacher curl (and most curls) are isolation movements, meaning they only target one main muscle and/or joint. This is opposed to compound exercises, such as deadlifts, squats, and the bench press. While plenty more examples exist, these three require your body to coordinate across almost all of its main muscle groups in order to pull off the movement.
So, how do isolation and compound movements interact with one another when trying to program them into a routine?
As with everything else, this will largely come down to your goals—however, there are some main things to consider that will cover most gym-goers.
Compound movements that require more energy from your body are usually placed at the beginning of workouts. This makes sense since they offer a bigger bang for your buck (the buck being your energy level). Since they’ll hit more of your muscle groups, harder, it’ll lead to more gains in both the strength and size departments.
Isolation movements tend to be reserved for the later stages of a workout when you really want to hit a certain muscle—such as your bicep. This greater volume will lead to greater hypertrophy, or muscle growth; ensuring that you get those sleeve-busting pipes. However, it’s also important to keep in mind the intensity difference between isolation and compound movements. This goes double for the preacher curl.
Since you’re only focusing on one muscle group with isolation exercises, the amount of weight you use is going to be severely limited. But the lower weight and focus on a single muscle will allow you to fine-tune your muscles and achieve the physique you want. The limited load goes double for preacher curls since the form during the preacher curl puts you in a more demanding position, with an even greater emphasis on the biceps
Properly introducing the preacher curl into your routine can elevate your workouts—and your arms—to the next level. It’s absolutely key to ensure that you’re doing the movement properly, for safety reasons, but also doing it enough and at the optimal time during your workout. However, timing means more than just doing which exercises when during a gym sesh.
It’s critical that you give your arms enough time to heal and rest. This is especially important if you’re putting in some focused effort to adding volume to them. The only way our muscles can grow and develop is by allowing them to heal between workouts, so over-working them is counter-productive to gains.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a muscle needs to be worked all of the time, especially if you’re just getting into the swing of things. But rest days are just as important for your gains as the actual workouts.
But even if you train properly and rest well, nothing you do will outpace poor diet choices. And if you’re goals are bigger, stronger arms, then you’re going to have to put your diet front and center.
Training consistently takes a lot out of someone, so it’s essential to be putting enough fuel back in. If you’re looking for size gains, eating a lot of healthy sources of protein is important. Lean meats but also fatty fish are excellent sources of protein and several varieties of micronutrients that will lead you to overall wellbeing.
However, healthy carbs and fats are just as important to keep your body a fine-tuned machine. Putting all of these puzzle pieces together is the only thing that can ensure long-term and sustainable gains that are built on a solid foundation.
And once you’ve got all of the ingredients in place you can try turbocharging your workouts, so no gains are left on the table. Things such as creatine and whey protein powder are excellent ways to beef up your muscles. While supplements can’t make up for a poor routine, diet, and training plan, they can seriously boost your performance and gains. Just make sure that they’re the highest quality, and have some larger shirts prepared so your new guns don’t tear the sleeves.