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March 26, 2021 10 min read
What’s the one bodybuilding pose everyone knows? That’s right—arms up, biceps flexed.
There’s no doubt that the biceps are some of the most impressive features on someone, at least when they’re fully developed. Curls can get you to that goal, but not all curls are built equal.
Below we’ll be looking at the reverse curl. A variation of the regular curl, this lift promises to add some variety and unique benefits to your good old arm workout routine.
The tried and tested curl—everyone loves them. If you’ve only worked out once in the past week, chances are you did a few cheeky reps of them even if it wasn’t arm day.
And why are they so loved? Well, they target one of the most loved muscles, that’s why!
The bicep brachii is the muscle of the hour when it comes to any curl. Not only do developed biceps look impressive, but they help in a wide variety of functional movements in our day to day lives.
The big difference between the reverse curl and the regular curl is the way the bar is gripped. The regular curl has your palms face up towards the ceiling. This is called an underhand grip, or supinated. The reverse curl switches things up in the grip department, which leads to some variety in your biceps workout, along with certain benefits you don’t normally see with regular curls.
If you’d like to know more about the regular curl and its variations, check out this article. Your biceps will thank you, but your shirt sleeves may not like it.
When it comes to the reverse curl, the biggest difference is that you’ll be using more of your forearm muscles and training your grip.
Due to the awkward overhand grip on the bar, the bar isn’t going to be able to passively rest on your hands and you’ll need to put in some work to hold it where it’s supposed to be. Due to this difference, the reverse curl can be a more efficient use of your time if you’re looking for both bicep, forearm, and grip strength gains.
One big benefit of the reverse curl that has far-reaching effects is the improvement in grip strength.
The grip is the limiting factor for a lot of people when it comes to a lot of different exercises. From deadlifts to pull-ups, they all rely on having a strong grip on the bar. And if your grip is the limiting factor, all of your other muscles aren’t going to properly be challenged, resulting in fewer gains in the end. That means that the stronger your grip is, it can have cascading effects on almost every other exercise and lift that requires you to pull on something or pull yourself.
The reverse curl can also help to prevent or mitigate elbow pain.
Elbow pain is sometimes due to a muscular imbalance between the forearm extensors and the forearm flexors. This imbalance is what often causes issues in the elbow joint. But, if you target the brachioradialis and brachialis muscles with the reverse curl, it can aid in repairing this imbalance.
Along with your elbow health, your wrist health will also thank you.
If you stick to proper form, the reverse curl is an amazing exercise for strengthening and conditioning the wrist joint. Placing a focus on the wrists can help to strengthen them, make them more stable, and make them more resilient against injury. This will in turn help you when it comes to other lifts, sports, and flexibility.
One of the stars of the upper body and the star of the show when it comes to curls, the biceps brachii are the biggest movers with the reverse curl. This double-headed muscle not only looks impressive, but it’s also essential for elbow flexion, shoulder flexion, and supination of the forearm.
The brachialis is located underneath the biceps brachii, and when properly developed it can help to push your bicep out more to improve arm shape and size.
Lastly is the brachioradialis, which is the main forearm muscle. It flexes the elbow, the forearm, and can also help to make your bicep look more impressive.
Curling is a fairly straightforward movement, so there are not too many pieces of advice to give when it comes to performing them correctly. Get the form down pat and you’ll soon be quickly progressing and earning a pair of bulging biceps.
The most important point to keep in mind while performing the reverse curl is to keep your wrist joint in the correct positioning. It’s meant to form a perfectly straight line, between your wrist and forearm. If you want to maximize gains while also minimizing the chances of injury, this point is essential.
The only piece of equipment you’ll need is either an EZ bar or a regular barbell. The EZ bar can make it easier on your joints than the barbell curl, and potentially help you get more out of the exercise. The key with the EZ bar is to not grip it with your thumbs along the top of the bar’s slope; the grip should be at the bottom of the sloping part. Placing your thumb at the top will brace your thumb against the center section, meaning that focus will be taken away from your forearm and gripping muscles. And once the emphasis is taken away from the focus muscles, you’re not maximizing the potential gains from the lift.
For the reverse curl, try first starting with around just half the weight that you would use for a normal curl. You should be able to do at least 8 reps with it. Starting at a lower weight is especially important in the beginning when you’re still getting used to the mechanics of the form.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Grasp the chosen bar at shoulder-width apart. Your hands need to be on top of the bar, with palms facing down in a pronated grip. As we mentioned above, the regular curl would have your hands underneath. And if you opted for the EZ bar, you’ll want to grasp it on the parts of the bar that slope downward—they should be found immediately outside the middle part.
Before initiating the movement, double-check that your elbows remain close to your body throughout the exercise. Your knees should also have a slight bend in them, and you should be grabbing onto the bar tightly.
To begin the motion, curl upwards as you would with a regular, underhand curl. Take a few seconds to reach the top position and try to feel the tension in your forearms as your brachialis muscles stay engaged. Once you get to the top of the movement, pause for a count and squeeze. Then, slowly reverse the movement until you reach the starting position once again. The slower you go, the more time under tension you’ll experience, and the fewer gains you’ll be leaving on the table.
Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
We’ve already mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating. Proper wrist form is important in all curls, but it’s especially important when it comes to the reverse curl.
Keeping your wrist in a balanced position (in line with your forearm), will help to ensure that you’re “co-contracting” your muscles. This means that you’ll be using the muscles on both sides of your wrist joint, rather than just one side. This will obviously lead to a more balanced development on either side, but it will also help to prevent injury since your wrist will be in a more stable position; the tendons on either side won’t be taking the brunt of the weight.
Not keeping your wrists in the proper position and curling poorly often can lead to things like carpal tunnel syndrome, and other repetitive strain injuries. Correct wrist form also has important implications for your gains.
Keeping your hand, wrist, and forearm inline will ensure that the emphasis of the exercise is placed towards the bicep. If you don’t maintain a strict form, you’ll be essentially taking the focus away from the bicep and moving it onto other parts of the arm—effectively leaving gains on the table.
So, what does perfect form look like? A reverse curl (or really any curl), should only move the elbow. The forearms should help to stabilize, and the bicep will engage to curl the weight. The stricter your form, the less unnecessary muscles will be engaged, and the more focus will be placed on the things you want to be placing focus on.
Along with the rest, there are several other things to keep in mind.
Much like it’s important to keep your wrists in place and your body stable, the rest of your body should be as immobile as possible as well. We’ve already looked at your arms for the most part, but what about the rest of your body?
For one, your elbows should be kept very close to your sides. In fact, your upper arms should be pinned to your ribs. This will make the lift more difficult, but it’ll also make it much more effective. Keeping your elbows immobile and close to your body will help to eliminate momentum while also ensuring that your arms are fully pronated.
Momentum is the enemy of many movements, and you want to do all you can to avoid it.
It can usually sneak up on your technique in the form of using your back or legs to help lift the weight. While there is a time and place for cheat reps if you’re looking for bigger biceps, they aren’t a good option with reverse curls. This is because they place a lot more stress on your wrists, which is compounded by using cheat reps. A smooth, slow, and steady tempo is best for reverse curls, so focus on achieving precision and control with every rep.
Going slower will ensure that you’re not able to rely on momentum to bring the weight up, and it’s also a good way to progress. Rather than focusing on heavier weights, try to make each rep methodical and take your time.
Momentum is sometimes relied on when the weight is too heavy.
Especially if you’re just getting into the swing of things with reverse curls, aim for lighter weights than you’re used to. This will help you get your form up to par, and it’ll also prevent you from ending up relying on momentum. The palms-down position doesn’t allow you to blast your biceps anyway, so focus on the right thing by working up to heavier weights.
The most basic way to progress with any lift is just to increase the weight, but like we talked about above, decreasing the tempo can also be a good way to increase the challenge.
Along with weight increases and slowing the tempo down, you can also progress with the reverse curl by improving the quality of each rep, when it comes to form. A personal trainer can be a helpful resource when it comes to finding chinks in your form.
You can also progress by simply reducing the amount of rest time you give yourself between sets.
Since this is movement is focused more on hypertrophy than strength-building lift, you’ll probably want to stick in the 8 to 12 rep range when it comes to programming. This will give your arms a lot of volume to work with and will help to gas them out quicker.
You’ll also want to avoid doing reverse curls before your back workout.
If you’re planning to do pull-ups or pulldowns during your workout, you’ll be relying a lot on your forearms and grip strength. If your forearms are tired, you won’t be able to move as much weight and as many reps as you would otherwise be able to do. That’s why reverse curls should be stuck towards the very end of your workout—once you’ve got all the heavier lifting out of the way, you can add a little extra volume onto your arms with a supplementary exercise like reverse curls.
On the other hand, it’s a good idea to superset reverse curls with regular curls.
This will give you an insane pump and is sure to get you the arm gains you’re looking for. All you need to do is pump out as many reps of reverse curls as you can, going to failure. Once you can’t do anymore, reverse your grip and adopt an underhand hold on the bar, pushing yourself to complete more regular curls.
One of the easiest ways to add some variety to your reverse curl workouts is by switching out the bars for a pair of dumbbells.
The dumbbells won’t allow you to move as much weight as you’d normally be able to, but their benefit is that they provide a unilateral workout. Since both of your arms aren’t attached to the same weight you’re moving, each arm has to work independently from the other. This kind of independent work is necessary for addressing any left/right muscle imbalances or preventing them before they come up.
And if you alternate each side instead of doing them together, you’ll also be giving your core a bit of a workout to keep you stabilized.
Another option is to use the cable machine. The benefit of the cable machine is that it helps to prevent you from cheating by using momentum since it introduces a constant amount of tension throughout the entire movement. It’s useful when it comes to addressing any weaknesses at certain points of the exercise.
If you need more pressure to prevent cheating with momentum, simply standing and leaning against a wall can really help. This technique is super useful if you find yourself cheating by using your legs or back to help lift the weight since leaning on a solid object will pretty much entirely remove that ability from you. And less cheating equals more gains.
Another option is to use a false grip.
This lift is usually performed with thumbs wrapped around, underneath the bar, but the false grip option means that your thumbs will be over top of the barbell along with the rest of your hand. This takes away a lot of support and will force you to squeeze the bar to maintain a hold on it, meaning that your grip strength and wrist health will greatly improve.
And if you’re looking for an even greater challenge to your grip strength, consider using a thick bar.
Thick bars are more difficult to hold onto since their diameter is larger than a standard bar. They essentially prevent you from overlapping your fingers, which means less friction and a greater reliance on grip strength. They’ll make this already challenging movement that much more challenging, and even if you don’t have access to a thick bar you can use clip-on thick grip handles or even a towel.
Keep challenging yourself and progressing in increments, and soon you’re going to be wondering why your shirts don’t fit you anymore.