HOW TO DO BARBELL CURLS
Are you looking to build bigger biceps? Have you been struggling to see results even though you’re using one of the classic biceps building exercises: the Barbell Curl?
Lifters of all sizes have sworn by Barbell Curls in their training for decades.
Barbell Curls are one of the most effective curling exercises for developing arm size, biceps strength, and overall definition. But it’s important to get the technique right if you want to see insane results while avoiding wrist pain and injury.
Beyond technique, you might not be using the right type of barbell, especially if your wrists are hurting afterwards.
Guys, in this article, I want to breakdown exactly how to perform a Barbell Biceps Curl. More importantly, I want to provide you with an effective Barbell Curls workout that is short but intense!
I promise, this is one biceps workout that might look easy but it’s anything but that! Whether you’re a beginner lifter or an advanced lifter, this is one workout you’ll get a lot out of.
ANATOMY AND FUNCTIONS OF THE BICEPS MUSCLES
As always, I start with the anatomy and the functions of the muscles that we want to target. The better you understand these bicep muscle fibers and what they are meant to do, the better your results will be.
The biceps muscle is comprised of two muscle heads – the long head and short head. These two muscle heads form a single muscle, aptly named BI-CEPS.
What we think of as the full biceps muscle also contains the brachialis. Notice how I said, “what we think of?”
Even though it isn’t technically a part of the biceps musculature, your brachialis has a major effect on how thick and defined your biceps look from the front.
For that reason, I’m including it in this Muscle Marker breakdown.
SHORT HEAD BICEP MUSCLE (INNER BICEPS)
The short head of the biceps muscle originates at the coracoid process located in front of the shoulder blade. It inserts on the radius bone near its midpoint, which is part of the forearm.
This muscle is responsible for rotating the arm at the elbow joint and flexing it when your arm is in a semi-pronated position (thumb side up).
LONG HEAD BICEPS MUSCLE (OUTER BICEPS)
The long head of the biceps muscle originates from the supraglenoid tubercle located on the shoulder blade. It inserts at the radial tuberosity located on the radius bone near the elbow joint.
This muscle is responsible for flexing the arm at the elbow joint and rotating it when the arm is in a semi-pronated position (thumb side up).
The brachialis muscle originates from the humerus bone near the elbow joint and inserts on the ulna bone near its midpoint.
While this muscle is not an official component of the biceps, it plays a significant role in giving your arms their width when viewed from the front. You can really see this muscle at work when you perform the Hammer Curl.
FUNCTIONS OF THE BICEPS
Now let’s take a quick look at the different functions that the biceps muscles perform and how they contribute to the movement of larger muscles, which in turn, will help you with compound movements like Barbell Rows.
The biceps brachii helps to supinate (rotate the palm facing up) your forearm at the elbow joint. Naturally, this is going to be critical for bicep exercises.
The biceps are an elbow supinator since it’s connected to the tendon that runs from its base all the way around your radius. When you extend your arm and flex your muscle, you can feel this powerful band of tissue contracting with each movement.
The biceps muscles also help to flex your forearm at the elbow joint. When you contract the biceps, this aspect of muscle contraction pulls the tendon around your radius bone and helps to bring your hand up towards your shoulder. Elbow flexion is the most common and dominant movement the biceps muscle performs.
The biceps muscle also helps to flex your arm at the shoulder joint. When you contract the biceps, it pulls on the tendon located near the shoulder blade and helps to bring your arm up towards your chest.
This is a much weaker movement than elbow flexion but still an important one, nonetheless.
HOW TO PERFORM BARBELL CURLS
Before I breakdown how to do Barbell Bicep Curls, I want to point out two things that you should do to limit the chances of wrist pain.
First, you can use less weight on the Conventional Barbell Curl, and this will prevent the torque on the wrist that can be causing the pain.
The next thing you can do is switch up the type of bar you are using for the Bar Curl.
If you have access to one, I recommend an EZ Curl bar for Barbell Curls since it is designed to put your wrist in a more natural position. This should take the twisting force off your wrists and help you to curl more pain free.
With that said, here’s how to do a Barbell Curl:
STANDING BARBELL CURL
HOW TO DO THE EXERCISE: Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart, holding an EZ Curl barbell in an underhand grip (palms facing up). Take a shoulder-width grip. Keep your elbows close to your sides and tighten your core. Raise the barbell up towards the top of your chest until you feel a contraction in your biceps. Then slowly lower the barbell back down to the starting position. If your training goals include building bigger biceps, the number one tip you can never forget is to focus on the heavy negative. In other words, be sure to overload your eccentric or lowering portion. In other words, take your time, go slow, and focus on that contraction on the way down. (More on this below!)
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: When it comes to hypertrophy and overall development, the Barbell Bicep Curl exercise is one of the most effective exercises for targeting the biceps. It allows you to lift a heavier weight with both arms at the same time. This increases the amount of constant tension placed on your biceps, which in turn leads to greater muscle growth. As mentioned above, to avoid wrist pain with this exercise, be sure to use an EZ Curl bar.
HOW TO GET BIGGER BICEPS
Let’s say that your goal isn’t to just sculpt a pair of head-turning arms, but to get them bigger overall.
For this, the first (and most important) thing you should do is focus on overloading the eccentric portion of the exercise.
FOCUS ON THE ECCENTRIC
Start paying very close attention to the eccentric overload and lowering down slowly.
It’s the number one thing you must do because it’s where all the damage is done that allows your arms to build back bigger and stronger.
This same technique used in Cheat Curls can be used for curls with lighter weight too. Get the barbell up to your chest and then control the eccentric curl all the way down.
Don’t just control it. Fight it!
Don’t just take the weight and let it drop down. Go slow and try to fight against the weight as it lowers.
It’s natural to want to let the weight just drop, and that’s why this is one of the most common barbell curl mistakes.
And there’s a reason why we do this:
On pull exercises, like a Dumbbell Bicep Curl or a Lat Pulldown, there’s no repercussions for not controlling the eccentric, right?
If we’re doing a Lat Pulldown on a cable machine, it just goes back up. If we’re doing Barbell Curl alternatives like the Dumbbell Bicep Curl, they go safely right down to my thighs.
If we try to pull the same crap with a bench press – just letting it come down – it’s going to come right on our chest.
Knowing that, you have to add in your own fear factor. You have to realize that while there’s no built-in danger to the exercise, you must slowly lower and fight the bar. If you don’t, you’ll ever achieve that goal of yours.
IS THE BICEP TENDON IN DANGER?
Some of you might be saying, “Jeff, isn’t this going to tear your bicep tendon?”
It’s actually quite the opposite, guys.
There are a lot of people that will tear a bicep tendon on a Deadlift, for example, because they are exposed to high eccentric overload on the Deadlift and they aren’t conditioned to handle it.
More specifically, their biceps aren’t conditioned to handle it.
Fighting the bar during the eccentric in Bicep Bar Curls, you’re actually going to condition your biceps to become a lot more resilient to that kind of crap ever happening when you carry over to other exercises.
BIGGER BICEPS WORKOUT
As far as bicep curl workouts go, I’ve got one for you that is unlike anything you’ve done before.
I want you to try it because I want to convince you that you can see some huge biceps without spending hours in the gym.
Here’s how this is going to work:
You’ll perform three drop sets in superset format – a total of four exercises – focusing on failure reps for each and every set and exercise.
In other words, do as many as you can with good form.
You will be using cheat reps for the second exercise in the superset. Naturally, if you’re performing cheat curls, do as many as you can without overdoing the “cheat” part of the movement.
Guys, this is going to be a total of six sets, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but this workout is no joke.
Here’s a quick layout of what to expect:
- SUPERSET 1A: Seated Barbell Curls
- SUPERSET 1B: Standing Barbell Curls (Cheat Reps)
- SUPERSET 2A: Strict Curl
- SUPERSET 2B: Standing Cheat Curls (Cheat Reps)
SUPERSET 1A: SEATED BARBELL CURLS
HOW TO DO THE EXERCISE: Use the same instructions as above, but do so from a seated position, understanding that the bottom 20 degrees of the range of motion will be removed from the exercise. While you it might be able to lift more, the idea is to go sub-maximally here in terms of the weight. Even though you’re lifting less, the effort level will equalize everything.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The main reason we’re starting with Seated Barbell Curls instead of Standing Barbell Curls is range of motion. By sitting, we’re limiting the bottom range of motion and eliminating that bottom 20 degrees. This is where most of the initiation of a cheat would occur.
SUPERSET 1B: STANDING BARBELL CURLS
HOW TO DO THE EXERCISE: Going right from the Seated Barbell Curl, stand up to perform Standing Barbell Curls. You can use a “cheat curl” stance to perform as many repetitions as you can without completely losing good form. Once you finish, lower the weight on the bar and return to the first exercise (Seated Barbell Curls).
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Even though I reached failure, I stand right up and I keep going because mechanically I know that now with a little bit of that forward lean and backward lean, I’m able to get a little bit more out of my biceps.
SUPERSET 2A: STRICT CURL SET
HOW TO DO THE EXERCISE: For the Strict Curl Set, there’s three points of contact that must stay in contact with the wall: The back of your head, the back of your upper back, and your butt. Your arms can come away from the wall, but those three points of contact must remain in contact with the wall at all times.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: By standing against the wall, you force yourself to use strict form, focusing all of the contraction into the bicep muscle.
SUPERSET 2B: STANDING CHEAT CURLS
HOW TO DO THE EXERCISE: When you reach failure, step away from the wall and use the same principle as before. Perform a few cheat reps. Also just like before, you want to perform this as a drop set, which means you lower the weight and return to the first exercise (Strict Curls).
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Now that you have more range of motion, you can use momentum to get the barbell up and fight it on the way down. Remember to lower the weight before jumping into the next set.
PAIN IN THE WRISTS FROM CURLS
Let’s say you have a history of wrist pain when doing Barbell Curls and you don’t want to move on to Barbell Curl variations like the Drag Curl.
Is there a way to stop this pain and avoid it altogether?
If you’re using a straight bar when you curl, this type of barbell forces our hands into a degree of supination that we may not be able to achieve or be comfortable with.
To support a straight Olympic barbell at the top of the movement – especially one with heavy weight – you have to be able to supinate all the way up.
When you use dumbbells, you tend to cheat a little bit because you can slightly pronate your hands, taking the pressure off your wrists.
Here’s the problem when using that straight barbell:
The extensor carpi ulnaris is a muscle that runs on the backside of our forearm muscles. It runs through the wrist and attaches to our fifth metacarpal, or our little pinkie bone here.
When you pronate your forearm, it has a nice straight path straight through. It gets to run with little tension and torque straight up to its destination at the top of the movement.
However, if you supinate the wrist as you would with a Barbell Curl, now you have changed the path of that tendon and you’re going to feel it big time if you have joint issues.
What’s happening is that you’re creating torque, and once you have a torqued tendon, you’re going to add greater amounts of tension to it with the bar.
Over time, if you start and continue curling like this without adequate flexibility and mobility in that tendon, you’re going to have problems.
HOW TO STOP WRIST PAIN DURING CURLS
So, what can we do about it?
You can try to increase your own supination mobility at your wrist.
You want to start by putting your elbow in at 90 degrees. You start by grabbing the meaty area of your wrist below your hand.
You don’t want to grab your hand because it’s possible to torque and twist your hand without ever really influencing the true forearm supination.
Once you grab the meaty area of the wrist, turn and try to stretch it for about 20 to 30 seconds.
Then let it go, rest for a moment and try again, trying for more range of motion if you have it. Again, do this for 20 or 30 seconds.
Let it rest, and then do it one last time. Repeat on the other side.
Eventually, the goal is to be able to do this and add a little bit of contract-and-relax action to it. This is where once you’re in this end position, you try to pull your hand back against the resistance for about five seconds, and then let it go.
LEAVE OUT THE FOREARMS
The next thing you want to do is make sure that you’re not also exacerbating this problem by consciously trying to involve your forearms in your curl.
It can cause a lot of problems even at the inside part of your elbow if, when you’re curling, you’re really trying to use your forearms to help cheat the weight up.
The best way to do that is to try to allow your wrists to bend back a little bit.
Bend into a little bit of extension so that when you’re doing the curling, you’re not over-using the forearm.
Barbell Curls are an excellent exercise, but only if you do them right using the proper barbell.
If you don’t have the wrist mobility, go with an EZ Curl barbell to perform Barbell Curls, but in between sets, you should be practicing the wrist exercise I provided.
Finally, when you’re doing the Barbell Curls workout, remember to be mindful of good form – not necessarily perfect form – even during the cheat sets. Give it all you’ve got and you’ll be pleased with the results.
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- The target areas of Barbell Curls include the short head bicep muscle (inner biceps) and the long head biceps muscle (outer biceps). Although it’s not technically a biceps muscle, I include the brachialis as a targeted muscle group because it’s responsible for the thickness of your arms.
- Before performing a Barbell Biceps Curl, make sure you’re using the right barbell. If you have poor wrist mobility, use an EZ Curl bar. If you have good mobility, be sure to use lighter weight at first and build up slowly.
- To execute a Barbell Curl, keep your elbows close to the sides of your body as you lift with an underhand grip and wrists slightly bent backward. Lift the barbell upwards towards the top of your chest, feel the contraction, and lower very slowly.
- If you want bigger biceps, you should focus on the eccentric or lowering portion of the exercise. Raise the weight quickly and fight the barbell as you slowly lower it down. Your biceps should be at maximal contraction on the way down.
- If you want a fast and effective biceps workout, perform three drop sets in superset format – a total of four exercises – focusing on failure reps for the following exercises:
- SUPERSET 1A: Seated Barbell Curls / SUPERSET: 1B: Standing Barbell Curls (Cheat Reps)
- SUPERSET 2A: Strict Curl / SUPERSET 2B: Standing Cheat Curls (Cheat Reps)
BARBELL CURLS FAQS
The biceps muscle is the target muscle for Barbell Curls. They also work the brachialis muscle. To a lesser extent, and depending on the variety of Barbell Curl, your forearms are also involved.
Barbell Curls, including another variation of barbell curls such as the Dumbbell Curl and the Preacher Curl, are one of the most effective exercises for building strength and size in the arms.
Begin by standing with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, back straight and core engaged. Grasp the barbell with an underhand grip, shoulder-width apart. Bend your elbows and curl the barbell up towards your chest, squeezing your biceps at the top. Slowly lower the barbell back to starting position, keeping tension on the biceps muscles throughout.
Barbell Curls are an effective way to achieve bigger and stronger biceps. This isolation exercise can help to improve grip strength, especially if you are using a thicker grip barbell.
For example, if you are using thick grips around the handle of the barbell, this places a greater demand on your grip strength.
With that said, if you have grip issues, stick with an EZ-Curl bar without added grip training accessories. EZ-Bar Curls, as I mentioned above, are far easier on your wrists than a traditional barbell.
Barbell Curls also support overall coordination and balance.