By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Let’s face it, the legs have the squat, the shoulders have the overhead press and the biceps, of course, have the barbell curl. No other exercise is better known for adding size and thickness to your upper arms than holding a loaded barbell and busting out grueling hardcore sets. However, even the best exercise can be improved and enhanced and that’s our focus this month; to take an already phenomenal exercise — the standing barbell curl — and show you ways to make it even better. If you’re stuck in a rut, despite the fact that you’ve conquered the curl, the writing on the wall is clear: It’s time to make a change for the better.
It’s that very reason why we’ve assembled four exercises with all of the essential elements of the curl but with striking differences that’ll stress and target your musculature and your form dramatically. After reading about the benefits of each, we’ve designed a four-week training scheme to help you incorporate each into your routine. Your biceps should be a signature bodypart for you. If they’re not, it’s time for a change.
1. Seated Barbell Curl
If you haven’t given this off-the-beaten-path exercise a shot, then you’re not giving your biceps a chance at serious growth. You see, typically during a standard barbell curl, you seldom exhaust the upper portion of the curl simply because you usually fail to move the bar past the parallel point. Think about it: When you hit the sticking point on curls, it’s always about 8 inches into the curl when you have to drop the bar. However, the strongest portion of the curl is the top half of the arc. The reason you fail during the lower portion of the curl is because that section of the curl is governed predominantly by the brachioradialis, not the stronger biceps brachii. So why not spend some time up high where the biceps brachii can be fully activated? The seated barbell curl does just that, allowing you to work your biceps to a point of exhaustion they seldom — if ever — experience.
The beauty of doing these on either a standard bench-press station or sitting reverse on a decline bench is that the rack is right there for easy dismount, and it’s also great for when you want to quickly superset exercises, such as the seated curl and lying triceps extension. What you want to do is sit backward on the bench, with your feet facing where a spotter would stand. Sit up straight, chest up and shoulders back, directly in front of the bar. Grasp the bar at shoulder width and unrack it, lowering it to your lap. As you would during the standing version, take a deep breath and curl the weight toward your shoulders, keeping your elbows back by your sides. Squeeze and slowly lower the bar back to your lap and repeat. To extend the set, go ahead and stand up and continue doing curls until you reach failure from a full-range perspective.
2. Barbell Curl With Chains
For some of you, the idea of using chains for any bodypart, let alone biceps, is a bit extreme. But frankly, to spark new growth, that’s exactly what you need to start thinking outside the box. For many a bodybuilder with phenomenal bodyparts, chains were a rare find. How could something so basic be so beneficial? Well, the physics of chains brings new meaning to curls. Here’s why: At the start of the standard curl, when your arms are hanging down, the brachialis (deep muscle underneath the biceps) and brachioradialis (large forearm muscle on the thumb side) do most of the work lifting the weight until the elbow angle reaches about 90 degrees. The biceps don’t do much of the lifting until just before this point and throughout the rest of the range of motion. When you load a bar with free weights, you’re limited to what the brachialis and brachioradialis can lift through the first half of the curl, which is often a lot less than what the biceps can lift from the halfway point and higher. (This is why you can curl more on seated barbell curls mentioned in item 1.)
When using chains, however, you start with a lighter weight that gradually gets heavier the higher you curl it (more links are lifted off the floor). This allows for maximal tension on the biceps when it counts for maximal growth. That way, the weight during the peak contraction and at the point when your biceps are the strongest is heavier than ever. As you lower the weight and the chains begin to lie on the floor again, the bar gets lighter as the major biceps muscles begin to disengage their involvement.
Finally, if your gym doesn’t have a set of chains in some dark corner, invest in some and keep them in your truck (also good for bench pressing). Get two 3/8" chains and two 5/8" chains. The 3/8" chain is used to wrap on the end of the bar and hold the 5/8" chain. Together one 3/8" chain (5 pounds) plus one 5/8" chain (20 pounds) weighs about 25 pounds. When you put the chains on the bar, be sure that the 5/8" chains are completely on the floor in the bottom position of the exercise.
3. Smith-Machine Drag Curl
Of the many roadblocks facing your biceps growth, improper form (probably because you’re attempting too much weight) is one of them. What happens when you’re going too heavy is you begin to use too much body english while allowing your elbows to travel away from your sides. It’s so common that maybe 90% of bodybuilders do it regularly in the gym when curling — but that doesn’t make it right! Doing so calls into play the front delts, which automatically removes some of the emphasis from the target biceps. That’s why we’re constantly reminding you to keep your elbows back and at your sides to allow the biceps to do the work and not the shoulders.
With the Smith-machine drag curl, you’re forced to eliminate as much deltoid involvement as possible. More than just keeping your elbows back, you want to actually push your elbows behind your torso as you drag the bar up your abdomen, which is why the range of motion is so limited. If the bar is approaching your shoulders similar to standard curls, you’re not doing it correctly. Frankly, the bar should come only as high as your upper abs or lower chest; any higher than that and it’s impossible that your elbows are where they need to be.
If you’ve never tried the drag curl, let alone in a Smith machine, basically stand inside the Smith holding the bar in front of your upper thighs with your chest up, shoulders back and eyes focused forward. Begin the move by pulling your elbows back as you raise the bar toward your upper abs/lower chest. As the name suggests, you actually want to drag the bar up your torso as high as possible, keeping your elbows pointing behind you. Your descent is identical to the upward motion, dragging the bar down your abs.
4. Wide-Grip & Close-Grip Curls
Though this appears to be a standard barbell curl, appearances are indeed deceiving. That’s because the grip is wider (or alternately, closer) on the bar than you’d normally take, which is usually just outside hip width and with your arms at your sides. But when you shift your hands outward or inward, the change in emphasis between the short and long heads is dramatic, as will be your response.
Taking a wide grip on the barbell increases the tension on the short (inner) head of the biceps by reducing the amount of stress on the long (outer) head. That’s important because the short inner head is the muscle most prominent in the mirror during a biceps pose. The inner head helps develop density and adds depth to the biceps and even helps the appearance of the long head. Speaking of the long head, the close-grip curl places greater emphasis on the long (outer) head. The long head is actually the muscle that’s often referred to as the “peak” of the biceps. This muscle is best targeted during moves that draw your arm behind your body as when doing dumbbell curls on an incline bench. A close-grip curl puts added pull and emphasis on that long head to help build up the peak. But regardless of grip width, for either of them to do what they’re intended to, you must keep your elbows as close to your sides as possible. By doing so, the target muscle is optimally stimulated and forced to perform.
4 Weeks to Bigger Arms
Add these four variations into your routine doing one each for a week to complement the traditional barbell curl by adding size and detail to your biceps. The number of minutes that follows each exercise, set and rep range in the chart indicates the recommended amount of rest between sets.
Week 1: Take a Seat
Seated Barbell Curl 4 sets 6–8 reps 2 mins
Incline Dumbbell Curl 4 sets 8–10 reps 1–2 mins
EZ-Bar Preacher Curl 4 sets 10–12 reps 1–2 mins
Reverse Curl 3 sets 15 reps 1–2 mins
Week 2: Chained to Growth
Barbell Curl with Chains 4 sets 10 reps 2–3 mins
Alternating Dumbbell Curl 4 sets 10 reps 1–2 mins
Standing Cable Curl 4 sets 12–15 reps 1–2 mins
Hammer Curl 3 sets 12–15 reps 1–2 mins
Week 3: It's a Drag
Smith-Machine Drag Curl 4 sets 8–10 reps 2–3 mins
High Cable Curl 4 sets 10–12 reps 1–2 mins
Dumbbell Preacher Curl 4 sets 12–15 reps 1–2 mins
Barbell Wrist Curl 3 sets 12–15 reps 1–2 mins
Week 4: Narrow & Wide
Narrow-/Wide-Grip Curl 4 (2 each) sets 6–8 reps 2–3 mins
Seated Dumbbell Curl 4 sets 8–10 reps 1–2 mins
Lying Cable Curl 4 sets 10–12 reps 1–2 mins
Reverse Cable Preacher Curl 3 sets 12–15 reps 1–2 mins