Barbell Curl


barbell curl technique

The Barbell bicep curl is a bilateral exercise which basically means using both arms as opposed to say lifting one arm at a time during a dumbbell bicep curl which is known as a unilateral exercise.

Bilateral movements are far more efficient than unilateral exercises as you expend almost twice the energy with unilateral movements to achieve the same overload.

The unilateral bicep curl can be beneficial for weight lifters looking to focus on developing one weaker arm, or for those who prefer to maintain total concentration on a single bicep muscle at a time.

I always start my bicep workout with barbell curls 4 sets of heavy barbell curls will stimulate growth most efficiently before moving on to unilateral exercises such as dumbbell or hammer curls.

There are many alternative bilateral exercises for building overall bicep strength and size such as:-

  • seated preacher curl
  • chin ups
  • hammer curls
  • standing plate curl
  • machine rope bicep curl

Benefits of Barbell curl

1. Improved Grip Strength

The barbell curl can be done to help improve grip and arm strength, both of which can impact pulling strength and performance in movie lines like deadlifts, carries, hanging and gymnastic work, and even weightlifting. While the forearms are a secondary muscle group used to support the barbell curl, the increase wrist strength and stability can be transferred to other movements as well.

2. Injury Prevention (to the elbows/arms)

The biceps are responsible for elbow flexion as well as supporting the grip muscles in pulls and carries. Weak and underdeveloped biceps can cause grip issues, muscle tears and strain to the biceps, and decrease performance in high loading or high-rep based workouts. Training the biceps can be done using pull ups, rows, etc; however there is a time and place for arm specific training as well.

3. Increased Upper Body Mass

The barbell curl, along with presses, rows, and dips for example, are all effective accessory exercises to increase general strength and muscle mass for lifters who are (1) looking to gain lean muscle mass, such as to move up a weight class or aesthetic purposes, (2) improve general development in lifters who lack upper body strength, (3) improve grip and/or joint health by improving development of smaller muscles groups like the biceps.

4. Bigger Biceps

While this may seem pretty self explanatory, the barbell curl is one of, if not the most foundational arm training exercise out there (ranking up there with hammer curls and chin ups) to build serious biceps and forearms. Bigger biceps not only have a performance enhancing aspect to them, but some lifters can actually draw a little extra strength from having slabs or beef hanging from their shoulder sockets.

Who Should Perform Barbell Curls?

The barbell curl can help increase overall arm and grip strength and upper body mass for strength, power and fitness athletes. In addition, the barbell curl can be done to offer added injury resilience and performance training for lifters who may be susceptible to bicep and elbow injuries.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes can use the barbell curl to improve arm and grip strength, enhance eccentric loading potentials (injury prevention from strains and tears) during heavy deadlift and pulling training, and increase overall size and development of the biceps, a key assistance muscle to the back during many pulling movements (rows, pull/chin ups, pulls, rope pulls, carries, etc).

Power lifters

Like strongman athletes, strong biceps can impact pulling strength and performance, especially helping to resist bicep strains and tears.

Strongman Athletes

Strong and health biceps can play a big role in injury prevention and grip strength during heavy pulls, farmers carries, truck poles, and more.

Olympic Weightlifters

While arm pulling isn’t something we want in most lifts, stronger arms in general can increase pulling and grip strength. Having strong arms can also help during the pull under phase as well.

General and Functional Fitness

Increased arm strength and muscle can have an impact on overall upper body strength and size, grip strength, and improved body confidence (believe it or not, increased arm size and strength has been a huge goal and reward for many of my clients). That said, it can also help lifters who may struggle doing more “functional” movements like deadlifts and carries as it can improve grip and arm strength and resistance to fatigue.

Barbell Curl Exercise Guide

Below are recommendations on how to program barbell curls to develop arm strength.

Strength reps and sets

4-6 sets of 3-8 repetitions

While there are no exact guidelines as how to strengthen the biceps, using an array of heavier curls, chin ups, and bicep exercises can increase strength.

Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

Below are recommendations on how to program and train for biceps hypertrophy using the barbell curl.

5-10 sets of 8-15 repetitions

Once again, there is a wide array of loading, sets, and rep schemes available to coaches to train the biceps for size and strength. The key here is to focus on the muscle contractions and “pump”, rather than just mindlessly moving weights. Additionally, the loads themselves do not need to be heavy to have an effect.

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