How to Perform a Barbell Bicep Curl

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Bicep Curls Explained

The bicep curl is undoubtedly among the most well known of lifts, (second only perhaps to the bench press). A look in any gym will yield anywhere between 10 and 20 people attempting this lift - unfortunately between 9 and 19 of them are doing it wrong. For such a basic exercise, you would think it would be easy to perform, but unfortunately, people often get caught up in lifting such a heavy weight that their form suffers- dramatically. Swinging your back, using momentum, not lifting high enough - all are reasons why many bicep curls fail. Performing this exercise improperly not only leads to injury, but it won’t actually work the bicep (and seeing as how that is all it is designed for, you may as well not be doing it). Learn the RIGHT way to perform a barbell bicep curl before this becomes a habit.

Although the biceps brachii make up the smaller portion of the upper arm, they have become something of an obsession for many, as they are the most common sign of bodybuilding progress. Unfortunately for many, the biceps respond far greater to a low number of heavy, slow repetitions, than to large amounts of poorly executed lifts. For this reason, your form is of utmost importance - the amount of time the biceps remain under pressure is the force directly responsible for growth - not the total number of reps. Thus, the trick is to slow down each rep and make the most of them.

The biceps also consist of separate heads, both of which are targeted by different lifts. The long head is the outer portion of the bicep (the one furthest from the body), whereas the short head is the one held directly in to your side. Moreover, the portion of the bicep connecting the two is called the brachialis - though not directly visible, it gives the bicep a more rounded appearance. Unfortunately the brachialis is tough to work, though there are a few specific exercises that can target it.

The Equipment

All that is necessary for this exercise is a loaded barbell. You can set it on a rack, on an empty bench, or pick it off the floor if necessary. While this guide is designed for using a straight barbell (such as the one found on a bench press), you can alternate with an EZ bar or a preloaded barbell. Keep in mind that each barbell (and each grip) will target a different head of the bicep, and due to the length of the standard bar, it is the most effective for hitting all three heads.

Start with just the bar, and increase weights accordingly (include a couple of light warmup sets)

The Grips

The way you grip the bar makes a significant difference on what part of the muscle is being worked.

Standard Shoulder Width Grip - Targets all three heads to a certain extent, but with the focus on the long head.

Close/ Narrow Grip - By keeping your hands as close together as possible (up to about 6 cm), you are targeting the short head / inner portion of the bicep and giving it more of a peak.

Wide Grip - By gripping the bar wider than shoulder width, you are placing the emphasis on the long head.

Note - Anytime the shoulder is forward, you are shifting the pressure to the inner / short head. To target the long head you must keep your shoulders tight at your side.

The Procedure

1. Grip the bar with an underhand grip of your choice (beginners should start with a standard shoulder-width and adjust accordingly), thumbs on the outside. Keep your feet shoulder width apart, shoulders relaxed and back, and elbows securely tucked at your side. Start with just the bar, and increase weights accordingly (include a couple of light warmup sets)

2. The Concentric - SLOWLY curl the weight upwards using only your biceps - if you require your shoulders or back you are doing it WRONG. DO NOT swing the weight or use momentum. You should focus on your form and count to three seconds while bringing the weight up to shoulder level. Your upper arms and shoulders should remain in place, and only your forearms should move forward. Focus on exhaling as you curl the weight up.

3. The Transition - Hold the weight at the top for a count of one second while you finish forcing the air from your lungs. Squeeze your biceps in the contracted position as you do so.

4. The Eccentric - Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position with a count of 2 seconds. Inhale as you do so. Fight the force of gravity and resist the urge to just let the weights drop - you should slow the descent and use your biceps to lower the weight.This is the most overlooked part of the lift. It can be just as beneficial, if not more than the upward motion. Do not overlook this.

Additional Option - For those who are more experienced, try this technique. When you reach the top 1/3 of the concentric portion, slowly bring the bar forward (away from the body) an extra inch as you continue curling it. By moving the shoulders forward you will incorporate the biceps far more, and allow them to do significantly more work. This allows for a greater stretch and this a more defined peak in the bicep.

Remember - It is the total time that the biceps remain under tension in each rep. not the total number of reps that determines the gains you will see. Never sacrifice your form.

Additional Tips/ Notes

1. Make sure to keep elbows and shoulders locked in position during the movement. Do NOT let them flare out.

2. Keep your back firmly tightened and do not let it round or arch too much.

3. Do not swing the weights or use the forces of gravity or momentum.

4. Make sure to breathe correctly, but there is no need for unnecessary yells or grunts. This will not help you lift the weight and is very annoying to others.

5. Lift with a spotter or do not go as heavy as possible. Keep in mind that your strength will begin to fail after a few sets and do not keep trying to raise weights when alone.

6. Rerack the weights upon completion.