Who doesn’t want firm, shapely biceps? And, what about biceps strength? We need strong biceps to pick up heavy objects. For example, you do biceps curls every time you lift a bag of groceries. Although you work your biceps when you do a variety of upper body exercises, biceps curls are a staple for building buff upper arms. When you curl, you can use dumbbells or a bar. Most people use dumbbells, but a bar works the biceps muscle in a slightly different way. You have choices here too. You can choose from two types of bars: a straight bar and an EZ curl bar.
What is an EZ curl bar? Unlike a standard bar that’s smooth and straight, an EZ curl bar has a wavy surface. When you use a straight bar to do biceps curls, your palms are fully supinated. In other words, your palms are pointing straight up. However, when you use the EZ curl bar, your palms aren’t completely supinated Instead, they’re somewhere between the full supinated position (up position) and the neutral position where the palms are pointing toward each other. So, you work your biceps at a slightly different angle.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Type of Bar For Biceps Curls
Most people find curls feel more comfortable when they use the EZ curl bar as their arms and wrists are in a more natural position and aren’t forced to point straight up. However, you actually hit your biceps a bit harder when you use a straight bar, as you can get a full biceps contraction. With an EZ curl bar, biceps activation when you curl isn’t 100%. So, the straight bar activates the biceps a bit more but also feels less comfortable and, possibly, places your biceps at higher risk of injury. The EZ curl bar is also easier to work with if you lack mobility in your wrists.
The straight bar may ultimately allow greater biceps growth over time as you get a full contraction of the biceps when you curl. This assumes, of course, that you don’t get injured. However, if you’ve had biceps injuries in the past or have poor mobility in your wrists, the EZ curl bar is a better choice. It’s also a better option if you experience any kind of pain or discomfort when you use a straight bar.
Have you ever had tennis elbow? Repeatedly using a straight bar with your hands and wrists locked into a supinated position increases the risk of developing medial epicondylitis, an irritation of the tendon that runs along the elbow. Another term for medial epicondylitis is tennis elbow. If you have medial epicondylitis, you experience pain and discomfort along the lateral aspect of your hand and wrist extending up to the elbow. The pain usually gets worse when you squeeze something or flex your wrist. Tendonitis is due to repetitive motion, repeating the same movements over and over again. The straight bar holds your wrist in a fixed, unnatural position and when you keep doing the motion repeatedly, the tendon can become inflamed. If you use the same hand positioning repeatedly with an EZ bar, you can still end up with medial epicondylitis as you’re locking your arm into a single path.
One option is to alternate between the straight bar and the EZ curl bar. Why do this? Using the straight bar hits your biceps harder, but if you use it every time, you place more stress on your wrists. Switching to the EZ curl bar gives your wrists a break while still giving you the benefits of working your biceps harder with the straight bar. Plus, you can vary your grip and the path your arm travels. You can use an EZ curl bar for other exercises as well, including upright rows, overhead triceps extensions, preacher curls, and curls using a reverse grip.
Why Use a Bar at All?
Of course, you can skip bars entirely and use dumbbells. The beauty of dumbbells the flexibility they offer. You can easily change your hand position and the angle of a curl when you hold a dumbbell in each hand. You’re more restricted with a bar, regardless of whether it’s straight or curved. The advantage of a bar is you can lift more weight than you can with dumbbells, up to 20% more, since you don’t have to recruit stabilizing muscles to the same degree. This gives you an advantage for building strength and hypertrophying the biceps muscles. You can alter the tension to some extent with where you place your hands. When you place your hands close together, it puts more emphasis on the outer biceps. Move them further apart and you hit the inner aspect of the biceps more.
The reality is that you can get an effective biceps workout without using a straight or an EZ curl bar. Dumbbells will work just fine, but you can generate more muscle tension using a bar as you can tolerate a heavier weight. But, dumbbells are friendlier to your wrists as you can vary the angle of your wrists and the path your arm follows to lower your risk of medial epicondylitis due to repetitive motion.
Do a Variety of Biceps Exercises
Use a multi-prong plan of attack for building your “guns.” You also hit your biceps hard when you do compound exercises, like rows, deadlifts, push-ups, and pull-ups. Biceps curls are an isolation exercise and it doesn’t use as many muscle groups or create as much of an anabolic response as compound exercises. So, don’t focus too much of your biceps work on curls. You’ll get more return for your time and effort by focusing on compound exercises that also work the biceps.
Your best bet is to do a combination of compound and isolation movements with an emphasis on compound exercises. Most experts recommend that 75% of the exercises you do be compound and 25% isolation movements. However, isolation movements are ideal for bringing a lagging muscle up to speed and for correcting strength imbalances. So, whether you use a straight bar, an EZ curl bar, dumbbells, or all three – keep curling!
John Hopkins Medicine. “Medial Epicondylitis (Golfer’s and Baseball Elbow)”
American Council on Exercise. “ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises”
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