Dumbbells vs. Barbell for Biceps Curls: What Are the Benefits of Each?

dumbbell biceps curls

Curling is a basic move for building strong, defined biceps. Chances are you already include some type of biceps curl in your workouts. Because curls work only the biceps, they’re an isolation exercise, but one that lets you focus with laser-like precision on the two-headed muscle that gives definition to the front of your arm.

Although the focus of the exercise is the two heads of the biceps, two smaller muscles, the brachialis and brachioradialis, chip in too when you curl, all in the name of helping you build more defined upper arms.  Biceps definition comes in handy in the summer when you’re wearing short-sleeved tops and tank tops. A little biceps definition shows people you’re strong and that you care about your body. Not to mention the strength you gain from doing curls!

What’s your go-to equipment for doing biceps curls? Is it a pair of dumbbells or a barbell? You can curl using either. You can even get creative and do curls with kettlebells or resistance bands. Do you know what the advantages of using the various approaches is? Let’s look at dumbbells vs. barbells and whether one has advantages over the other in helping you get strong, defined biceps muscles.

Dumbbell Curls

When you first start training, you probably grabbed a pair of dumbbells to do a set of curls. No wonder! Dumbbells are less intimidating when you first start out. There’s something daunting about picking up a barbell if you’ve never used one before. Plus, if you’re working out at home, you might not even have a barbell to work with. In that case, start with dumbbells and consider investing in a barbell later after you’ve worked with dumbbells for a while.

One of the biggest advantages that dumbbells offer over barbells is a dumbbell doesn’t restrict the range-of-motion of your wrists. You can rotate your wrists in different directions while holding a dumbbell but lack the ability to do this with a barbell. This freedom of rotation gives you the ability to work your biceps muscles at different angles. You also aren’t forced to hold your wrist in a fixed position, which can lead to a wrist strain.

In addition, you can do a number of variations on a standard curl when using dumbbells. For example, you can rotate your wrists and do variations like hammer curls and Zottman curls with dumbbells. Dumbbells also allow a better range-of-motion when you curl as you aren’t limited by the bar hitting your chest. A barbell can seem somewhat restrictive after you’ve worked with dumbbells.

Another benefit of dumbbells over barbells is that you can train one side of your body independently of the other. Emphasizing one side over the other helps correct muscle imbalances and uneven muscle development. If you have a weak side, dumbbells make it easy to correct the inequality. For example, you can do more sets on the weaker side. Also, holding dumbbells creates more instability than working with a barbell. Therefore, the deep, stabilizing muscles in your core get more stimulation. These are the muscles that help you maintain a healthy posture and lower your risk of back pain.

Barbell Curls

Barbell curls have some benefits too.  With a barbell, you can increase the weight by smaller increments than you can with dumbbells. In fact, you can increase the resistance by as little as 2.5 pounds at a time with barbells. A barbell can be space saving as well. You can invest in a single bar and use plates to increase the resistance as opposed to investing in an entire rack of different sized dumbbells. Another advantage: You can also handle more weight when you use a barbell. Being able to use more weight helps you maximize fast-twitch muscle fiber activation and strength development.

As mentioned, barbells place your wrists in a fixed position. For some people, that can be uncomfortable. One way to get around this limitation is to use an EZ Curl Bar. An EZ curl bar has a bend that gives it the shape of a shallow “W.” The advantage of using an EZ bar is it places your wrists in a more neutral position. If you have a history of wrist pain, it’s a better option. The downside of an EZ bar is that it restricts the movement of curls slightly more than a straight bar, so range-of-motion is slightly reduced.

Curls Are Only One Way to Build Biceps

Biceps curls are an excellent addition to an upper body workout, but isolation exercises should only make up about 25% of your exercises. The other 75% should be compound exercises that work multiple groups at the same time, including the biceps. So, don’t get into a biceps rut. Make sure you’re doing a total workout for the upper body by including compound exercises like rows, push-ups, dips, and pull-ups or a modified form of a pull-up. These exercises help to build integrated, functional strength as well.

The Bottom Line

Now that you know that advantages of barbells over dumbbells, you can make the best choice for your needs. But you might decide to use both, so you get the benefit that each offers. Working your biceps with different exercises and at different angles is what helps them grow and keeps you from avoiding a plateau.

Here’s another tip. A study by the American Council on Exercise found that the concentration curl activates the biceps muscle the most of the curls they tested. This includes a preacher curl, incline curls, EZ curls, chin-ups, concentration curls, barbell curls, and cable curls. Yes, you can do a concentration curl with a barbell, but most people find them more comfortable when they use dumbbells.

You probably feel most comfortable working with dumbbells, but don’t be afraid to use a barbell for variety. By having dumbbells and a barbell to work with, you can take advantage of the strengths of each. They each have their pros and cons.



·        American Council on Exercise. “ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises”

·        American Council on Exercise. “Biceps Curl”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Why You Should Vary Your Hand and Arm Position When You Do Bicep Curls

Break Out of a Biceps Curls Rut & Get More Shapely Arms with These Exercises

If You Aren’t Doing This Variation on Biceps Curls, You’re Missing Out on Gains

Biceps Curls: Do You Get Better Muscle Activation with the EZ Curl Bar or a Straight Bar?

Blast Those Biceps: Beyond the Basic Biceps Curls

What’s the Best Tempo for Working Your Biceps Muscles?

6 Tips for Building Beautiful Biceps

What Are the Most Effective Biceps Exercises?

Break Out of a Biceps Curls Rut & Get More Shapely Arms with These Exercises

Strength Training: What Is an Eccentric Contraction?

6 Powerful Ways to Get More Benefits from Biceps Curls


Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

STS Strength 90 Day Workout Program
All of Cathe’s Strength & Toning Workout DVDs
Total Body Workouts
Upper Body Workouts

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