A well-flexed biceps is how we show other people how strong we are. One of the ways we get those biceps to “pop” is by doing biceps curls. Of course, we work our biceps when we do other exercises as well, including deadlifts, rows, and pull-ups, but, curls are an isolation exercise that really focuses in on the biceps muscle with laser-like precision.
You’re probably familiar with standard biceps curls and already include them in your strength-training routine. In addition, there are also a number of variations on the bicep curl that work the biceps muscle in a slightly different way. Plus, if you use a barbell, you can change your handgrip, and with dumbbells, you can alter the way your palms are facing. One of the most popular ways to do this is to do hammer curls, where your palms face each other as you curl.
With so many variations on curls, which should you focus on when you train your biceps? According to a study carried out by the American Council on Exercise, one type of biceps curls stands out from the rest because of how effectively it works this muscle group. Which one is it?
To look at which exercises are most effective at activating the biceps, ACE researchers asked 16 women and men to do various exercises that work their biceps. The exercises included:
· Cable curl
· Barbell curl
· Concentration curl
· EZ-Curl using an EZ-bar
· Incline curl
· Preacher curl
You’re probably familiar with most of these exercises. The goal of the study was to see which of them activate the biceps best. To do this, the researchers attached electrodes to the biceps, brachioradialis, and anterior deltoid muscles of the participants. As the subjects did the various curls, the researchers used an EMG machine to measure the degree of muscle activation – and one exercise was a clear winner. Based on this study, the concentration curl activated the biceps the most and the preacher curl the least.
The take-home message? If you’re trying to strengthen and define your biceps, adding concentration curls to your upper body routine can help you get there. Why do concentration curls so effectively work the biceps? Researchers believe it’s because this exercise places more stress on the biceps muscle and less on the other muscles that “help out” when you flex your arm – the brachioradialis and the anterior deltoid. The brachioradialis is a smaller muscle that raises your forearm when your elbow is bent and also rotates your forearm so that your palm turns up or down. The anterior deltoid is the front part of your shoulder. The other curls on the list activate the brachioradialis and the anterior deltoid more than concentration curls do. When you do concentration curls, you target your biceps with laser-like precision. That’s why it is one of the most effective exercises for strengthening and hypertrophying your biceps.
Mistakes People Make with Concentration Curls
You can do concentration curls while sitting or standing. Sitting curls are best for focusing on the biceps and are safer if you have shoulder issues as well. To do one:
· Sit down on the edge of a bench.
· Spread your legs and pick up a dumbbell with your right hand.
· While holding the dumbbell, place the elbow of the right arm on your right inner thigh.
· Rotate your palm upward and extend your arm with the dumbbell in your hand.
· Anchor your elbow firmly in place as you curl the dumbbell toward your shoulder as you exhale.
· When the dumbbell reaches your shoulder, hold for a second or two and slowly bring it back down as you inhale.
· Do 8-10 reps.
· Repeat with the other arm.
One common mistake with concentration curls is to not use full range-of-motion when curling the weight. If you find yourself doing this, it may be because you’re using too much resistance. Lighten up on the weight and focus on slowly curling with intention and focus. (That’s why it’s called a concentration curl!) Also, nothing should move when you do this movement except your forearm. Avoid swinging the weight or using momentum.
Do a Variety of Biceps Curls
Although concentration curls beat out its competition in terms of muscle activation, a balanced biceps workout includes more than just concentration curls. In fact, your biceps can benefit from including all of these variations in your routine. Also, keep in mind that biceps curls are an isolation exercise, one that works one muscle group and involves movement around a single joint. You also work your biceps when you do compound exercises, like deadlifts, lateral pull-downs, barbell rows, and underhand pull-ups, to name a few.
It’s better to spend the majority of your training time on compound exercises since they elicit a greater anabolic response and work more muscle groups simultaneously than isolation movements, like biceps curls. Plus, working more muscles at the same time burns more calories and helps with fat loss. Yet, it’s also important to do focused biceps work as well and you can’t get more focused than concentration curls.
The Bottom Line
Make sure you’re including a variety of curls in your routine, but don’t forget about concentration curls. It’s not a variation that most people do but it is one of the most effective because it precisely targets the biceps with minimal activation of the brachioradialis and the anterior deltoid.
Strong biceps are important for the functional movements you do every day. So, keep working them and make sure you’re using proper form with each repetition you do to get the most out of the movement. If you do biceps curls using dumbbells, you can do unilateral curls as well to help correct a lagging biceps muscle. If you’re right-handed, you may find that your right biceps muscle is more developed because you use it more. So, your left side may need a bit more work. That’s the advantage of an isolation exercise. Use curls to optimize the strength and appearance of your biceps!
Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1993;66(3):254-62.
ACE Fitness. “ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises”
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