If there’s one exercise almost everyone includes in their weight training routine, it’s curls. That’s because there’s no exercise that better targets the biceps than biceps curls. Although curls are an isolation exercise, one that works only a single muscle group, it’s one of the best for activating these muscles that flex your arm You may not get the same calorie burn that you do when you do push-ups but you really isolate the biceps and this helps them grow and become stronger.
Most of us get into a rut where we do the same series of curls over and over again, especially when we always use the same grip and hand position. We might do a few sets of hammer curls and standard barbell curls and then move on to other exercises. Sound familiar? Using this approach won’t maximize the gains you get when you curl. Your muscles will respond better, especially if you’ve been training for a while, by adding little variety and with biceps curls, it’s not hard to do. How and where you place your hands when you curl can impact the degree of muscle activation and the results you get from curling.
Chances are when you do biceps curls, you use a standard grip on the barbell where your hands are shoulder width apart. Using this common grip helps maximize the amount of weight you can comfortably lift as your curl. So, why should you ever change your hand positioning? Two reasons. One, it changes the stimulus it places on the biceps and doing this helps you avoid plateaus. Two, it shifts the focus to different parts of your biceps.
Targeting All Aspects of the Biceps
Your biceps are made up of two heads called the long head of the biceps and the short head. The long head is along the outside of your biceps close to the lateral head of the triceps muscle while the short head is toward the inner aspect of your arm. The large head is what gives your biceps its “peak” while the short head gives your biceps thickness. How does this relate to how they look? Development of the long head makes your biceps look larger from the side whereas developing the short head gives your biceps definition from the front. Ideally, you want both.
You have two other important muscles in the front of your arms – the brachialis and brachioradialis. The brachialis is a major flexor of the elbow joint while the brachioradialis extends into the forearm and flexes your forearm at the elbow. Bicep curls work these muscles too.
Hand and Arm Positioning for Bicep Curls
The way you position your hands switches the emphasis from one head of the biceps to the other. Ideally, you want both heads to get a thorough workout and changing how your hands are positioned ensures that both heads get the attention they need.
When you move your hands closer together on the barbell and do a close grip curl, you shift the emphasis toward the long head of the biceps, an important part of the upper arm, since it helps with shoulder stabilization. When you move your hands beyond shoulder width part, you turn the movement into a wide-grip curl. This positioning favors the short head of the biceps. Remember, you want to work both for symmetry.
Another way to target the long or short head of the biceps more is to change the position of your arms relative to your torso. If you position your arms in front of your torso by doing a concentration or preacher curl, you target the long head of the biceps more. Alternatively, shifting the arms behind the torso when you curl places more focus on the short biceps head. Incline curls allow you to do this.
Altering Your Grip When You Curl
When you grip a barbell or dumbbell, you can hold them in a pronated, supinated, or neutral position. Supination is where the palms are facing toward you. This is the position you use when you do a standard dumbbell or barbell curl. Pronated is where your palms face down as you hold the dumbbells and is the positioning you use when you do reverse curls. Using a pronated grip strongly activates the brachioradialis muscle in the forearm and can help you develop greater grip strength. A strong grip helps you when you do a variety of upper body exercises as weak wrists and grip strength can be a limiting factor for some weight-training exercises.
When you do hammer curls, your palms are positioned midway between pronation and supination with the palms facing each other. The hammer curl has the benefit of placing less stress on your wrists than other types of curls. Plus, it works the short and long heads of the biceps well while also hitting the brachioradialis and brachialis muscles.
Use a Variety of Hand Positions and Arm Angles
For balanced biceps development, vary the arm angle and hand position you use. Also, incorporate dumbbells AND barbells into your training. If barbells intimidate you, try an EZ Curl bar. The EZ Curl bar is a bit easier on your wrists but it also alters your hand position slightly. When you curl holding an EZ Curl bar, your hands are in a slightly pronated position. Holding your hands in this position switches the focus of the exercise more medial to the short arm of the biceps and the brachialis and brachioradialis muscle. It’s another way to work the muscles in your upper arm differently. Besides, a strength workout is more interesting when you vary the approach you use. Just make sure that you’re using good form on all of these variations.
The Bottom Line
There’s more than one way to curl and simply changing your hand and arm position can help you shift the emphasis from the long head of the biceps to the short head and vice versa, as well as emphasize the brachialis and brachioradialis more. Don’t get into a bicep curl rut! Vary your approach for symmetrical strength gains and development and to avoid a plateau.
LookGreatNaked.com. “The Science of Biceps Training”
Stack.com. “Bicep Curl Grip Guide: How Hand Placement Changes the Exercise”