Big, Powerful Arms: The Best Bicep Curl Variations

By on August 26, 2021

I believe that aesthetics and functional performance go hand-in-hand.

Take the bicep curl and bicep curl variations, for example. This movement is often considered to be “non-functional” and purely for bodybuilders that care about looks more than anything else.

Bicep Curl Variations

But big biceps play a role in countless useful movements in sports and in life. From carrying shopping and kids, to climbing walls and ropes, to choking someone out. Big biceps fill out shirts, and they prevent tears during movements like deadlifts.

See also: Functional Aesthetics: Bodybuilding X Functional Training

Curls are a perfectly fine way to isolate the biceps and see considerable growth as a result. If you do them standing, then you are still engaging your core as you would do during a lift. Curls belong in both bodybuilding routines and functional training programs.

But they can be optimized for better results.

Here are some better bicep curl variations and some curl alternatives that will build massive, powerful arms.

The Top Bicep Curl Variations

Circular Curls

Circular curls are a bicep curl variation that employ a more circular motion. Here, you’ll bring the dumbbells in to touch one another during the concentric (upward) portion of the movement, then you widen them as you lower them.

That said, you can also reverse the direction, and I recommend that you do – potentially even on every repetition. The circular curl works well with fatbells, though you can use regular dumbbells just fine.

Circular Curls Bicep Curl Variation

The reason this works is that it targets both the inner and the outer head of the bicep. Your bicep muscle is actually comprised of two muscle heads with separate origin and insertion points and a shared belly (though there are no fibres connecting the two muscles). When you externally rotate the shoulders, this increases the involvement of the short-head of the biceps. Conversely, narrowing your grip with an internal rotation will work the outer head of the bicep.

Not only will training both heads of the muscle result in more powerful biceps, but it will help considerably with aesthetics. Consider that the outer head of the bicep is the longest and thus can contribute the most to the overall size of the arm. Conversely, the shorter, inner head is what most people see when you strike a bicep pose!

Cross Body Hammer Curls

Did you know that the biceps are not the strongest elbow flexors in the upper arm? Rather, that distinction goes to the brachialis, which is a deeper muscle located between the biceps and triceps. Specifically, the brachialis is actually around 50% more powerful than the biceps brachii! That’s one of the things that makes this bicep curl variation so useful.

If you have enough arm definition, the brachialis will appear as a small bulge on the side of the arm. It also contributes to the overall appear of the arm by pushing the biceps up and out. Of course, it’s crucial for overall strength.

The good news is that you are always training the brachialis when performing curls. Again: that’s because the brachialis is the strongest muscle that flexes the elbow joint.

Cross Body Hammer Curls

The brachialis inserts at the coronoid process and tuberosity of the ulna and is a pure flexor of the elbow joint. That is to say that, unlike the biceps, it plays no role in supination or pronation (twisting the arm). The hammer curl is a curl that keeps the palms in a neutral position and thereby keeps the focus purely on flexion. You may find you can lift more weight with hammer curls, and it can also help to reduce discomfort if you have wrist issues.

I like to use the hammer curls as part of a mechanical drop set. Utilizing regular curls I can pre-exhaust my biceps and then focus exclusively on the brachialis. Finish with cheat hammer curls for a true burn!

See also: It’s Time to Reconsider the Three Set Approach

The hammer curl also targets the brachioradialis – the large muscle on the lateral part of the posterior forearm that bulges just by the elbow when flexed. This muscle actually originates at the humerus and therefore plays a supporting role in elbow extension but only when the forearm is semi-pronated. This is true for any bicep curl variation with a neutral grip.

Dumbbell Runners

The dumbbell runner is a move I learned from Sylvester Stallone’s book “Sly Moves.” To perform this one, grab a dumbbell in either hand using a neutral grip, then perform essentially a slow motion run while maintaining a staggered stance and slight forward lean. Like you’re on Baywatch! As one arm comes forward into a curl with shoulder some shoulder flexion, the other extends backwards into a shoulder extension.

If you want your arms to look big, then you need to focus equally on the triceps and the shoulders. Your upper arm should be 2/3rds  tricep and 1/3rd bicep, and yet many people spend the vast majority of their time working on biceps.

Dumbbell Runners

And if you have no shoulder definition to speak of, your arms will lack definition near the top.

More to the point, though, this is also crucial when it comes to performance. Keep in mind that the biceps are biarticular; both bicep heads cross the shoulder joint and play a role in shoulder stabilization and flexion. Thus, in order to utilize the bicep to its fullest, you shoulder also be flexing the shoulder during a curl.

Likewise, the triceps are involved in shoulder extension. Dumbbell runners are fantastic because they allow you to train across all these joints on either side. They’re extremely time-efficient, and they can translate to more powerful arms during running.

Drag Curl

The drag curl is a slight variation of the regular curl that involves bringing the elbows back and “dragging” the bar up your body as you curl. This type of curl can reduce injury risk, prevent cheating, and better target the biceps by limiting the role of the anterior deltoids in the movement.  

What you will also be engaging here, though, is the traps as you’ll need to perform a slight shrug at the top of the ROM. This is useful as we use the traps in conjunction with the biceps during normal activities. Think about carrying shopping, which often involves a slight shrug and flexion of the elbow simultaneously.

Pronated Curls

Pronated Barbell Curl to Strengthen Wrists

This is a popular bicep curl variation that simply involves curling with a pronated (palms facing downward) grip. Here, you are challenged to maintain a neutral wrist as gravity attempts to force it into flexion. This isometric hold can strengthen the wrist extensors and thereby provide more balanced forearm strength to prevent elbow issues like tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). This is an issue because many forearm flexors and extensors actually cross both the wrist and the elbow joint and we often only train the flexors!

See also: How to Strengthen Elbows for Iron Arms

Band/Cable Curls

As I alluded to in my recent video on training with resistance bands, band and cable curls allow you to alter the strength curve through a wide range of bicep curl variations. For example, if you set the anchor point higher up and then curl in toward your own chin (with your upper arm parallel to the ground), the top of the movement now experiences the most resistance.

See also: Ten Amazing Benefits of Resistance Band Training (Cables Work, Too)

This means you can train that portion of the bicep specifically, which would normally get overlooked.

Resistance Bands Strength Curve

Preacher Curls

Beyond isolating the biceps – which they do – preacher curls also alter the strength curve again slightly by this time increasing resistance at the more stretched position of the curl. Again, this allows you to strengthen the entire length of the biceps, but also creates a slight weighted stretch – which is very effective for encouraging growth.

Preacher Curls

Pseudo Planche Push Up

Gymnasts have famously massive biceps, despite doing very few curls. Why is this?

It’s due to the emphasis on “straight arm strength.” This is your ability to lock out your arms at the elbow and keep them there, even against great force. This requires strength in the shoulders and scapula retractors and protractors, specifically. However, it also requires strength in the biceps and biceps tendons as they need to handle all of that significant force.

Pseudo planche push up

Thus, incorporating some gymnastic strength training – such as planche training, levers, and the like – can help to develop much stronger biceps that are far less prone to tears. AND it can result stronger looking biceps.

A great place to start is with the pseudo planche push up. This is a push up performed with the hands lower down the body (around waist height) and a forward lean that places pressure on the shoulders and elbows. You should feel like you want to fall forward and your toes should be almost raising off the floor.

At the top of the movement, make sure to lock your elbows and protract the scapula by pushing into the ground as much as possible. You can also maintain a pseudo planche hold.

See also: Untapped Strength Part One: Gymnastic Strength Training and More

With that said, be sure to build up to this movement gradually. Don’t turn your hands backwards unless you feel confident to do so and increase the sets and reps gently. If you are unused to this type of training, you can otherwise risk a tear.

Rings

Speaking of gymnastic strength training, gymnastic rings are another incredible tool for building amazing biceps. That’s because they allow you to naturally rotate and turn the wrists as you perform pull ups, thereby hitting all the different muscles we’ve discussed so far.

RTO Support Hold

Any pull up is also great for challenging the biceps and lats together – something which many real world activities (such as climbing) do.

21s

I’m ending with 21s. This isn’t a specific bicep curl variation, but rather an intensity technique that revolves around partial range of motion. The idea is to perform only the bottom portion of the movement, then only the middle portion, and finally only the upper portion. You use a light weight and complete 7 reps of each without rest.

The reason 21s work so well is that they maintain a continuous time under tension. There is no cheating, no momentum, and no resting at the top or bottom of the movement. Combined with the high rep range, this acts as a form of bloodflow restriction: preventing venous return and pooling blood and metabolites in the muscle.

This leads to enhanced metabolic stress, which triggers more growth in the biceps and greater strength endurance. At the same time, though, it may also lead to other desirable adaptations such as increased vascularization and an increased myonuclei count.

This serves as an ideal flush set to finish off your training!

Closing Comments

Create a biceps workout consisting of these movements and your arms will grow exponentially while also becoming functional and powerful. The key is to change your arm, shoulder, and wrist position regularly to strengthen all the muscles of the upper arm, while strengthening function at every position.

Are there any I missed? Let me know your favourite bicep curl variations below!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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