Welcome to Modify This Move, the ongoing series where you’ll discover everything you need to adjust a standard exercise to meet your objectives, your physique, and your disposition. Each story breaks down how to execute a foundational fitness move, then provides various alterations based on your current fitness level or energy level, present or previous injuries, or the muscles you want to focus on the most. So leave your pride behind and ensure that every workout suits your current state.
Take a single glance at the term “biceps curl,” and you can safely assume that the exercise will aim to strengthen and develop the, well, biceps muscles. However, the name does not reveal the entire story.
In reality, according to Keri Harvey, a NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City, the biceps curl also targets a few joints in your upper body. “While you are working to enhance the strength of your biceps, you are simultaneously moving your elbow back and forth, which contributes to the improvement of joint health in that area. Furthermore, you are working on maintaining stability in your shoulder,” she explains. Engaging your core is also essential during the biceps curl, as activating these muscles (which, by the way, consist of more than just your abs) assists in maintaining stability and prevents the use of momentum to swing the dumbbell up and down. This is why Harvey asserts that the biceps curl is a valuable addition to your upper-body workouts.
Having said that, the traditional biceps curl is not the only way to enjoy these benefits. Whether you are a novice in strength training or an experienced weightlifter seeking a low-intensity workout, you can choose a biceps curl variation that is gentle on the body yet as effective as the standard move. If you are experiencing elbow or shoulder pain, you can also substitute the conventional exercise with a biceps curl variation in order to avoid exacerbating those discomforts. Regardless of your reason, there is no shame in listening to your body and modifying your workout with a biceps curl variation that leaves you feeling strong, comfortable, and free from pain, both mentally and physically. Additionally, it is worth noting that the biceps consist of two distinct parts – the long head and the short head. Therefore, by altering your curl exercise, you can specifically target one component.
Are you ready to put the fundamental upper-body move to the test? Follow the instructions below to master the classic biceps curl, and then observe as Harvey demonstrates five different biceps curl variations that are suitable for all abilities and fitness goals.
How to Perform a Biceps Curl
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, keeping your knees slightly bent. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms hanging at your sides and your palms facing forward.
B. To maintain a contracted core, keep the elbows close to the sides and draw the shoulders down and back. Activate the biceps muscles to bring the dumbbells up towards the shoulders until the elbows are fully flexed. Avoid any swaying or using momentum to lift the dumbbells.
C. Pause briefly, then with control, lower the dumbbells back to the sides.
5 Biceps Curl Alternatives
Regardless of your affinity for the traditional biceps curl, there may be days where you desire a change in your workout routine – and that’s perfectly fine. Whether the standard exercise presents too much of a challenge or you’re seeking to target specific muscle groups, don’t be afraid to explore alternative biceps curl variations that align with your individual needs and goals.
Below, you’ll find a selection of biceps curl variations that can either intensify or simplify the exercise. These variations cater to relieving elbow and shoulder pain while engaging the biceps, as well as improving grip strength. No matter which option you choose, be attentive to your body as you complete each repetition, and switch to a different exercise if it doesn’t feel suitable.
Biceps Curl Variation for Decreased Intensity: Alternating Biceps Curl
This modification involves curling one dumbbell at a time, which can prove especially advantageous for individuals new to biceps curls. “By focusing on one bicep at a time, beginners can establish a stronger mind-muscle connection and ensure they maintain a stable core throughout the movement,” explains Harvey. Experienced athletes can also incorporate this biceps curl variation into their routine if they desire a scaled-down workout or aim to refine their technique.
A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, slightly bending the knees. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand, positioning the arms alongside the body with palms facing forward.
B. Keeping the core engaged, the elbows close to the sides, and the shoulders drawn down and back, activate the biceps muscle of the right arm to lift the dumbbell towards the right shoulder, fully flexing the elbow. Avoid any swaying or relying on momentum to raise the dumbbell.
C. Pause briefly, then slowly lower the dumbbell back to the right side, maintaining control.
D. Keeping the core engaged, the elbows close to the sides, and the shoulders drawn down and back, activate the biceps muscle of the left arm to lift the dumbbell towards the left shoulder, fully flexing the elbow. Avoid any swaying or relying on momentum to raise the dumbbell.
E. Pause briefly, then slowly lower the dumbbell back to the left side, maintaining control.
Biceps Curl Variation for Increased Intensity: Concentration Curl
When you’ve mastered the conventional biceps curl and are eager to elevate the challenge, give the concentration curl a try. This variation of the biceps curl is performed while seated or in a half-kneeling position, with your elbow pressed against your thigh, according to Harvey. As a result, your biceps will face a significant test. “There is absolutely no way that you’ll sway or swing the weight — you genuinely have to rely on your biceps to lift the weight,” she explains.
A. Sit on a bench with your feet placed on the floor, hip-width apart, and your knees bent at 90-degree angles. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand, with your palm facing forward, while resting your right elbow on top of your right thigh and keeping your arm fully extended between your legs. Place your left hand on your left hip.
B. While keeping your core engaged and your shoulders down and back, activate your biceps muscle to pull the dumbbell up toward your right shoulder until your elbow is completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to lift the dumbbell.
C. Pause briefly, then gradually lower the dumbbell back down between your legs with control. Repeat on the left side.
Biceps Curl Variation for Elbow Pain: Preacher Curl
Similar to the concentration curl, this variation of the biceps curl involves resting the triceps and elbow against a supportive surface, making it ideal for individuals dealing with elbow pain or other joint issues, Harvey says. “They’re being stabilized, so they don’t feel as exposed,” she explains. “They’re supported throughout the entire movement, and you won’t hyper-extend your elbow in any way, allowing you to solely focus on the curl itself.”
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart behind a bench with the backrest inclined at a 45-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand, with your palm facing forward, and position your right elbow and tricep on the backrest, fully extending your right arm down the bench. Place your left hand on the left side of the bench for support.
B. While keeping your core engaged and your shoulders down and back, activate your biceps muscle to pull the dumbbell up toward your right shoulder until your elbow is completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbell.
C. Pause briefly, then slowly lower the dumbbell back to the bench with control. Repeat on the left side.
Biceps Curl Variation for Shoulder Pain: Wall Biceps Curl
This variation of the biceps curl involves standing with your upper back pressed against a wall, instead of standing freely, which can significantly benefit individuals experiencing shoulder pain, according to Harvey. In a traditional biceps curl, “it can be very easy to allow your shoulders to lean forward, allowing the weight to be in control rather than you,” she explains. “With the shoulders against the wall, it provides stability and support… so if you focus on keeping your upper back in contact with the wall at all times, then you can move the weight with your biceps instead of with your shoulders.
A. Position yourself in front of a wall with your feet separated at the width of your hips, your knees slightly bent, and your upper back supported against the wall. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand, keeping your arms at your sides and your palms directed forward.
B. Ensure that your core is engaged, and keep your elbows close to your sides while pulling the dumbbells up towards your shoulders using your biceps muscles, until your elbows are fully flexed. Avoid any swaying or relying on momentum to lift the dumbbells.
C. Take a pause at the top, and then gradually lower the dumbbells back down to your sides, maintaining control throughout the movement.
Variation of Biceps Curl to Enhance Forearm Strength and Grip: Zottman Curl
This variation of the biceps curl is highly favored by Harvey due to its effectiveness in strengthening the forearms and improving grip strength. Additionally, it contributes to enhancing mobility. Ensure that you utilize a lighter set of dumbbells than usual, as it can be particularly challenging for the forearms to lower the weight with your palms facing downwards, which is a direction that your muscles are less accustomed to working in, explains Harvey.
A. Take a stance with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, keeping your arms at your sides and your palms facing forward.
B. Keep your core engaged, maintain your elbows close to your sides, and ensure that your shoulders are down and back. Activate your biceps muscles to pull the dumbbells up towards your shoulders until your elbows are completely flexed. Avoid any swaying or relying on momentum to lift the dumbbells.
C. When you reach the top of the movement, rotate your thumbs inward so that your palms face forward. Then, slowly lower the dumbbells back down to your sides, maintaining control throughout the descent.
Photography and art: Jenna BrillhartModel and fitness expert: Keri HarveyHair and makeup: Tee ChavezLeggings: AerieWorkout Bench: Ignite by SPRI
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