How to do the barbell curl to get bigger, stronger and more defined arms
Follow my expert advice on how to do better barbell curls to add serious size and strength to your biceps to get the bigger, stronger and more defined arms you want, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey
The barbell curl is less popular than the dumbbell biceps curl, the dumbbell hammer curl, or the EZ-bar biceps curl. But that doesn’t mean that you should ignore it. Especially if you’re serious about maximising the size and strength of your arms.
A smart approach to training sees each exercise as a tool in your training tool kit. And the key to getting a great job done is knowing when to use the right tool at the right time. To do that, you first need to understand what each tool does.
In the case of the barbell curl, it’s a strength-building move. Yes, it will build bigger biceps too. But you need to appreciate that its primary outcome is to make you stronger in curling movements? Why? Because this knowledge allows you to better incorporate the barbell curl into your arms day workouts so you get the result you want faster. Here’s what you need to know to start building the big, strong and defined biceps you want!
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What is a barbell curl?
It’s one of many barbell bicep curl exercise variations, and one you do with a straight barbell. It can be done with an Olympic bar, which is seven feet long and weighs 20kg. Or you can do it with a fixed barbell, which are shorter, and the weight of which usually starts at 5kg and goes up in 2.5kg or 5kg increments.
What’s the difference between an Olympic barbell and a fixed barbell?
There are a couple of key differences. The first is weight. Olympic bars weight 20kg. Fixed ones usually start at a much lighter weight. So for that reason fixed bars can be more beginner friendly for doing barbell curls. The second difference is that Olympic bars allow the weight plates on it to rotate. That’s significant for big dynamic exercises, such as cleans, because you want the weight plates to move freely. It’s less significant for slower and controlled lifts, such as barbell curls.
What’s the difference between the barbell curl and the dumbbell curl?
Dumbbell curls will work each of your arms more evenly. Why? Because both arms have to lift the exact same load. But with barbell curls it’s possible for your dominant arm (almost always the side you write with) to do more of the work. This then reinforces the imbalance, making your dominant side stronger and your weaker side weaker.
You will be able to lift a heavier total weight when you use a barbell compared with two dumbbells. Why? The bar puts you into more of a fixed position, so it requires less work from your smaller stabilising muscles. For that reason, barbells are great for developing biceps strength. That’s useful because a stronger muscle has a fa greater capacity to become a bigger muscle.
When should I do barbell curls?
You can do them any time in an arms workout. If you’ve included arms exercises in a session that involves other body parts, do them towards the end of your workout.
How often should I do barbell curls?
You can train your arms two or even three times a week. But you want to mix up your exercise selection. So there’s probably no reason to do a barbell curl more than once a week. It doesn’t have to appear in every training plan you do. But if bigger arms are your goal, they should make an appearance at some point (as should the reverse barbell biceps curl).
How to do the perfect barbell curl
• Hold a barbell in both hands with your grip just wider than shoulder-width apart.
• Start with the bar against the front of your thighs with your arms straight.
• Without moving your upper arms and keeping your elbows tight against your sides, curl the bar up to shoulder-height.
• Squeeze your biceps muscles hard at the top of the rep, then lower slowly the bar back down under control.
• Fully straighten your arms at the bottom of the rep, flex the triceps muscles hard, then repeat the movement for the ideal number of reps for your goal.
How to get better at the barbell curl
Squeeze the barbell hard
Squeezing the bar will help you recruit the maximum number of muscle fibres. This can be particularly useful when the reps get tough. And it’ll help you get the most out of each rep.
Superset with a dumbbell exercise
Using supersets (two exercises done back-to-back) is a great way to accelerate your progress. Pairing a barbell curl with a dumbbell move gives you the benefits of both tools. Use a dumbbell move that requires your wrists to be in a different position to a barbell curl, such as the hammer curl.
Keep your upper body still
Your aim should be for your forearms to be the only body part the moves. Any other movement is a sign that you’re not fully focusing the tension on the biceps muscle. Being strict with your from is tough but the muscle building pay off will be worth it.
Extend your arms
If you watch people do barbell curls in the gym, you’ll see a lot of half reps. So if you want to get the most out of the move, make sure you maximise your range of motion. Go as far as you can at the top. And aim to fully straighten your arms at the bottom of each rep.
The best barbell curl exercise alternatives
EZ-biceps bar curl
If you experience wrist or elbow pain when doing barbell curls, the EZ bar curl is a useful alternative. Your wrists are slightly angled in, and that makes it kinder on the joints.
Drag biceps curl
This is where you drag the barbell up your body as you curl. You do that by moving your upper arms back slightly as you curl. It eliminates the forward movement of the upper arms that takes tension off the biceps.
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