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The first muscle that gym newbies usually train is the biceps. Biceps exercises are a rite of passage that serves as a gym initiation. Once you have passed, you can proceed to the squat rack. Jokes aside, dumbbell curls are a great way to grow your biceps, if that’s your goal.

No matter if you’re a beginner, advanced lifter, or into bodybuilding, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your biceps grow. Plus, when you’re performing curls in front of the mirror, you know what to do next.

As opposed to barbell curls, dumbbell curls allow you more freedom of movement and build the biceps from a variety of grips and angles. Here we’ll go into the biceps’ anatomy, what a dumbbell curl is, its benefits, and seven dumbbell curl variations to enjoy flex-time. Without further ado, let’s build some guns.  

What Are the Biceps?

The biceps brachii is a Latin term for the two-headed muscle of the upper arm (and yes, it’s always biceps, never bicep!). The “head” of the muscle refers to the end of the muscle at its attachment point. The short head of the biceps originates from the scapula (shoulder blade) close to the ball-and-socket joint and inserts into the radius (a forearm bone). The long head of the biceps originates from a different spot of the scapula, and also inserts into the radius. 

The main function of the biceps muscle is to flex the elbow and supinate the forearm (or turn the forearm so the palm faces upward). When the biceps contract, they cause elbow flexion, which brings your forearm closer to your body. (The brachialis muscle lies underneath the biceps brachii, and it’s the main driver of elbow flexion.) The biceps helps rotate the forearm outward as well.

What Is a Dumbbell Curl?

The dumbbell curl is an isolation exercise for the biceps muscles. There are many variations (more on this below), but they all have one thing in common: You’re curling the weight up from below waist level up to shoulder level. Dumbbell biceps curls have a slightly greater range of motion as compared to the cable curl and bar curl variations. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Curls

Bigger arms are the obvious benefit of performing dumbbell curls in your biceps workout. But believe it or not, there are other benefits of performing curls in your arm workouts.  

RELATED: Best Dumbbell Workouts

Better Performance

Compound exercises that involve the biceps like rows, chin-ups, and pull-ups, benefit from bigger biceps because you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Wouldn’t it be a shame for your biceps and grip to give out before you’ve exhausted your shoulders and back?

Freedom Of Movement

With the barbell, you only have two grip choices: reverse or underhand. But with dumbbells, you can grip and curl with an overhand grip, underhand grip, neutral grip, and anything in between. This allows you to train your forearms and biceps from a variety of angles for better muscle development.

Unilateral Strength

Even when you’re curling two dumbbells, each arm is working independently of the other. This is not the case with barbell curls. When curling with dumbbells, you’ll strengthen imbalances between the biceps, which will help better hypertrophy between sides.

Grip Strength

Following on from the freedom of movement, gripping the dumbbell from different angles will strengthen your grip from those angles, too. This leads to more well-rounded grip strength, and forearm development and may help you lift heavier weights. 

Improved Shoulder Stability

Because the biceps originates from the scapula, it also plays a part in shoulder stability through the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff secures the upper arm bone (humerus) to the shoulder joint and the biceps head secures the shoulder joint to the humerus. This compression from both sides and muscles benefits your shoulder stability.  

Best Dumbbell Curl Variations

Standard Curl

You can complete the standard curl in a standing or seated position. We like the standing variety as it causes you to engage your core even more.

A gif of a dumbbell curl

How to do it:

  1. Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand down by your sides.
  2. Engage your core and begin to lift the dumbbells up toward your shoulders, keeping your arms tucked by your sides.
  3. Pause for a second at the top then return to the starting position.

Coach’s Tip: Make sure you’re moving slow and controlled through the movement—don’t rely on momentum to bring the dumbbells to your shoulders. And always remember progressive overload to continue to make gains.

Concentration Curl

With the concentration curl, you’re sitting down, and your biceps are more engaged due to the increased stability. Try to minimize upper body movement to get the most of this biceps curl variation.  

A gif of a dumbbell concentration curl

How to do it: 

  1. Sit on a bench with your legs spread apart.
  2. Holding the dumbbell with your right hand, lean over your right thigh, pressing your bodyweight into your forearm, which should rest on your thigh.
  3. Curl the dumbbell to your shoulder while keeping your chest up and your torso still.
  4. Pause for a second and return to the starting position.

Coach’s Tip: Keep your upper body still and your triceps engaged the entire time.

Hammer Curl 

The neutral grip on this dumbbell curl variation is friendlier on your wrists, elbows, and shoulders, as they’re not externally nor internally rotated. Plus, the neutral grip is our strongest grip, and this allows you to lift more.  

A gif of a dumbbell hammer curl

How to do it:

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells by your side with your wrists in neutral, shoulders down, and chest up.
  2. Keeping your wrists in neutral, curl until the end of the dumbbells are at the front of your shoulders.
  3. Pause for a second and slowly lower down to the starting position, then repeat.

Coach’s Tip: Hold the dumbbells with an offset grip (away from the middle) to make this more difficult.

Reverse Curl

The dumbbell reverse curl trains the smaller forearm extensor muscles, which often get overpowered by the bigger and stronger forearm flexors. Strengthening these muscles will help prevent injury and keep your elbows healthier longer.

A gif of a dumbbell reverse curl

How to do it:

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells with an overhand reverse grip, in front of your thighs and at arm’s length.
  2. Keep your wrists neutral and curl the dumbbells to the outside of your shoulders.
  3. Pause for a second and slowly return to the starting position, then repeat.

Coach’s Tip: The reverse is our weakest grip, and you’ll use less weight than the other variations. Keeping your wrist neutral is non-negotiable here.

Preacher Curl

The preacher curl has you sitting down (or standing, as in the gif below) with your upper arms on a preacher bench. This stability and position of the arms isolate the biceps and forearms to a greater degree than other dumbbell curl variations. The dumbbell preacher curl is slightly easier on the joints than the EZ bar variation because there’s a larger range of motion available.

A gif of a dumbbell preacher curl

How to do it:

  1. Sit down on the preacher curl bench and adjust the seat height so your upper arms and chest are in contact with the pad.
  2. Grip one or two dumbbells using your preferred grip.  
  3. Extend your elbows fully and maintain a neutral wrist.
  4. Curl by squeezing your biceps and bending your elbows until the dumbbells are in front of your shoulders.
  5. Slowly straighten your elbows to lower down to the starting position, then repeat.

Coach’s Tip: If the preacher curl aggravates your shoulders, perform another variation on this list.

21s

The increased time under tension using three ranges of motion (ROM) during 21s will have your biceps full of flex appeal in a hurry. Perform them with your grip of choice and you can either stand or sit. When you’re performing this right, one set is enough.

How to do it

  1. Stand or sit and hold the dumbbells down by your sides with your preferred grip.
  2. Start with the bottom ROM: Curl the dumbbells until your elbows hit 90 degrees and lower down. Do 7 reps.
  3. Move to the top ROM: Position your elbows in the 90-degree position and curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders. Do 7 reps.
  4. End with the full ROM: Start with the dumbbells down at your sides, and curl them all the way up to your shoulders. Do 7 reps.

Coach’s Tip: Use either a supinated, hammer curl, or reverse curl grip.

Incline Dumbbell Curl

Performing biceps curls on an incline puts an incredible stretch on the biceps and gives you more range of motion, too. Both of these factors make it a tough variation so start with lighter weights.

A gif of an incline dumbbell curl

How to do it

  1. Sit down on an incline bench holding a pair of dumbbells with your arms in the dead hang position. 
  2. Curl up until your biceps are fully contracted.
  3. Pause and slowly return to the starting position. Reset and repeat. 

Coach’s Tip: Minimize upper body involvement by keeping your back glued to the bench the entire time.

Final Thoughts on Best Dumbbell Curl Variations

Training the biceps with dumbbell curls leads to better unilateral strength, improved muscle development, and will help you with compound exercises that involve elbow flexion. You’ll have better freedom of movement, which is a godsend for lifters with sore and banged-up joints. Dumbbell curl variations are a solid choice when it comes to improving your biceps size and strength.  

Dumbbell Curl Variations FAQs

What dumbbell curl is best?

This is dangerous ground. There is no best but what works best for you. Some lifters’ elbows hurt with an underhanded grip and work better with a neutral grip. Others could be the opposite. Try different variations, like the standard curl, reverse curl, hammer curl, or even the Zottman curl, then let results—and any pain—be your guide.

Are there different ways to do bicep curls?

Yes, of course. You can perform barbell curls, resistance band curls, cable machine curls and even kettlebell curls. There is no right or wrong way, just the variation and the equipment you perform curls with that works best for you.

Is it better to alternate dumbbell curls?

Yes, because you have a choice with grips that you don’t have with other equipment. Varying your grip and variations ensures that you don’t get stale, avoid overuse injuries, and see better muscle development of the biceps and forearms.

How many bicep variations should I do?

At least three variations. One with an underhanded grip for the forearm flexors, reverse grip to train the forearm extensors, and neutral grip to train the brachioradialis. This trains the forearms and biceps from all angles.

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