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You likely haven’t heard of George Zottman, a turn-of-the-century strongman from Philadelphia who died in the 1940s. You might have, however, heard of (or tried) an exercise he created—Zottman curls. Zottman curls use a pair of dumbbells to build muscle in the biceps and forearms at the same time.

RELATED: Best Long Head Biceps Exercises

I—a certified personal trainer of over a decade—aim to explain how to do the Zottman curl with proper form, go through variations, and then list a few alternative exercises for those who need them. I’ll also describe the benefits of Zottman curls and common mistakes to avoid. 

By the end of this how-to guide, I can assure you that you’ll have another fantastic arm exercise to add to your training repertoire. Let’s begin!

How To Do the Zottman Curl

To do the Zottman curl, you’ll need a pair of dumbbells. Most lifters find a lighter pair is sufficient compared to the weight you might use for other dumbbell curl variations. The reasoning here is you rotate your wrists at the top of the movement and use your forearms and grip strength (instead of your biceps) to lower the dumbbells. 

How to do it:

  1. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. You’ll want a pair of dumbbells in your hands and your arms down by your sides.
  2. Rotate your wrists so that your palms face forward in the starting position.
  3. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes.
  4. Curl the dumbbells simultaneously toward your shoulders.
  5. Squeeze your biceps at the top, then rotate your wrists so your palms face downward.
  6. Lower the dumbbells slowly until your arms are down by your sides.
  7. Twist your wrists so that your palms face forward again before the next rep.
  8. Continue for the desired number of repetitions before repeating the set.
zottman curl

Modifications

  • Dial it back: Make Zottman curls less challenging by reducing the weight or the number of repetitions you perform. You can also begin with regular dumbbell biceps curls into hammer curls to build up your wrist mobility.
  • Make it harder: Add more reps or sets, or increase the weight of the dumbbells. You can also incorporate tempo training by holding the top position for longer and slowly lifting and lowering the dumbbells.

RELATED: Hammer Curl Vs Biceps Curl

How To Do Zottman Curls At Home

To do Zottman curls at home, consider purchasing a pair of the best dumbbells (if you don’t already have a set). You can also try using heavy household objects, such as laundry detergent if weights aren’t available. You’ll want to make sure that both objects weigh the same.

Woman performing bicep curls with CAP Barbell dumbbells

Zottman Curl Variations

  • Cable Zottman curl: Adjust the pulley on one side of a cable machine to its lowest position and attach a D-handle. Then, do the exercise described above, one arm at a time. The cables will place constant tension on the muscle groups hit during Zottman curls (you’ll learn more on this below).
  • Incline Zottman curl: Instead of standing up, lie down on an incline bench. The downside of standing during any bicep exercise is that you can use momentum from the rest of your body to assist you with the rep. Lying down stops this, and you also get an increased range of motion, which helps contribute to bigger biceps.
  • Reverse Zottman curl: Begin with your hands pronated (palms facing away from you) instead of supinated (palms facing forward). Curl the dumbbells toward your shoulders, then rotate your wrists at the top. This exercise works your forearm muscles to a greater extent than regular Zottman curls (but your biceps to a lesser extent).

Zottman Curl Alternatives

I’m a big fan of Zottman curls and regularly include them in my arm workouts. However, I appreciate that they aren’t for everyone. So, here are four Zottman curl alternatives for similar arm mass stimuli you can try:

Hammer Curl

Why do it: There are two benefits of knowing how to do hammer curls. First, you’ll likely be able to lift heavier loads than with Zottman curls because you don’t rotate your wrists at the top of the movement (therefore, only using your biceps). Additionally, for anyone with wrist issues or those who find Zottman curls painful, the neutral-grip position of hammer curls can make a big difference.

How to do it: 

  1. Stand upright with a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Your arms should be down by your sides and your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
  2. Rotate your wrists so that your hands are in a neutral position (palms facing each other).
  3. Lift your chest and engage your core.
  4. Bend your elbows so that both dumbbells move toward your shoulders.
  5. Pause momentarily before slowly bringing the dumbbells back down to their original position.
  6. Repeat the movement for reps.
A gif of a dumbbell hammer curl

Reverse Curl

Why do it: A 2023 Sports (Basel, Switzerland)1 study found that “the anterior deltoid excitation was greater with the pronated and neutral grip compared to the supinated condition.” Even though the biceps brachii and brachioradialis are worked to a lesser degree during reverse curls than Zottman curls, it’s worth having both exercises in your training regimen.

How to do it: 

  1. Load a barbell with your preferred amount of weight.
  2. Stand tall, holding the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing your body). You’ll want your feet to be shoulder-width apart and the bar at your pelvic region.
  3. Squeeze your glutes, engage your core, and lift your chest.
  4. Curl the bar toward your shoulders.
  5. Hold the weight at the top, then lower the bar back down to the starting position in a controlled manner.
  6. Repeat for reps.

Expert tip: Although I’ve described reverse barbell curls above, you can perform this bodybuilding exercise using dumbbells, a cable machine, or even one of the best resistance bands. If you prefer, sit down instead of standing up so that you don’t use momentum from the rest of your body.

reverse barbell curl

Preacher Curl

Why do it: I love preacher curls because your arms and body are fixed in place during the exercise, which means that you can’t use the momentum from the rest of your body (you can, however, use your body’s momentum during Zottman curls). 

A 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health2 study found that you’ll get similar hypertrophy gains regardless of whether you use a cable machine or a barbell for preacher curls.

How to do it: 

  1. Adjust the height of a preacher bench so that your elbows and triceps are lying flat (yet comfortable) on the padding while seated.
  2. Add the desired weight plates to the EZ bar. (Alternatively, you can use dumbbells, a barbell, or a cable machine to perform this exercise.)
  3. Hold the bar with an underhand grip (palms facing the ceiling) and keep your head neutral. Your arms should be straight in the starting position.
  4. Bend your elbows so that the weight moves toward your shoulders.
  5. Hold momentarily, then lower the bar until your arms are extended.
  6. Keep going for reps.
EZ-bar-preacher-curl

Barbell Curl

Why do it: Barbell curls are the most popular biceps exercise out there, and compared to Zottman curls, you’ll be able to lift heavier loads. However, you won’t work your forearms to the same extent and won’t benefit from unilateral training (as you do with Zottman curls). I’d suggest having both barbell and Zottman curls in your workout routine.

How to do it: 

  1. Grab a loaded barbell with an underhand grip (palms facing away from you). You can be either seated or standing, and the bar should be at your pelvic region.
  2. Position your feet shoulder-width apart, lift your chest, and brace your core.
  3. Squeeze the barbell before curling it toward your shoulders.
  4. Pause momentarily, then reverse the motion so the bar is lowered back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for reps.
barbell-curl

Benefits of the Zottman Curl

There are three reasons why you should consider doing Zottman curls. They build muscle in your biceps and forearms, improve grip strength, and add variety to your biceps workouts. See below:

They Help Build Bigger Biceps and Forearms

Be honest—who doesn’t want bigger arms? There are several fantastic exercises for activation of the biceps muscles, but Zottman curls are unique because they target your upper arm (biceps) and lower arm (forearms) at the same time. You can work both muscle groups separately or save time and try Zottman curls.

They May Help Improve Your Grip Strength 

During the eccentric phase of Zottman curls, you use your forearms. Stronger forearms translate to improved grip strength, which can help with compound exercises such as bench presses, pull-ups, deadlifts, barbell rows, and more. Not only this, but a 2018 Sports Medicine3 article found that handgrip strength is an indicator of overall muscle strength for aging adults.

Bells of Steel Mighty Grip plates on bench press

They Can Add Variety to Your Biceps Workouts

After a year or two of strength training, you’ll likely get bored performing the same exercises. Trust me—I’ve been there, and so have my clients. I’m not suggesting that Zottman curls replace every biceps exercise you do, but consider adding them to your exercise routine for when you need that little bit of extra spice.

Common Zottman Curl Mistakes

Zottman curls may look straightforward, but I’ve seen gym-goers and clients make three common mistakes. Here’s how to avoid them:

Using Heavy Weights

If you regularly perform dumbbell or hammer curls, you’ll likely reach for a similar weight when trying out Zottman curls. Wrong. You don’t want to do Zottman curls with heavy weights. Yes, this might dent your ego, but it’s better than risking an injury or doing the exercise incorrectly.

Lowering the Dumbbells Too Quickly

As with any resistance training exercise, the eccentric phase (lowering the dumbbells) is just as important as the concentric phase (lifting the dumbbells). With Zottman curls, it’s even more important because you work a different muscle group once you rotate your wrists. Feel the mind-muscle connection4 and ensure you don’t lower the dumbbells too quickly.

Not Fully Rotating Your Wrists

At the top of the movement, you’ll want to rotate your wrists 180 degrees so they fully face away from you. Then, you’ll bring your arms down (similar to how you would with reverse curls) before rotating your wrists 180 degrees again before the next rep. If you don’t do this, you’re not doing the exercise correctly, and it may be a sign that you need to decrease the load.

Muscles Worked by the Zottman Curl

As I’ve mentioned throughout this guide, Zottman curls target the biceps and forearms. More specifically, they hit the biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis. Here’s a breakdown:

biceps highlighted on muscular system
  • Biceps brachii: The biceps brachii5 is a large, thick, fusiform muscle on the upper arm’s ventral portion, and is a forearm flexor when extended but becomes the forearm’s most powerful supinator when flexed.
  • Brachialis: The brachialis muscle6 is one of the largest elbow flexors and provides pure flexion of the forearm at the elbow.
  • Brachioradialis: The forearm brachioradialis muscle7 is active during elbow flexion, whether the forearm is supinated, neutral, or pronated.

Zottman Curl: Final Thoughts

Zottman curls may not be as popular as barbell or hammer curls, but they’re a great way to build muscle in your biceps and forearms, improve grip strength, and add variety to your workouts. To do them with the correct form, choose a weight that you can lift comfortably, slow down the eccentric phase, and rotate your wrists fully at the top and bottom of the movement.

To avoid injury, warm up and cool down before doing Zottman curls. Cardio and dynamic exercises help, but if you want to take it a step further, include some of the best biceps stretches. Stretching before Zottman curls increases flexibility, and this may allow you to lift heavier weights. After you finish, post-workout stretches can help shorten your recovery time.

Zottman Curl: FAQs

What are Zottman curls good for?

Zottman curls are good for many things but mainly help build muscle in your biceps and forearms and improve your grip strength. Zottman curls are also unique because they activate your biceps and forearms at the same time. 

Are Zottman curls better than hammer curls?

As a certified personal trainer (CPT), I love Zottman and hammer curls, so I can’t say that one exercise is better than the other, just different. 

Both use dumbbells, so you can benefit from training each arm separately and closing the gap on muscular imbalances. With hammer curls, you can lift heavier loads compared to Zottman curls. You have a neutral hand position which may benefit those who find Zottman curls painful in the wrists. However, Zottman curls also have their advantages. The main advantage is that you can directly target your forearms once you rotate your wrists at the top of the movement. This is something that you won’t get with hammer curls. 

I suggest including both hammer curls and Zottman curls in your arm training routine.

Do Zottman curls build muscle?

Yes, Zottman curls can help build muscle. The main muscle groups targeted during Zottman curls are the biceps and forearms. The suggested number of reps to build muscle is between six and 12, so once you can comfortably lift a pair of dumbbells in this rep range, it’s important to increase the weight so that you can continue to get results. 

Which curl is best for biceps?

There are several great curl variations for the biceps, including, but not limited to:

– Barbell curls
– Dumbbell curls
– Hammer curls
– Preacher curls
– Zottman curls
– Reverse curls
– Cable curls
– Concentration curls

Try as many biceps curl exercises as possible until you find the best two or three you like and will stick to. I enjoy barbell curls, hammer curls, and Zottman curls.

References

  1. Coratella G, Tornatore G, Longo S, Toninelli N, Padovan R, Esposito F, Cè E. Biceps Brachii and Brachioradialis Excitation in Biceps Curl Exercise: Different Handgrips, Different Synergy. Sports (Basel). 2023 Mar 9;11(3):64. doi: 10.3390/sports11030064. PMID: 36976950; PMCID: PMC10054060.
  2. Nunes JP, Jacinto JL, Ribeiro AS, Mayhew JL, Nakamura M, Capel DMG, Santos LR, Santos L, Cyrino ES, Aguiar AF. Placing Greater Torque at Shorter or Longer Muscle Lengths? Effects of Cable vs. Barbell Preacher Curl Training on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy in Young Adults. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Aug 13;17(16):5859. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17165859. PMID: 32823490; PMCID: PMC7460162.
  3. McGrath RP, Kraemer WJ, Snih SA, Peterson MD. Handgrip Strength and Health in Aging Adults. Sports Med. 2018 Sep;48(9):1993-2000. doi: 10.1007/s40279-018-0952-y. PMID: 29943230.
  4. Calatayud J, Vinstrup J, Jakobsen MD, Sundstrup E, Brandt M, Jay K, Colado JC, Andersen LL. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Mar;116(3):527-33. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7. Epub 2015 Dec 23. PMID: 26700744.
  5. Tiwana MS, Charlick M, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Biceps Muscle. [Updated 2024 Jan 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519538/
  6. Plantz MA, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Brachialis Muscle. [Updated 2023 Feb 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551630/
  7. Lung BE, Ekblad J, Bisogno M. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Forearm Brachioradialis Muscle. [Updated 2024 Jan 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526110/

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