I don’t remember a lot from when I first started to go to the gym. But the one thing that stands out is that all the gym-goers were fighting for mirror space to perform curls.
Who doesn’t like looking at their biceps in the mirror?
To learn the basics of exercising, I mimicked those around me. The one exercise that was completely split between bars or dumbbells was the bicep curl.
In this article, we will be discussing the difference between the barbell curl vs dumbbell curl to help you decide which is better incorporated into your exercise routine.
Outside of the Bench Press lift, the Barbell Curl is one of the most iconic exercises shown in the media. The Barbell Curl allows lifters to load up the barbell with heavier weights, to show the biceps flexing at max. All you need to perform this lift is a barbell, weight plates, and most importantly clips to keep the weights from sliding off.
What muscle is it working?
The Barbell Curl primarily works the two bicep muscles called biceps brachii, and the brachialis (located underneath the bicep muscle). The secondary muscles being worked are the anterior deltoid (front shoulder) and the brachioradialis (forearm muscle).
If you do the lift wrong, you’ll be working your entire back. Don’t be that person in the gym that loads up the plates and tries to throw it up with your entire body. Take your time and gradually increase the resistance and focus on using the muscles above.
What bar should I use?
EZ Curl Barbell vs. Straight Barbell
EZ curl is the only bar I use when doing a curl and it should be the only one you use as well. I don’t care about the negative comments that it’s for beginners or that it’s too comfortable. You will be lifting longer and lifting heavier than those that don’t use it. I like that You don’t have to think about hand placement when gripping the bar because it comes with the slots to place your hands.
Don’t use a straight barbell!
Straight barbells are horrible for the wrist. You might have the straight barbell for the barbell exercises like bench press, deadlifts, and squats but it was not made for heavyweight bicep curls. A straight barbell leaves the wrist in an unsupported position and can cause wrist pain during heavy lifts. Trying to measure and even out the grip between both hands can take extra time on a barbell.
If you can’t get an EZ bar, you can use a straight barbell. I recommend not going heavy just to protect the wrist.
How to do a Barbell Curl:
Pros of the Barbell Curl
- Allows for maximal weight while performing a curl
- Weight plates can increase resistance by 5 lb increments
- EZ bars place the wrist in a comfortable position
- Allows users to stay in a straight line during lift
- Takes up less space than dumbbells
Cons of the Barbell Curl
- Puts pressure and strain on the wrist flexors because the straight barbell is in a fixed position
- Grip limits the possibility of combination exercises
- One arm can take over during the lift and cause arms to become imbalanced (one side stronger than the other)
Most of us began strength training with a dumbbell. They’re very accessible and allow you to move into your comfort zone. Dumbbells are safe due to the ability to drop out of your hand at any time without falling on you. Muscle imbalances can be fixed with a dumbbell with each side being able to fully activate.
What muscle is it working?
Very similar to the barbell curl, the dumbbell curl is going to be working the biceps, the forearms, and the shoulder. The difference is when using a dumbbell you’ll engage the forearm muscles more and the obliques to keep the body balanced and upright.
What dumbbell type should I use?
Adjustable vs Fixed vs Neoprene
The adjustable dumbbell has come a long way in the past couple of years. It used to be very similar to a barbell. Add the weight plates and then add a clip to secure the plates.
Now, they made it so you can select the weights and just pick the weights up that you selected. Only use these adjustable dumbbells, don’t use the dumbbells that are similar to a barbell. It takes too much time to load and unload the weights.
If you can’t find the newer adjustable dumbbell, go with the fixed dumbbell. Fixed dumbbells are great because they come in increments of 2.5lbs in lighter dumbbells (2.5lbs to 50lbs in most cases). Fixed dumbbells can take up a lot of space over adjustable dumbbells.
When buying either an adjustable or fixed dumbbell, make sure you buy the metal grip. In my opinion, the metal grip is more durable and has a better grip than the rubber-coated grips.
Don’t buy neoprene dumbbells!
The pro for the neoprene dumbbell is the soft comfortable coating. The coating eventually falls off and you’re left with a metal and possibly rusty dumbbell.
How to do a Dumbbell Curl:
Pros of Dumbbell Curl
- Ability to work one arm at a time to create a balance between both sides of the body
- Dumbbell variation add additional muscles being worked during the lift
- Able to do combination exercises like bicep curl shoulder press or squat curl
- Freedom of movement creates a natural range of motion for a comfortable lift
Cons of Dumbbell Curl
- Freedom of movement can cause improper form and cause strain on other arm muscles
- Two separate weights combined with muscle imbalance can cause the lifter to become off-balance during the lift causing other muscles to work to lift the dumbbell
Important Reminders When Performing a Curl
The curl lift with a barbell and dumbbell is mostly similar but there are few differences.
Starting off, it is crucial that you choose the correct resistance. When choosing the resistance, you want a weight that you can lift at least 5 to 12 reps for about 3 sets.
The 5 times reps should be slow and in control not slinging your entire body into it. If you can lift to 12 easily, you need to up the resistance.
After choosing the resistance, you will need to determine if you will perform standing or seated curl.
I prefer the seated curl because it takes the possibility of bad form out of the lift and the biceps and forearms are the only muscles engaged. You will get a great burn from this.
For the seated curl with a barbell, you will need to use a preacher curl station and for dumbbells, you can use an incline bench. A preacher curl station can be used for single-arm dumbbells but you don’t have a place to rack the weights after curling.
The most important part of the preacher curl is the height set up. The seat should allow for feet to be on the floor and armpits to sit on top of the pad. A low seat can cause strain on the shoulders and limit the range of motion during the lift. A high seat will take out the support of the feet during the lift, making it difficult to lift a heavier load.
The other option for the seated curl is the incline curl on a bench, that can only be done with a dumbbell. Please don’t try to do this with a barbell.
Start off by setting the bench to an incline between 45 and 65 degrees. This will allow you to lay back into the seat and take the core out of the lift. I like the incline bench curl because I am able to do a combination of hammer, pronated, or supinated curls in this position.
Set up for standing curls for both barbells and dumbbells are going to be the exact same except for one detail. On the EZ and straight barbell curl, you will need to choose the grip you would like to use. On most straight barbells, the grip starts at shoulder-width apart. Some have grips in the middle that make it easier to measure for narrow curls. If there is no grip in the middle, you will have to measure to make sure arms are even during narrow and wide grip curls.
As mentioned before, the benefit of the EZ Bar is that the grips are set for you.
Once selecting the grip and grabbing the weights, set feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend at the knees. Place elbows into the rib cage and begin to lift.
After setting up, it’s time to begin lifting.
The curl lift starts with the elbow joint flexing upward and pushing the hands and wrist toward the front of the shoulder. Once the barbell or dumbbell reaches the level of the shoulder, SLOWLY move the weight back down to the starting position.
The reason it’s so important to go slowly going back down is that your muscles are producing more force when returning to the starting point. This is the case for every lift. This part of the lift is the called eccentric or negative phase.
Additional Tips While Lifting:
- Don’t use momentum to swing the weights up. Go lower on the weights if you have to swing it up or compromise form
- Place your upper back against a wall or use a preacher curl station as support to prevent using your back and core during the lift
Barbell Curl vs Dumbbell Curl, which equipment is the best to use for bicep curls?
The EZ barbell is the best equipment to use for the biceps curl. At the end of the day, safety is the most important factor when lifting. The EZ bar allows for the best protection of the wrist. With that safety and stability and comfortability, you will be able to continue to make gains and build muscle.
If an EZ bar is not available, dumbbells would be the next choice. It’s not because of the curl alone but the ability to do combinations exercises like squat curl or curl press. With a barbell, it’s possible to do those lifts but it can put your wrist in uncomfortable positions.
Frequently Asked Questions
The hammer curl feels more natural than the biceps curl. Hammer curls engage the forearm muscle more allowing you to lift more weight but at the cost of a limited range of motion. At the top of the lift of a hammer curl, the forearm gets in the way of fully lifting the weight up. Different grips work engage different sides of the bicep muscle more than the other. Narrow grip bicep curl focuses on the outer bicep head. Wide grip bicep curl focuses on the inner bicep head.
Which is better the hammer curl or the bicep curl?
What is the difference between the narrow and wide grip curl?
When lifting try switching between grips to balance out the lifts for the best results.
The hammer curl feels more natural than the biceps curl. Hammer curls engage the forearm muscle more allowing you to lift more weight but at the cost of a limited range of motion. At the top of the lift of a hammer curl, the forearm gets in the way of fully lifting the weight up.
Different grips work engage different sides of the bicep muscle more than the other. Narrow grip bicep curl focuses on the outer bicep head. Wide grip bicep curl focuses on the inner bicep head.