The Barbell Curl
The nuts and bolts of what you need to know…
- The barbell curl is generally a “tool” used to build “mass,” but it’s a very versatile tool that can be used for a lot of different goals and situations
- Grip position, grip width, relative shoulder/elbow position, and speed of movement are all factors that will influence the response that using this tool will have
Exercises to me are simply “tools” in which we use to do a job – a job meaning to perform specific work to promote a specific response. In most lifting circles, the barbell curl is a tool that is primarily used to build “mass,” because it facilitates the usage of greatest loads to be used, even if this comes at the expense of using what would be considered “perfect form.” Slight deviations in form can take place without seriously compromising the end result – meaning it’s one of the few exercises in which using a little body language to complete some extra reps tips the “cost-benefit analysis” in your favor. But just because this tool is commonly used to perform the same job of building mass, does not mean that this is the only way it can be used.
In fact, with some slight modifications, this tool can be quite versatile. Let’s now take a look at some other ways this tool can be used, so that you can decide the best way to use it for yourself.
But before we do, be sure to watch this video for more great tips to help you achieve bigger biceps.
Grip Position (Underhand vs. Overhand)
The position of your hands will determine how much, or which of the four primary elbow flexors will contribute to the movement. Generally, the muscle that you want to work the most must be placed in a position of mechanical advantage. On the flip side, to direct more stress onto another muscle responsible for the same function, in this case elbow flexion, you would want to place the primary muscle group in a position of mechanical disadvantage.
As it relates to the barbell curl, both heads of the bicep are in a position of mechanical advantage when using an underhand (supinated) grip. With an overhand grip, the biceps are in a position of mechanical disadvantage, and thus the other two primary elbow flexors (brachialis, brachioradialis) are left with taking on a greater percentage of the load. Knowing whether or not you want to strengthen and develop the biceps more, or brachialis and brachioradialis more, should influence what grip position you choose.
Grip Width (Narrow Grip vs. Wide Grip)
The width of your hands is another variable that will determine how much tension is placed where. Generally, the muscle that is stretched the most is recruited the most. On the flip side, by placing a muscle in a shorter starting position, other muscles responsible for performing the same function are left with handling a greater percentage of the load.
In the case of the barbell curl, both heads of the bicep are in a position to share the load when the arm is hanging straight down from the shoulder. As the grip is widened, the short head of the bicep is pre-stretched to a greater degree, and therefore it will be recruited to a greater degree at the expense of the long head of the bicep. As the grip is narrowed, the short head is in a pre-shortened position, and therefore the long head will be recruited to a greater degree. Knowing whether or not you want to strengthen and develop the short head of the biceps more, or the long head of the biceps more, should influence what grip width you choose.
Relative Elbow/Shoulder Position
This is a variable that remains constant in most cases, as in, generally a barbell curl is performed with the elbows pinned to the sides to prevent the shoulders from assisting with the lift. However, what a lot of people don’t know, or simply are unaware of, is that the biceps have multiple functions – they don’t just “bend the elbow.” One of these functions is to flex the shoulder – raise the arm in front of the body, as you would when performing a front raise.
Now, the biceps aren’t powerful shoulder flexors by any means, but this does shed light on the fact that they will somewhat contribute to shoulder flexion, and you can play into it by intentionally curling the bar up to your forehead. Doing so will ensure that there is some degree of shoulder flexion taking place, as no one can likely curl a bar to their shoulders with their elbows pinned at their sides. To effectively perform this movement while maintaining tension on the biceps, a significantly lighter load than that which is traditionally used is going to be needed.
- A “side effect” of performing barbell curls to the forehead is that it challenges the external rotators of the shoulder, and maintaining proper alignment throughout the range of motion will facilitate a greater range of motion in external rotation – this is especially beneficial for those who have a protracted shoulder girdle, and are very tightly internally rotated.
Speed Of Movement
One final variable worthy of mention is that the speed in which the movement is performed will also influence which muscles are recruited most. Because of the body’s inherent need to prevent catastrophe, the faster a muscle is lengthened, to more the body will rely on its larger and stronger muscles to activate and prevent the lengthening from resulting in injury. How does this apply to the barbell curl? It applies in that the faster you lower the weight, the more the biceps will be called upon to decelerate and reverse the motion since they are the largest and strongest of the elbow flexors, while the slower the weight is lowered, the more the brachialis will be called upon because it is a single joint muscle primarily responsible for creating stability – and if you’re slowly lowering, you are demonstrating control and stability, and the muscle responsible for this is capable of greater contribution.
The Bottom Line
So there you have it. Multiple ways to use the same tool and promote a different result. The way you use the tool should always come down to what you are using it for – meaning, what is your goal for using it, and what do you want to accomplish from it?