The classic biceps curl is still a great way to grow your arms, but your body also needs new stimuli and different movements to progress, especially when it comes to biceps growth. And that’s where Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere, C.S.C.S. has a few ideas for you.
The veteran trainer understands the need for muscle confusion, and he also understands that biceps training can be more versatile than people realize. Your biceps is responsible for two key motions—flexion at the elbow and rotation of the forearm so your pinky moves toward the ceiling—and that means the muscle can be trained with more than standard curls. Check out these variations, all favorites of Cavaliere, that can mix up your training and help you achieve maximum arm day gains.
The Barbell Cheat Curl
You’ve done barbell curls before, and if you’ve done them right, you’ve used little momentum and really focused in on your biceps. The cheat curl, which should be used sparingly, introduces some momentum to get the weight up, and that allows you to focus on the eccentric portion of the lift.
To do it, you lean forward slightly, then use momentum to raise the barbell before lowering it back down slowly. However, be careful to not lean back too far when lifting: imagine a vertical line at your back, and don’t lean beyond it. The key here is to let the biceps do the work.
“We want to take advantage of the fact that our muscles are stronger eccentrically than they are concentrically,” says Cavaliere. “So if we can get that weight up via a little bit of a cheat, then we can overload the eccentric, which is a known stimulus for hypertrophy.”
Use the cheat curl sparingly in your training, maybe twice a month, says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. “You don’t want to abuse this move,” he says. “Used correctly, it can overload your biceps. Used too frequently, it can create shoulder issues because it does involve your shoulders more than you think when you’re cheating up the lift.”
This bodyweight exercise is another move that’s all about eccentric overload, at least as far as your biceps are concerned. “This exercise trains us to utilize our biceps to not just pull ourselves up to the bar, but also to control that descent,” says Cavaliere, adding that in its bodyweight form, the chinup can be highly challenging. However, once you have mastered it, there is the option to increase progressional overload by adding weights.
The Dumbbell Cross-Body Curl
This move isn’t technically a bicep exercise, as it actually minimizes bicep activation and reduces supination of the forearm in order to really focus on the brachialis. But the brachial, a ball of muscle that lies just beneath your biceps, is actually responsible for a lot of arm size if you develop it.
“We know that building up the brachialis will thicken the arms, widen them out in the shirt sleeves, and contribute to the overall mass of the arm, because it lies underneath the bicep,” says Cavaliere.
Pronate the forearm and bring the dumbbell up across the body, remembering to do so slowly in order to maximize the activation of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Key when doing this: Keep your shoulder blades back and don’t overemphasize the cross-body motion.
Alternately, says Samuel, you can ditch the cross-body aspect of the movement entirely. “A classic hammer curl gets the job done here,” he says. And unlike the cross-body curl, which can push your shoulders towards internal rotation if done incorrectly, the standard hammer curl still, um, hammers your brachial, while letting you keep your shoulders in shoulder-friendly external rotation.
The Banded Dumbbell Curl
This curl variation is all about maximizing tension. Adding bands increases resistance at the higher end of the movement, when there is the most tension in the band, compared to a standard curl, where the tension is highest in the middle of the movement.
The Incline Dumbbell Stretch Curl
If there’s one exercise on this list you should skip, it’s this one, which places your shoulders in a compromising position, especially if you have tight pecs. You’re getting major stretch on the entire shoulder capsule and, depending on your shoulder mobility, your body may not be prepared for it.
However, if your shoulders are fully healthy and you want to mix up biceps day, the incline bench dumbbell curl can work well. It ups the tension on the biceps when your shoulder is in extension, essentially when your upper arm is behind your torso. “Obviously you’ll be using lighter weights here because you’re placing your biceps in the stretch position, they’re going to be weaker,” explains Cavaliere, “but you’re going to want to take it to the next level by applying a deeper stretch.”
Use this curl sparingly if you do do it, and try this test first: Extend your arm behind your torso as far as it will go comfortably. Keep that arm angle in mind when you’re doing incline curls. If you go beyond that angle, you’re not doing your shoulder health any favors.
The Incline Waiter Curl
Cavaliere has previously sung the praises of the waiter curl, which involves holding and lifting a single vertical dumbbell to reach maximum contraction. By performing this move while facing forward on an incline, you free up your range of movement as the dumbbell is no longer hitting your legs as it does when performed standing—therefore not compromising the overload you want to get in that peak contracted state.