As a fitness professional that advocates functional training and cross training between many disciplines, I have a dirty secret to share.
I love doing arm workouts.
I know, I know, doing sets upon sets of bicep curls is the ultimate “bro-cliche” but who doesn’t want a massive arm pump?
Not every workout has to involve kettle bells, bands, and chains…sometimes it feels good to just do some old fashioned weightlifting.
For all of you closet curl lovers out there, here are a stone cold dozen curl variations to keep your arm training fresh and the gains a coming.
Now at least you won’t be seen doing the same basic bicep routine week in and week out and you can use it as an excuse to curl more than once a week…just make sure not to do it in the squat rack!
This is one of the first curl variations I remember learning as a young teenage lifter, and probably the first exercise of any sort that utilized 1/2 or partial reps.
Start by curling the bar 1/2 way up for 7 reps. On the 7th rep, stop at the half way point and begin curling all the way up, but now stopping at the half way point on the way down for 7 reps. End the set with 7 big full range of motion reps.
The great thing about 21’s is it addresses two problem areas for most curlers - the eccentric, or lowering, portion of the movement by making you put the breaks on half way down, and the bottom portion of the movement where the bicep is fully extended and most people use momentum to get the bar started.
2. Heavy Cheat Curl Negatives
In my mind, cheat curls have a bad rep. If you are picturing swinging a massive amount of weight up and just letting it fall back down, then I am not a fan of them. But if you use your hips slightly to cheat the weight up and then squeeze and contract the bicep before fighting against gravity as you perform a negative, then we have a winner on our hands.
More muscle fibers are damaged - hence opening the door for growth and development - during the eccentric portion of an exercise than any other. Use these heavy cheat curls to get the weight up then overload the eccentric portion with a 5 second negative. I try to go 20-40lbs heavier than I would normally curl and only do sets of 3 reps.
3. Serrano Misdirection
This killer barbell variation was taught to me by my mentor, the world renowned Dr Eric Serrano. Start by curling the weight up 1/4 of the way and pause for 2 seconds. Continue up to the half way point and pause for another 2 seconds, then lower the weight all the way and perform a normal rep.
That sequence equals 1 repetition. You will need to go a little lighter than normal and shoot for sets of 6 reps. Absolutely no swinging from the bottom position.
4. 1/4 rep
The most neglected portion of the curl is the squeeze at the top, and that contraction is the money maker if you want an impressive peak on your biceps.
Start by curling the weight all the way up, pausing briefly at the top to squeeze. Lower the weight 1/4 of the way then immediately pump it back up before returning to the bottom position. Think of this as adding an extra 1/4 rep pump to the top of each curl. This variation can be used on barbell, dumbbell or hammer curls.
This is a great isolation exercise that emphasizes a static contraction at the top of the curl. Most of the time when performing alternating dumbbell curls, one dumbbell is held at your side allowing the bicep to rest while you curl the other side. This is the exact opposite strategy.
Curl both dumbbells up and lock them place at the top. Begin alternating sides for 5-8 reps, always keeping one dumbbell up and the bicep fully contracted. Keep in mind you will need to use less weight than a normal dumbbell curl.
6. Time Under Tension 5/5/5
This is another great method that can be applied to any type of curl - or any exercise for the matter. The 5/5/5 denotes the tempo of the exercise, spend 5 seconds curling the weight up, hold in full contraction at the top for 5 seconds, then lower the weight for 5 seconds.
Stick to sets of 3-5 reps, and it helps to have a partner count for you so your 5/5/5 count stays consistent.
7. Incline Twist
This is a throwback to the golden era of bodybuilding and a favorite of my business partner Cory Gregory. Lay on an incline at 45 degrees and perform alternating dumbbell curls keeping the elbows back as the weight comes up.
After 5-8 reps take about 10 seconds and rotate your palms out and then back in, twisting the dumbbells as you stretch your biceps before cranking out another 2 or 3 reps.
8. Bent over concentration curl
This is my favorite type of concentration curl, and probably one of the most difficult curl variations. I usually use it as a burnout set or a superset to pair with heavy standing barbell curls.
Squat down and grab an empty Olympic bar and place your triceps on your knees. Your elbows should be just below the knee and your arms should be perfectly straight up and down. Keep your hips high and curl the bar to your forehead, squeezing for a 2 count at the top.
The position to this one is the key, do not drop your hips as you curl or allow your upper arms to move at all.
9. Cross body hammer
This is a great old school variation that targets the brachiialis and one where you can really load up on the weight.
Perform a hammer curl, but rather than curling the dumbbell straight up, pull it in an arch across your body. Alternate sides and really try to get a good squeeze as this is a shorter range of motion.
10. Lat Bar Behind the head
I know everyone’s pet peeve is when some jerk curls in the squat rack, but I bet you didn’t know that you could curl on the lat pull down machine.
Start with a light weight and an underhand shoulder width grip. Lower the weight by curling the weight down behind your head, squeezing at the bottom.
Keep your head tucked slightly forward and be prepared to catch hell from the guy waiting to finish his lat workout.
11. Ring Forehead curls
Start in a similar poison as a bodyweight ring row but at a slightly higher angle. Your arms should be extended straight out in front of you and your palms facing up.
Slowly curl the rings toward your forehead, not allowing your elbows to drop. Do not let any slack get in the line as you will be close to vertical (standing) at the top. This one works best as a finisher to a heavy superset or as a warm up.
12. Run the Rack DB Curls -2,4,6,8,10*
Last but not least we have my favorite curl rep scheme of all time. I typically use this on a regular alternating dumbbell curl and start as heavy as possible for 2 reps on each arm.
Immediately drop down 5 or 10lbs and perform 4 reps on each arm. Repeat this pattern for 6curls on each arm, 8 on each, and then end with 10 dumbbell curls that are done simultaneously. Do not take any rest in between sets.
A good rule to follow - if you get the reps easily, then only drop 5lbs down the rack for the next set, but if you struggle mightily, then drop down 10lbs for the next set. You can use this same variation on hammer curls as well.