If we had to guess the most commonly performed biceps exercise, it’d be dumbbell curls hands down! There are several reasons for that including the versatility, accessibility, and freedom of movement that you get with these classic freeweight tools that other options don’t offer. Plus there are so many biceps curls variations and it’s the go-to choice of training implement for building mass, strength, and activation stabilizer muscles.
In this guide, we’ll talk more about why we love dumbbell curls, benefits, variations, programming, sets and reps, and more.
In This Exercise:
- Target muscle group: Biceps Brachii
- Type: Strength and hypertrophy
- Mechanics: Isolation
- Equipment: Dumbbells
- Difficulty: Beginner
How To Do Dumbbell Curls
Grab a pair of dumbbells and let’s break down a proper biceps curl using freeweights. But first…
Choosing a dumbbell weight
Before you begin, it’s important that you’re aware of your strength capabilities. Many people get this part wrong because they want to look strong in the gym but in reality, they’re not as productive as they think.
How Heavy Should I Go?
- Choose a dumbbell weight that allows you to do eight strict curls with good form before you need to activate a little body English (momentum). If you’re breaking your back or doing a snatch lift to get the weight up then you need to use lighter dumbbells.
Now we’re ready to start!
Step 1: Setup and body position
Grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold it directly on the center of the handles using a neutral or hammer grip position. Relax your arms down by your sides, push your shoulders back, bent slightly at the hips and tense your abs.
Pro tip: Squeeze the dumbbells hard to activate all the arm muscles.
Step 2: Curl and supinate
Keeping your upper arms against your torso, bend your elbows and as you curl the weight, move your elbows slightly forward and rotate your wrists inward as hard as you can to intensify the biceps contraction. When the elbows are flexed, your arms should resemble a roughly 45-degree angle.
Step 3: Slow eccentric/negative
For the last step, don’t just let your arms drop down. Control the negative by lowering the weights for a 2-3 second count. Fully extend your arms at the bottom and flex your triceps, that’s one rep!
Repeat steps 1-3 for the desired number of repetitions.
Pro tip: Flexing your triceps at arm extension and bending slightly at the knees pre-stretches the lower biceps and emphasizes the muscle contraction.
The following video example shows the alternating variations. However, for the version described in this guide, you’ll use both arms to curl two dumbbells at the same time. Simply follow the form tips to make the dumbbell curl work for you.
Here are all the reasons why dumbbells curls are a superior biceps movement.
Get jacked biceps
What do all of the top bodybuilders, elite athletes and your favorite Hollywood actors have in common? Their arm workouts will almost certainly include dumbbells curls! It’s a timeless and classic arm builder that will always be top dawg!
Dumbbells allow your wrists to rotate and move freely, a luxury you don’t get with barbells and other tools. When you supinate the forearms (palms facing you) at the top of a biceps curl, it enhances the muscle contraction which may stimulate more growth.
Convenient and versatile
Dumbbells are the most portable weights and that makes them more convenient than barbells, cables, etc. You can walk them over to the dumbbell rack and set them up essentially anywhere in the weight room or at your home. That makes them more suitable for a wider variety of biceps variations.
What are the potential drawbacks of dumbbell curls.
We’ve covered this more in detail in the following section but curls need to be performed properly to maintain constant tension on the biceps. If you don’t feel a good contraction in your biceps then dumbbell curls can feel useless.
These are important things that you want to avoid.
Sloppy form/ego lifting – It’s easy to make dumbbell curls less effective. For example, resting the weight at the top of the curl which takes the tension and resistance off the muscles. Or doing the limbo to heavy the weight up. That’s where you have to make a conscious effort to angle your arms that you will retain the flex in your biceps muscles.
Cheating and swinging the weight will work other muscle groups and it’s not worth your time. If you’re not an advanced exerciser, choose a weight that you can handle without bending your back in different directions and leave the cheat reps to those with more training experience.
Dumbbell curls stand alone for its unique advantages. These variations offer something of their own.
1. Seated dumbbell curls
Why include a seated variation too? Well, not that it will prevent someone from cheating their reps but it’s a good reminder to keep your back in place against the backrest. Just some mental reinforcement.
2. Alternating dumbbell curls
Some people find that alternating dumbbell curls allow them to focus on one arm at a time and it may be better for their mind-muscle connection with the muscles. But the other great thing is that it will help you to identify a lack of equal strength between the left and right biceps and fix it!
3. Barbell curls
An arguably better strength-focused biceps exercise, you can load a barbell with more weight because it’s a bilateral variation which means both sides are working equally to lift the weight. Therefore, you have power and strength behind your curls with less need to stabilize the weight.
4. Cable curls
Cable curls address the issue of losing tension at the top of a biceps curl because the machine weight is always pulling against muscle flexion.
5. Band curls
Resistance bands are the cheaper, more convenient and portable version of a cable machine. They keep tension on the working muscles but you just cannot do as much things as you could with cables.
6. Machine curls
You gotta have access to a gym to use this variation but they just keep getting more ergonomic and state of the art. Locking you into position, there’s zero stability and balance because there’s typically no free movement. Therefore, you’re free to focus on solely the lift.
Programming Dumbbell Curls In Your Workouts
If you had to pick one biceps exercise, dumbbell curls wouldn’t be a bad option. But there are many ways to include this superior arm builder in your workouts. Here are our suggestions.
Multi-exercise biceps workout
If you’re going to structure an arm workout, the common strategy is to start with a heavy bilateral compound freeweight variation first (e.g., barbell curls), followed a unilateral exercise (e.g., dumbbell curls), and a machine variation to finish.
This is just an example arm routine and it doesn’t necessarily mean it will yield the best results. However, it does allow you to lift the most raw weight possibly with a little cheating which can be beneficial when you’re fresh and strongest. Then you can do more focused isolation-based movements.
Some people like to structure their workouts by training their larger muscles first and smaller muscles secondary. For example, you could train chest and triceps or chest and biceps in a workout. Typically, your overall workout split will determine the best option.
Standalone biceps movement
You wouldn’t be undertrained if you only did dumbbell curls to train your biceps muscles. Sometimes, dumbbells are all you have at home and it will cover all bases.
How Many Sets and Reps?
The optimal sets and reps range depends on your experience level and goals. However, for best all-around results and to prevent training boredom and challenge yourself, we recommend using a variety of reps, as well as to emphasize different muscle fiber types.
- Strength: 4-6 reps
- Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps
- Hypertrophy and muscle endurance: 15-30+ reps to failure
- Biceps brachii – The biceps brachii or biceps for short is a two-headed muscle located on the anterior or front of the upper arm. The biceps crosses the elbow and shoulder joint and therefore functions at both ends, although its primary function is at the forearm end where it supinates and flexes the elbow.
- Brachialis – sandwiched between the outer biceps head and triceps, brachialis extends from the outer upper arm and crosses the elbow joint, making it a primary elbow flexor muscle. When well developed, the brachialis contributes to upper arm width and is most visible on a lean physique.
- Brachioradialis – Making most of the lateral upper forearm, brachioradialis crosses the elbow and is hence a primary elbow flexor. It also supinates and pronates the forearm (flipping the palm up and down respectively) and is involved in all pulling and curling exercises.
- Core muscles – The core consists of several muscles – abs (curls the pelvis and rib cage toward each other), obliques (located on either side of the abs and rotate the torso), deeper core muscles (transverse abdominis and internal obliques draw the belly button to the spine and stabilize the trunk), back extensors (allow us to stand up straight from a bent-over position and lean backward). The core muscles need to be activated to stabilize the spine during curls.
If in doubt, go with the dumbbell curl. It’s the most versatile of all biceps exercises and will always be a go to movement for gym-goers, athletes and everyone in between because of its proven effectiveness. Plus there are more variations than we could list and that is important to prevent training boredom but sometimes one feels better than another.
Use this guide to help you get great results from a freeweight staple!