Powerlifting is a sport of three lifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Between them, these exercises test the strength of all your major muscles. The winner of a powerlifting meet is the lifter with the biggest total, which is their best squat, bench press, and deadlift added together.
While the “big three” are the center of powerlifting, some federations include a fourth lift in their competitions – the strict curl. The strict curl, sometimes called the wall curl, is also sometimes performed as a stand-alone lift. For example, it has been featured in the Arnold Classic for the last couple of years.
Recently, a lot of lifters have claimed to have broken the world record for the strict curl, and there have been several high-profile “curl offs” between bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongman competitors, and arm wrestlers.
The strict curl is the ultimate bro-lift!
Regardless of whether you want to test the strength of your biceps or build bigger, more muscular arms, the strict curl could help. In this article, we explain how to do the strict curl and what other exercises you can do in addition and instead.
Strict Curl – Muscles Worked
The strict curl is an isolation exercise. That means only one joint moves, and relatively few muscles are involved. The primary muscles tested and trained during strict curls are:
Biceps brachii – known as the biceps for short, biceps brachii means two-headed arm muscle. Located on the front of your upper arm, the biceps are responsible for flexing the elbow, supinating the forearm, and also plays a role in the flexion of the shoulder joint.
Brachioradialis – located on the thumb-side of the upper forearm, the brachioradialis works with the biceps to flex the elbow. It’s technically a forearm muscle but is strongly involved in strict curls. Well-developed brachioradialis muscles link your upper arm to your lower arm and adds thickness to your forearm.
Brachialis – located beneath your biceps, the small but powerful brachialis muscle is your strongest elbow flexor. It works with your biceps to bend your elbow joint. As well as being very strong, this muscle helps to “prop up” your biceps and makes it look bigger. Strict curls place a lot of tension on this important muscle.
Forearms – there are lots of muscles that make up the forearms. The flexor group bends your wrist while the extensors straighten it. Both sets of muscles are involved in strict curls, making this exercise good for building your upper and lower arms.
How to Do Strict Curls
Competitive strict curls are governed by rules, but those rules are pretty simple:
- Your upper back and butt must stay in contact with the wall on the way up and on the way down.
- The heels have to be 12-inches from the wall or less.
- Your head, upper arms, and wrists can move as much as you want.
- Your feet must remain stationary throughout your attempt.
- You must follow the referee’s instructions, lifting and lowering the bar on command.
That said, you don’t need to worry about the rules if you are strict curling for training or fun. But, to get the most benefit from strict curls while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum, make sure you follow these performance guidelines:
- Place your loaded barbell on a raised platform in front of your chosen wall. Most lifters use an EZ baras they’re generally more comfortable and less likely to result in a biceps tear.
- Hold the barbell with a narrow, medium, or wide underhand grip. Competitive strict curlers tend to favor a narrow grip as it’s usually stronger.
- Unrack the bar and lean against a flat, smooth wall. Your butt and upper back should be in constant contact with the wall, but your head and arms are free to move. Your feet should be about 12-inches from the wall.
- Without using your legs or moving your butt or upper back away from the wall, bend your arms and curl the bar up to your chin. In competition, you must keep the bar up until the referee gives you the command to lower it.
- Lower the weight under control – don’t just drop it.
- Either rerack the bar if you’re doing singles or pump out the rest of your reps if doing a longer set.
Strict Curl Benefits
Not sure if the strict curl deserves a place in your workouts? Consider these advantages and benefits and then decide.
Accessible – squats, bench presses, and deadlifts are great tests of strength. Still, they also involve special techniques and are not especially easy to learn. You also need a well-equipped gym to train for the big three powerlifts.
The strict curl is much more accessible. In fact, you could even train for the strict curl at home. All you need is an EZ bar, some weights, and a wall to lean on. You don’t even need a spotter as, if you cannot complete a rep, you can just lower the bar back down.
An end to cheating – watch a lot of lifters doing curls, and you’ll see something that looks like an underhand power clean! They use their legs and back to raise the weight and hardly use their biceps at all.
While there is a time and a place for cheat curls, they’re not a good way to test or build biceps strength. Strict curls ensure that your biceps do most of the work, and cheating is easy to spot.
Build bigger biceps – in competition, strict curls are done for one rep. But that doesn’t mean you are limited to doing singles in training. In fact, done for higher reps, the strict curl is a very effective biceps builder. Strict curls put a ton of muscle-building tension through your biceps, and every rep is excruciatingly hard. That’s the perfect recipe for building bigger biceps.
Strict Curl Drawbacks
While strict curls are a mostly beneficial exercise, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
Hard on the ego – don’t be surprised if you can’t strict curl as much weight as you thought you could. Even the most dedicated lifter probably uses a little momentum when doing curls. Eliminating any extra assistance will reduce the amount of weight you can lift.
Risk of injury – while strict curls done for multiple reps are pretty safe, trying to establish a 1RMin the strict curl could lead to injury. Each rep starts from a dead stop, which puts a lot of stress on your biceps and biceps tendons.
Torn biceps are not uncommon in strict curl competitions. So, if you are new to strict curls, make sure you warm up properly before trying to lift heavy weights and build up to your 1RM over several weeks of progressively heavier training.
7 Strict Curl Variations and Alternatives
Strict curls are a highly effective biceps exercise, but that doesn’t mean you need to do them all the time. There are several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts productive and interesting:
1. Strict dumbbell curl
While the strict curl is usually done using an EZ bar, there is nothing to say you can’t do it with a regular Olympic barbell or, for that matter, one or two dumbbells.
In fact, using dumbbells may even work better than a bar because they allow for a longer range of motion and mean that you can test and develop one arm at a time, eliminating any left to right strength imbalances you might have.
You can do strict dumbbell curls using one arm at a time or curling two weights together.
2. Supine Cable Curls
Like EZ bar strict curls, supine cable curls stop you from using your legs and back to lift the weight. However, unlike freeweight curls, using a cable machine means your biceps are under constant tension, which may be better for muscle-building purposes.
How to do it:
- Attach a straight or EZ bar to a low pulley machine. Sit on the floor with your legs straight and hold the handle with an underhand grip. Lie down flat on the floor with your arms straight and shoulders down and back.
- Without lifting your shoulders off the floor, bend your elbows and curl the bar up to your shoulders.
- Smoothly extend your arms and repeat.
3. Seated Barbell Curl
The seated barbell curl is another strict biceps exercise. In fact, some lifters use it to train for the strict curl as it emphasizes the upper part of the lift and helps develop explosive speed and power. This is also an excellent biceps peaking exercise.
How to do it:
- Sit on a flat exercise bench and rest a straight barbell or EZ bar across your thighs. Hold the bar with an underhand narrow, medium, or wide grip. Brace your core and plant your feet firmly on the floor.
- Without using your back, bend your elbows and curl the bar off your thighs and up to your shoulders.
- Lower the bar back to your legs and repeat.
4. Preacher Curl
Preacher curls don’t really resemble strict curls, but they’re actually pretty similar. Both exercises prevent you from using your legs or back to lift the weight.
Preacher curls were a favorite arm exercise of old-school bodybuilder Larry Scott, owner of some of the best arms in bodybuilding history and winner of the first two Mr. Olympia competitions. In fact, Scott was so closely associated with this exercise that it’s often called the Scott curl.
How to do it:
- Sit on the preacher curl bench and place your upper arms against the sloping pad. Hold a straight barbell or EZ bar with a narrow, medium, or wide grip underhand.
- Bend your arms and curl the weight up until your forearms are vertical. Don’t bend your arms further than this, as doing so just takes stress off your biceps.
- Extend your arms and lower the weight, stopping just short of fully straightening your arms.
- You can also do preacher curls with one or two dumbbells or using a low cable machine.
5. Drag Curls
This interesting curling exercise was a favorite of Hollywood bodybuilding coach Vince Gironda, who was very prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. Like strict curls, this exercise all but eliminates any opportunities for cheating and minimizes anterior deltoid involvement, so it’s a very pure biceps exercise.
This exercise is much harder than regular biceps curls, so use a lighter than usual weight to ensure that you can do it correctly.
How to do it:
- Stand and hold a barbell with a shoulder-width, underhand grip.
- Bend your arms and curl your bar up the front of your body until it reaches your lower chest. Keep the bar as close to your torso as possible. Pull your elbows back as you raise the weight.
- Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
6. Dumbbell Concentration Curl
According to a study by the American Council on Exercise, or ACE for short, concentration curls are among the best biceps exercises (1). Like strict curls, they stop you from cheating and effectively isolate your biceps from the rest of your body.
Dumbbell concentration curls don’t work very well with heavy weights. Still, with light to moderate weights and medium to high reps, they’re great for pumping up your arms as well as targeting the short head of your biceps.
7. Barbell Cheat Curl
If you’ve had enough of all these ultra-strict biceps exercises, you’ll probably enjoy letting rip with some barbell cheat curls. This exercise is the opposite of the strict curl, as you are allowed to use your legs and back to lift the weight. Try a superset of strict curls immediately followed by cheat curls to really pump up your arms and build strength and size.
How to do it:
- Hold your bar with a wide, medium, or narrow grip. You can use a barbell or EZ bar as preferred. Stand up straight, pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your abs.
- Hinge forward from your hips and lower the bar down to about mid-thigh height. Do NOT round your lower back.
- Drive your hips forward, stand up quickly, and use this momentum to help curl the weight up to your shoulders.
- Lower the bar smoothly and under control, and then repeat.
Strict Curls – Wrapping Up
Whether you want to test or develop the strength of your biceps or build bigger arms, the strict curl can help. Leaning against a wall means that you can’t use your legs or back to help you lift the weight. It’s a very pure arm exercise and one of the best ways to isolate your biceps.
A few decades ago, the strict curl was a very common test of strength and part of the powerlifting scene. It’s recently enjoyed a return to popularity, and a lot of lifters are posting some impressive strict curl numbers.
Join the strict curl movement and add this great exercise to your biceps workout. Who knows; you could be the next strict curl world record holder. But, no fake plates, please!
1 – American Council on Exercise (ACE): ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises https://www.acefitness.org