Curls are a weightlifting exercise that is known for strengthening your arm muscles. And while you might have thought they always involve dumbbells, that's actually not the case. Barbell curls exist, too.
Barbell curls are an advanced move, as even the light barbell is, well, not light for many of us. A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds, and EZ Barbells, which are the lightest option, are 15-20 pounds. That said, there are numerous benefits to performing barbell curls, and they're an excellent way to take your weightlifting game to the next level.
Ahead, we've got everything you need to know about getting started with barbell curls, including what they are, why you should do them, and more. We tapped trainers Josh Honore and Andy Stern to bring you the best info possible. Read on to learn all about this exercise.
Meet the Expert
- Josh Honore is a NASM-CPT for Row House and STRIDE XPRO for Xponential+.
- Andy Stern is a Rumble XPRO for Xponential+.
What Are Barbell Curls?
A barbell curl is similar to a bicep curl done with a dumbbell, but again, it has one major difference: you use a barbell instead. Whereas dumbbell curls are a unilateral move, meaning they use one side at a time, barbell curls are bilateral, which means you use both sides of your body simultaneously together. Stern notes that "barbell curls are an isolation exercise, which means they primarily use the biceps, but there is some supporting engagement from the forearm muscles." Honore adds that "the barbell gives you the opportunity to add more weight than you might be able to for a bicep curl with dumbbells."
The Benefits of Barbell Curls
- You build muscle mass and tone. Honore tells us that "barbell curls will build up the bicep muscles. Your biceps are the smaller, anterior muscle of the upper arm compared to the triceps but still important to work on if you want strong, sculpted arms."
- The barbell adds tension, says Stern.
- Barbell curls improve strength, including your grip strength, which is how well you are able to hold things. This is useful for life in general, in addition to fitness. Stern notes that "with proper form and slow tempo on both the way up and the way down, will increase the overall strength of your bicep, and grip strength through the forearm."
How to Do Them
- To begin, you'll be holding a barbell while in a standing position. Stern says that "a standing barbell curl starts with feet underneath your hips with soft bend in your knees."
- Next, position your body in preparation to lift the barbell. Stern says to stand "with your chest up and core braced, bringing your shoulder back (think proud chest) holding the barbell with an underhand grip, meaning your palms are facing forward and your arms at the side of your body."
- Next, "Put your hands just outside of your hips and bring your elbows to your sides," says Stern.
- From here, you'll do the actual curl. Honore says to "squeeze your biceps, bending at your elbows, to raise the bar up to your chest. Flex the biceps as far as you can, making sure you keep your elbows back underneath your shoulders."
- Return the bar slowly down to your starting position, and repeat. Honore emphasizes that "You want to control the bar on the way up as well as the way down. Connect your breath with the rep, exhale when the bar reaches the top, inhale slowly on the way down."
If a standard barbell is simply out of your strength capacity, you have two other options to start with instead, both of which will allow you to work your way up to a regular barbell.
- EZ Barbell: You can use this lighter version of a barbell instead. It weighs as 15 pounds, which averages out to about 7.5 pounds for each of your arms to curl. Additionally, Stern says that an EZ Barbell "may be a more comfortable grip for some." This also makes it helpful for anyone whose difficulty with a regular barbell is the positioning, rather than the weight quantity.
- Dumbbells: If you aren't yet ready to curl with a barbell, stick with dumbbells for awhile longer. Honore says that "If holding the barbell bothers your wrists, you can use dumbbells either in a neutral or supinated grip." And if you want to be using the dumbbell to improve strength, he suggests that "you can also do a reverse barbell curl, starting with an overhand grip at the thighs to target the biceps a little differently."
To perform a dumbbell curl, Honore instructs us as follows: "You start with the a weight in each hand, down by your thighs, either in a neutral or supinated grip. Then like you do with the barbell, squeeze your biceps, bending at your elbows, to bring the weights up toward your chest. Curl as far as you can while keeping your elbows underneath your shoulders. Then slowly release the bar back to your starting position."
If barbell curls are wholly within your scope and you want to make them more challenging, not less, there is the option of instead performing a kneeling barbell curl. Stern tells us that "the kneeling barbell curl is just like the standing barbell curl, but performed with both knees on the ground which means we need to fire up the glutes and core to balance." He says that it's "a great way to eliminate the potential help from the legs when performing a rep," and stress that "you do want to be careful, both standing and kneeling, not to pull with your back muscles."
Barbell Curls Vs. Dumbbell Curl
A barbell curl follows the same basic movement as a dumbbell curl. For each, you'll be using your biceps to lift the weight. However, there are some key differences. A dumbbell allows more freedom of movement and the ability to use a different weight for each hand. Because of that freedom, it may also be easier to injure yourself. Barbell curls are a bilateral exercise where you're using both of your arms simultaneously, so there is less injury risk because your arms are working together. Barbell curls are also easier to scale up with weight on, making it more of an ideal choice if your goal is to build larger muscles and lift progressively heavier weights.
If you experience any pain in their elbows when doing this move should double check to make sure they're performing it correctly. Sterns stresses that "anyone experiencing discomfort or pain in the elbow, it could be related to your form. If your pain doesn’t subside after fixing your form, seek medical attention."
Additionally, upper body injuries might make this move the wrong one for you at this time. "If you have wrist, elbow, or shoulder injuries, you may not want to perform this move an should consult with your doctor before trying it," says Honore.
Barbell curls are an advanced version of dumbbell curls, in which you use a barbell to lift weight with your arms. They work the biceps primarily, but other arm muscles are involved too. Because they're performed with a barbell, which typically weights 45 pounds, they're an advanced move. If they are too challenging for you, you can begin instead with an EZ Barbell, which weighs 15-20 pounds and will make the move much easier. You should avoid barbell curls if you have any upper body injuries, or if you are not experienced in lifting weights. Provided it's the right fit for you, barbell curls are an excellent way to build more strength in your arms than you've been able to with dumbbell curls alone, and can help you sculpt the muscles you've been aiming for.