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Cable Curl vs Dumbbell Curl vs Barbell Curl

Updated: May 25, 2023

The biceps are not a big muscle. They're much smaller than the triceps.

Though, that information doesn't seem to be enough to change the mind of most gym newcomers, who only have one thing in mind when they enter a new gym: growing big biceps.

Today, we're going to cover three exercises that are probably the most used for bicep training.

All the claims made in this article are scientifically proven.

You can read more about the bicep curl here: How to Do the Bicep Curl

Overhead Cable Curl

Also known as a crucifix curl, the overhead cable curl is a biceps-focused exercise performed between two cable stacks, using a pair of D-handles.

The arms and elbows are held at shoulder height throughout the movement, and both hands curl toward the ears.

This position is designed to isolate the biceps while achieving as little shoulder engagement as possible.

overhead cable curl

Benefits of Overhead Cable Curl

Some benefits of the overhead cable curl are listed below.

1) Constant tension throughout the movement

If you're one of the trainees who like to "feel the burn", this is your exercise.

Unlike dumbbell curls, the tension is constant during this exercise's correct execution.

Gravity won't help you this time, as the weight resistance will keep increasing until the bicep's peak contraction.

2) Better mind-muscle connection

This topic is widely discussed when it comes to hypertrophy training.

Many people think that mind-muscle connection doesn't matter and that it's 'bro-science'.

This is not what Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld found out during their study about the topic, linked below.

The constant tension during this exercise will also help you 'feel the muscle' a lot more.

According to the research we count with nowadays, that means more muscle growth.

3) Time-efficient

Even though free weights are best for compound exercises, cable work can be as effective and less time-consuming for the smaller muscles.

Using a cable machine will allow you to increase or lower the weights in no time, unlike dumbbells.

You'd need to reach a new pair every time you want to change the weights or load new weights to it in the best-case scenario.

Dumbbell Curl

Curls work the biceps muscles at the front of the upper arm and the lower arm muscles - the brachialis and brachioradialis.

You use these muscles anytime you pick something up, which is common throughout daily life.

During this exercise, your arms are held next to your trunk but not touching it; the dumbbells are pulled in the direction of your face until reaching maximal contraction.

When doing dumbbell curls, you should aim to achieve a full range of motion, which may imply you subtly moving your shoulders forward at the end of the movement.

Also, it's recommended to execute it in a strict manner (not going through the motion with your whole body) to isolate the muscle as much as possible while keeping the risk of injury low.

Dumbbell curl is a safe exercise when done correctly.

dumbbell curl

Benefits of Dumbbell Curl

Below are the benefits of the dumbbell curl.

1) Core engagement

When executing a strict standing dumbbell curl, you're engaging your core muscles.

This muscle group is the one that will take care of your trunk, not swinging through the motion as you execute a curl or any other exercise in which you're meant to stand still.

Training your core will make you stronger and bigger overall by allowing you to work with more oversized loads on your compound exercises.

2) Corrects imbalances

Let's say you're a tennis player with a one-handed backhand.

The biceps on your skilful arm may be much bigger than the other one.

This kind of imbalance tends to fix on its own as time passes.

Still, suppose you want to accelerate that process.

In that case, it's perfectly fine to do a couple more reps with the arm that's lagging or even using a dumbbell that's a little heavier for that side.

3) Easy to do at home

Some people have the fortune of building a complete gym at home.

Although, that's not the case for most people.

The most intelligent choice would be to start by getting a barbell, some dumbbells, and weights if you're building one.

So, working with dumbbells will be a more affordable and doable option than getting a cable machine if you're training at home.

Barbell Curl

The barbell curl is an isolation exercise that builds muscle and strength in the bicep muscles.

It's a very effective movement that has been used for decades to build bigger arms.

For most people, it's still the first choice when it comes to bicep training.

Doing your curls with a barbell will also provide you with extra benefits compared to dumbells and cables.

barbell curl

Benefits of Barbell Curl

Benefits of the barbell curl are listed below.

1) More gradual (and sustainable) progress

With a barbell, you can increase the weight by smaller increments than you can with dumbbells.

You can increase the resistance by as little as 2.5 pounds at a time with barbells.

This will allow you to achieve a more steady progression, and in consequence, to sustain that progress for a long time before hitting a plateau.

2) Saves space

You can invest in a single bar and use plates to increase the resistance instead of investing in an entire rack of different sized dumbbells.

This will save you money as well.

3) Heavier loads

You can also handle more weight when you use a barbell.

Using more weight helps strength development and increases your training volume, which will all translate to bigger biceps, in the short, and the long run.

Which one is safer?

Biceps curls are isolation exercises; for the most part, these kinds of exercises tend to be safer than compound ones.

Fewer body parts are being used, which means fewer things to worry about during the execution.

Regarding form, curls are an easy and safe exercise that everyone can do after a bit of practice.

That said, in the gym, there's always a way to turn the safest practice into an unhealthy one.

This is why you should always pay attention to your form while doing any resistance training.

The easiest way to get hurt, no matter which exercises you're doing, is using more oversized loads than you can handle, also known as 'ego lifting'.

Fortunately, it's straightforward to avoid this.

By doing the vast majority of your reps as strictly as possible, you'll avoid involving your lower back by swinging like a hammock.

This is one of the most common mispractices that can lead to injury while doing biceps curls. It also applies to barbell and dumbbell curls.

Unlike cable ones, these will allow you to cheat by swinging your trunk.

It's also worth mentioning that, for some people with previously injured or especially sensitive wrists or forearms, barbell curls can cause pain in those places.

If this is your case, do your barbell curls on an EZ bar if your gym has one. If you can't access one, it's better to use dumbbells instead.

So, if we had to pick the safest out of these three, cable curls would be the winner in this case.

Though, I wouldn't call barbell or dumbbell curls unsafe by any means.

Which One Puts More Tension on Your Muscles?

We already know that cable curls keep the tension in your biceps for a more extended period than the other variations we talked about.

But not only that, according to EMG data, this exercise can activate your biceps to a more significant extent.

* It's worth mentioning that EMG measured muscle activation is not the only relevant variable to define the effectiveness of an exercise.

Which One Is Recommended for Beginners?

Many newcomers want to achieve the fastest results when they first hit the gym, ignoring some other important aspects of their journeys as trainees.

One of the most important things to consider when starting to work out is acquiring good practices that you'll carry during your training career.

You'll thank yourself later if you make the right choices when you start.

Taking this into account, I would recommend adding barbell curls as your prominent biceps exercise.

Free weights are the most significant part of a good training program. If you're using more machines than barbells, you should consider changing your training program.

Dumbbell curls can be a great choice too. You can suit both barbell and dumbbell curls in your training program.

Still, the core involvement with the higher loads of a barbell will be a lot harder to achieve when using dumbbells.

Setting up a biceps routine that includes multiple curl variations

A beginner will probably do good with just one biceps exercise on their training program.

But as one progresses in the gym, more training volume is needed to keep on seeing results.

An excellent way to increase training volume is by adding more exercises for the same body part.

Several schemes work fine when setting up a training program; some of them are P/P/L/P/P/L (push day, pull day, leg day), U/L/U/L (upper body/lower body), and full-body thrice a week.

With a PPL schemed routine, you'd work your biceps on pull day.

So, let's say that you only have one variation of biceps curls in your routine, for example:

Barbell curls - 4x12.

Suppose you want to add another curl exercise to your program and increase your training volume in a controlled manner.

In that case, you could reduce the number of sets per exercise while increasing the number of exercises, for example:

Barbell curls - 3x12

Dumbbell curls - 3x12.

Final Thoughts

Today, we covered three of the most common biceps exercises.

As we marked, all of them have their pros and cons, but they will all lead to increased biceps size and strength if done safely.

We should not forget that the biceps is a small muscle.

If we want them to grow, the last thing we should do is overtrain them or not allow them to recover after a training session.

You should train in a controlled and intelligent manner to achieve the best results.


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Real Muscle primarily uses high-quality sources, such as peer-reviewed publications, to back up the information in our articles. To understand more about how we fact-check and keep our information accurate, dependable, and trustworthy, see more about us.

This evidence-based analysis of proteins absorption features 3 references, listed below.


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