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This or That: Barbell vs. Hammerhead Biceps Curls

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. Last week I compared calf raises, seated and standing. This week I'd like to head up north (so to speak) to your arms, and talk biceps. You've probably seen guys doing different kinds of curls, palm up (the standard barbell curl) versus palms facing (hammerhead curls). But what's the difference? Let's break it down.

Barbell Biceps Curls
The barbell curl is the biceps standard. You stand with a barbell held in both hands in front of your thighs, hands just wide of your legs and palms forward. Engaging your core to generate a solid base, bend your elbows to bring the bar up to your chest, keeping your upper arms at your sides. You want both arms to lift evenly, with the bar staying level.

For a lot of guys, this is the only way they ever do biceps. So, let's find out what you're doing, and how you might alter it:

  1. Works all the major muscles: This exercise mainly targets your biceps brachii (the large biceps muscle), brachialis (the lower biceps) and some of the brachioradialis (upper forearm), pronator teres (inner upper forearm) and the wrist flexor group (think firm handshake muscles).
  2. Variations: This is a simple exercise that depends on a controlled movement. But that doesn't mean you can't add variation. If you raise your elbows slightly at the end of the upward contraction, you increase the contraction of the biceps brachii and engage the anterior deltoid (front portion of the shoulder). Also, to make this exercise more challenging, perform it with your back against the wall so your shoulder blades don’t move.
The barbell curl targets all of the major muscles of the front of the upper (and to some extent, lower) arm. It is your go-to exercise. That said, it does not target the forearm as much as other arm exercises, and, if it is the only exercise you use, is insufficiently challenging.

Hammerhead Biceps Curls
It turns out that small variations in a biceps curl go a long way. For a hammerhead curl, use dumbbells rather than a barbell, and turn your palms to face each other during the full phase of the curl. This will redirect the work of the exercise, leading not only to size gains, but to greater resilience through the muscles as you move your training to all the different areas. In short, if you don't work your curls from different orientations, you are robbing your arms.

Here are the benefits of hammerhead curls:
  1. Preserve your gains: Turning your palms to face each other while you do biceps curls will still work the biceps brachii, or primary biceps muscle. This is still a great overall biceps workout.
  2. Forearm strength: Changing your hand orientation to palms-facing is great for developing your upper forearm (brachioradialis), because turning your palms inward shifts some of the intensity away from the biceps brachii, or major biceps muscle. You will also engage, to a lesser degree, other muscles in the upper forearm such as the extensor carpi radialis brevis and longus. These can be difficult to target, so hammerhead curls are an important part of any complete arm lifting program. .
Obviously, the barbell curl will always be there as the gold standard. But you should be aware that within even such a simple exercise there is the possibility for variation. Likewise, the hammerhead curl is an illustration of the fact that a small change in form can have substantial muscle implications, as you redirect the work of the exercise. A complete arms lifting program should include more than just a monotonous standard curl, and move from barbell to dumbbells and back again.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.