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This or That: Preacher vs. High Cable 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. A few weeks ago, I compared two kinds of bicep curls, barbell curls and hammerheads. This week I'd like to take on another pair of bicep exercises, these exercises being more challenging than the basic curls. If you're ready to move on to beyond-basic biceps work, it's time to learn about high cable and preacher curls. What's the difference between them? Let's break it down.

Preacher Curls
Sitting at a preacher curl bench with your upper arm pressed against the front of the bench, grasp the bar with an underhand grip (palms up). Keeping your triceps touching the pad and your shoulders drawn back, contract and pull the bar up to your chin level and then slowly return the bar to the start position..

Here are the benefits of preacher curls:

  1. Broad biceps strength: This exercise completely isolates the biceps brachii and focuses the intensity across the whole of the muscle. It also recruits the brachialis. This makes it a great overall biceps exercise, and a staple of any lifting program.
  2. Heavier weights: Because the curl bench stabilizes your upper arm, and allows some leverage, you may find that you are able to curl heavier weights in a preacher curl. Challenging yourself is fine, so long as you add weight in reasonable increments, rather than large jumps. .
Clearly, preacher curls are a basic exercise key to any lifting program. If you've only been doing standing curls, then you owe it to yourself to try these. That said, diversity in a lifting program is key, and as you develop you will want to target different regions of a single muscle group. So to add some definition to your biceps, consider doing high cable curls. Here's what I mean:

High Cable Curls
Stand between the pulleys of a cable cross where the pulleys have been adjusted to at our fairly near the height of your head. With outstretched arms (think, cross-like) grasp the handles with an underhand grip (palms up). Contract the biceps, pulling the handles in toward your ears and then slowly returning them to the start position.

This is taking things well beyond a standard standing curl, so let's see what's at stake in this exercise:
  1. Isolates the biceps brachii: This exercise primarily focuses work on the short head of the biceps brachii, which is the large biceps muscle. It is therefore a less complete exercise than some others, but is ideal for adding bulk and definition. .
  2. Keep it light: Because your arm is held in the air for the exercise, it moves through an unstable environment during the work phase. Also, your biceps brachii engages by lengthening in the starting position, when your palms are stretched out. For both of these reasons, it is usually recommended to use lighter weight for this exercise. This will give you better control and allow you to better feel and develop the inside of the biceps brachii
Bottom line: The high cable curl is for guys who like a nuanced workout. You'll have to develop feel, and go down in the weights a bit. The definition you'll get from the exercise is the motivation. It's a great supplement to an overall biceps workout, like the one you'll get from preacher curls, but should be used as part of a complete program.

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.