With all the different biceps exercises out there, it can be difficult to decide which one suits you, your workout routine, and your fitness goals best. Two of the most common isolation exercises for bigger arms are hammer curls and biceps curls. But is one of these top contenders better than the other for building massive, powerful biceps?
To understand the difference between the two, you first have to have an understanding of the biceps muscles, what they’re for, and how they grow. Hammer curls and biceps curls are extremely similar but they don’t work the same part of the biceps muscle.
If you’re looking for the best biceps exercise to fill the intervals between your other compound exercises, the hammer curl and the biceps curl are good options. But there are some advantages to using one over the other in different conditions. Read on to learn everything you need to know so you can decide which one is best for you.
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Anatomy of the Biceps Muscle
We’ll try not to dive too deep into human biology here, but suffice it to say that the biceps muscle is kind of like two separate muscles that work together as one. It has two sections called “heads.” If you’ve heard people talk about long head biceps vs. short head biceps, this is the reason why.
The biceps muscle, or the biceps brachii as it’s officially named, is a major muscle of the upper arm that works across both the shoulder joint and the elbow joint. The short head biceps is on the inside of the upper arm and the long head of the bicep is on the exterior, which makes the long head more visible and a target for bodybuilders who are trying to get visibly bigger arms.
Both the long head and the short head biceps work with nearby muscles like the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles to rotate your wrist and forearm (also called supination), raise your arms at the shoulder joint, and elevate the forearm and shoulders. Since they cross over the two most important joints in the arms, the biceps brachii is vital for upper body function.
When your palms are supinated and your elbow is fully extended, you’re lengthening your biceps muscle. You shorten it when you pull your elbow to a right angle. Weight in your hand puts more strain on your arm during the eccentric contraction as you stretch your arm, which causes hypertrophy, which builds more muscle.
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Types of Curls: Common Arm Exercises for Bigger Biceps
Isolation exercises are those that don’t involve entire muscle groups but rather target one or a few specific muscles. Hammer curls and bicep curls are just two kinds of isolation exercises for bigger biceps.
Barbell curls, Zottman Curls, EZ bar curls, concentration curls, and cable curls all target the biceps muscle as well. There are some incline varieties of these curls, including the inclined hammer curl, that are much more challenging and give you a better biceps workout. But hammer curls and biceps curls are the most straightforward and the best place to start.
One advantage of both the hammer curl and the biceps curl is that you don’t necessarily need any additional equipment to do either one. Of course, there are some benches and machines that help you get a better workout and help you do these moves with the proper form, but you can also do them with nothing more than a couple of dumbbells or a barbell.
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What is a Biceps Curl?
The biceps curl, also called a dumbbell curl, is a simple biceps exercise that uses weight held in the hand to build strength. You’ve probably seen tons of people at the gym doing short biceps curl reps in between other upper body exercises. Biceps curls are great for building strength in the biceps, but they also involve the upper deltoid and the brachioradialis.
Biceps curls are extremely basic maneuvers. Follow these steps to execute the perfect biceps curl:
1. Take a dumbbell in each hand with your wrists and palms supinated, or facing forward, for an underhand grip.
2. Make sure your elbows are close to your body and your hands out in front of you.
3. Your arms shouldn’t be completely slack, but they should be almost completely extended.
4. Lift the weight in your right hand until your forearm is vertical. Make sure your elbow stays in the same place.
5. Hold it at the top of that motion for 1 or 2 seconds and then move it back to the starting position slowly and steadily.
6. Repeat this motion with your left arm.
It’s fairly easy to mess up this deceptively simple bicep exercise. But for the most part, it’s a great way to build strength in your biceps and get bigger arms.
Variations on Biceps Curls
We’ve just described a regular bicep curl. You can also lift both weights at the same time or you can copy the same motion holding kettlebells, a barbell, an EZ bar, or just about anything else you happen to have lying around.
Cable machines give the same benefit as well. Incline biceps curls involve the shoulder more and some other specific variations on the biceps curl, such as the Preacher curl, require their racks to perform.
The hammer curl is widely considered to be a biceps curl variation, too. You can change the direction of the curl, angle of your arms and wrists, or starting position to target different arm muscles with your biceps curls.
Benefits of Biceps Curls
Some of the advantages of this arm exercise are already apparent. For one thing, their simplicity makes biceps curls ideal to do at your desk, at home, or anywhere else. Here are a few other advantages:
Big Visual Difference
Biceps curls are a great workout for the long head of the biceps, depending on how you do them. You can use them to get huge peaks and develop massive arm muscles. The last thing you want is skinny stick arms that ruin the rest of your built physique and biceps curls are a great way to make those warm muscles pop.
Builds Functional Strength
Many people say biceps curls aren’t a great way to spend time at the gym because you rarely use just your biceps. However, biceps curls are also good for brachialis and brachioradialis activation, and these two muscles are used for basically anything that requires flexion of the elbow or raising and lowering your hand.
Conditions Arm Use
Your core should be engaged throughout the movement of a biceps curl. Teaching yourself to move your arm with your core muscles engaged will not only help you move better in daily activity but also help you understand the way your biceps interact with the rest of your body during compound exercises like pull-ups and deadlifts.
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Disadvantages of Biceps Curls
Many people who become disillusioned with biceps curls are expecting too much out of them. As long as you remember that this is an isolation exercise that should be used in tandem with a routine of much more vigorous and varied compound workouts, you can still use biceps curls to give your biceps muscles some attention between sets.
One valid limitation of biceps curls is that they tend to work out the long head of the biceps exclusively, so if you want to build well-rounded arm muscles, you’ll have to either pair biceps curls with other exercises or use a variation with an EZ bar or a barbell.
Biceps curls can also put a lot of pressure on the wrist. There are some ways to fix this, notably by changing from the standard supinated grip. Lots of people who prefer hammer curls to biceps curls do so for this reason.
What is a Hammer Curl?
Just like biceps curls, standard hammer curls are done with dumbbells in each hand and a supinated grip. However, your hands aren’t out in front of you like they are in a biceps curl. Follow these steps for a perfect hammer curl:
1.Your feet should be about hip-width apart and your hands down at your sides, holding a dumbbell vertically in each one.
2. Make sure your elbows are close by your sides, just like in a biceps curl.
3. Engage your core and lift both weights to your shoulders.
4. Hold the top position for 1 – 2 seconds and then return to the starting position.
It might sound like the same exercise as a biceps curl, but the slight difference between the two makes the hammer curl build muscle in a completely different way.
Hammer Curl Variations
You can use a preacher rack to do preacher hammer curls or an incline bench to do incline hammer curls. Cable machines and kettlebells can also be used.
One popular variation on the hammer curl is the swinging hammer curl, which uses momentum to shorten the time between reps. In the case of these hammer swings, you want to use slightly heavier weights and let them swing slightly behind you after you bring them down from your shoulders. That backward momentum should allow them to swing back up to the shoulder more quickly, just make sure that you don’t get going so fast that you injure your shoulder.
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Benefits of Hammer Curls
Compared to biceps curls and some other isolated arm workouts, hammer curls have a little bit wider appeal. Here are a few of the reasons why:
Target Different Muscles
In addition to the biceps brachii, hammer curls also help build grip strength and work out the wrist and forearm. That’s because they also work the brachioradialis and the brachialis muscles, which help for stabilization and wrist supination. This helps prevent injury in the wrist and shoulder as well as priming your forearm for more advanced exercises.
Build Out the Biceps
While biceps curls build bigger peaks and taller biceps, hammer curls help make wider biceps that are stronger and more functional. When you pair that with the advantages of having stronger brachialis and brachioradialis muscles, you wind up with a more balanced arm overall.
Work Toward Muscle Exhaustion
Many upper-body exercises that might make your biceps feel tired don’t hit the brachialis and brachioradialis the same way. Since these two muscles are underneath your biceps, getting them tired will build up to muscle fatigue much more, which is great if you want to initiate hypertrophy and build more muscle in the post-workout recovery phase.
Cons of Hammer Curls
While less limited than biceps curls, hammer curls still have their drawbacks. For one thing, you can’t use barbells to do hammer curls because of how low the starting position is and how the hand positions are laid out. You can still use things like kettlebells to vary the exercise up a bit.
Having two free weights off a bar makes it pretty easy to get going too fast, which can lead to injury and cause you to miss out on some of the gains you should be getting. Take your time to build up to faster hammer curls, especially when you’re first starting so that you can get the feeling for the move and understand the full range of motion required.
If you simply can’t seem to stop swinging the weights too much and you’re going way too fast, you may not be using enough weight. Get some heavier weight and build up to really heavy weights for the benefits of progressive overload.
Incline Variations of Hammer & Biceps Curls
Safety is always a big concern for bodybuilders and lifters in general. One way people try to make hammer curls and biceps curls more effective is by doing them on an inclined surface. If you do want to go this route, you have to take special care to protect your shoulder joints.
When you’re lying down on an incline bench to do either hammer curls or biceps curls, you have a bit more support for your back. But for some people, this makes them move more quickly and erratically, causing them to extend their arms in the wrong direction and injure their shoulder blades.
As long as you take care to build up slowly and learn the proper form for biceps curls and hammer curls, you can avoid this problem. Incline variations of both these moves give the biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscles a much more challenging workout and therefore lead to much greater gains in muscle and strength.
Hammer Curls vs. Biceps Curls
So, which of these two biceps exercises is better? Generally speaking, you should ideally be using both throughout your upper-body exercise routine. Use biceps curls to get great peaks in the long head of the biceps and hammer curls to build strength and width in the important muscles that underly the biceps brachii.
Luckily, there are so many variations on both of these exercises that you can continue to include them in your workout without getting bored. Every few weeks, try using a cable machine or kettlebells to hit different muscles. Just remember the limitations of each exercise so you don’t accidentally let part of your arm muscles falter.
EZ bars are a great way to target the short head biceps, for example. You can’t use one with hammer curls, but you can with biceps curls. Take a narrower grip on the bar and you’ll be able to build up the short head of your biceps. Wider grips target the long head of the biceps.
Hammer curls help build grip strength in a way that biceps curls don’t. That grip strength is important for other more complicated exercises like pull-ups and deadlifts. Plus, hammer curls are great for exhausting your muscles and prompting them to increase hypertrophy to build more muscle during recovery.
The best thing you can do for your exercise routine is to add these small bicep exercises in between compound exercises that build strength and muscle throughout your body. Eventually, you’ll be able to do hammer curls and biceps curls without giving it a second thought and you’ll have the arms strength and muscle gains to prove it.
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Biceps curls are a classic workout move and hammer curls are a slightly altered version. While they both work on your arm muscles in similar ways, each one has its advantages and disadvantages. Biceps curls target the biceps much more exclusively and hammer curls build up strength in the important muscles beneath the biceps.
If you want to build up grip strength for more complicated moves, go with the hammer curl. If you’re trying to build up the long head of your biceps for great peaks and bodybuilder biceps, the biceps curl is what you’re looking for.
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