THE CLASSIC BICEPS CURL is one of the common gym bro’s most utilized tools. For good reason, too—it’s a necessary movement if you want to build big arms and one of the most basic exercises in all of strength training.
If the biceps curl is a staple in your routine, you’re likely used to repping with a barbell or dumbbell. That’s great—but ultimately, you’re missing out on a key aspect of your arms’ potential. The issue is with the implement. Using free weights to perform this movement takes away the tension at one very important position: the bottom portion of the curl, when your biceps are at their most lengthened state. That means you’re leaving potential gains on the table, since you’re not applying tension to the muscle throughout its entire range of motion. The cable biceps curl just may be the addition you need for a more complete biceps training plan.
Here, Men’s Health fitness director, Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and senior fitness editor, Brett Williams, C.P.T., break down what you need to know about this secret weapon, including its benefits, how to do it right, and the best ways to add it into your routine.
Benefits of the Cable Biceps Curl
The cable biceps curl “fills in a critical blank that is missing from all the other curls you’re doing,” Samuel says.
When using free weights such as a dumbbell, barbell, or kettlebell, the easiest point of the exercise is when the elbow is straightened at the bottom of the movement. In other words, there’s never tension on the biceps muscle when it’s in a lengthened position. Adding tension to this portion of the lift is a “real key mechanic for growth,” says Samuel. The cable machine creates that stimulus, allowing you to load all the way through the lengthened portion of the move.
This doesn’t mean that you should totally ditch your dumbbell biceps curls, however. Because of the way the angle of load hits when you’re using the cable, there’s not as much tension at the top of the curl as there would be with a traditional dumbbell curl. It takes both the traditional free weight curls and the cable curls to ensure that you’ve applied load to the muscle through its long and short positions. That’s why it’s important to add the cable curl into your repertoire during your arm days as a complement to the other exercises you’re already doing, rather than as the only move in your arsenal.
How to Do the Cable Biceps Curl
Follow along with these steps to perform the cable biceps curl with proper form. Grab a cable machine and slide the handle down to the lowest setting to start. Begin with a lighter weight to get a feeling for the movement before challenging yourself by going heavier.
- Grab the handle with one hand and take a step and a half away from the machine (or as far as you need to feel tension on the muscle).
- Squeeze the abs and glutes for a solid base.
- Create a slight angle with the elbow to where the cable feels like it’s pulling you back.
- Ensure that your hips and shoulders are facing square in front—don’t allow the tension from the cable to twist your torso backwards.
- Moving only at the elbow, curl your hand towards your shoulder.
- As you lower back down, make sure the cable doesn’t pull your shoulder from its position. Think about keeping the upper arm in line with your torso.
Moving the Shoulder
The elbow should be the only joint moving here. Don’t allow the shoulder to shrug forward, or you’ll be incorporating other muscles and taking some of the tension off the biceps.
When you’re in the lengthened portion of the movement, make sure that the tension from the cable doesn’t move your shoulder backwards, tracing your upper arm away from your torso. This puts your shoulder in a compromised position. Think about keeping the shoulder square with the rest of the body, and place a bit of tension through the shoulder blade to create some stability.
Holding at the Top
This isn’t your traditional biceps curl, where you’re more focused on the contraction at the top portion of the lift. You’re not getting a ton of tension at the top of the motion due to the way the cable is oriented. The bottom 25 to 30 percent of the move is where we’re really being challenged here, Samuel says. Because of that, there’s no need to hold the squeeze at the top of the movement the way that you might with a free weight curl.
How to Incorporate the Cable Biceps Curl Into Your Workouts
The cable biceps curl can be the key to building strength through the lengthened position of the biceps—but it’s not the Holy Grail of biceps exercises. This movement should be added to your routine, rather than as a replacement for anything else.
Keep your standard curls, preacher curls, hammer curls, and spider curls, and then add the cable curl to finish off your routine, Samuel says. This will finish off your biceps workout with a challenge to the muscles through their full range of motion.
When you do elect to add this movement to the end of your workout, you’ll want to keep the weight lighter and the reps higher. Samuel suggests aiming for 3 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 reps. You can also add this into a superset with some regular heavy dumbbell curls for a little extra challenge.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.