Let’s be honest, biceps are one of the muscles that are in no danger of going undertrained. Some of us do it on a chest day, some hit them when they hit the back, and some have a special day carved out just to do the arms. If anything, we do them too often. The dilemma remains:What should we use – a barbell or dumbbells to get head-turning arms? And more importantly, which piece of equipment is going to help us curl our way up to bigger biceps?
I have to say right off the bat: I love and use both. But if I have to choose one then let’s go through some of the most notable advantages and disadvantages of both, and find out the winner of barbell vs dumbbell curls.
When it comes to working your biceps, I lean more towards the dumbbells, but here, barbell curl actually has the upper hand. You can find very light plates that allow for small tweaks in terms of weight on the bar, and that can mean a lot if you want to have progressive overload (which you should, as it is one of the ways of getting bigger and stronger muscles). You can use 2-pound plates, or even 1-pounders and if you need to add an even smaller weight, some gyms offer weighted collars or clips.
With dumbbells, you are usually stuck with 5 pound jumps as you reach for the heavier pair, and that means a 10 pound increase combined. It might not make a big difference in the beginning, but as you become more advanced, it might just not be precise enough. If you are working out at home, you can work your way around it by purchasing a set of adjustable dumbbells, though.
Another thing I have to give to the barbell curl is the amount of core activation we get when we curl this way. There is a big difference if you are trying to curl up 60 pounds, or 25 at a time using dumbbells. You have to engage your entire core if you want to curl the weight up the right way. Just because we are working our arms doesn’t mean that the rest of the body can be saggy. So tighten your abs, engage your quads, flex the glutes and curl away.
Another thing we need to assess if we are picking favorites is the strength of the contraction it allows for. If you look at what the bicep’s functions are, you will see that it flexes the elbow and supinates the forearm (it also somewhat helps with shoulder flexion, but it does so to a very small degree). So if we want to work our biceps, we are going to have to do some sort of a curl.
As you might guess, to maximize the engagement of our biceps, we have to flex the elbow and supinate the forearm. Dumbbells are much more convenient for that kind of movement. Don’t get me wrong, if all you have is a bar, you can help your cause by trying to supinate forearms while doing bar curls as well (it won’t move, of course, but the your will get bicep activation nonetheless), but, especially for beginner lifters, it’s much easier to forget to do that without the dumbbells.
Fuller contraction means more muscle fibers damaged, and that adds up to more strength and more size. It’s simple as that.
That actually brings us to another point as to why barbell curls might not be the best for training your biceps. If you are dealing with any sort of wrist pain (and a big portion of us are, thanks to the structure of our forearm bones), ditch the barbell curl altogether. The simple truth is that those bones are not the same length and they don’t attach to the wrist joint at the same height. I don’t want to get into the boring anatomy stuff, but curling with a barbell can be very painful if this is already an issue for you.
What you want to do in that case is opt for an EZ bar which is much kinder to your wrists, or (even better) go for dumbbells and find that sweet spot between the right amount of supination and excruciating pain.
I already mentioned that bicep helps with shoulder flexion as the long head attaches to our glenohumeral joint. We can use that fact to our advantage if we want to hit the long head a bit more directly, but to do that we need to get our arms behind our body. You will agree that it is difficult to get the barbell back there, unless you are a Jedi able to get the bar through your stomach.
You don’t want to neglect either of the two heads, but if you are trying to get bigger looking arms, longer head is the part that you want to focus on. If this sounds you, then dumbbells are maybe the better choice. I find it easier to hit the long head if I do my curls with dumbbells on an incline bench, sitting down, but, again, don’t get discouraged if all you have is a barbell. You can do drag curls instead.
I don’t think that this fight has that clear of a winner, though. The body of evidence clearly helps dumbbells’ case, but as you might have seen, there is always a way around problems if all you have is a bar. As long as get the form right (I am looking at you, rocking-horse-ego-lifters) without sacrificing your lower back, and you give your biceps enough time to recover (no, you are not supposed to do them every day), you will get equally impressive results with both pieces of equipment.
Hey! My name is Paul Sheldon. I live in Nashville, TN and I love all things related to sports. Naturally I love workking out and I do it every day. If you want to talk feel freee to hit me a message or if you happen to be in Nashville we can get a coffee, I know a great place. Peace!
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