First, let's get this out of the way—Curls aren't the most important exercise in terms of your athletic performance. If you're doing Curls instead of exercises like Squats, Deadlifts and Hang Cleans, that's a big problem. But if you're taking care of the more important lifts first, then Curls can have a place in your routine. It's not a crime to want bigger and more well-toned arms! If that's your goal, then Curls are a great exercise to include in your program.
As with many other exercises, the effectiveness and efficiency of Curls can be altered by your hand positioning. Minor changes in how you grab the bar can have a big effect on the results of the exercise. Knowing how these variations affect your Curl can give your routine a boost and help you better know how to target certain muscle groups.
Close Grip Curl
Position: Supinated grip with inside placement on EZ bar. For a straight bar, anything two inches inside shoulder width or closer
You've probably noticed that a standard EZ bar has two spots which your hands fit into comfortably—a wide position and a narrow position. So, where should you put your hands when you're curling?
It depends on your goal. The biceps brachii, which many people simply refer to as the biceps, is a muscle that consists of two heads. The short head is on the inside of your arm, and the long head is on the outside of your arm. In terms of cosmetic appeal, the long head is what forms the "hump" or peak of the bicep, while the short head is what forms much of the girth and the width of the bicep. Both the long and short heads need to be developed if you want to rock some 24-inch pythons!
Utilizing a narrow grip for the Curl will have your hands closer together, which results in increased muscle activity in the long head of the biceps. This will help to increase your biceps "bump." A narrow grip may place more stress on the wrists and elbows than a shoulder-width grip, so begin with light weight and work your way up. If you're using an EZ bar, a narrow grip will have your hands turned slightly inward—due to the design of the equipment—which can help take stress off your wrists and elbows. A narrow grip may also more heavily recruit the forearm muscles than a wide grip, but this difference is more drastic in other upper-body exercises, such as the Bench Press.
Wide Grip Curl
Position: Supinated grip with outside placement on EZ bar. For a straight bar, anything wider than shoulder-width apart
Just as the Close Grip Curl more heavily targets the outside of your biceps, the Wide Grip Curl more heavily targets the inside of your biceps; also known as the short head. By more heavily targeting the short head of the biceps, you'll add more lateral girth and thickness to your upper-arm.
Utilizing a wide grip for Curls can put extra pressure on your elbows, shoulders and wrists. If you're using an EZ bar, a wide hand position will also have your hands turned slightly outwards—due to the design of the equipment—which can take stress off your wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Standard Grip Curl
Position: Supinated grip with hands shoulder-width apart
If you're looking to work both the short and the long head of the biceps equally, your best bet is the Standard Grip Curl. This position is easier to assume on a straight barbell than an EZ bar, as the EZ bar only allows you to comfortably place your hands either in a close or wide position.
Utilizing a shoulder-width grip puts your body in the best position for Curling, meaning you're likely to find it more comfortable than either the close or the wide grip. You'll also likely be able to curl the most weight while utilizing a standard grip.
Position: Pronated grip throughout the movement
The typical Curl is done with a supinated grip, meaning your palms are facing towards you. For the Reverse Curl, the hands are in a pronated grip, meaning your palms are facing away from you. This variation will target your forearms and your grip strength much more than a regular Curl.
Reverse Curls heavily target the brachioradialis, a major muscle in the forearm. By forcing you to tightly hold onto the bar throughout the movement, Reverse Curls are great for building grip strength. Reverse Curls are generally a more difficult exercise than Bicep Curls, so don't be surprised if you have to use lighter weight. If you're using an EZ bar, Reverse Curls can be done with your hands on the outside part of the bar, which will have your palms turned slightly inward.
Neutral Grip Hammer Curls
Position: Neutral grip, palms facing each other
A neutral grip is essentially halfway between a pronated grip and a supinated grip. Instead of your palms facing toward you or away from you, they're turned in so they're facing one another. Curling with a neutral grip is commonly known as a "Hammer Curl," and it's usually only possible to perform using dumbbells. Hammer Curls get their name because the movement looks similar to swimming a hammer.
Hammer Curls target both heads of your biceps in addition to your brachioradialis and brachialis (a small muscle in the deep upper arm). That means you're working both your forearm and upper-arm, making Hammer Curls a well-rounded exercise. Additionally, a stronger brachioaradialis and brachialis can actually push your biceps up, making it appear bigger. Hammer Curls also place less stress on your wrist than traditional Bicep Curls or Reverse Curls, making it a smart choice if you're looking to avoid stress in that area.
Offset Grip Dumbbell Curls
Position: Supinated grip, hands on outside half of dumbbell grip so thumbs are touching plate
Offset Grip Dumbbell Curls are a great example of how a small modification can make a big difference in an exercise. By placing your hands on the outer half of the dumbbell, you're essentially adding an exercise within an exercise. While you Curl, you're not only flexing at the elbow—which is the typical way that the biceps are worked out—but you're also working to supinate your forearm, which is a second movement facilitated by the biceps. This translates to a more effective pump. STACK Expert Nick Tumminello loves this exercise and does a great job of explaining it in this video:
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