The 10 Best Barbell Biceps Exercises to Boost Your Arm Size and Pulling Strength

The word biceps may well invoke thoughts of watching your biceps swell in the mirror with every rep. Whether you want bulging shirt sleeves or just a strong pair of biceps to bolster your pulling strength, building a big barbell biceps curl is a rite of passage.

A person performs a barbell biceps curl in the gym.
Credit: sarocha wangdee / Shutterstock

The barbell biceps curl will allow you to go even heavier than the dumbbell and cable variations. Since you’re using the most weight, you’ll be flirting with better biceps gains. But there is more to the barbell biceps curl than the standard underhand curl. Here, we’ll go into the standard curl — and nine variations — to get you ready for your next flex session.

Best Barbell Biceps Curl Exercises

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Barbell Biceps Curl

The standard barbell curl with an underhand grip is a classic that never goes out of style. This variation targets biceps and forearms and can add a huge amount of size and strength to your upper arms.

For many lifters, few isolation exercises feel as fun as when they load the barbell, grip it hard, and curl it toward their chin. Rinse and repeat for a sweet pump.

Benefits of the Barbell Biceps Curl

  • The barbell curl is simple, effective, and easy to perform. The beginner to advanced lifters will all benefit from this exercise.
  • You’ll build bigger and stronger biceps with this variation, as you can load your biceps with more weight. 
  • This move also adds size to your forearm flexors and helps build grip strength.

How to Do the Barbell Biceps Curl

Grip the barbell with an underhand grip around shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up and your shoulder blades down and back. With your upper arms by your sides, curl the barbell up, using your biceps while ensuring an upright posture. Lower back to the starting position and repeat.

Barbell Reverse Curl

Changing your grip on the barbell curl helps build size and strength on the often-neglected part of the forearms — your extensors. 

The barbell reverse curl emphasizes the smaller forearm extensors and brachialis. That’s a muscle underneath the biceps that will give them that extra boost of thickness for when it’s time to flex.

Benefits of the Barbell Reverse Curl

  • Using a reverse grip improves forearm extensor strength, which may help reduce your chances of elbow injuries.
  • The barbell reverse curl improves the size and strength of your forearm extensors and biceps muscles.
  • Strengthening your forearm extensors helps improve overall grip strength.

How to Do the Barbell Reverse Curl

Set up as you would with your standard barbell biceps curl, but opt for a lighter weight. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding your upper arms by your sides. Instead of an underhand grip, take an overhand grip with your knuckles facing you. Slowly curl the barbell to slightly above 90 degrees. Slowly reverse to the starting position. Reset and repeat. 

Mixed-Grip Curl

The mixed-grip curl is a mix between an overhand and underhand grip because one hand is supinated while the other is pronated. Think of the mixed deadlift grip and use it here. 

In this variation, you will use a little less weight than the standard curl. But, you’ll double the reps because you need to keep it even on both sides. Because you’re training forearm extensors and flexors simultaneously, you’ll improve your grip and forearm strength.

Benefits of the Mixed-Grip Curl

  • This variation trains your forearm flexors and extensors simultaneously.
  • A mixed-grip curl helps to combat any imbalances between your forearm muscles for potentially reduced injury risk.
  • The mixed curl grip requires you to double your amount of reps — and the work to your biceps — because you have to keep it even on both sides.

How to Do the Mixed-Grip Curl

Set up and perform as you would for the standard underhand curl. But then, switch to a reverse grip with one hand. Perform all your reps with this grip. Switch sides and repeat.

Drag Curl

The barbell drag curl is when you drag the bar up your body instead of curling the barbell up towards your shoulders. What this does is lock your arms in, creating a significant amount of tension on your biceps. 

Although you cannot use as much weight as you can with other variations, the drag curl makes up for this with increased tension.

Benefits of the Drag Curl

  • Because your arms are locked in, it increases the tension on your biceps.
  • You get increased intensity with this biceps curl variation but can use less weight.
  • The increased muscular tension here leads to better muscle-building potential.

How to Do the Drag Curl

Set up as you would for the standard barbell biceps curl with your hands around shoulder-width apart. Drive your elbows behind your torso and drag the barbell up your body until your hands are above your hips. Slowly reverse the movement. Reset and repeat.

Against-the-Wall Curl

The against-the-wall curl has you leaning against the wall while performing your usual barbell curl. Doing so minimizes any assistance from your lower and upper body. 

This move puts the focus where it belongs: your biceps. The wall gives you instant feedback. If any momentum is used other than elbow flexion, the wall will let you know.

Benefits of the Against-the-Wall Curl

  • Minimal assistance from the lower and upper body increases the intensity on your biceps.
  • You get increased intensity at the same or reduced weight.
  • The wall gives instant feedback on whether you are doing this exercise correctly.

How to Do the Against-the-Wall Curl

Holding the barbell with a supinated grip, lean against a wall with your head, upper, and lower back against the wall. Walk your feet far enough from the wall to make this possible. Curl the barbell to your anterior shoulders while keeping your upper body still. Lower down to the starting position. Reset and repeat.

Unilateral Landmine Curl

The landmine is a great tool for training squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, and biceps. Yes, biceps. 

The unilateral landmine curl has you gripping the fat end of the barbell and curling across your body to challenge your grip strength and train your biceps from a different angle. This is a win-win for you and your biceps.

Benefits of the Unilateral Landmine Curl

  • This biceps variation will combat any muscle and grip imbalances between sides.
  • Holding the fat end of the barbell challenges and improves your grip strength.
  • This move trains your biceps from a different angle for better muscle development.

How to Do the Unilateral Landmine Curl

Stand perpendicular to the landmine attachment and hold the end of the barbell with a firm grip. Curl the barbell across your body until your hand reaches your upper chest and shoulder. Slowly lower down to the starting position. Repeat, and keep your reps even on both sides.

Wide-Grip Curl

A wide-grip barbell curl is wider than shoulder-width apart and can be performed with an overhand or underhand grip. 

Not only does this variation train your biceps from a different angle, but it also targets the inner or short head of the biceps muscles. This challenges your grip strength quite a bit.

Benefits of the Wide-Grip Curl

  • This biceps curl variation targets the short head of your biceps for fuller muscle development.
  • The wide grip challenges your grip and forearms further.
  • This move attacks your biceps from a different angle for better flex appeal.

How to Do the Wide-Grip Curl

While standing upright, grip the barbell with a grip that’s wider than shoulder width. Exactly how wide you go depends on your personal preference and comfort. Curl up until your biceps are flexed. Squeeze at the top, then slowly lower down and repeat.

Tall-Kneeling Curl

The tall-kneeling curl has all the biceps benefits you want, combining a touch of core stability and improvements to your hip mobility. 

Your glutes and core are engaged as you curl. If they are not, your form will suffer. This variation minimizes the use of your lower body and drives more engagement to your biceps — right where it belongs.

Benefits of the Tall-Kneeling Curl

  • The tall-kneeling position will boost your core stability and hip mobility while training your biceps.
  • This exercise adds to the difficulty level because of your inability to cheat the weight up or down.
  • The tall-kneeling position reduces your base of support for improved balance and takes your lower body out of the lift, which puts focus on your biceps.

How to Do the Tall-Kneeling Curl

With a loaded barbell on the floor, get down on your knees and grip the barbell with your preferred grip. Get into your tall-kneeling position. Curl to your shoulders while minimizing body movement. Lower slowly to the starting position. Reset and repeat.

Barbell Preacher Curl

The preacher curl is a biceps curl variation that has the lifter place their arm at an angle on a preacher curl bench. Your arms and shoulders will be supported on a pad. 

This minimizes movement of the upper body to help focus your biceps more while training them from yet another angle. By keeping your shoulders and upper arms on the pad, you’re ensuring that all the work is coming from — you guessed it — your biceps.

Benefits of the Barbell Preacher Curl

  • The preacher curl bench minimizes the use of other body parts and focuses only on your biceps.
  • The preacher curl challenges your biceps from a different angle.
  • If the standing curl aggravates your lower back, this exercise may help you perform the movement without discomfort.

How to Do the Barbell Preacher Curl

Adjust the seat on the preacher bench so that your upper arms sit comfortably on the padding. Grip the barbell with your preferred grip. Keeping your back straight, eyes facing forward, and arms on the pad at all times, curl until your biceps are fully flexed. Slowly lower down to the starting position. Reset and repeat.

Spider Curl

The barbell spider curl is not a biceps curl with eight legs. Instead, it’s a barbell variation that allows a greater range of motion than most curls because you’re on an incline. 

This ensures more love and attention for your biceps due to the constant tension throughout the range of motion. Plus, spider curls train your biceps’ long and short heads all at once.

Benefits of the Spider Curl

  • Spider curls activate both the long and short heads of your biceps for improved muscle-building and flex appeal.
  • The incline puts your biceps through a more extensive range of motion for improved hypertrophy.
  • Unlike many variations on this list, spider curls keep constant tension on your biceps.

How to Do the Spider Curl

Set your incline weight bench at 45 degrees. You can also use a preacher curl bench. Lie with your torso and stomach pressed against the padding. Hold the bar with your preferred grip. Slowly curl the bar towards your head, pause, and lower it under control. Repeat for reps.

Anatomy of the Biceps

As the name suggests, your biceps is a two-headed muscle — the short and long head. Both biceps heads come together at the radius to form the biceps peak when flexing in the mirror.

Because the biceps cross the shoulder and elbow joints, they act on both joints. The long head of the biceps assists in shoulder abduction — the inward rotation of the arm. The short biceps head helps pull your arm back to your torso, known as shoulder adduction.

When both biceps’ heads contract simultaneously, it leads to the primary function of the biceps — elbow flexion. The biceps also rotate your forearm outwards (supination) and assist the anterior deltoids with shoulder flexion.

Programming Biceps Training

Your biceps strength plays a vital role in helping with pulling compound movements such as the chin-up and all unilateral and bilateral rowing exercises. But if you train your biceps before doing your rows, it may take away from your overall strength. When your biceps are tired, they might become a limiting factor in your pulls before your back gets enough work in.

This is why you’ll generally want to train biceps after pulling exercises as accessory lifts when it’s your goal to add total body muscle mass or improve max strength.

Barbell Biceps Exercise Selection

The standard barbell biceps curl is the variation where you’ll use the most weight. Still, it pays to vary your grip and angle for better overall biceps muscle development.

Plus, barbell curls are hard on your wrist and elbow joints, so it always pays to change it up to avoid overuse injuries. For instance, performing reverse curls, wide-grip, or mixed-grip curls works well if you want to improve your forearm strength.

Biceps Sets and Reps

As tempting as it is to start with biceps curls, exhausting them before your compound exercises will decrease your strength. It’s generally best to perform biceps curls as an accessory exercise, no matter your goal.

  • For Strength: Performing four to five sets of eight to 10 reps works well for strength. Doing a few ramp-up sets with a lighter weight is advisable when training your biceps for strength.
  • For Muscle Growth: Do three to four sets of eight to 15 repetitions focusing on the eccentric (lowering) phase for maximum growth.
  • For Endurance: Perform two to four sets of 15 repetitions with short rest periods between sets.

Since your biceps are a relatively small muscle, it pays to develop a solid mind-muscle connection to feel them working. Creating tension with your grip and lifting with a slow eccentric will help here.

Biceps Training Tips

The biceps are involved in almost all your pulling movements, so it pays to spend a little time training them for strength. Even if aesthetics aren’t your concern, you want to increase the load your biceps can handle so they’re not a weak link holding you back with your pulling exercises. 

Vary Your Grip

The barbell locks your joints into a fixed range of motion, which can be good and bad. It’s good because you can move more weight. It can also be less than optimal because it can overstress your wrist and elbow joints. Vary your grip to avoid overuse injuries and improve your forearm and biceps muscle mass development.

Control the Eccentric

Creating and maintaining muscular tension is critical when your goal is to build muscle and strength. One way to do this is to control the lowering or eccentric phase of each rep, which puts your muscles under more tension for a longer period of time. This bodes well for better potential gains.

Train in Varying Rep Ranges

A bigger muscle is often a stronger muscle. Conversely, getting your muscles stronger will also help you add size. To tap into this positive feedback loop, vary your rep ranges between eight to 10 reps, up to 12 reps, and the higher reps ranges of 15 or more reps.

Isolating the Biceps Short and Long Head

The best way to emphasize either the short or long head of your biceps is by changing your grip and arm angle. A wide grip emphasizes the short head while a narrower grip will focus on the long head.

Build Those Biceps

Consider the biceps the cherry on top of a great set of arms. They play a vital role in your pulling strength. Performing barbell biceps curls for muscle, strength, and performance works best. Varying the grip and angle you train them from will help improve muscle development. All of this will add up to stronger pulls and the need for stronger shirt sleeves.

Featured Image: sarocha wangdee / Shutterstock