Hammer Curls vs. Bicep Curls: Which One Builds Bigger Arms? - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Hammer Curls vs. Bicep Curls: Which One Builds Bigger Arms?

Hammer Curls vs. Bicep Curls: Which One Builds Bigger Arms?

June 14, 2019

A chiseled chest, big biceps, and shredded abs — that’s what most guys want. Building massive biceps is often on top of their wish list. Go to any gym and you’ll see dozens of men pumping iron to make their arms look bigger before a night out.

After all, when someone asks you to flex a muscle, they’re not talking about your calves or traps —they want to see you make those arms pop.

The problem is that it can take months or even years to build huge biceps. Perhaps you have a massive chest and rock hard abs, but your biceps are lagging. Or maybe you’ve hit a plateau. Either way, there are steps you can take to build huge biceps fast and get stronger overall.

Let’s start with the most popular bicep exercises: hammer curls vs. bicep curls. Which one works best and how to maximize your gains? Below, we’ll explain how to perform these moves and get the most out of your biceps workout.

Bicep Anatomy

Before we dive into the hammer curls vs. bicep curls debate, make sure you know a thing or two about bicep anatomy. This muscle makes about one-third of your upper arm and lies on its front side. Its anatomical name is biceps brachii.

Bicep muscles
The bicep muscle occupies third of the upper arm.

The biceps has two heads that arise on the scapula and share a common insertion point. It plays a key role in arm movements, such as pulling and curling, forearm supination, and elbow flexion. It also helps stabilize the shoulder joint when you’re carrying a heavy weight in your arms and allows you to bring your arms forward, upwards, and to the sides.

When you’re working out, apply these concepts to your training routine. It’s important that you distinguish between the short and the long head of the biceps — and target each of them using weight and resistance training. Experiment with different grips and moves to hit this muscle from all angles.

flexed bicep
The bicep plays a key role in arm movements.

For example, if you use a supinated grip when training with cables or dumbbells, you’ll target the short head. A semi-supinated grip will put emphasis on the long head of the biceps.

The Hammer Curl: Mechanism of Action

There are dozens of bicep exercises out there, with the hammer curl being one of the most popular moves for thickness and forearm development. It’s a great movement for your upper body workout, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced lifter.

hammer curl
Hammer curls increase the bicep size and length.

Hammer curls target the long head of the biceps as well as the brachialis and the brachioradialis (one of the forearm muscles). This movement also engages stabilizer muscles, including the anterior deltoid, the upper and middle trapezius, the extensor carpi radialis, and others.

It’s performed with dumbbells, giving you better control over the movement compared to barbell bicep curls.

When done right, this exercise will increase bicep size and strength, improve wrist stability, and boost muscle endurance. It also helps strengthen your grip, which allows you to pull heavier loads in the deadlift and other compound moves.

Speaking of hammer curls vs. bicep curls, both movements target the same muscles — the biceps and the brachioradialis. Contrary to popular belief, they are not completely distinct exercises. In fact, the hammer curl is a variation of the regular bicep curl. Some differences exist, though.

1. How to Do a Hammer Curl

hammer curl
The hammer curl can be a unilateral exercise or using both arms.

The hammer curl is a relatively simple exercise but requires a strict form. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time and putting yourself at risk for injury. Follow these steps to do hammer curls correctly:

  • Stand up straight, with a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Keep your palms facing your torso and your elbows close to the body.
  • Curl the weight forward with your right arm while squeezing the biceps until your forearm is vertical.
  • Make sure your upper arm stays still. Use your forearm to control the movement. Keep your elbow stationary.
  • Hold for 1-2 seconds and then slowly lower the weight to the starting position.
  • Repeat with your left arm.

You can also perform this movement with both arms simultaneously. Another option is to sit down on a bench or use the preacher curl machine.

Golden era bodybuilder
Larry Scott flexing his biceps.

Here’s something you might not know: Vince Gironda, the “Iron Guru,” invented the Preacher curl bench for “The Golden Boy” Larry Scott who relied on it for his arm workouts. Scott was the first winner of the Mr. Olympia contest and was famous for his 20-inch upper arms.

2. Hammer Curl Tips & Tricks

For best results, use a slow, controlled motion. Avoid common mistakes, such as moving your torso from side to side or rushing through the reps.

hammer curl
Apply slow controlled movements to perfect the hammer curl.

Leave your ego at the gym door and try not to sacrifice form for volume. This can ruin your form and lead to wrist injuries, muscle strains, back pain, and everything in between.

To make this move easier, simply use a lighter load. Increase the weight or slow your lifting tempo for a more challenging workout. If you have back problems, sit down on a bench with back support.

dumbbells
Start this exercise with light weights then increase them as your strength builds up.

Consider trying the following hammer curl variations to keep your muscles guessing:

  • Incline seated hammer curls
  • Preacher hammer curls
  • Cross-body hammer curls
  • Swinging hammer curls
  • Swiss bar hammer curls
  • Cable rope hammer curls
  • Kettlebell hammer curls

Use this classic arm builder for supersets and compound sets. This will challenge your biceps into growth and increase muscular endurance. Plus, it’s a great way to break through plateaus and keep your workouts varied.

3. The Benefits of Hammer Curls

A cool thing about hammer curls is that they also target your wrists and forearms — not just the biceps — while building grip strength. Moving the weight in a hammering motion forces your muscles to work harder, allowing for better gains.

forearm muscles
Hammer curls also target wrists and forearms.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, the hammer curl is ideal for more advanced lifting techniques like drop sets, supersets, pyramid sets, compound sets, and so on. This can further speed up your progress in the gym and make it easier to reach muscle failure.

For example, you do a set with 10-pound dumbbells followed by one with 15 pounds and then another one with 20 pounds. That’s a good example of pyramid sets.

Since this exercise builds forearm and grip strength, it can boost your physical performance. Not to mention that you’ll achieve a more balanced physique and lower your risk of injury.

Flexed upper body
Hammer curls support overall strength and muscle growth.

Hammer curls aren’t just for bodybuilders. This movement is ideal for overall fitness and conditioning. It helps improve grip strength for snatches, cleans, rows, and other exercises while promoting hypertrophy. Any athlete can reap the benefits.

Bicep Curls: Mechanism of Action

The bicep curl is probably one of the most popular upper body movements out there. Several variations exist, and each has its perks. Dumbbell curls, barbell curls, drag curls, and reverse curls are just a few examples. Regular bicep curls are performed with a barbell or dumbbell, but you may also use the preacher bench or cables.

To keep things simple, we’ll focus on dumbbell bicep curls. This movement targets the biceps brachii as well as synergist muscles like the brachioradialis and brachialis. Your wrist flexors, upper trapezius, middle trapezius, and front shoulders come into play too.

dumbbell bicep curl
Similar to the hammer curl, the bicep curl is an isolation exercise.

When you perform this exercise, the biceps shortens and then lengthens to move the weight. Like the hammer curl, this is a single-joint, isolation movement. It builds mass and strength, improves physical performance, and shapes your arms.

Back in the Golden Era, free weights were the only option available to most gym goers and bodybuilders. Bicep curls were a staple in their workout programs.

Touted as the perfect bicep builder, this move can be done in several ways: stand or sit on a vertical/incline bench, use both arms or alternate side, rotate your wrists, or switch from bilateral to unilateral to extend the set.

1. How to Do Dumbbell Bicep Curls

The dumbbell bicep curl is a pretty basic, which makes it ideal for beginners. As you progress, you can experiment with different variations or change the type of resistance.

dumbbell bicep curl tutorial

Here’s how to do dumbbell bicep curls like a pro:

  • Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your arms straight, your palms facing in, and your elbows close to your torso.
  • Exhale and curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders until your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Squeeze your biceps and hold the contraction for 1-2 seconds.
  • Inhale and lower the weight with a slow, controlled motion.
  • Repeat.

You can also perform this exercise with one arm at a time. Pay attention to your lifting form. Keep your upper body still and do not use momentum.

2. Dumbbell Bicep Curl Tips & Tricks

Many guys think that building bigger arms means using heavier weights, but that’s not the case. When it comes to bicep curls, it’s better to use a lighter load that allows you to perform slow, controlled reps.

By doing so, you’ll get a better pump, which in turn, stretches muscle cell membranes and stimulates hypertrophy. The lighter weights will also allow you to perfect your form so you are doing the exercise correctly and feeling the movement in the biceps muscle.

 EZ barbell curl
EZ bar curl is an advanced variation of the dumbbell curl.

Another trick you can use is to rotate the wrists externally. This way, you’ll recruit more muscle fibers by supinating the wrists. Remember to keep your elbows close to your sides and locked into the right position in order to fully engage the biceps.

Also, keep constant tension on your biceps instead of relaxing the muscle when you reach the top or bottom of the movement. Straighten your arm fully at the bottom of each rep.

Dumbbell Bicep Curl Variations

Now that you know how to do dumbbell bicep curls with perfect form, try different variations:

  • Barbell curls
  • EZ bar curls
  • Reverse curls
  • Incline bench curls
  • Scott curls
  • Seated curls
  • Standard/braced concentration curls
  • Cable curls/reverse cable curls
  • Preacher curls
  • Drag curls
  • Zottman curls
  • Rest-pause curls
  • Kettlebell curls
  • pen-grip curls

This list also includes hammer curls, which are a variation of the dumbbell curl.

According to a 2018 study, EZ-bar curls yield better results than regular barbell curls and dumbbell bicep curls. Using an EZ bar elicits a greater activation of the biceps brachii and brachioradialis compared to other variations.

Surprisingly, dumbbell bicep curls appear to be the least effective; however, they’re a good choice for beginners as they allow them to learn proper form. In fact, they may produce greater biceps brachii activation throughout the whole elbow range of motion compared to the Preacher curl.

barbell curls
Barbell curls can be more effective than their EZ bar counterpart.

Another study, which was conducted by the American Council on Exercise, says something else. After comparing eight different bicep exercises, researchers have found that barbell curls were more effective than EZ curls. Cable curls and concentration curls produced the greatest muscle activation of the biceps brachii.

3. The Benefits of Bicep Curls

This classic bicep exercise has gotten a bad rep in recent years. Some say that it’s pretty much useless. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The bicep muscle plays a vital role in most sports and pulling movements. It also works with the lats, traps, delts, and triceps to allow your elbows and shoulders to function optimally. Therefore, it’s essential to strengthen your biceps — and curls do a great job in that regard.

While it’s true that compound movements like pull-ups and rows will give you more bang for your buck, bicep curls have their role.

First of all, this exercise is easy to learn and perform. It also allows for a wide range of variations, so you can always experiment with new movements and work your biceps from different angles. Dumbbell curls are not your only option.

In the long run, bicep curls can help increase shoulder stabilization and build arm strength. This can boost your athletic performance and reduce injury risk.

Plus, curls improve muscle definition and make a great choice for supersets, drop sets, pyramid sets, and more. You can even combine them with push-ups and other compound moves to fatigue your muscles faster.

Hammer Curls vs. Bicep Curls: Our Verdict

Now that you know more about these popular arm builders, you’re probably wondering who wins the hammer curls vs. bicep curls debate.

curl
Both exercises succeed at isolating the bicep.

The truth is that both exercises do a great job at activating and isolating the biceps. Standard curls, though, allow for more variations and a deeper stretch at the bottom of the movement. They also engage the long head of the bicep to a greater extent, leading to faster muscle growth.

Hammer curls, by contrast, are more effective for building forearm, wrist, and grip strength. The downside is that they can only be performed using dumbbells. Sure, you can try cable rope hammer curls or Swiss bar hammer curls, but the traditional bicep curl is still more versatile.

Both exercises can be performed at home or in the gym and have multiple variations. Ideally, include them both in your training routine. It’s no need to pick just one.

All in all, bicep curls offer more bang for your buck. If you’re short on time, choose barbell or dumbbell curls over the hammer curl.

Get the Most Out of Your Biceps Workout

Without a doubt, bicep curls are the go-to move for bigger guns. The key is to experiment with different variations and lifting techniques so you can target both heads of the bicep.

EZ bar curl
Change up your curls with the EZ bar

In addition to the basic curling motion, try the following exercises:

  • Standing concentration dumbbell curls
  • Open-palm machine curls
  • Overhead cable curls
  • Static dumbbell curls
  • Decline dumbbell curls
  • Lying Preacher curls
  • EZ-bar Preacher curls
  • Dumbbell clean
bicep curls
Dumbbell concentration curls are another variation for this exercise.

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1. Prioritize Compound Movements

Some compound movements, such as underhand-grip inverted rows, bent-over barbell rows, one or two arm dumbbell rows, farmer’s carry, and chin-ups, engage your biceps too.

The bent-over barbell row, for example, targets the back muscles, but it also works your biceps when you pull. The same goes for seated cable rows, which force your biceps to work extra hard.

seated rows
Compound movements like seated rows target your back and biceps.

Another example is the chin-up. This compound exercise doesn’t isolate the biceps, but it hits nearly every muscle in your arms.

standing curl
The standing cable row is another compound movement that’ll increase your metabolism.

You can also try more complex moves, such as split-jack curls or squat concentration curls, to get a full-body workout and send your metabolism into overdrive. These are perfect for those who want to get leaner without sacrificing their gains.

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vintage burn
Vintage Burn facilitates fat burning and supports leanness.

If you’re stuck in a rut, try these crazy workouts of the 70s! The bodybuilders of the Golden Era were constantly experimenting with new training styles. The six-day split, staggered sets, and running the rack are just a few examples. These lifting techniques can take your workout to the next level and get you pumped!

What are your thoughts on the hammer curls vs. bicep curls debate? Share your experience below!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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