Bicep Health—The Dumbbell Curl

Most anyone loves to have “big guns”–biceps that grab attention, that make you look good in a short sleeve shirt. The bicep is definitely a “show muscle” and truly shines in the summer sun!

even Popeye--the "forearm god"--loved to flex those biceps!

even Popeye–the “forearm god”–loved to flex those biceps!


But it’s a lot more than that, as it’s highly functional for daily living as well. You use your biceps to varying degrees in a wide variety of activities, many you don’t consciously think about. Basic examples include picking up household items from the floor and setting them at higher places, opening canned goods, and even simply bringing a drink up to your lips to guzzle. Any movement, light or heavy, that requires your forearm to be elevated or brought in toward your body will bring those beloved biceps into play to one degree or the other.

Biceps are an easy reminder to ensure you keep and even improve your muscularity as you age. There is nothing like a good pair of biceps to help give you an indication you’re doing some right things in maintaining your independence and vigor and even using them to help others. It’s a good feeling when you’re middle aged (or beyond) and being asked to lift something heavy for someone else who may be a good bit younger than you are!


Regarding the dumbbell curl (pictured), this is a standard exercise, yet many—perhaps most
—folks don’t get anywhere near the benefits they can out of it. In the gym (or as part of a home workout), you see someone doing curls for months on end with no or minimal improvement. Why is that?

I’ve even seen a couple of folks use their backs so much, that it’s almost not even an arm exercise in any sense! It’s more like going for a ride or something, rocking so recklessly that they need a seat belt. Strap yourself in! It’s no wonder those folks don’t get any arm growth.

Most of us don’t go to such an exaggerated movement, but there’s still a fair amount of swaying with the body or other cheating methods that require less of the biceps.

Smart to use dumbbells:

note my neutral grip--palms facing inward (more comfortable for some trainees)

note my neutral grip to start–palms facing inward (more comfortable for some trainees) before turning them upward during the lift; elbows to the side from start to finish

You can also use a barbell, but I (and most people) find that dumbbells are an overall safer, sounder path to take, because it doesn’t lock your arms into a precise movement that the barbell does. In short, dumbbells provide a lot more flexibility and variety. They also are much more home workout friendly, allowing you to store them in the confines of your place with relatively little space needed.

In preparing to curl, stance is foundational. Note John’s stance (in the first pic above) and how he’s staggered his feet, rather than keeping them in the same plane. This helps lessen stress on the back/spine area. It’s not a significant concern for most when using light weight, but matters more if you already have back issues and/or are using heavier weight.

Form Is King:

You want to generally keep your hands supinated (palms facing up) for maximal bicep effect, but it’s important that if your flexibility is limited, you can invert your grip some (i.e. use a more neutral grip throughout the movement, palm tilted in some instead of up). Also, many folks may feel more comfortable and natural beginning with a neutral grip (when arm down at your sides, hands are facing your legs/body) and then supinating (turning palms upward) as they start the lift. Just be sure to keep the wrist steady, not rolling it upward while you perform the lift regardless of whether you rotate the hand while the weight comes up.

One significant clue–keep the elbow in close to your side. It’s a simple reminder for you at any time. If you notice your elbow moving beyond the smallest amount, then you are not hitting your bicep as much; rather, you’re getting your shoulder involved more as it’s lifting up the humerus (upper arm) instead of your bicep moving your forearm to get the weight up.

note my elbow remains to my side, wrist stays locked, only moving forearm, making bicep do all the work

note my elbow remains to my side, wrist stays locked, only moving forearm, making bicep do all the work

If that’s the case, concentrate a little more on keeping the elbow in close to your side. If you’re still unable to keep from lifting the elbow up, just end the set or use less weight next time. If you’re unable to get, say, at least six to eight repetitions with that weight before losing form, then you probably should drop to a lesser weight. It’s not so much about how much you can lift, but the stimulus the muscle gets from the movement.

Again, let the forearm and it only do the moving. Your biceps will greatly appreciate it.

Lowering the Weight–More Important Than You May Think:

When you lower the weight, do so controlled, modestly slowly, to prevent bouncing out of the bottom. Bouncing puts a lot of extra stress on the bicep and can create injury, especially over time and/or if you’re using a heavy weight.

More on that note: each person’s bottom position may be a little different, depending on various factors, flexibility being the primary one. If you cannot straighten your arm out totally at the bottom, that’s OK. Don’t force it. And the more weight you’re using, the less you should put any extra pressure on your muscles to straighten your arm out.

The general rule is you can descend to a lower (arm more straight) position the slower you take it down and the more flexible you are. The faster you allow the weight to fall, the earlier you need to put on the brakes and avoid hitting the bottom of the rep range.

Obviously, there are significant safety advantages to taking the descent slower, and the extra time the muscle remains tense increases the muscle’s growth, as studies frequently show.

Take the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement. slowly, controlled for best results

Take the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement. slowly, controlled for best results

We spoke earlier about the tendency to sway coming up, which brings your back into the lift and creates body momentum that puts far less emphasis on the biceps to perform the lift. Don’t do that! Your focus should be on building the muscle, not so much on how many reps or how much weight you’re lifting. Sure, those things obviously have their place, but let them be the end result of your training, not the means! Like noted, if you over-focus on these things, you will far more likely cheat to get them and rob yourself of the enjoyment and rewards of the bicep blitz.

Here’s to your ageless vigor and happy home workouts!