Are Barbell Curls The Worst Exercise Ever?

March 03, 2015

Are Barbell Curls The Worst Exercise Ever?

I know, I know.

I haven't even started writing this article and I have probably already upset half of my audience with this outlandish claim. Trust me, I don't just lightly throw around words like this my friend. If I am going to bad mouth what may arguably be one of the single most recognizable exercises in the world, I better have my ducks in a row when it comes to explaining myself. Well, it just so happens I have some ducks right here...

While it may be a staple exercise that is older than I am (and that’s pretty dang old), the barbell curl, once analyzed leaves something to be desired for a biceps exercise. No matter what your goal might be when performing this exercise, science tells us that there are FAR better options than this antiquated movement. First let's talk about why the barbell curl isn't optimal and then I'll be a nice guy and share with you the exercise that really gets the job done.

Barbell curls don't challenge the biceps through their entire range of motion. Before I explain this further, it is important that you understand that the biceps brachii muscle has 3 distinct actions: shoulder flexion, elbow flexion and radio-ulnar supination. Take a peek at this video to better understand these actions.


Now that we are on the same page as to what the biceps are used for on the body, let's closely examine a bit more the barbell curl and see just how effective it is when challenging these muscular actions.  The barbell curl typically requires that the person doing them stands upright, holds a straight barbell at approximately shoulder width with an underhand (supinated) grip and flexes and then extends the elbow.  Based on our new found understanding of the biceps, we can see that this movement basically eliminates 2 out of the 3 functions of the biceps (shoulder flexion and radio-ulnar supination) thereby reducing its overall effectiveness as an exercise. In order to maximally stimulate a muscle, you want to use it through as full of a range of motion as possible and the barbell curl falls short of this goal pretty badly.

The main problem with the barbell curl, is the barbell itself.  Unless you are REALLY strong, you can't supinate your forearms when holding a barbell and you are severely limiting the benefit you can get out of the exercise. Something as simple as trading in the barbell for a dumbbell instead, immediately improves the benefit of the movement by allowing you to move through a more natural movement pattern.

Back in 2014, ACE Fitness commissioned a study to determine what truly was the best exercise for training the biceps.  The study used electromyography  (EMG) to measure total muscle activity in the biceps when performing a wide variety of barbell, dumbbell and cable based exercises.  The below graph shows that when using a barbell, even the EZ curl variation, there was a lesser activation of the biceps when compared to chin-ups, cable curls and the big daddy of them all, the seated dumbbell concentration curl.

barbell curls biceps (%MVC = percentage of muscle volume contracted)

What is so special about this seated concentration curl you might be asking? Well, let's take a closer look at how it is performed and it should become apparent why it is the preferred movement if you want sleeve bursting biceps.

As you can see in the picture below, when doing the seated dumbbell concentration curl, you are able to integrate all three of the biceps functions (shoulder flexion, elbow flexion and forearm supination) due to the bent forward position and the ability of the dumbbell to rotate freely, unlike what can be done with a barbell.  These three actions occurring in unison are why this exercise rates the highest of all the ones tested in the study by ACE Fitness.

concentration curl

OK, I admit it, I may have been a little dramatic when I called the barbell curl the worst exercise ever. Who doesn't like a little drama in their life?  Perhaps I should have titled this article,

"The Concentration Curl Is The Greatest Thing In The World!"

Either way, you now know a WHOLE lot more about the biceps and the exercises that may or may not be best when training them.  What you do with this information is up to you.

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