Barbell Curl Vs Dumbbell Curl: Which Is Best For Big Biceps?

If you’ve been looking to build up your upper body strength and fill out your t-shirts with arms that would make Popeye blush, then you need to work your biceps. Two of the most popular ways of working your biceps are performing a barbell curl and the dumbbell curl. 

In this article, I'll be comparing the barbell curl vs dumbbell curl and show you the similarities and differences between these two bicep building exercises. 

When it comes to the barbell curl, there are many different types of barbells and variations you'll want to use to build a great set of biceps. The most popular versions of the barbell curl are the following: 

EZ Bar Curl

The EZ Bar Curl is one of my all-time favorite bicep building exercises. 

The bar is curved in a wave-like pattern and allows you to hold the bar comfortably without straining the wrists and your grip.  

This variation is fantastic for those of you with less flexible forearms and those of you with injuries preventing wrist movement. Due to the grip variations on this bar, you can target the inner and outer head of the bicep, depending on your grip positioning.  

man performing a barbell bicep ez curl
Barbell Preacher Curl

The barbell preacher curl is a super strict bicep movement that doesn't allow any cheatingFor this exercise, you'll need a preacher curl bench and a barbell. Then you rest the back of your arms (triceps) against the bench and pick the bar up. 

From there, you curl the barbell towards your face, squeezing your biceps at the top of the movement. Then return to the start point. This is great for anyone from beginners to advanced as it ensures minimal cheating occurs.  

Reverse Barbell Curl 

The reverse barbell curl is the same movement as a standard curl, except you hold the bar using an overhand position (palms facing down). This variation increases the amount of work your forearms need to do and is a great way to thicken up the forearms and increase grip strength. This is a difficult movement and is recommended for intermediate to advanced weight lifters. 

Seated Barbell Curl 

The seated barbell curl is a strict bicep movement that uses the inner legs to support the back of the arms (similar to the preacher curl). To perform this movement, sit on the edge of a bench while holding a barbell.

Then let the barbell hang between your legs and curl it upwards toward your chest. Reverse the movement back to the starting position. This is best suited for most users, but beginners might find this movement awkward to perform with good form.  

man performing a seated barbell bicep curl

Benefits Of Barbell Curls 

  1. 1
    Increase Overall Upper-Body Strength  
    During the barbell curl, you work both your biceps brachii (long head) and brachialis (shorter head). By consistently working the biceps using barbell curls, you’ll build t-shirt ripping muscles and help increase your total upper body strength.  
  2. 2
    Improve Your Grip Strength  
    While performing the barbell curl, the brachioradialis muscle located in your forearm is activated. This will help increase your grip strength, which in turn will help improve other lifts such as deadlifts, bench presses, and pull-ups. 
  3. 3
    A Versatile Bicep Exercise   
    When it comes to lifting a large amount of weight, you'll find that you can lift significantly more weight using a barbell than you could using dumbbells. This is due to the distributed weight across the bar. There’s also a large range of weight you can lift, ranging from just the bar to whatever weight you can comfortably lift, all with good form, of course.  
  4. 4
    Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth)  
    Barbell curls are one of the classic bodybuilding movements that every great bodybuilder has included in their workouts through the decades. Some might say it's one of the staple movements everyone should have in their workout routine.
  5. 5
    Potentially Safer  
    Performing barbell curls is potentially safer than dumbbell curls as the Biceps are required to move bi-laterally (together). This will split the work required to stabilize your body and allow you to perform the movement with better form.  It’s an excellent movement for beginners. 

Dumbbell Curls (Overview & Variations)  

The dumbbell curl is another bicep exercise that is hailed by many as one of the best bicep building movements around. Like with the barbell curl, there are numerous different types of dumbells and variations. Here are a few of my favorites: 

Hammer Curl 

The hammer curl is a bicep curl that is defined by the positioning of your grip. Rather than rotate the dumbbells as you curl them, you keep your hands in a neutral position (hands facing inwards, thumbs upward). 

With hammer curls vs regular bicep curls, you work the forearm muscles a lot more and will develop excellent grip strength. This movement is also excellent for people who have elbow aggravation who struggle to supinate their hands.  

Preacher Curl 

As with the barbell curl version of this movement, the dumbbell preacher curl is an extremely strict curling movement. By using the dumbbells, you'll be activating stabilizing muscles and eliminating any muscular imbalances that can occur from bi-lateral barbell work. Sit at the preacher curler while holding your dumbbells, then place your triceps firmly against the pad and begin to curl the dumbbells.  

Reverse Curl 

A reverse curl is similar to a regular bicep curl, but you use an overhand pronated grip (palms facing down). This will recruit your forearm muscles massively and will help you build arms thicker than tree stumps.  

I wouldn’t recommend this movement to beginners, but any intermediate to advanced gym-goers will love it.  

Seated Dumbbell Curl 

Seated dumbbell curls are simple yet effective movements that will allow you to achieve a maximum range of motion without swinging the body. To perform a seated bicep curl, sit on a bench with your dumbbells at your side and then curl them towards your chest height past 90 degrees.  

This movement can be performed easily by beginners and is highly recommended as it’ll let you learn how to control the weight without swinging the body to help generate momentum.  

Concentration Curl 

Extremely similar to the preacher curl; however, you work one side at a time and use your inner leg to support your arm instead of a bench. To perform this movement, sit on a bench and have your dumbbell in hand. Then place your tricep on your inner leg. Lastly, start curling the dumbbell. This is another excellent bicep curl variation that's ideal for all ranges of experience.  

man doing a dumbbell concentration curl

4 Benefits Of Dumbbell Curls 

  1. 1
    Isolateral Concentration  
    By performing dumbbell curls, you'll be able to work each arm iso-laterally. By doing so will iron out any muscular imbalances that can occur during regular barbell work. This is why you should always aim to have a mix of barbell and dumbbell exercises in your program.  
  2. 2
    Strengthen Your Elbow Flexion  
    The prime mover for elbow flexion is the brachialis muscle located in your forearm. Dumbbell curls help strengthen this type of functional movement, which will be helpful for everyday activities.  
  3. 3
    Improve Your Grip Strength   
    During a dumbbell curl, one of the main muscles responsible for grip strength is activated, the brachioradialis.  As dumbbell curls activate the forearm, it helps develop your grip strength which will transfer into other essential movements such as deadlifts, pull-ups, bent over rows, and even the bench press.
  4. 4
    Increased Bicep Muscle Mass  
    By working the biceps effectively, you’ll encourage muscle growth in the upper arms. This will help you fill out your t-shirt and will give you a more athletic look.  

Barbell Curl Vs Dumbbell Curl: Key Differences Compared

Physical Equipment  

As a whole, a barbell is entirely different from a dumbbell. One of the main differences that you'll first notice is the size of a barbell compared to a dumbbell.  

A barbell tends to be anything from 47" to 86.4" depending on the type of bar being used. In contrast, a dumbbell is two separate handles with weights on either side and measures around 18” in length. 

A barbell locks your arms into a fixed position which can be uncomfortable for some users. But, dumbbells will allow you to move the weight more naturally to suit your body. 

A barbell will be great if you have limited equipment, perhaps in a home gym environment, and will allow you to work your biceps effectively without needing a full rack of dumbbells.  

But, if you're new to resistance training, then you might want to opt for dumbbell curls, as they're easier to perform and put less stress on the wrists and forearms.

barbell curl vs dumbbell curl

For Muscle Growth & Activation 

If you're looking for a definitive answer of which is the best for biceps, each piece of equipment has its pros and cons.  

While the barbell allows you to easily overload the bicep muscles with a large amount of weight, it works the muscles bi-laterally. But, the dumbbell curl will enable you to work the biceps iso-laterally, which will fix any strength imbalances and prove to be more comfortable.  

2018 study found no significant difference between barbell curl vs dumbbell curl for biceps, and the perfect bicep exercise for you will depend on comfort and preference. From my experience, using a barbell to lift heavier weight is perfect for building mass. But, I would always add dumbbell curl into my program. 

Upper Body Strength Development 

Developing a strong upper body has long been a goal for millions of people like you. Bicep curls are an excellent exercise to increase overall upper body strength, but has always posed the question, which comes out on top: Barbell Bicep Curl vs Dumbbell? 

For upper body strength, I would generally recommend a barbell curl, mainly as you can lift more weight using the bar. But, I'm a massive fan of Barbell work and use them as the foundation of my workouts.  

However, if you're a beginner, you might find barbells too heavy and need to build some base strength with dumbbells first, which brings me to my next point. 

Proper Exercise Form 

No exercise is worth doing if your form is dreadful. Not only will you be putting yourself at risk of injury, but you won't efficiently work your bicep muscles... if at all. Good form is vital for dumbbell and barbell curls and can make or break your muscle-building program. Excellent exercise form for dumbbell curl or barbell curl will require the following: 

  1. 1
    No swinging the weight around using momentum to perform each rep.  
  2. 2
    Not leaning side to side while performing dumbbell curls.  
  3. 3
    No excessive leaning back in a bid to complete your rep. 
  4. 4
    DO move the weight in a slow controlled manner. 
  5. 5
    DO select a weight that you can lift comfortably.
  6. 6
    Be consistent with your workout program. 
man doing dumbbell hammer curls

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Are barbell curls enough for biceps? 

So long as you're achieving progressive overload in your training, your biceps will grow from barbell curls. Although, I'm a massive fan of variation and believe that a mix of barbell and dumbbell exercises will outperform one singular movement.  

But, if you only have a barbell, it should be more than enough to achieve a great set of biceps.  

How often should you do barbell curls? 

The last thing you want to do is overtrain a particular muscle. Luckily the biceps are a relatively small muscle group and can recover quickly. Anywhere between 2-3 times per week will be more than enough to grow your biceps efficiently.  

Personally, I aim to work the biceps twice per week; this is more than enough and allows me to have adequate recovery.  

What is the proper technique for barbell curls? 
  • Grab the bar and hold it with your hands just outside your hips.  
  • Standing tall, curl the bar upward and bring your hands toward your shoulder level (past 90 degrees).  
  • Reverse the movement in a controlled manner, and then repeat until you've finished your set. 
What is the proper technique for dumbbell curls? 
  • Pick up the dumbbells and stand up tall with your arms straight at your side. 
  • Curl one dumbbell up toward your shoulder height while maintaining upright (no tilting).  
  • Reverse the movement slowly and repeat with the opposite arm. That’s one rep; now repeat until your set is completed.  
What is a good weight for starting to do curls? 

This will vary from person to person. However, I always recommend starting lighter than you need; you can always increase the weight on the next set.  


Conclusion

After comparing the barbell bicep curl vs dumbbell curl, I've found that either type of equipment is suitable for developing the biceps; it mainly comes down to preference and the equipment you have in your home gym.  

I'm a fan of barbell curls as they allow me to overload the biceps with heavy weight. Still, I'll always accompany my barbell work with dumbbells to iron out any muscular imbalances. I recommend you do the same if it's possible. If you want to add to your home gym arsenal, you can find our favorite curl bars and favorite adjustable dumbells here.

Paul J