Next time you take a trip to the gym, look around and take a head count. How many members are performing some sort of bicep exercise? Chances are you’ll spot at least a few.
The bicep curl is arguably one of the most popular weight training exercises; according to Google, bicep exercises consistently rank among the top 10 most popular workout-related searches.
Perhaps it’s because bicep exercises like the dumbbell curl are fairly basic and beginner friendly. Or maybe it’s because we all long for exceptional assets to show off at The Gun Show. But ease and aesthetics aside, every strength training routine should certainly include exercises for the biceps anyway, because the bicep muscles are essential to accomplishing daily activities like opening doors and carrying groceries.
However, until now there’s been little research to determine which bicep exercises are the best. In order to shed light on the subject and determine which of the most common bicep exercises are most effective, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned an independent study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.
With 16 healthy male and female volunteer subjects, the study, led by John Porcari, Ph.D, evaluated the cable curl, barbell curl, concentration curl, chin-up, wide- and narrow grip EZ curl, incline curl and preacher curl.
For each participant, muscle activity in the biceps brachii, anterior deltoid and brachioradialis was measured using electrodes during each exercise.
The final results revealed that the concentration curl produced a significantly greater amount of bicep muscle activity when compared with the other exercises. As depicted in the chart below, the preacher curl was the least effective bicep exercise in the study.
Muscle Activation of the Biceps Brachii
Source: American Council on Exercise
The image below depicts how to perform a concentration curl using dumbbells.
ACE Chief Science Officer Cedric Bryant, Ph.D explained that exercises like the cable curl and barbell curl allow for swaying of the upper arm resulting in a higher level of muscle activity in the anterior deltoid. The concentration curl better isolates the bicep muscle by eliminating that movement because the arm is pressed against the leg.
“It’s important to note, however, that several of the other exercises elicited more than adequate biceps muscle activation and can serve as viable options for improving biceps muscle strength and function,” Bryant said in a press release regarding the study.
The bottom line: the concentration curl is the clear winner when it comes to building bicep strength and muscle mass. However, for the everyday exerciser, in addition to the concentration curl, it’s a good idea to include a variety of bicep exercises in your regular strength training routine in order to make sure you’re activating other important muscles and maintaining a balanced and diverse exercise program.