When it comes to bicep training, everyone has an opinion. Most people when they start working out will gravitate towards training their arms and a standard dumbbell or barbell curl will be the go-to exercise.
While this approach will work for 0.1% of the population with gifted genetics, the rest of us will see little to no results when following this approach. When choosing exercises, you need to select those that have the most bang for your book and stimulate the muscle.
If you’ve had no luck developing your biceps you might be wondering are preacher curls better than standing curls?
Preacher curls specifically target the bicep short head (inner bicep), whereas a standing curl will place more emphasis on the bicep long head (outer bicep) depending on the width of your grip. The benefit of a preacher curl is that you can’t “cheat” the weight up and therefore get more bicep stimulation.
For many, a standing curl will allow you to lift more weight but is it really the bicep that is moving the weight? In this article, I’ll run through both exercises to see whether or not the preacher curl is better than a standing curl.
Are Preacher Curls Better Than Standing Curls
There is no single perfect exercise, though the squat and deadlift come pretty close! This means that you should be selecting exercises that allow you to lift a combination of heavy weight whilst activating and stimulating the target muscle.
As an example, I’m going to compare the preacher curl against the standing curl but I’ve also previously made a popular article with the best preacher curl alternatives. You can see progress with almost any exercise but there are some that can be considered better than others…
What Is a Preacher Curl
The preacher is a less common bicep exercise because you typically need a preacher bench and not all gyms provide these. You can of course use a standard bench raised to an incline but this is also a relatively less common choice.
A preacher curl basically means you place the back of your upper arm against a pad or bench set to a 45-degree angle and curl. Placing your arm in this position (usually with the bench locked under your armpits) prevents you from using any muscle group from assisting in the curl.
It locks your joints into a fixed position so the only joint doing the movement will be your elbow. This is better known as an isolation exercise and it is a true isolation movement because the bicep has to do the work in order to move the weight from point A-B.
What Is a Standing Curl
A standing curl is arguably one of the most popular exercises on the planet. Whether being done with a dumbbell, barbell, or EZ curl bar, this is a movement you will see done religiously on arm day.
Depending on hand placement, you’ll either emphasize the bicep short head or bicep long head* and will overload the muscle in the mid-range.
*For more information on bicep short head and long head training, I’ve put together some guides that you might want to check out:
By training the mid-range of the movement, this is the area where you feel the most tension on the muscle (or where the movement is hardest). At the bottom and top of a standing curl, there is minimal tension on the bicep, you only really feel the muscle working hard through the mid-range which is usually when the dumbbell is moving from your upper thigh to hip area.
A standing curl is an easy exercise to grasp and the video above shows how simple of an exercise it is.
Preacher Curls vs Straight Barbell Curls
Now that I’ve covered what each exercise is and added in some videos for a simple visual demonstration, I’ll now cover the differences between the two and use the straight barbell curl as the standing curl of choice.
The reason for this which many people don’t realize is that a standing or seated curl is done with the same underhand grip will work the bicep exactly the same regardless of what you are using (dumbbell, barbell, cable, EZ bar, kettlebell).
The reason for this is because of the point I made earlier about the movement working the mid-range of the bicep. Most people will use a shoulder-width underhand grip to curl which will place more emphasis on the bicep’s long head.
Therefore, regardless of how many variations of this exercise you do, you’ll tend to only target the bicep long head and only train it in the mid-range. This means that only a portion of muscle fibers will be recruited and only a specific area of the bicep will be predominantly trained.
The preacher curl works the bottom end of the range of motion (it’s hardest when the weight is resting in the lowered position) and because the bicep muscle crosses the shoulder joint but a preacher bench eliminates shoulder movement, this exercise will train the bicep short head.
As you can see, both movements are training different ranges of motion and placing an emphasis on different parts of the bicep muscle. One exercise is not better than the other and both (or variations of both) are needed to fully develop your bicep.
The Problem With Standing Barbell Bicep Curls
The main issue with people focusing too much on the standing bicep curl (barbell bicep curl being the main culprit) is the tendency to cheat the weight up and lose significant tension on the target muscle.
Not to be that guy but I’m sure you’ve seen this at some point (I’ve even been guilty of it more times than I’d like to think) where someone in the gym is lifting a weight clearly too heavy and they are arching their back as though it’s the high jump just to curl the weight.
In these instances, it’s probably only 25-50% of the bicep actually doing the work because the weight is just too heavy. As mentioned earlier, it’s also more difficult to keep tension on the active muscle as gravity takes over at the bottom of the movement and leverage takes over at the top.
While standing barbell bicep curls do offer an ability to heavier loads which increase muscle hypertrophy, this is wasted if you are not executing the curl effectively. There;’s a great article by Christian Thibaudeau on T-Nation with instructional videos that points out bad curling form as well as how you can improve it.
Most of the mistakes people make are usually not possible to make during a preacher curl because you are locked into a fixed position and can only use the target muscle (the bicep) to move the weight. With a standing curl, you can use leg drive, shrug, arch your back, and even initiate the movement with your front delts.
**The muscle group that you initiate an exercise with is usually the one that will do more work and receive more stimulation
Therefore, the preacher curl is not better than a standing curl but you can use the much better form and target the bicep significantly more, especially for the beginner-intermediate lifters.
The key to building muscle is to ensure you are working that specific muscle at that you give it a reason to grow through progressive overload over months and years of training. Anyone that gets stronger in the preacher curl will undoubtedly have bigger biceps to show for it, it would be harder to not put muscle on when getting stronger with this exercise.
You can never truly say that one exercise is better than the other when training. The answer will depend on individual goals, characteristics (body shape, bone structure, muscle fiber make up…), and preferences.
While the preacher curl may not be better than a standing curl, it’s still an exercise that people are underutilizing or not using at all. The ability to isolate your bicep whilst target the often neglected short head means you could see substantial bicep growth once you add this to your routine and get stronger with it.
A standing curl offers too much opportunity to cheat the weight up and lose tension on the bicep at specific points during the movement. While both exercises make a good addition to an arm routine, I’d recommend focusing more time and effort on the preacher curl for surprising results!
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