Biceps are probably one of the most popular muscle groups for newcomers to be focused on when starting on their fitness journey, yet they’re actually one of the smallest muscle groups within the human body.
Saying that though, it doesn’t remove the importance of them within a well-balanced physique.
It’s important to have a strong set of arms for functional reasons as they can help improve some of your compound lifts. Have you ever noticed how your arms give out sooner than your back when performing pull-ups? Or how your triceps burn out quicker than your chest when whacking out some press-ups?
The stronger your arms the more they can help push them PBs in your bigger movements.
As much as these smaller muscle groups do get some secondary stimulation when performing compound moves; it’s critical to add in some isolation work too.
One of the more popular variations people often use for bicep training is a hammer curl. This neutral grip curl allows you to recruit more muscles (mainly around the forearm and elbow flexor) and this ultimately means people can lift heavier weights with this curl variation.
In this article, however, we’ll be covering some of the best hammer curl alternatives that will work very similar muscle groups but give you some added variety to your bicep routine.
Table of Contents
What is a Hammer Curl
Hammer Curls have a few different names depending on where you’re located in the world; it can also be known as a Neutral Grip Dumbbell Curl – as your hands are facing each other in a neutral position.
The bicep muscles are used as a secondary muscle group when training your lats. Most exercises to stimulate the lats involve some sort of pulling movement. This is where the bicep comes in as it aids in performing these moves – just like how the triceps are used to aid in a bench press.
This movement is preferably performed with dumbbells but you can also use cables or resistance bands if you don’t have dumbbells at your disposal.
A hammer curl is essentially a regular curl with your wrists in a neutral position.
What Muscles do Hammer Curls Work
So what does having a neutral grip (compared to palms facing up) do to the stimulation of the bicep? Well, both variations stimulate the biceps brachii muscle which is the large muscle in the front of the upper arm. Within this muscle, there are 2 heads – the long head and the short head.
If you give your bicep a feel, you’ll be able to notice the separation between these 2 muscles. The short head sits under the armpit down to your inner elbow and the long head is positioned on the outer upper arm.
A regular bicep curl activates the short head of the bicep which gives your bicep its peak; whereas Hammer curls target the long head of the bicep as well as hitting your forearms in the process – which are often overlooked when it comes to training.
Hammer Curl Alternatives
1) Zottman Curls
What are Zottman Curls?
Well, Zottman curls got their name from the 19th Century strongman George Zottman – as he invented the exercise. George was the strongest man in the United States during the 1890s and if he invented his own exercise, you can be sure that it’s a beneficial one considering it’s stood the test of time.
Zottman curls involve curling dumbbells with a standard supinated grip, twisting the weight at the top of the movement (moving from a supinated to pronated grip), and then lowering the weight pronated to target different muscle groups.
Zottman curls are a great addition to your arm days as they target the short head in the concentric part of the movement due to your hands being in a supinated grip (palms up) – and the long head as well as the forearms in the eccentric part of the movement due to the hands being in a pronated grip (palms down).
These can be a favored option over a reverse curl as you can generally lift more weight in a regular bicep curl and then add more stimulation to the forearm and outer head during the lowering portion of the exercise.
What’s also great about Zottman curls is they target the Brachialis which is a muscle located beneath the bicep brachii; this is also the muscle responsible for bicep width. We’re often guilty of neglecting the muscles we cannot see but trust me when I say you’ll regret it if you don’t target them.
When aiming to build muscle we’re wanting increased thickness and width of the muscle belly – why would you only focus on one of these goals?
Due to the palms facing down in the eccentric part of the movement, you’re also targeting some of the smaller muscles in your wrists as well as improving your grip strength. Strengthening some of these smaller muscles can provide a surprising amount of assistance to your deadlift.
You’ll need to lower the weight with Zottman curls though as the change from supination to pronation will be difficult to master if you use too much weight initially.
2) Cable Rope Curls
A Cable rope curl is very similar to a hammer curl in that the hand placement is exactly the same. The difference here is that by using the cable you are providing constant tension to the muscle group throughout the movement.
When you’re at the starting point of a regular hammer curl, there is no tension applied to the bicep until you start the movement; whereas with a cable rope curl, the tension is applied as soon as you pick up the rope.
This is due to the direction of the pulling movement as it is slightly diagonal to the ground so there is still tension applied at the bottom of the movement in the starting position. More stimulation = more muscle growth.
It’s important to keep your elbows tight to your sides and almost locked in place when performing this move as it’s very easy to start using momentum to perform the lift. As soon as momentum starts doing the lift for you, you’re taking the stress away from the biceps and more on the anterior (front) deltoids.
None of those half reps going on here either; make sure you’re curling the weight all the way up to your shoulders and then lower slowly down to the starting position – we want to maximize the total time under tension with this exercise.
3) Reverse EZ Bar Curls
This movement is very similar to a Zottman curl but instead of the pronated grip being just for the eccentric portion of the movement; it’s for the duration of the entire lift.
This variation adds a lot more stress on the forearms and you’ll find you cannot lift as much in this movement as you can in a Zottman curl as a pronated grip adds a lot more stress onto the bicep.
Just like with cable rope curls it’s very important to keep your elbows close to your sides and not use momentum to lift the weight – always remember:
Form > weight.
Some lifters find they experience a lot of wrist and forearm pain when performing this exercise with a straight bar. This is usually because the wrists are being over-extended and put into more of an unnatural position, especially if you have tight forearm muscles or limited wrist mobility.
If you do experience any wrist and forearm pain whilst performing this movement then stop it immediately.
This is also why a lot of people favor using an EZ bar instead of a straight bar; as it keeps the wrists in more of a natural position and generally removes the strain that can be felt when performing the movement with a straight bar.
4) Neutral Grip Pull-Ups
A neutral grip pull-up is the first compound movement we have within these alternate exercises.
The main muscle group worked when performing neutral grip pull-ups would be your lats; then the secondary muscle groups are the biceps and forearms due to the neutral grip.
If this was a pullup with a supinated grip then it would be removing the majority of the stimulation that’s targeted toward the forearms.
Neutral grip pull-ups are a great introduction to pull-ups in general as your hands are in more of a natural position and you’re closer to your center of gravity.
The reason these are a great hammer curl alternative is that they allow you to overload the bicep. While the bicep is acting as a secondary muscle, you’ll still be using your full body weight to perform the movement.
For most people, this could be between 175lbs – 225lbs which is significantly heavier than 30lb – 60lbs dumbbells that most people would use for a dumbbell hammer curl.
While building a muscle group is not just about the weight used, being able to lift heavier loads will recruit more muscle fibers which will, in turn, lead to more muscle growth as a result.
Also, try to perform your compound movements toward the beginning of your workout as they’ll be a lot harder to perform with the correct form at the end of a workout due to fatigue and the demands on your nervous system.
5) Incline Dumbbell Curl
Last but definitely not least is the Incline dumbbell curl.
This variation adds a lot more stimulation to the bicep as you have a lot more range of motion due to your positioning on the bench. It’s important to keep the incline of the bench within a 45 to 60-degree angle range – otherwise, you’ll be putting too much stress on the anterior deltoid if you are reclined too far.
This is another exercise where you’ll find you cannot lift as much as the standard variation and that’s due to the increased range of motion – the muscle has more distance to travel which adds more stimulation.
By performing this move on a bench you’re also reducing the amount of momentum we can subconsciously use when performing some of these lifts.
Even with a supinated grip; this exercise really blasts the long head of the bicep and trains it primarily in the lengthened range of motion so it’s a great way to add more thickness to your arms; combine this with the extended range of motion and you’ve got a recipe for a sleeveless summer.
Hammer curls are a popular bicep exercise, however, there are plenty of other variations of exercises to stimulate the biceps and the above are some of the more popular ones you’ll see included in routines nowadays.
As we have noted within this article; there’s a surprising amount of miniature muscles included/attached to the bicep so it’s crucial to include exercises that hit each of these equally as they’ll provide a surprising amount of assistance in your other main lifts.
It’s important to remember to also equally stimulate your triceps for well-balanced arms. Triceps encompass 2/3 of your arm and we need to keep it that way.
So, armed with these guides and tips you’ll be (bicep) peaking in no time.
Incorporate some of these movements into your next arm day and really focus on feeling the engagement within the bicep and minimizing additional momentum to complete the lift. Don’t be afraid to drop the weight down a peg if you’re struggling.
The human body doesn’t recognize the difference between 5kg and 10kg – it just knows that 25lbs is heavier than 10lbs. 10 solid controlled reps at 10lbs focusing solely on the bicep are better than 10 momentum fuelled reps that incorporate additional muscle groups to complete the lift.
Always leave that ego at the door!