Preacher Curl Alternatives (How to Target the Bicep Short Head)

The preacher curl is one of the best bicep building exercises that you can include in your routine. It allows you to isolate the bicep, fatigue the muscle in the shortened position (top half of a curl) and create maximum force/tension by being able to brace yourself against an external object.  

While it might be a great bicep building exercise there are plenty of people who won’t have access to a preacher curl bench or machine, particularly if you train in a more commercial/mainstream gym or leisure center. 

If you’ve been reading or watching videos about what a good exercise the preacher curl is but don’t have the equipment to do this exercise then this article will run you through all the best alternatives to make sure you can still target the bicep short head and develop a good bicep peak. 

What are the best preacher curl alternatives? The best alternatives to a preacher curls are exercises that involve raising your elbows and taking the shoulder joint out of the movement. This is because the bicep attaches at the top of the shoulder joint and therefore shoulder flexion is one of its key functions. Spider curls, lying cable curls and overhead cable curls are some of the best preacher curl alternatives. 

What Is the Preacher Curl

The preacher curl is a bicep exercise that is done on a preacher curl bench or machine. The movement was made famous by a former champion bodybuilder Larry Scott who was such a well known user of this exercise that you will also see them referred to as scott curls

The preacher bench is a seat with a raised, padded attachment for you to place your upper arms. As the pad will usually rest underneath your armpit it essentially locks in your joints and means that the only joint moving should be the elbow. 

This isolates the bicep and prevents cheating which is one of the main reasons why so many people see this as a great bicep builder but this isn’t the only benefit of the preacher curl. 

The key use of a preacher curl is raising the elbow and as mentioned taking the shoulder out of the movement. The bicep (long head) runs over the humerus and attaches at the shoulder joint meaning that when your arms are by your side the front delt is active during the curling motion. 

You can try to minimize this but it is a function of the bicep to provide shoulder flexion. The higher your elbow is raised and supported however, the less tension is placed on the front delt (despite a raised arm ironically) and the more isolated the bicep short head is. 

To work your bicep through a full range of motion you need to fully stretch and fully contract it against a load. Incline dumbbell curls and Bayesian cable curls allow you to fully stretch the bicep and work the long head whereas a raised elbow like a preacher curl allows you to fully shorten and contract the bicep and fatigue the short head. 

Preacher Curl Benefits

To tie into the above point it’s important to note that the preacher curl is a good isolation exercise that targets the bicep short head and allows you to work the contracted position more than a standard barbell or dumbbell curl. 

To demonstrate, simply hang your arms by your side and contract them as though you were curling a weight (no weight is actually needed), at the top see how hard you can squeeze your bicep whilst your arms are by your side. 

Now you are going to simply raise your arms overhead with your palms facing behind you. Contract and squeeze the biceps again as you bring your hands behind you towards your back (keep your biceps touching your ears). You should notice a significantly greater contraction. 

To make the example more evident, flex your right bicep with your elbow directly in front of you and place your left hand on the inner section of your bicep. While still tensing start to raise your elbow overhead and you should be able to quite literally feel the bicep short head increase in size as it becomes more active. 

Now that you have a good idea of just what the preacher curl does to train the short head of the bicep and increase the bicep peak these a few of the other benefits of a preacher curl:

  • Isolate the bicep by preventing the ability to swing or use momentum to lift the weight
  • Allows you to press against the pad increasing mechanical and muscular tension meaning more muscle fibre recruitment
  • Places the elbow in a raised position to activate the bicep short head and overload the full shortened end range of the movement
  • Locks in your joints meaning that not only is it more difficult to cheat but it makes it easier to use good form due to limited movement pathways. 

Preacher Curl Alternatives

If the preacher curl is such a great exercise then why would you be looking for an alternative? The answer is quite simply a lack of equipment, without a proper preacher curl bench or preacher curl machine you are heavily limited in your use of this exercise. 

The most obvious alternative is to simply place a regular bench into an incline position and use this to imitate the preacher curl bench. While this is a popular method, it is no way near as effective as targeting the bicep short head. 

I’m 6’1 tall and in order to replicate this exercise I need to crouch down in order to get an ideal body angle on the bench. For most people it’s very difficult to get an ideal body position this way and therefore you can’t generate anywhere near as much force as you can with a seated version. 

Being able to brace yourself and push into the pad on a preacher curl bench or machine allows you to generate maximum force and muscle tension which many people might not realize and the standing version simply doesn’t allow for this, especially if you are over or under 5’9 tall. 

Therefore when it comes to a preacher curl alternative we are not really looking for an exercise that mimics the preacher curl but rather one that still allows you to work the bicep short head and the fully contracted position. 

Spider Curl

The spider curl is likely my favorite exercise for targeting the bicep short head besides from the seated preacher curl. For a spider curl you set a bench to a 45 degree angle and lie front facing with your arms hanging down either side. 

Using either a dumbbell, barbell or EZ bar you simply curl the weight from a hanging position. When your arms are hanging there is minimal to no tension on the bicep but the closer you get peak contraction the more difficult the rep becomes. 

This means that you are fully loading the shortened/contracted range of motion for the bicep and as such the short head will be heavily engaged. While you can get a great squeeze and contraction with spider curls it comes in at a close second to a preacher curl because you can’t lock your arms into a fixed position. 

As such it is easier to cheat the weight up and difficult to maintain good form if you don’t be realistic in your weight selection

Cable Overhead Curl

The cable overhead curl is a tricky exercise to get used to because the moment that you first pick up a dumbbell it’s likely you curled it from a position where your arms are hanging by your sides. This is a movement pattern that is ingrained in most people. 

When learning to curl from an overhead position you’ll find it difficult to adjust your body position at first because you are now generating force in a downward position, it’s not a drastic change but as a beginner it’s worth noting that you will need a few workouts to learn the motor pathways and create maximum muscle tension. 

The reason I’m pointing out that It will be difficult for some to get comfortable with exercise at first is because the cable overhead curl is one of the only exercises that allow you to train the bicep in the fully shortened/contracted position. 

Each muscle group has different strength curves (fully lengthened, fully shortened, mid range) and in order to maximally recruit your muscle fibres and fatigue them for maximum muscle growth you will need to train all strength curves (also known as resistance curves). 

I used the example earlier of feeling a stronger contraction just by flexing your bicep from an overhead position, hopefully you could feel the difference and can appreciate that an overhead cable curl will allow you to train this fully shortened range. 

A preacher curl allows you to work the shortened range however it is no way near the extent that an overhead cable curl does. Therefore if you really want to train the short head of the bicep and bring up your bicep peak then a cable overhead curl is a great exercise to utilize. 

Concentration Curl

A concentration curl is a minimum equipment alternative to the preacher and mimics the movement pattern, the only issue that makes it an inferior exercise for bicep development (in my opinion of course) is the limit to how much weight you can lift. 

With a preacher curl you get locked into a strict position on the bench and it’s very difficult to cheat the weight up, therefore even though weight progression might be slow due to it being an isolation exercise for a small muscle group it’s guaranteed that any strength progress will be closely related to muscle growth. 

With a concentration curl, you sit on a bench, lean forward and brace your triceps against your thigh. This can be done from a hanging position like Arnold Schwarzenegger would do however you need an advanced level of muscle control and to do this effectively. 

While bracing against your leg will allow you to drive your arm against your leg to create muscle tension you are unfortunately not locked into position the same way as you would be on a preacher bench. 

This therefore makes it much easier to use your body weight and momentum to cheat the weight up once you reach technical failure. I’m not saying everyone will cheat the weight but a preacher bench makes it close to impossible to do this. 

If you are strict on form and can keep your ego in check then the concentration curl can be an excellent alternative to a preacher curl but due to the many factors involved I would still consider this to be a tier 2 exercise in comparison. 

Cable Crucifix Curl

A cable crucifix curl is a variation of an overhead cable curl and is used to target the bicep short head and work the fully shortened position of a curl. Setting a cable machine at shoulder height or higher you’ll grasp the bar at arms length from a side on position (simulating a crucifix pose) and curl finishing with your hand by your ear.

This is often done double handed but to do this you would need a cable stack that directly faces each other, however if you don’t have access to one then it can just as easily be done single handed.

While a regular crucifix curl is a good exercise in its own right, many will limit the effectiveness of it by stopping the curl with your hands by the side of your head which is why I made a point of mentioning that technique above. 

This is how many will do the exercise and if you look up a YouTube video you will see that this is how many professional bodybuilders will do the exercise. 

For a peak contraction however, you will want to bring your hands behind your head in order to fully shorten the bicep. This is just a variation of the overhead cable curl and therefore the benefits and technique are closely related. 

The only difference being your body positioning and direction of a curl. Therefore you’d get no additional benefit from performing both of these in the same workout and it would be best to alternate them in your routine in different training blocks to provide a different training stimulus. 

Summary

The preacher curl is one of the greatest bicep building exercises, particularly if you want to target the bicep short head and peak however if you don’t have access to this equipment it doesn’t mean that your growth potential is any lower. 

The above exercises are all great alternatives that will allow you to target the bicep short head and using 1-2 of them per arm workout will yield results.

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