Whether you're looking to improve grip strength or scale down your upper-body workout for the day, these biceps curl variations will help you get the job done in a way that feels best for you.
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Welcome to Modify This Move, the ongoing series where you'll find everything you need to amend a standard exercise to meet your goals, your body, and your mood. Each story breaks down how to perform a foundational fitness move, then offers various modifications based on your current fitness or energy level, present or prior injuries, or the muscles you want to target most. So check your ego at that door and ensure every workout meets you where you're at today.

Take one look at the term "biceps curl," and you can safely assume the exercise will target and build strength in the, well, biceps muscles. But the name doesn't tell the full story. 

In fact, the biceps curl also works a few joints in your upper body, says Keri Harvey, a NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City. "As you're working to get your biceps stronger, you're also moving your elbow back and forth, which is working on your joint health in that area, and you're working on keeping your shoulder stable," she explains. The biceps curl also calls on your core, as engaging these muscles (which, BTW, aren't just your abs) keeps you stable and prevents you from using momentum to swing the dumbbell up and down, says Harvey. And that's why this multifunctional exercise is a worthy addition to your upper-body workouts, she says. 

That said, the classic biceps curl isn't the only way you can nab those perks. Whether you're a strength-training newbie or an experienced weightlifter in need of a low-intensity workout, you can opt for a biceps curl variation that's gentle on the body yet just as effective as the standard move. You can also swap the traditional exercise with a biceps curl variation if you're experiencing elbow or shoulder pain in order to ensure those aches aren't exacerbated. Regardless of your reason, there's no shame in listening to your body and modifying your workout with a biceps curl variation that leaves you feeling strong, comfortable, and pain-free — both mentally and physically. Not to mention, the biceps are made up of two distinct parts — the long head and the short head — so switching up your curl exercise can allow you to target one component more specifically.

Ready to test out the fundamental upper-body move? Follow the instructions below to master the classic biceps curl, and then watch as Harvey demonstrates how to switch up the exercise with five different biceps curl variations she shared that work for all abilities and fitness goals.

How to Do a Biceps Curl

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees softly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms at sides, palms facing forward.

B. Keeping core engaged, elbows tucked to sides, and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscles to pull the dumbells up toward shoulders until elbows are completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbells.

C. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbells back down to sides with control.

5 Biceps Curl Variations

No matter how much you love the traditional biceps curl, some days, you might just want to switch up your workout — and that's okay. Whether the classic move feels a bit too challenging or you're hoping to target specific muscle groups, don't be afraid to try a biceps curl variation that will help you meet your individual needs and goals. 

Here, you'll find biceps curl variations that scale the exercise up or down, including biceps curl variations for elbow and shoulder back pain and a biceps curl variation to improve your grip strength. No matter which option you choose, continue checking in with your body as you power through your reps and try a different exercise if it doesn't feel right. 

Biceps Curl Variation to Level Up: Concentration Curl

When you've nailed down the traditional biceps curl and are itching to take things up a notch, try the concentration curl. This biceps curl variation is performed while seated or in a half-kneeling position, with your elbow pressed up against your thigh, says Harvey. In turn, your biceps are in for a major challenge. "There is absolutely no way that you're going to rock or swing the weight — you truly have to just use that biceps to get the weight up," she explains.

A. Sit on a bench with feet resting on the floor hip-width apart, knees bent at 90-degree angles. Hold a dumbbell in right hand, palm facing forward, with right elbow resting on top of right thigh and arm fully extended between legs. Place left hand on left hip.

B. Keeping core engaged and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscle to pull the dumbbell up toward right shoulder until elbow is completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbell.

C. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbell back between legs with control. Repeat on left side.

Biceps Curl Variation to Scale Down: Alternating Biceps Curl

This modification entails curling just one dumbbell at a time, which can be particularly beneficial for biceps-curl newcomers. "You're able to focus on one bicep at a time, which sometimes helps those who are beginners really be able to make that connection between the mind and muscle and ensure they're holding the core nice and strong the entire time," says Harvey. Of course, seasoned athletes who are in need of a toned-down workout or want to perfect their form can also mix this biceps curl variation into their routine.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees softly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms at sides, palms facing forward.

B. Keeping core engaged, elbows tucked to sides, and shoulders down and back, engage right arm's biceps muscle to pull the dumbbell up toward right shoulder until elbow is completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbells.

C. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbell back down to right side with control.

D. Keeping core engaged, elbows tucked to sides, and shoulders down and back, engage left arm's biceps muscle to pull the dumbbell up toward left shoulder until elbow is completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbells.

E. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbell back down to left side with control.

Biceps Curl Variation for Elbow Pain: Preacher Curl

Much like the concentration curl, this biceps curl variation involves resting the triceps and elbow against a supportive surface, so it's ideal for people dealing with elbow pain or other issues in the joint, says Harvey. "They're being stabilized so they don't feel as vulnerable," she explains. "They're being supported the entire time, and you're not going to hyper-extend your elbow in any way, so you're able to just focus on the curl itself."

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart behind a bench with the backrest positioned at a 45-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in right hand, palm facing forward, then rest right elbow and tricep on the backrest, right arm fully extended down the bench. Place left hand on the left side of the bench for support.

B. Keeping core engaged and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscle to pull the dumbbell up toward right shoulder until elbow is completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbell.

C. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbell back to the bench with control. Repeat on left side.

Biceps Curl Variation for Shoulder Pain: Wall Biceps Curl

This biceps curl variation involves standing with your upper back pressed against a wall, rather than standing freely, which can have a big pay-off for individuals suffering from shoulder pain, says Harvey. In a traditional biceps curl, "it can be very easy to allow your shoulders to lean forward, allowing the weight to be in control rather than you," she explains. "With the shoulders up against the wall, it [provides] stability and support…so if you're focusing on [keeping] your upper back touching the wall at all times, then you're able to just move the weight with the biceps as opposed to with the shoulders."

A. Stand in front of a wall with feet hip-width apart, knees softly bent, and upper back resting against the wall. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms at sides, palms facing forward.

B. Keeping core engaged, elbows tucked to sides, and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscles to pull the dumbells up toward shoulders until elbows are completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbells.

C. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbells back down to sides with control.

Biceps Curl Variation to Strengthen Forearms and Grip: Zottman Curl

This biceps curl variation is one of Harvey's favorites, she says, and for good reason: "It's a great move specifically for strengthening forearms and even grip strength," she explains. "It's also good for mobility." Just make sure to use a lighter pair of dumbbells than you would normally use, as lowering the weight with your palms facing down — a direction your muscles likely aren't used to working — can be particularly challenging for your forearms, she explains.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees softly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms at sides, palms facing forward.

B. Keeping core engaged, elbows tucked to sides, and shoulders down and back, engage biceps muscles to pull the dumbells up toward shoulders until elbows are completely flexed. Avoid swaying or using momentum to raise the dumbbells.

C. At the top of the movement, rotate thumbs inward so palms face forward. Then, slowly lower the dumbbells back down to sides with control.

Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Keri Harvey
Hair and makeup: Tee Chavez

Leggings: Aerie
Workout Bench: Ignite by SPRI