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Looking to bulk up? There’s a certain wholesome, Dwayne Johnson kind of pleasure in working your biceps, and cable curls are an epic way to do that.

Cable curls 101: Quick facts to get you flexing

Short on time? Here’s everything you need to know about the cable curl exercise in less time than it would take for you to rattle one off:

  • Cable curls target your biceps. They’re one of the best exercises for those muscles.
  • To do one, you’ll need a cable machine complete with a cable curl bar.
  • Form is particularly important for cable curls: Only your forearms should move.
  • Tension should be maintained in the cable at all times for peak effectiveness.
  • Done properly, cable curls are a safe and highly effective biceps workout.
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Today, we’re learning about gaining mass in a key set of muscles, using some of the gym’s more neglected equipment.

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You perform a cable curl with:

  • a rope attached to a low pulley
  • weights
  • a cable curl bar

Most gyms will have cable machines for you to use, and home options tend to be pretty pricey. If you want a cable machine of your very own, expect to pay anywhere from $1,250 to more than $3,500. Yeesh.

Don’t worry if you can’t get to a gym and still want to pump them there biceps. We’ll be covering some cable curl alternatives, including chin-ups, dumbbell biceps curls, and hammer curls.

To nail the cable curl exercise, set up your cable bar so you’re facing the machine and gripping the bar with your arms extended downward. Aim for 8–12 reps with a weight that’ll give you a fair challenge. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Brace your abs and straighten your back, keeping feet planted shoulder-width apart.
  2. Bring the cable bar up, curling forearms toward chest as you exhale.
  3. As the bar reaches your chest, hold for a second.
  4. Unflex your forearms and lower the cable bar until just before the weights on the machine come to rest, maintaining tension in the cable.
  5. Repeat until you’ve done all your reps.

For max effectiveness, make sure the only motion happening is in your forearms. Keep your upper arms still and steady.

A study from the American Council on Exercise lists cable curls as one of the best exercises for your biceps.

Swole arms are unlikely ever to go out of fashion. But even if we ditch the esthetics for a moment, upper body strength is enormously useful. Biceps, in particular, play a central role in moving your arms in the following ways:

  • lifting them forward
  • raising them sideways
  • folding them across your chest

Being able to comfortably lift and hold heavy objects comes in handy in pretty much every walk of life — and functional strength is the one.

Of course, even if you’re not looking to move any giant boulders in the near future, boosting your general fitness is always a good idea. Cable curls can spice up your existing exercise routine and play an important role in making your arms tonk.

What muscles do cable curls work?

Cable curls specifically target the biceps brachii. The old Roman physicians called the biceps “the two-headed muscle of the arm” because the muscle is actually made up of two bundles. They develop independently but share an insertion point near the elbow joint.

The cable curl most commonly draws comparisons with a barbell curl. Both are good exercises for the biceps, but what separates one from the other?

Well, for starters, a barbell curl uses a free weight instead of a cable machine. That affects the scope of which muscles you’re using, when they’re engaged, and how long they’re in use.

When holding a barbell, you’re making more constant use of your wrists to support the weight. The point at which you pivot your arm is also different. You’re potentially using a wider range of muscles throughout your arm.

Because they use a cable and pulley system, cable curls don’t place your muscles under as much constant, undirected tension as barbell curls. You can target the exact muscles you want to work more precisely.

If you’re thinking of skipping the gym today but don’t feel like neglecting your biceps, we’ve got you covered. Here are some cable curl alternatives you can do with next to zero equipment.

While cable curls are up there with the best biceps workouts, these come pretty darn close.


The chin-up is a good biceps exercise that doesn’t need expensive gear — just a pull-up bar. You can get one of those for your home for a few bucks, no problem (they’re available online). To get your technique right:

  1. Stand facing the pull-up bar and grab it with an underhand grip. Your arms should be shoulder-width apart.
  2. Straighten your arms, bend your knees, and cross one lower leg over the other.
  3. Engage your abs and pull your body up until your feet are off the floor.
  4. Bring your jaw in line with the bar and hold for a second.
  5. Lower yourself back to the starting position.
  6. Do 8–12 reps.

Dumbbell biceps curls

Biceps curls with dumbbells are a really simple lift for which your biceps will give you daps. Eventually. Again, dumbbells are relatively cheap, or you could use anything heavy you’ve got lying around the house. Proper biceps curl form looks like this:

  1. Stand with your arms by your sides, holding your weights in an underhand grip.
  2. Exhale. Keep your upper arms still while curling your forearms up until the weights are at shoulder level.
  3. Hold for a second.
  4. Lower your arms back to the starting position.
  5. Do 8–12 reps.

Seated hammer curls

Unlike the biceps curl, where your palms face forward, the hammer curl starts with your palms facing in toward each other. You’ll still need a weight in each hand and a seat to brace your back against. It should look like this:

  1. Sit upright in a chair with your arms hanging down at your sides.
  2. Grip a dumbbell in each hand, keep both palms facing inward.
  3. Engage your abs, brace your back against the chair, and curl your lower arms up to your shoulders.
  4. Hold for a second.
  5. Return to the starting position.
  6. Do 8–12 reps.

Are cable curls safe to do? Sure, if you carry them out the right way. As with any physical exercise, it’s important that you take the time to get your form correct. Don’t smash out all the reps as fast as you can. That’s going to lead to sloppy technique and the risk of injury.

Instead, here are four ways to focus on getting the most from the cable curl exercise.

1. Slow down your curling speed

As a general rule, give yourself 2–3 seconds to complete both the upward and downward curling motions when you’re doing your cable curls. Remember to hold the curl for a second or two when it’s at its fullest.

Going too fast cheats your body out of some of the exercise’s goodness. It’s also a good way to pull a muscle in your arm, which you’re probably keen to avoid.

2. Keep your body motion focused

Avoid using the momentum of the weight to propel its movement. You want a slower, more controlled motion where only your forearms are moving. If you’ve got the cable machine’s weight set too heavy, you might experience some of the following:

  • body swaying
  • a rounded or hollowed back
  • shoulders moving in a jerking motion
  • hips swaying

If you find yourself naturally lapsing into any of these motions, reassess how much weight you’re using and refocus on proper form.

3. Allow for a full range of elbow motion

Be sure to set the machine so your cable curl uses the full range of your elbow movement. If you’re curling only partway or not fully uncurling when you release, that means you’re failing to work your whole biceps. Since the whole point of this exercise is to get those biceps pumping, wasted effort is not your friend.

Aim to go from a full relaxed extension of your arm to a full tight curl. If you can’t, you can adjust the weight you’re using or the length of the cable.

4. Don’t let those weights come to rest

Maintain tension in the cable at all times. If the weights on the machine lower all the way until they’re at rest, that means you’re not exerting any effort in your biceps. That’s going to cheat your arms out of some sweet gains.

Throughout your reps, be sure to keep the weights at least partially suspended. A slow, controlled motion keeps you in control of the entire cable curl exercise.

Cable curls make effective use of some of the gym’s less sexy, and thus more readily available, equipment.

They’re only one type of exercise for one muscle (you’ll need to get your cardio from somewhere and work on other muscle groups too — they don’t even cover all your biceps muscles). But they offer remarkable precision.

If you’re looking to sculpt your ’ceps, you could do a lot worse than incorporating time on the cable machines into your next arm day.