20 Hammer Curl Variations For Maximising Arm Mass

Your ultimate guide to the hammer curl and its variations.

Hammer curls are a popular permutation of the biceps curl and one of the resistance exercises proven to shape and build the anterior upper arms. They have a lot of advantages, not the least of which is the number of ways you can do them. We counted 20 hammer curl variations, varying by type of equipment you can use, rep scheme, and stance.

All hammer curl variations are especially useful for working the muscles around the elbow and forearm, whether it’s bulk you want, or just shape and tone.

As opposed to the palms-up bicep curl which mainly recruits the two biceps heads, hammer curls on the other hand, additionally work the brachioradialis a bit more because it is aligned perpendicular to gravity. As a result of this, hammer curls are great for developing overall arm mass.

Regardless of what equipment you have or don’t have, there will no doubt be a way for you perform a hammer curl one way or the other!

Each variation has its own advantages and disadvantages and today we detail every single one of them for you.

Hammer Curl Quick Facts

Also Known AsNeutral Grip Biceps Curl
Primary MusclesBrachioradialis
Secondary MusclesBiceps brachii, Brachialis
Movement TypeStrength
Movement MechanicsIsolation
LevelEasy
Equipment RequiredAny of: dumbbells, bench, resistance bands, hammer curl machine, tricep bar, barbell, weight plates, kettlebell, TRX suspension trainer

Benefits of Hammer Curls

Hammer curls deliver the same basic exercise benefits as palms-up biceps curls. The differences are subtle. Once you understand the nuances, you’ll be empowered to insert them into your workout routine in ways to get the most from them. 

The same muscles work; the physiology of the muscles, tendinous insertions, and forearm rotation are what subtly differentiate the hammer curl from other types of curls.

We’ll call out what we think are the three stand-out benefits. They’re all related to the natural orientation of the hand and forearm during the hammer curl:

  1. Anterior upper arm hypertrophy.
  2. Comfort.
  3. Arm strength.

1. Anterior upper arm hypertrophy

Hammer curls work the biceps brachii (long and short heads), brachialis, and brachioradialis. These are the very same muscles worked by traditional barbell or dumbbell curls.

Biceps, brachioradialis, and brachialis muscles

These three muscles are responsible for flexing the arm to bring the hand closer to the body. That the hand happens to be turned a different direction makes very little difference.

The thumbs-up grip orients the large upper forearm muscle, the brachioradialis, against resistance during a hammer curl, which preferentially loads it a bit more than a standard palms up biceps curl. Not much, but some.

In a traditional curl, resistance is somewhat oblique to the brachioradialis, whereas in the hammer curl, the brachioradialis is aligned with resistance.

That direct line of force makes the hammer curl an exercise of choice if your objective is upper forearm development (even though regular curls also develop upper forearms as well).

2. Comfort

The hammer curl grip puts the hand, wrist, and forearm in their natural position, where the palms face the thighs. That natural orientation of the hand and forearm put the whole arm into a comfortable anatomical position.

Also, because the biceps tendon inserts onto the radius of the forearm, that same thumbs-up grip slightly shortens the stretch on the biceps tendon. Again, this contributes to a natural feel during the curling motion, without sacrificing overall upper arm development.

3. Arm Strength

The natural feel and motion path of the hammer curl enables you to lift heavy weights, making hammer curls a logical accessory exercise for strength athletes, especially competitive bench pressers.

Muscles Worked By Hammer Curls

All hammer curl variations work the same muscles: the biceps brachii (long and short heads), the brachialis, and brachioradialis.

Hammer curl muscles worked

These three muscles are arm flexors, meaning that they bend the elbow and functionally, they work to bring the hand nearer the body.

For that reason, any arm curl also works these same muscles. The grip makes some difference on which of the three biceps muscles get more focus.

Hammer curls use that neutral “thumbs-up” grip where the palms stay facing the body and not up toward the ceiling or down toward the floor.

It is a very natural, comfortable way to do a curl, since it’s the position of the hand as we stand at rest – palms facing in and thumbs facing forward.

AAU Mr. Olympia Doug Brignole–who studies and has written extensively on the biomechanics of resistance exercise–says that the hammer style curl divides the work at about 70% brachio-radialis to 30% biceps. A standard palms-up curl by comparison would be closer to 90% biceps and 10% brachio-radialis. The brachialis gets the same amount of work with either grip due to its anatomical position.

As we move into the specific hammer curl variations, there are additional variables at play which affect the effectiveness of the particular variant and how well the arm muscles are utilised. Although all hammer curls recruit the same muscles, some variations do so better than others.

What Makes a Good Hammer Curl Variation?

We rated each hammer curl variation based on three criteria:

  1. Ease of performance. This measures how easy the variation is to do correctly, and how well the variation does to prevent errors in form or risk of injury.
  2. Direction of resistance. This takes into account the direction of the hammer curl variation with respect to direction of the resistance. The more that resistance is directly opposite the line of force, the better it will be for muscle overload and therefore hypertrophy.
  3. Resistance curve. Muscles are designed to produce more force when they’re lengthened, which means that loading the muscle early in a movement is better than late. Hammer curl variations that provide early phase loading or constant loading are rated higher.

These are the three main criteria that most easily separate the great variations from the “meh”.

There are more than a dozen criteria that can and should be used to evaluate an exercise, including its injury risk.

Range of motion is another more obvious criterion. For our purposes here, we limited our criteria to just the three above. Leave us a question if you want more info on this.

The 20 Best Hammer Curl Variations In Descending Order of Effectiveness

We’ve divided the list of hammer curl variations into three sub-categories:

Best Hammer Curl Variations for Biceps Hypertrophy

Dumbbells and cable machines work best for muscle growth. If you do have dumbbells or a cable machine, these are the variations to do.

We’ve added a separate category later in the article for alternative equipment, when neither dumbbells nor cables are what you’ve got handy.

As we’ve said, the muscles worked are the biceps brachii, the brachialis, and the brachio-radialis. For our purposes in this article, we’ll refer to all three simply as “biceps”.

Here they are, ranked in descending order of effectiveness:

  1. Dumbbell Hammer Curl (Seated and Standing)
  2. Cable Hammer Curl (includes Lying and Rope)
  3. Single Arm Hammer Curl
  4. 1 1 2 Hammer Curl
  5. Hammer Concentration Curl
  6. Cross Body Hammer Curl
  7. Spider Hammer Curl
  8. Hammer Curl Machine
  9. Decline Hammer Curl
  10. Incline Hammer Curl
  11. Preacher Hammer Curl
  12. In Out Hammer Curl

1. Dumbbell Hammer Curls

Mike doing hammer curls

Simple. Comfortable. Easy to do. The traditional dumbbell hammer curl is the staple and for good reason. It works.

You can do it seated or standing. Doing them seated makes cheating a little more difficult, so if you’ve got to pick, do them seated.

You can also do them both arms simultaneously, or alternating arms. Same exercise.

Here’s how to do a traditional dumbbell hammer curl for biceps isolation:

  1. Select a pair of dumbbells you can lift for the desired number of reps. There are no trophies for heaviest hammer curl.
  2. Seated or standing, let the dumbbells hang naturally at your sides, with neutral grip, palms facing inward, and thumbs facing forward. Natural. Comfortable.
  3. With your upper arm and shoulder completely motionless, curl the dumbbell by bending only at the elbow. The only body part that should move is your forearm. Keep the forearm and wrist rigid. There’s no advantage nor style points for letting your fist sag forward at the top.
  4. The dumbbell should travel in a line perpendicular to the floor from beside your hip all the way to your shoulder.
Seated hammer curl good form

Bro Tip: Finish with a squeeze at the top, which will be up near the front of your shoulder. That little extra squeeze at the top won’t feel like much on reps 1 and 2, but you’ll notice it for sure on reps 11 or 12.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceStanding, seated, simultaneous, alternating. Natural anatomical pathway.A+
Direction of resistanceGravity is down and the movement is straight upward against that.A+
Resistance curveThe movement is toughest when it needs to be for optimum muscle stimulation.A

2. Cable Hammer Curls

Perry doing cable hammer curls

The only reason cable hammer curls aren’t tied for Number One with the traditional dumbbell hammer curl is that they’re not as easily performed. Handles aren’t as straightforward, and seated can be an issue if you’ve not got the right equipment set-up.

Other than those inconveniences, cable hammer curls are fantastic because the cable maintains a constant absolute tension on the muscle. It is possible to set up the exercise to ruin this advantage. But if you set it up properly, the cable hammer curl will humble you at the same time it grows your arms.

Cables offer a selection of handles and stances. One popular way to do them is with a rope, and also lying supine (on your back), which is a great way to prevent cheating.

Here’s how to do a proper cable hammer curl. We’ll describe the standing set-up using one arm at a time:

  1. Select a weight on the stack that you can lift with good form for the whole set.
  2. No handle is required–you can grip the stopper at the end of the cable just above the carabiner. If you do want a handle, pick one you can position for the neutral thumbs-up grip.
  3. Set the pulley low, no higher than mid-calf high. Longer-arm people, position the pulley lower. Shorter arms, mid-calf is fine. The cable should be perpendicular to the forearm shortly after beginning the curl.
    • If using a rope, stand closer with your back closer to the cable machine, with the pulley positioned directly under your hips between your legs.
  4. Stand with back to the machine and one step in front of the pulley, hold cable at the side with palm facing the hip.
  5. Moving only at the elbow, bring the thumb toward the shoulder.

To perform the Lying Hammer Curl variation:

Perry doing lying cable hammer curls
  1. For easiest application, use a seated row machine. The foot rests make this a breeze.
  2. Select a weight you can do properly.
  3. If your seated row machine has two cables, you can do these with two handles or without any handles at all, gripping the cable stoppers. If a single cable, use a triceps rope.
  4. Grip the cable using the signature neutral hammer grip.
  5. Lie back on the seat. Arms should stay extended, gripping the handle.
  6. Moving only at the elbows, curl the rope up toward your shoulders. Your hands will naturally stay nearer the midline of your body than with a traditional hammer curl. No problem, as long as the thumbs stay facing “up”.

Bro Tip: Play around with stance, cable handles, and pulley set-up to find a set-up that’s most comfortable. Find a set-up that makes the most of the constant load possible only with a cable machine.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceEasy to set up and perform, once you get the hang of it. Sitting is not much of an option.A
Direction of resistanceThe machine lets you position the direction of resistance for optimal overload.A+
Resistance curveIt doesn’t get any better. Resistance stays constant beginning to end. The Lying version offers the slight advantage of preventing any cheating by the upper body.A

3. Single Arm Hammer Curl

Single arm hammer curl start to end

Single arm hammer curls use a dumbbell or cable to perform one whole set with a single arm before swapping to the opposite arm, not to be confused with the alternating left-right-left cadence possible with dumbbells.

Single arm hammer curls make an excellent variation when…

  • One arm is sore or injured1. It’s scientific fact (neuromuscular cross-education) that one side can work and the other will benefit.
  • You want to exhaust one arm before transitioning to the other.

You can use dumbbells or cables to do single arm hammer curls. Here’s how to do one:

  1. Select a dumbbell you can lift for the desired number of reps. There are no trophies for heaviest hammer curl. If you’d like to hold another dumbbell in the non-working arm, that’s fine.
  2. Seated or standing, let the dumbbells hang naturally at your sides, with neutral grip, palms facing inward, and thumbs facing forward.
  3. With your upper arm and shoulder completely motionless, curl the dumbbell by bending only at the elbow.
  4. Continue repping with that arm for the entire set. Switch to the opposite arm for a full set using it.
Single arm hammer curl proper form

Bro Tip: Opt for a dumbbell and perform seated to keep your form righteous as the working side begins to fatigue.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceWhat could be simpler? The only challenge is keeping strict form toward the end of a set.A
Direction of resistanceEach arm works directly against gravity for nearly the complete range of motion.A+
Resistance curveThe target muscles must work early and consistently bottom to top of each rep.A

4. 1 1 2 Hammer Curls

Phases of the 1 1 2 hammer curl

With a pair of dumbbells, curl the right arm, curl the left, then both together. That’s one 1 1 2 Hammer Curl.

A set of 1 1 2 hammer curls are really three sets in one. They’re a cool way to fake yourself into doing more arm work. They are a type of extended set, designed to inflict as much overload as possible within the confines of a single set.

Here’s how to do a set of 1 1 2 Hammer Curls:

  1. Thoughtfully select a pair of dumbbells you’ll be able to lift for one of these triple-threat sets.
  2. Get the thumbs-up hammer curl grip.
  3. With dumbbells hanging at your sides, curl one arm, moving only at the elbow and finishing near the shoulder.
  4. Lower the dumbbell and immediately begin the opposite arm curl using the same strict form.
  5. Now, curl both arms simultaneously, squeezing the biceps at the top. That’s one complete rep.
  6. Repeat. A set of ten 1 1 2 hammer curls equals 30 actual reps.
How to properly do 1 1 2 hammer curls

Bro Tip: Put 1 1 2 hammer curls at the end of arm day. The 1 1 2 is about fatigue so don’t lead off with them unless it’s the only biceps exercise on the schedule for that day.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceThe form is easy but fatigue can tempt good form deep in a set. Requires concentration to keep the form strict.A
Direction of resistanceEach arm works directly against gravity for nearly the complete range of motion.A+
Resistance curveSame advantage as the traditional dumbbell hammer curl. You’re lifting against gravity. Only cables beat dumbbells in this dimension.A

5. Hammer Concentration Curl

Mike showing the steps of the hammer concentration curl

The hammer concentration curl is simply a classic concentration curl turned thumbs up. Hammer concentration curls require the use of a dumbbell. The elbow of the working arm rests against the inner thigh.

The advantage of a hammer concentration curl is this backstop provided by the leg. Makes cheating hard.

To do a hammer concentration curl:

  1. Pick a dumbbell you can curl strictly. This variation is all about form. Pick a weight that’s light enough to permit perfect form.
  2. Sit on the end of a flat or utility bench.
  3. Grip the dumbbell so that your thumb is facing the opposite thigh. Bend slightly at the waist.
  4. Flex the arm so that only the forearm moves, curling the weight up and toward your chin.
  5. Keep your upper body completely still. Resist the temptation to coax the weight up by leaning up and away during a rep.
Moving image of Mike doing hammer concentration curls

Bro Tip: Form, form, form. Focus your eyes on the working arm. This is called a concentration curl for a reason. Be disciplined and move the forearm only, isolating the target muscles.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceThe form with all but light dumbbells can make these a challenge. The dumbbell needs a clear path and space can get tight in that concentration stance.A-
Direction of resistanceGravity is down. The dumbbell must move up. You work directly against resistance.A
Resistance curveThe biceps have to work a little extra hard at the top because the dumbbell can’t “come over the top” and the shoulder can’t dip underneath to offer help.A

6. Cross Body Hammer Curl

The Cross Body Hammer Curl is done from a standing position and almost always with dumbbells. Cable cross bodies are possible but it changes the form somewhat.

The dumbbell is curled up from the side and across the chest with the finish position being near the opposite (ipsilateral) side collar bone.

Cross body hammer curls follow a slightly different path than traditional dumbbell hammer curls. A traditional hammer curl keeps the forearm at 90° to the body. The forearm hugs the body from bottom to top in the cross body variation.

There’s debate over whether the cross body preferentially works the long head of the biceps. This is difficult to support biomechanically because both heads of the biceps insert at the same location on the forearm.

It’s impossible to work one head of a two-headed muscle because they share a tendon. The tendon is where the muscle attaches and where it exerts force. It cannot exert force contrary to its attachment.

Both heads of the biceps insert with one tendon to the radius. It cannot “tell” if the arm is in front of the body or two the side.

Do a cross body hammer curl if it is a more comfortable variation for you. Cross body hammer curls may allow some lifters to do a stricter hammer curl; there’s not the same opportunity for cheating with elbow position.

To do a cross body hammer curl:

  1. As always, pick a weight that makes sense. You’re building arms, not putting on an exhibition.
  2. You can do single side or both arms.
  3. Stand with dumbbell(s) hanging at your sides, using a neutral grip.
  4. As with other hammer curl variations, bend only at the elbow but as you curl the weight, follow the contour of the body toward the opposite side collar bone.
  5. Alternate to the opposite side; or, continue with the same side.

Bro Tip: If you have hex head dumbbells handy, opt for these over disc style. You’ll be able to keep the dumbbell closer to your body through the range of motion.

OUR RATING

Ease of performancePhysiologically there’s no unique benefit to the cross body hammer curl aside from comfort. Disc-style dumbbells don’t allow the forearm to track along the body as easily as hex or ball-form dumbbells do. Traditional hammer curls are simpler to perform and the same muscles get the work.B
Direction of resistanceAs with other dumbbell hammer curl versions, you must lift opposite gravity, and that’s a good thing.A
Resistance curveThe biceps stay loaded for almost the entire range of motion.A

7. Spider Hammer Curl

Start and end position of spider hammer curls

Spider hammer curls are performed lying chest down on an incline (or decline) bench, where the shoulders are higher than the feet and the arms can hang at length without touching the floor.

Because of the lying posture, cheating with momentum is eliminated. The arms are forced to do all the work. Cheating *is* still possible, just not by using the legs or upper body to help move the weight.

Dumbbells are required.

To do a spider hammer curl:

  1. Select a pair of dumbbells you can lift strictly. Remember that your arms will be doing all the work. Cheat curl lovers beware.
  2. Set the bench height so that dumbbells will clear the floor when lying chest down.
  3. Lie chest down on the bench. Grip the dumbbells using a neutral grip, thumbs facing forward, palms facing inward.
  4. In either simultaneous or alternating fashion, curl by bending at the elbows. Concentrate on keeping your upper arms perpendicular to the floor and forearms creating a smooth arc from beginning to end of rep.
  5. Finishing position will be with dumbbells slightly in front and below your shoulders.
Spider hammer curl correct form

Bro Tip: Avoid the tendency for the elbows to drift backward, creating a hinge motion. Technically, hinging at the elbows still works the biceps, but it shortens the range of motion because the upper and lower arms move toward one another. Create one long, sweeping arc with the forearms.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceIt takes an experienced lifter who can monitor their own form to keep the upper arms from getting involved. Set-up can be a little tricky. As the weights get heavier, getting set on the bench can be a bit of a pain.B-
Direction of resistanceNo problem here. Gravity is down and motion is up.A+
Resistance curveWith stationary upper arms, the target muscles get an intense load, peaking as the forearms approach parallel to the floor.A

8. Hammer Curl Machine

Hammer curl machine start and end

Machines remove much of the guesswork from any exercise. At least they should. Design plays a central role in how good a given brand is for a particular exercise.

Big-box commercial gyms sometimes offer several machine brands. Cool, because it gives you a choice.

Ergonomics also plays a large role. Some machines are–regrettably–designed with more thought to user appeal than to how well they mimic or improve exercise form.

One brand in particular includes a seat that moves as you exercise, turning the machine into more of an amusement park ride than a useful resistance training implement.

Rule of thumb is to look for a machine that addresses the criteria we mentioned earlier: ease of performance; direction of resistance; and resistance curve.

When deciding if a hammer curl machine is for you, pay special attention to direction of resistance. Pulleys and cams can fake you out.

Try the machine using a weight that’s light enough for an experiment yet heavy enough to feel. Do a thumbs-up curl (aka hammer curl, duh). Concentrate and ask yourself:

  • Do I feel resistance early in the motion?
  • Is the resistance constant?
  • Where do I feel the load in the biceps muscles?

The answer to all three should be “yes” to all three of these questions.

Most hammer curl machines feature a preacher bench pad. The risks of the preacher curl–even with a hammer group–are real. Preacher curls, and preacher hammer curls to a lesser extent, have earned their reputation for biceps tears

To use a hammer curl machine:

  1. Per above, start with a well-designed hammer curl machine. Many have handles that permit traditional palms-up as well as hammer grips.
    • Read the instructions posted on the machine. All commercially available brands include instructions
  2. Set the weight stack for a light-ish weight for starters until you get the feel.
  3. Adjust the machine seat so that the pad nestles securely against your chest and armpits.
    1. It’s helpful to scoot back on the seat a bit to achieve a bit of a forward lean into the pad. Depending on the machine, leaning forward enhances the anatomical correctness of the movement.
  4. Once you’ve experimented and adjusted to fit your frame, sit on the machine.
  5. Get a firm neutral, thumbs-up hammer grip. With the backs of your arms should rest flat against the pad, flex at the elbows and curl the weight up.
    • Your arms should stay in contact with the pad throughout, as should your seat.
    • If your butt comes off the seat at any point in the exercise, the weight is too heavy or your form is just crappy.

Bro Tip: Machines make pyramid and drop sets easy. All you have to do is reach over and reset the pin, or turn the intensity dial found on the top of the stack of some brands. For a drop set, start with a heavier weight for lower reps. When you can’t do another rep with proper form, lower the weight and repeat. Reset the pin to ever-lighter weights until you’re at the lightest weight, and rep to volitional failure.

A pyramid is starting light going up to heavy and back down again.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceIn general, machines make the exercise easier to do properly.A
Direction of resistanceAlso usually very good. Resistance is direct against the working muscles.A
Resistance curveThis is where machines could really shine. Unfortunately for us hammer curl advocates, most machines feature the preacher pad and not a vertical one, which would optimise the resistance curve. A machine could take full advantage of a constant resistance curve, early through late phase. Unfortunately, many load the starting phase too much when the muscles and tendons are fully stretched to capacity, and that can lead to injury.B

9. Decline Hammer Curl

Start and end of spider hammer curls

Decline hammer curls are a variation of dumbbell hammer curls where the lifter lies chest down on an incline bench or board with the arms hanging straight down toward the floor at the beginning of the curl.

Decline hammer curls are almost identical to spider hammer curls, which are performed from the vertical side of a preacher bench and can be done leaning against the angled side of a preacher bench. The decline hammer curl requires reclining, facing downward.

To do a decline hammer curl:

  1. Find a suitable incline bench. You’ll need to find one that allows the top of your chest and arms to hang over the top edge, and one that can be set high enough to clear the floor with your weights.
  2. Set the bench to the desired height, per Step 1.
  3. Select a pair of dumbbells you can curl with perfect form.
  4. Lie face forward on the incline bench. You’ll need to decide if you carry the weights with you onto the bench, or set them on the floor to be picked up once you lie down.
  5. Gripping the dumbbells, let your arms assume a natural position hanging toward the floor. Your thumbs will probably be facing forward, as they should for any hammer curl.
  6. Bend at the elbow, keeping your upper arm perpendicular to the floor. There should be an imaginary line running straight downward from your shoulder joint through your elbow to the floor.
    • If this isn’t true, you’re hinging at the elbow. Hinging shortens the range of motion of the hammer curl exercise.
  7. You can perform these with both arms moving simultaneously, or alternating arms. Simultaneous will be easier. Alternating arms will cause your body to rock side to side on the bench if using heavier weights.
Spider hammer curl correct form

Bro Tip: Due to the hassle of setting up, use decline hammer curls as a finisher at the end of an arm day, or as your arm exercise on secondary arm days.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceSetting up the bench and loading up for the exercise is inconvenient and a hassle-prone. Any net benefit of lying face down is negated.B-
Direction of resistanceLike a traditional hammer curl, gravity is down and you’re curling straight up. Good stuff.A
Resistance curveAlso fine. The exercise is early phase loaded and stays challenging throughout as long as good form is observed.A

10. Incline Hammer Curl

Incline hammer curls start to end movement

Incline hammer curls are a slight variation of a seated dumbbell hammer curl, performed on an incline bench. The incline stretches the biceps when the arms are extended in the down position.

Overstretching can lead to overuse injury. Stretch is good, too much is bad.

It’s important to distinguish how the incline affects all the involved muscles. The steepness of the incline and recline of the lifter dictates how much stretch is on the biceps, but not the brachio-radialis.

Here’s how to do an incline hammer curl properly:

  1. If using an adjustable bench, set the angle higher than 45°, the higher the better. You don’t need much backward lean to get a beneficial stretch on the muscles. Too much incline invites biceps tendinosis (formerly called tendinitis).
  2. Select a weight that allows you to perform the desired number of reps with strict form.
  3. Grip the dumbbells so that your thumbs face forward. Your arms should be hanging naturally at your sides with palms facing your body.
  4. Bending only at the elbow, bring the weight up as far as you can without moving your shoulder.
  5. The upper arm, shoulder, and torso should be completely still throughout the curl.
  6. The weight should finish with one head of the dumbbell near the shoulder. Think hammering.
Incline hammer curls correct form

Bro Tip: Pay close attention to your anterior shoulders the day after incline hammer curls. If they’re sore, and you didn’t work anterior delts or chest the day before, you’re setting the bench too far back. Our advice: opt for a seated hammer curl with no incline if that’s the case.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceEasy set-up, and the bench helps prevent cheating.A
Direction of resistanceBy now, you know our opinion on working directly against resistance. Gravity is down, the motion is up. Simple.A+
Resistance curveDinging incline hammer curls a point or two simply because it’s easy for a novice to set the bench for too much stretch. Early phase loading is good, but overstretching is unnecessary and can make your workouts miserable.A-

11. Preacher Hammer Curl

Preacher hammer curls start to end

Preacher hammer curls are a variation of dumbbell hammer curls, performed on a Preacher bench. In short, a preacher hammer curl is a hammer curl done thumbs-up from start to finish.

The preacher angled side of the bench places the arm in a position which heavily loads the beginning of the rep at the bottom of the rep.

There’s a higher risk of injury than some hammer curl variations. Just Google “preacher curl biceps tears”. Not recommended for weak stomachs.

To perform a preacher hammer curl:

  1. You’ll need a preacher curl bench or an adjustable incline bench.
    • If one’s not available, you can use an incline bench. Adjustable benches are best so that you can select a steeper angle. The more vertical the bench angle, the better.
  2. You’ll also need dumbbells. Select a weight that will let you use strict from the first through last rep of your set.
  3. Get a neutral grip on the dumbbell, thumbs facing forward. (They’ll be facing upward as you curl.)
  4. Bend at the elbow only, using only the anterior upper arm muscles to initiate and complete the rep.
    • You can do one arm solo while the other rests, or you can curl two arms simultaneously, or alternating.

Bro Tip: Look for preacher benches with steeper incline pads so that the intense beginning load is diminished a bit.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceEasy set-up, and the bench helps prevent cheating.A
Direction of resistanceGravity is indeed down, which opposes the motion. So that part is good. Problem is that all biceps work is done just past a half range of motion. Not good.B-
Resistance curveThe lift is most difficult at the very beginning when the biceps and tendons are fully stretched, and depending on the set-up, almost hyperextended. Way more than necessary to load the muscle for growth. The net benefit from putting your biceps tendons at risk of injury just isn’t worth it.C

12. In Out Hammer Curl

In Out hammer curls are a variation of the traditional dumbbell hammer curl that consists of a traditional dumbbell hammer curl followed immediately by one where the dumbbells are held out to the side.

One rep consists of one “in” (traditional form) and one “out” (hands out to the sides). An “In” plus an “Out” equals one rep.

Whether intended or not, the In Out hammer curl also involves the shoulder joint somewhat as it rotates the upper arm bone to the side for the “Out“ portion.

It is technically two reps in one and not two half-reps, so it doubles the work, making it more-or-less a higher rep set. Exactly the same muscles work in exactly the same way as traditional hammer curls.

Here’s how to do In Out hammer curls:

  1. Select a pair of dumbbells light enough to allow you to perform the intended number of reps comfortably.
    • There’s no defined number of reps. Consider however that two reps equal just one In Out. So, a 10-rep set is actually 20.
  2. Grasp the dumbbells using a thumbs-up grip with wrist and fist in direct alignment with the forearm. Hang your arms naturally at your sides. Bend only at the elbow and raise the weight toward the shoulder.
  3. For the “In” half of a “rep”, perform a traditional dumbbell hammer curl, raising the dumbbells straight up. The forearms are 90° to the body. Raise the dumbbells toward your shoulders and lower along the same motion path.
  4. For the “Out” half of a rep, rotate the forearms outward about 45° in relation to your body and raise the dumbbells.
  5. The dumbbell will travel along a path that puts it wider than shoulder width. It need not be far out to the sides.
    • More arm flare than 45° during the Out portion of the In Out hammer curl delivers no benefit.
  6. One “In” and one “Out” stroke equals one total In Out hammer curl.

Bro Tip #1: Experiment with these and gauge your results. If after a few workouts, you notice results, stick with them if you like them. If your shoulders are sore the next day with no other explanation, relegate In Out hammer curls to your exercise scrap heap and don’t look back. There’s no benefit beyond finding a way to do more reps. In our opinion, they’re a gimmick, and that’s why we rate them last.

Bro Tip #2: If you’re new to the lifting game, you will get “newbie” gains regardless. It would be unwise to credit any particular exercise with the gains you get when you first start resistance training. If an experienced lifter breaks a plateau with In Out Hammer Curls, rock on.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceGetting the hang of a traditional hammer curl followed by one to the side isn’t difficult.A-
Direction of resistanceAs with traditional hammer curls–which we love–you work directly opposite resistance.A
Resistance curveThe resistance curve is like a traditional hammer curl, early phase loaded and fairly constant throughout the range of motion.A

Best Hammer Curl Variations That Use Alternative Equipment

Dumbbells and cable machines are best for hammer curls because the range of motion, direction of resistance, and resistance curves create the best conditions for muscle overload and growth.

Don’t skip hammer curls if you don’t have dumbbells or cable machines handy. There are six versions using alternatives to DBs and cables that can do in a pinch. 

Any of these will work the target muscles if done properly, just not as optimally as DBs and cables. In descending order of effectiveness, they are:

  1. Tricep Bar Hammer Curl
  2. Barbell Hammer Curl
  3. Kettlebell Hammer Curl
  4. Plate Hammer Curl
  5. TRX Hammer Curl
  6. Banded Hammer Curl

13. Tricep Bar Hammer Curl

The tricep bar (correctly written and said “triceps”) tops our list because it most closely mimics our favorite, the dumbbell hammer curl and works the target biceps, brachioradialis, and brachialis in isolation.

The tricep bar’s construction makes this possible with its perpendicular handles, which allow for the neutral thumbs-up grip.

Tricep bars have been around for a while. Recently, a few manufacturers have introduced multi-grip bars that are bigger, heavier, and feature more handles to adapt to different shoulder widths.

To use a tricep bar (or multi-grip bar) for triceps hammer curls:

  1. Load the bar with weight you can curl if using strict form.
  2. If your Tricep bar or multi-grip bar has more than one set of perpendicular grips, identify the one that positions your forearms at ~90° to your body. Aim for a position that’s comfortable and allows for natural curling motion.
  3. Get a firm thumbs-up “hammer” grip on the handles with arms hanging straight down to your sides.
  4. Tense the arms and curl only at the elbow, bringing the bar in a smooth arc all the way toward your shoulders. If you can, keep the elbows anchored to your sides.
  5. It’s OK to let the elbows drift forward a bit (i.e. 4 to 6cm). This is natural but beware not to let the upper arms swing back behind your body during the motion.

Bro Tip: Keep your chin up to avoid plinking yourself with the bar at the top of each rep. It’s real.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceA tricep bar makes set-up easy. It doesn’t do much to prevent cheating through using momentum to hoist the weight.A-
Direction of resistanceSame assessment as before. Gravity is down, you’re curling up. Good.A
Resistance curveThe tricep hammer curl is early phase loaded and keeps the load on the working muscles through the range of motion until the very top.A

14. Barbell Hammer Curl

Barbell hammer curls use a straight barbell and wrist straps like the ones you’d use for deadlifts and shrugs. By wrapping them around the bar and gripping the free end, you can make yourself a handle that transforms a plain barbell bar into a hammer curl appliance.

The straps add fiddle factor to exercise set-up. If you can overlook that inconvenience, having only a straight bar and no dumbbells, this is a clever way to MacGyver for a hammer curl.

Once you’ve got a straight barbell and a pair of well-made wrist straps, follow these steps to securely perform barbell hammer curls:

  1. Load the bar with a weight you can curl with excellent form for your desired number of reps, and one that won’t break your straps (not joking).
    • Barbell hammer curls are most frequently done from a standing position. You could do them as declines or spider variations.
    • It’s best to work from a bench with a barbell rack, or other barbell accessory that puts a rack at or near your waist level. Some shrug racks accomplish this.
  2. Double-check your straps to confirm that the stitching is secure.
  3. Pass the loop side of the wrist strap under the bar.
  4. Next, slip the free end of the strap through the loop so that you’ve formed a noose around the bar. Then…
  5. Pass the free end around the bar one more time if your strap is long enough, making sure you still have enough strap fabric left to get a firm grip.
  6. Get a thumbs-up grip on the free end of the strap, lift the bar off the rack, and step back a bit.
  7. Arms at sides, thumbs pointed out in the starting position, curl the bar, keeping upper arms close to your torso.

Bro Tip: Use the vertical side of a preacher bench so that you can lean forward a bit to prevent the bar from hitting your forearms at the top of the ROM.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceSetting up for barbell hammer curls is a genuine pain, and once you do, straps make for a poor handle. You’ll concentrate more on just hanging on than the muscles you’re trying to work.C-
Direction of resistanceYou lift in direct opposition to resistance. The bar will stay low, so as you near the top of the range of motion, the bar will swing under your hands. At the very top, it will contact your forearms. This sets up a weird dynamic where the lifter adjusts their arms to compensate. DoR is still positive, just weird.A-
Resistance curveThe barbell hammer curl is early phase loaded and maintains the load through almost the entire range of motion.A

15. Kettlebell Hammer Curl

Mike demoing kettlebell hammer curls

Kettlebell hammer curls, as their name suggests, require the use of a kettlebell. Kettlebells add challenge to a hammer curl: the kettlebell handle places weight out in front of the fist, lengthening the lever arm. That added length using a 10kg kettlebell requires ~14kg of force to curl it.

The weight itself is suspended out in front of the fist, which places greater demand on grip strength than do other hammer curl versions.

How to do a kettlebell hammer curl:

  1. Select a kettlebell that you hold for an entire set.
  2. Standing or seated, grip the kettlebell with a neutral grip, thumb side pointing forward.
  3. Now, curl the kettlebell so that the neutral grip is maintained throughout. The kettlebell must remain perpendicular to the forearm, weight out in front of your knuckles.
    • If the kettlebell starts to sag forward out of your grip, you’ll need a lighter weight. It’s got to stay straight out in front of your closed fist.
  4. Curl single-sided, two-arm simultaneous, or alternating. It’s OK to bring the kettlebell across your body in a cross-body arc if you like, as long as the only body part that moves is the forearm.
Moving image of kettlebell hammer curls

Bro Tip: If you have access to newer kettlebell designs that have poly grips, or with wedge designs, opt for those. They’ll make the grip easier.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceHolding a kettlebell puts more emphasis on grip than the target muscles.D
Direction of resistanceYou lift in direct opposition to resistance. The kettlebell will stay low, so as you near the top of the range of motion, the kettlebell will swing under your hands. At the very top, it will contact your forearms. This sets up a weird dynamic where the lifter adjusts their arms to compensate. Direction of resistance is still positive, just weird.A-
Resistance curvePretty good. The longer lever (effort) arm created from the kettlebell position in space loads the target muscles from start to finish.A

16. Barbell Plate Hammer Curl

This is a convenient option if your equipment is barbells and barbells only.

Instead of a handle grip like dumbbells provide, plate hammer curls require that the lifter grasp the plate along its rim, or through grip holes that some brands include.

Plate hammer curls can be done with a single arm or two arm. They can be done with two hands holding a single plate, or each hand holding a single plate.

If using a single plate, you’ve got the option of alternating arms or simultaneous, two-arm curls.

How to use a plate for hammer curls:

  1. Select a plate of any size you can grip between two hands and curl for the desired number of repetitions. Ideally, use a plate that won’t hit  your chest with the leading edge of the plate at the top of the curl.
    • If curling with a single arm, select a plate that you can hold firmly so the barbell hole is in direct alignment with the forearm and elbow. The wrist should not bend forward at any time.
    • Plates with grip holes near their edges are better for gripping.
  2. With thumbs up, curl the weight toward your shoulder. Repeat.
  3. You can do the plate hammer curl using any of the positions that prevent cheating: spider, concentration, or decline.
    • The preacher, spider, and decline variations are particularly useful when using a single plate, especially if those versions allow a full range of motion and prevent the plate from hitting the chest.

Bro Tip: Use plate hammer curls as a “between-set” exercise when you’re doing other barbell exercises.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceLike the kettlebell hammer curl, ergonomics present a problem. You’re either limited to plate design or size. If your hammer curl strength suggests using more that 10Kg (22.7 lb.) per arm, you’re out of luck unless you’ve got 50kg (100 lb.) plates handy.D
Direction of resistanceYou lift in direct opposition to resistance. The kettlebell will stay low, so as you near the top of the range of motion, the kettlebell will swing under your hands. At the very top, it will contact your forearms. This sets up a weird dynamic where the lifter adjusts their arms to compensate. Direction of resistance is still positive, just weird.A-
Resistance curveEarly phase loaded with a relatively consistent load through the entire arc of the curl. There’s some nuance here because the shape of the weight causes half of it to cross perpendicular sooner than, say dumbbells, so the range of motion for overload isn’t as long.A-

17. TRX Hammer Curl

TRX hammer curls start to end

A TRX hammer curl is a TRX suspension trainer curl with a neutral grip. The trick is establishing and maintaining that neutral, thumbs-up grip on a suspension apparatus.

Like all TRX exercises, their difficulty can be progressed by moving the center of mass closer to the anchor point of the trainer. That’s a fancy way of saying that they get harder as you get closer to where you’ve secured the TRX.

Here’s how to set up and do a TRX hammer curl:

  1. Anchor the TRX safely so that it will support your weight.
    • If you’re using a closed door as the anchor, remember to use a door that closes toward you and not away. That prevents it from accidentally swinging open if the latch fails during a set.
  2. Adjust the TRX straps to a length that allows you to perform an entire curl at your selected distance from the anchor point, and that will keep the straps under constant tension for a complete set.
  3. Adjust the grip tubes within the handles to help you get and maintain a neutral grip.
  4. Grip using a neutral grip where your thumbs track toward your head during the curl.
  5. Engage the core and shoulders to form and hold a firm plank position.
  6. Extend your arms in front of you. The elbows will be in space during TRX hammer curls, and not anchored at your sides like some of the other hammer curl variations.
  7. Lower yourself backward by bending only at the elbows (or as much as physically possible). When your arms are fully extended, the tension on the wrists will cause them to flex a bit. This is normal. Do not bend at the waist at any point, or let your shoulders roll forward when at the bottom.
  8. It’s OK and completely reasonable to finish the rep with your hands on either side of your head.
TRX hammer curls proper form

Bro Tip: Start from a nearly standing position and gradually step toward the anchor point to find the sweet spot where the exercise can be done correctly yet still challenging.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceYou need experience with TRX (or other suspension trainer) to set up correctly for the hammer curl. Even then, maintaining the hammer grip is challenging to maintain through the entire exercise.D
Direction of resistanceIf you set up correctly, the direction of pull is against resistance.A
Resistance curveThe exercise stays loaded beginning to end.A

18. Banded Hammer Curls

Banded hammer curls start to end

Resistance band hammer curls are a biceps curl alternative that utilizes a resistance band or elastic tubing.

The amount of resistance provided by bands and tubing varies depending on the thickness of the material. Lengths also vary and length influences your set-up for the exercise. You’ll need more floor space for longer tubes and bands in order to establish the starting tension.

Banded hammer curls can be done anywhere. No gym required. Bands and tubes make a nice on-the-road training tool for people who travel often.

How to do a banded hammer curl:

  1. Select a band of a thickness that will allow you to do the desired number of reps with perfect form.
  2. Set up the band by either standing inside the loop so that it passes under midfoot; or, hook the loop under something stable, like a heavy bench.
  3. Starting position: With arms at shoulder width, grip either side of the band using the characteristic neutral grip with palms facing each other.
  4. Adjust the tension you feel by gripping farther up, or down, the band. The more free band fabric you have between your hands, the more challenging the banded hammer curl will be.
  5. With arms held straight down at your sides, bend at the elbows and curl your fists toward your shoulders. Experiment with where you grip the band to tune the degree of tension. Trial and error that is normal here.
  6. Squeeze the arms at the top of the movement.

The same basic rules apply if you’re using tubing. Orient the tubing handles for the hammer grip and follow the same instructions.

Banded hammer curls proper form

Bro Tip: Start from a nearly standing position and gradually step toward the anchor point to find the sweet spot where the exercise can be done correctly yet still challenging.

OUR RATING

Ease of performanceEasy to set up and perform, once you get the hang of it. Sitting is not much of an option.C
Direction of resistanceThe machine lets you position the direction of resistance for optimal overload.A-
Resistance curveIt doesn’t get any better. Resistance stays constant beginning to end. The Lying version offers the slight advantage of preventing any cheating by the upper body.D-

Best Hammer Curl Variations For Special Exercise Considerations

Hammer curls fit well in any resistance training routine. They can also be written into a physical therapy routine for post-surgery or proprioceptive training (sometimes mistakenly called “balance” training).

19. Hammer Curl to Press

Hammer curl to press - press portion

The hammer curl by itself is an isolation exercise useful for hypertrophy of the anterior upper arm muscles. Layman’s terms: they can jack your biceps and forearms.

Combining another movement with hammer curls into a single exercise adds absolutely zero to their biceps-building properties. If anything, adding another movement detracts from that effect.

But there are other applications, such as metabolic routines, where the objective isn’t exactly bodybuilding, it’s general fitness or energy expenditure. (We don’t and won’t say weight loss, because that involves kitchen discipline more than gym discipline.)

Hammer curl to press is simply adding a neutral grip overhead press at the top of each hammer curl. You interrupt the hammer curl with a press. This recruits an entirely different set of muscles during the overall movement.

To perform a hammer curl to press:

  1. You’ll need dumbbells. Select a set that you can curl and press overhead using strict form. Pressing overhead adds complexity and some injury risk, particularly for newbies to the gym.
  2. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Hold dumbbells naturally at your sides, thumbs facing forward.
  3. Curl the weight up to shoulder height, but instead of pinning your elbows to your sides as in a traditional hammer curl, let the elbows drift naturally forward. Keep the elbows directly under your hands to create an imaginary line perpendicular to the floor. Elbows should not flare to the sides nor move inward toward your midline.
  4. When your elbows are directly underneath the dumbbell, tightly engage your shoulders and press upward.
    • It’s up to you if you choose to involve your triceps or not. Mind-body connection is crucial to being able to shift concentration from shoulders to triceps, or, to use both.
    • To use shoulders more specifically, consciously squeeze the deltoids and posterior shoulder muscles to push the weights overhead.
    • There is no need to treat this portion of the movement as the “jerk” component of the clean-and-jerk exercise. Avoid using momentum.
  5. Lower the weights back to shoulder height and complete the eccentric (downward) phase of the hammer curl.
Hammer curl to press proper form

Again, no reason to not do hammer curl to press. Just know when to apply it for your specific training objectives.

Bro Tip: Program a hammer curl to press for clients who want work on overall body shape and condition. Extend the set for high reps to enhance the metabolic effect.

OUR RATING

No rating on this exercise due to it being a special application in our evaluation. The downsides of the hammer curl to press for arm development is that the shoulders may tire before your arm muscles do, so achieving any appreciable overload for the arms gets iffy.

20. Single Leg Hammer Curl

Single leg hammer curl start to end

Single leg hammer curls sometimes show up in rehab routines for patients recovering from hip surgery. They’re a way to challenge the hips and core to stay engaged while challenging the upper body with some work.

The logic goes that the stabilizer muscles of the hip need to be sufficiently strong for proper walking gait.

Single leg hammer curls ARE NOT an arm hypertrophy exercise. Period.

To do (or supervise) a proper single leg hammer curl:

  1. Select a light dumbbell, or dumbbells if doing these using both arms.
  2. Stand with dumbbells at the sides, thumbs facing forward.
  3. Put the bodyweight on one leg. Touch the floor with the toe of the opposite side leg to assure stability without losing the unilateral effect.
  4. Using a steady, controlled motion, bend at the elbow and curl the weight toward your shoulder. For this application, it isn’t necessary to curl the dumbbell through what would ordinarily be a full range of motion. That’s not the point of this exercise.
  5. Where you should “feel” the single leg hammer curl is in the medial glute of the stance leg. As the dumbbell travels forward and up, the middle glute will need to work to maintain perfectly upright posture.
    • Do not lean to one side or the other. If leaning is necessary, the weight is too heavy; or, this isn’t the exercise for you (or your client).
    • Regress the routine to single leg stances without weight of any sort.
Single leg hammer curls proper form

Single leg hammer curls are among the exercises that find their ways into gym fail videos everywhere. Outside of physical therapy, they gained some popularity as an outgrowth of functional fitness and a misguided trend to turn gym work into circus exhibitions.

Artists rendition of unstable surface resistance exercise. SMH.

Standing on one leg while curling anything other than a very light dumbbell is just, well, dumb. To challenge the arms for growth requires a secure base of support and standing on one leg doesn’t provide that.

Standing on one leg on an unstable surface while doing an arm curl is questionable, unless under specific supervision of a licensed physical therapist.

The instability created by a single leg plus unstable surface sets up conditions for lumbar spine injury. Any net gain of doing this exercise is far outweighed by its risks.

OUR RATING

No rating on this exercise due to it being a special application in our evaluation.

References:

  1. Green LA, Gabriel DA. “The cross education of strength and skill following unilateral strength training in the upper and lower limbs”. Journal of Neurophysiology. 2018 Aug 1; 120(2): 468–479.
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Perry Mykleby, ACE CPT

Perry started lifting weights in 1974. He is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness writer. He holds a journalism degree from the University of North Texas, where he competed in powerlifting. His final competition was the Texas State Open in December of 1982, but has continued to study and practice muscle strength and hypertrophy. He is a four-decade veteran of the medical device industry.

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