Five 21s Bicep Curl Alternatives to Torch Your Arms

21s is one of my all-time favorite curl exercises. You can build strength and get an amazing biceps pump at the same time. What’s not to love about that?

However, sometimes you may find yourself needing an alternative for 21s. Maybe you don’t have a barbell or EZ curl bar to work with or maybe you just want to add some variety to your workouts.

Whatever the reason, you’re in the right place. I’m about to share with you 5 of my favorite 21s curl alternatives.

Alternatives for 21s

I’ve tried to include as much variety in this list of alternative exercises as possible. There are exercises that include different types of equipment including dumbbells, cables and even resistance bands.

My guess is, if you’re looking for a substitution for 21s you don’t just want any boring curl exercises, you want movements that are going to completely blast your biceps. That, my friends, is the one thing that all these exercises will have in common. Let’s get started.

Variations of 21s

First, if you’re here simply because you don’t have a bar let’s think outside the box for a second.

You can apply the concept of 21s to pretty much any piece of equipment.

Just so I make sure we’re all on the same page – 21s are when you curl halfway up 7 times, then halfway down (starting at the top) 7 times and then finish with 7 full reps. If you have a partner then they can place their hand right around the bottom of your sternum to use as a reference point.

You don’t need a barbell or EZ curl bar to do this. You can apply the same concept to dumbbells, a cable machine or even resistance bands. As long as you’re doing 7 halfway up, 7 halfway down and 7 full reps then you’re in business. Use what you got and make it happen!

Buddy Curls

Grab a partner and prepare to destroy your biceps (and your forearms) with Buddy Curls. Ideally, find a partner that is roughly equal in strength to you as that makes the overall timing back and forth go better.

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Weight Plates

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Grab a partner and a barbell.
  • Stand facing your partner, barbell in hand.
  • Perform 1 Barbell Curl and then hand the bar to your partner.
  • Have your partner do 1 curl and hand the bar back to you.
  • Now, do 2 Barbell Curls and hand the bar back to your partner.
  • Continue adding one rep to each set, handing the bar back and forth.
  • Once you both do a set of 8 reps, begin working your way back down to 1 rep.
  • Do not set the bar down until every rep of every set has been completed.

Coaching Points

Just to be clear, the reps of each set should look like: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for a total of 64 reps each.

You will not need very much weight at all on the bar (or even any weight at all).

The key is to not set the bar down until all reps are complete. Yes, your forearms will be on absolute fire along the way. Expect it. Enjoy it.

Don’t have a partner? No worries. Set the bar down between every set and count 1 second for each rep.

4 x 4s

4 x 4 Curls

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Grab two dumbbells and stand tall with feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Curl the left dumbbell halfway up, freezing it in place when the forearm becomes parallel to the ground.
  • Hold the left arm there while you do 4 regular dumbbell curls with the right arm.
  • Now, bring the left arm down and curl the right dumbbell up halfway and freeze it in place.
  • Hold the right arm there while you do 4 regular dumbbell curls with the left arm.
  • Now lower the right arm back down to the start.
  • Finally, do 4 regular dumbbell curls with both arms at the same time.

Coaching Points

It may take a set or two to figure out the proper weight to use for 4 x 4s. Start light and then gradually increase in weight until you find a good weight range for you.

Don’t rush through the movement! Part of the beauty of 4 x 4s is the isometric contraction of the arm being held in place halfway. If you simply try to get through the exercise as fast as possible you’re missing out on the intention of the exercise.

Keep the elbow at the side and don’t let it drift behind the torso. You can make the dumbbell much easier to hold up if you slide your elbow behind your torso. Don’t do that. Keep the elbow at your side and the dumbbell held out in front of you.

Manual Bicep Curls

Manual Curls are a great 21s alternatives that require a partner to do. If done correctly, they’re also the most vicious.

Equipment Needed

  • Thick, Solid Broomstick*
  • Towel

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Kneel beside a bench, place your elbows on the bench and grab a broomstick with an underhand grip.
  • Have a partner sit on the opposite side of the bench and wrap a towel around the broomstick.
  • Extend your arms to what would be the bottom of a bicep curl.
  • Now, curl up and have your partner apply resistance by pulling on the towel.
  • Once you get to the top of the rep, your partner should pull you back down to the starting position.
  • However, now you should apply resistance and not allow your partner to pull you back to the start.
  • Continue this process until all reps are completed.

Coaching Points

*A solid, sturdy broomstick works best here although you can use other options. For example, a piece of PVC pipe if it is thick enough and strong enough can work as well. Whatever you choose, make sure it will not break under tension. If whatever you are using to curl with should snap it could lead to a serious injury.

Do not overextend at the bottom of the rep. You should always keep a bend in the elbow so as to not put the elbow in a compromised position.

If done correctly, you shouldn’t need more than 5 reps to completely exhaust the biceps.

Tempo Bicep Curls

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell (Dumbbells can be used as well)
  • Weight Plates

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and grab a barbell with a supinated (underhand) grip.
  • Start with 10 slow-tempo barbell curls – 2 seconds up, 4 seconds down.
  • Then, immediately transition to 10 fast-tempo curls – as quickly as you can rep.
  • Finally, transition to 10 regular tempo curls – 1 second up and 2 seconds on the way down.
  • 30 curls total, all back-to-back, at three different tempos.

Coaching Points

Doing 30 barbell curls in a row is hard enough, varying the tempo increases the challenge even more. It may take a set or two to figure out an appropriate weight to use for Tempo Curls. I recommend starting light and then increasing weight as needed.

Do not pause or rest between each tempo. Reps should all be done consecutively.

Barbell Curl Drop Sets

Curl Drop Sets are another great way to torch your biceps at the end of a workout.

Barbell Curl Drop Sets

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell (EZ Curl Bar will work great too)
  • Weight Plates

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Place two plates on each side of a barbell*.
  • Grab the bar with an underhand grip, stand tall with knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Curl the bar ten times, set it down in the rack and then quickly remove one plate** from each side of the bar.
  • As soon as the bar is set, immediately continue to do 10 more barbell curls.
  • Quickly remove the second plate from each side of the bar.
  • Finish with ten more barbell curls.

Coaching Points

*First off, if you don’t have a barbell, the same concept can also be applied to dumbbells as well. Start with a moderate weight of dumbbell, then lower down to lighter dumbbells for sets two and then three.

Ideally, plates should be equal so you get the same drop in weight each set, but this can be varied.

**If you have a partner, or partners, have them quickly take the weight off the bar when you set it down. Obviously, if you’re lifting solo this becomes your job as well.

Final Thoughts

21s are a great exercise for building upper body strength and completely smoking your biceps. However, sometimes you may need an alternative because you don’t have the necessary equipment or you’re just looking to change up your workout.

Whatever the reason, if you came here looking for an alternative for 21s, I hope one of the options I’ve listed here works for you.

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