Barbell Curls vs Cable Curls (Which is Better?)


Barbell Curls and Cable Curls are both popular exercises that are used to strengthen and develop the muscles in the biceps and forearms. Both exercises are generally the same movement (curling a weight toward the shoulders), but they differ in the type of equipment that is used and the way that the resistance is applied.

Barbell curls are performed with a straight barbell that is held with a supinated (underhand) grip. This exercise allows you to lift heavy weights (relative to curls), which can be beneficial for increasing overall strength and size in the biceps and forearms.

Cable curls, on the other hand, are performed with a weight stack and a cable pulley system. This exercise allows for continuous resistance throughout the range of motion, which can provide a unique challenge for the muscles. Cable curls can also be performed with a variety of grip positions, which allows for a greater degree of flexibility and target muscle development.

In general, both barbell curls and cable curls can be effective for strengthening the biceps and forearms, and which exercise is best for you may depend on your individual goals and preferences.


Barbell Curls


Equipment Needed

  • Barbell

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Stand tall, back straight, head up, feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold the barbell with both hands, palms up (supinated grip).
  • Start with the bar at arm’s length against the upper thighs.
  • Curl the bar up towards the shoulders until the forearms touch the biceps.
  • Keep upper elbows close to the side.
  • Lower the bar back to starting position using the same path.
  • Continue until all reps are completed.

Coaching Points

By far the most common mistake with any curl exercise, but perhaps even more so with Barbell Curls is swinging and rocking in an attempt to lift more weight. If you need to swing the bar, use momentum or generally contort your body to move the weight, it’s too heavy. Lower the weight and use proper form.

Don’t allow the wrists to bow back when holding and curling the bar. Keep the wrist neutral by keeping the forearms engaged. This will take pressure off the wrist that could otherwise lead to Barbell Curls being very uncomfortable on the wrists.

Related –> 11 Alternatives for Barbell Curls that also Develop Strong Biceps

Benefits

Some potential benefits of performing barbell curls include:

  • Increased upper arm strength and size
  • Improved grip strength
  • Enhanced athletic performance in activities that require upper body strength

Additionally, the barbell curl is a relatively simple and convenient exercise that can be performed using a standard barbell and weight plates. This makes it a popular choice for strength training at home or in the gym.


Cable Curls


Cable Curls

Equipment Needed

  • Pulley Machine

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Slide the pin to the bottom of the cable machine.
  • Hook your favorite curl attachment – the short straight bar and the rope are both great options.
  • Grab the attachment and stand about a half step away from the machine – just enough room where you won’t hit it as you curl.
  • Stand tall with good posture and a slight bend in the knee.
  • Flex the biceps and curl the attachment up towards the shoulders, squeezing the biceps at the top of the movement.
  • Lower back to the starting position under control.
  • Continue until all reps are completed and then gently lower the attachment back down to the floor.

Coaching Points

Don’t just let the attachment go at the end of your set and allow the attachment to go flying and slam back into the machine. This will obviously tear the machine up. It astonishes me that people would disrespect equipment like that, but unfortunately, I see it happen all the time.

As for the actual technique of the lift, the biggest mistake I see (as with almost all curls) is lifters using too much weight and then swinging and rocking the weight up. If you need to contort your upper body to curl the weight, it’s too heavy. Lower the weight and go back to using proper form.

Benefits

Some potential benefits of Cable Curls include:

  1. Continuous resistance: The cable pulley system used in cable curls provides continuous resistance throughout the range of motion, which can provide a unique challenge for the muscles.
  2. Flexible grip positions: Cable curls can be performed with a variety of cable attachments and grip positions, including pronated (overhand), supinated (underhand), and neutral. This allows for a greater degree of flexibility and allows you to target the muscles in different ways.
  3. Balanced muscle development: Because cable curls allow for a variety of grip positions, they can help to promote balanced muscle development in the biceps and forearms, which can improve overall upper body function.
  4. Increased strength and size: Like other bicep and forearm exercises, cable curls can help to increase strength and size in the biceps and forearms, which can improve upper body strength and function.

Overall, cable curls can be a valuable addition to any workout routine, and they offer a range of potential benefits for both beginners and experienced lifters.

Barbell Curls vs Cable Curls: Which is Better?

Now, let’s do a direct comparison of these two curl variations and discuss which is better for common lifting goals.

Better For Size and Strength: Barbell Curls

Both Barbell Curls and Cable Curls are excellent choices for building size and strength in the biceps and forearms. However, I’m going to give a slight edge here to Barbell Curls.

Barbell Curls will generally allow the lifter to lift more weight which is a key contributing factor to building both mass and strength. It also has a slight edge because the stabilizing muscles will have to work a little bit harder with a barbell than they will with a cable machine.

Better For Beginners: Cable Curls

Going to give the slight edge here to Cable Curls, although I think both of these exercises can be easy for beginners to learn and easy for beginners to execute.

Cable Curls have the advantage of being able to use multiple attachments which means a beginner will most likely be able to find an attachment that they like that doesn’t bother their wrists or elbows (as Barbell Curls are prone to do).

Cable Curls, in my experience, are also a little less intimidating for beginners as well.

Final Thoughts

I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which is better – Barbell Curls or Cable Curls. However, the truth is, there is no reason you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training program.

Both are excellent exercises for developing strong biceps and forearms. Incorporating both exercises into your training program can also add variety and keep your workouts from getting stale.

So, my suggestion would be instead of trying to decide between the two exercises, figure out how you can utilize both Barbell Curls and Cable Curls in your training plan.

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Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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