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When I first started working out from home there were TWO things I missed most from the commercial gym – the leg press and the preacher bench. You probably understand the leg press, but why did I miss the preacher so much?! Well I simply LOVED the way it isolated my inner bicep. At the end of each workout I’d rep out a few sets to failure on there – no cheating, no kipping – just a solid, awesome bicep pump.
Replicating that at home has been a personal crusade of mine ever since! Here are my top tips for isolating that bicep and REALLY working it!
At a glance…
- Wall curls, strict bicep curls and dumbbell concentration curls are my top preacher curl alternatives
- But try bicep 21’s if you want to REALLY work those biceps!
- Preacher curls are better at ISOLATING the bicep, but other curls are still great for building big arms
- Consider grabbing a cheap arm blaster to replicate a preacher bench at home
The 11 best preacher curl alternatives are…
If you’re in a rush then you can skip the rest and start here with the top 10 alternatives to a preacher curl to help you build some serious bicep size:
- Wall curls
- Strict barbell bicep curl
- Dumbbell concentration curl
- Dumbbell hammer curl
- EZ bar curl
- Reverse EZ bar curl
- Incline dumbbell curl
- Incline dumbbell hammer curl
- Bicep 21’s
- Chin ups
- Supinated grip barbell row
While the top 9 movements are curl variations that emphasise slightly different parts of the arm and work your biceps in subtly different ways, the bottom two are bonus compound movements that emphasize your biceps a little more than other big movements tend to. When trying to replicate a preacher curl movement we are really trying to hit the short head of our bicep more and that is what we will focus on trying to achieve here.
Lets take a look at each in turn and how we can make the movement REALLY work for us:
1. Wall curls
The benefit to a wall curl is that all you need to perform it (other than weights) is… a wall! By pushing your back against the way and bracing your elbows against it you can replicate the sort of isolation you get with a preacher curl.
The downsides are that your elbows are behind you compared to a preacher bench where they sit out in front. This makes it harder to get full range of motion as, if you use a barbell, your body will be in the way at the bottom of the movement. If you’re using dumbbells you will be able to go through the FULL range of motion.
2. Strict barbell bicep curl
The obvious alternative if you don’t have access to a preacher bench is to simply do barbell curls without one. If you want to really hit that short head muscle then you will need to focus on your elbows – think about them throughout the movement and lock them in to your side to limit their movement. When curling try and keep a steady tempo and use the full range of motion – including a nice stretch at the bottom. Given the lack of apparatus to help us here it makes sense to go pretty conservative weight-wise to focus on the ROM and form.
One neat trick to try is to START at the top of the movement – so down and back up is one repetition. This means you can keep the motion controlled and the muscle under tension throughout the rep without getting all loose at the bottom between them.
Personally I can tolerate straight or EZ-Curl barbells but some others can find the straight grip gives them elbow discomfort. Try both out yourself to see which works for you.
3. Dumbbell concentration curl
If you’ve got a dumbbell then this one is easy – sit yourself down with your feet in a wide stance, put your elbow against your inner thigh and curl the weight. You will likely need to bend at the waist to get your elbow properly lodged. An advantage of the concentration curl is that you can get a really nice, full range of motions with a deep stretch at the bottom (don’t stop too early) and as we’re just doing a single arm at a time it gets complete focus and builds the (cliched) mind/muscle connection.
Another benefit is that by using a dumbbell it will be easier on your wrist and elbows as you can adjust the angle you’re holding the weight at on the fly. This is a great substitute for regular or dumbbell preacher curls!
4. Dumbbell hammer curl
A hammer curl is a ‘neutral grip’ curl (so your palms are facing your sides instead of upwards in a traditional curl) done with a dumbbell. While these are a curl variant they emphasise the brachialis muscle rather than the bicep brachii targeted by regular curls so while they are an alternative to a dumbbell preacher curl it is not a perfect like-for-like substitute. The brachialis sits ‘under’ the bicep so these can give your arm the appearance of having a really thick base of muscle.
The benefit of a hammer curl is that it is REALLY easy on the elbows – this is a great way to get arm work in if you’ve got a niggly tennis elbow or if you simply need to plough a TON of volume in and can feel a bit of strain from all the regular curls.
Personally I use hammer curls alongside concentration curls to get that extra volume in – the subtley different focus means I can get roughly twice as many sets in compared to doing regular curls alone. More sets = more growth!
5. EZ bar curl
An EZ-bar gets a hard wrap for being a ‘bro tool’ – but for arm work they can be super useful. The angle of the bar kinks means you put less pressure on your elbows, similar to hammer curls above, letting you work around injuries or discomfort. The downside is that this moves emphasis away from the short head of the bicep in to the lower down, thicker brachialis. The focus changes depending on the angle of your bar.
To replicate a preacher style curl with these I focus on strict form – lock my elbows by my sides and really concentrate on a nice controlled tempo throughout the rep. They really burn, and the slight angle of the curl bar means both the bicep and brachialis are getting work.
6. Reverse EZ bar curl
Similar to the standard EZ bar curl and dumbbell hammer variants above the reverse curl moves the emphasis from the bicep brachii muscle to the brachialis at the ‘base’ of the bicep. Similar positive points carry over – quite easy on the elbows and hits a different area of the arm allowing you to drop or superset with traditional curls to get extra volume in each workout.
When comparing to a preacher curl it is key to hold your elbows by your side and keep them stationary to really isolate your arm only. With a reverse grip it will ‘feel’ easier to move your elbows back – so be sure to consciously lock them in place. Drop the weight if you need to!
7. Incline dumbbell curl
This is a fantastic like-for-like alternative to a preacher curl – with ONE draw back – it is REALLY hard to do PROPERLY. The concept is simple – grab your bench and chuck it at a 45 or 60 degree incline. Hang your arms (with dumbbell obviously) down and let them go completely vertical. Now curl the weight up focusing on a nice squeeze at the top of the motion. When returning to the bottom get a nice stretch before doing the next rep.
What is so hard, then? When contracting from the bottom your elbow WILL try and shoot backwards bringing your shoulder in to play. If you want a true replacement for a preacher curl you need to resist this. It’s particularly difficult as – unlike the other movements above – you are not anchoring your elbows in to your side so have less physical indications that something is going well (or not).
8. Incline dumbbell hammer curl
This is really similar to the incline curl above but with a neutral grip on the dumbbell. Personally I find this one a LITTLE easier to “feel” whether my elbow is drifting, but I have dropped it in the rankings due to the focus on the lower brachialis compared to the preacher curl we are looking to replace.
9. Bicep 21’s
If you’ve not tried this before then don’t make plans for tomorrow as you won’t be able to move your arms much! Grab a barbell (I use an empty or lightly loaded Olympic bar) and hang your arms vertically in front of you with your elbows locked by your side. Do 7 half curls – from the bottom of the ROM to the mid point, squeezing and dropping back each time. After those reps do 7 more half’s – only this time from the mid-point to the TOP of the ROM. Finally do 7 reps of the FULL range of motion from the bottom to the TOP with a nice squeeze.
You won’t thank me for this one! It also works great when followed by some tricep work if you want a full arms workout. This makes a great foundation for a GPP day alongside any cardio you do.
10. Chin ups
This only really works as a substitute for preacher (or any, really) curls if you’re proficient enough at chins to knock out several sets with a decent number of reps (think 4+ sets of 8-15 reps) as otherwise there simply isn’t the sheer volume of WORK being done by the arm compared to the easier curl movements. Chins are harder do to their heavier loading and full body involvement which is why this is the case.
When working to emphasise biceps it is more important than ever to control your movement from the bottom (nice stretch at the base of the chin) right up to the squeeze with your head clearly above the bar. If you are chinning for arm hypertrophy then you are doing yourself out of gains by NOT hitting the bottom or top properly – it’s the arm equivalent of a high squat!
Depending what equipment you have you can make chins easier or harder with bands and weighted vests as appropriate.
11. Supinated grip barbell row
Another compound move that has a bit of bicep work is the barbell row. Taking a supinated grip (palms facing away from your body) and rowing deep in to your hip crease will push as much work through your biceps as is possible. Try and keep your back stable throughout and don’t use your hips to thrust the weight up – that will cheat the biceps out of some of their work.
This is bottom of the list for me as it is hard to maintain the required rigid form throughout long sets and the emphasis on bicep work is relatively low compared to the back involvement.
What muscles am I working in a typical bicep curl?
Typically people are using barbell curls to target their biceps and grow big arms. What you might not know is that the bicep itself is made up of two “heads” with the more commonly worked long head on the outside of the arm facing the world and the short head running along the inside closest to your body. This short head is what provides girth and overall size to your bicep.
Depending on your variation or technique loads of other muscles can come in to play – typically deltoids as if you let your elbow travel backwards you are using rotation from your shoulder to make the movement EASIER on your bicep. This is because by bringing your elbows back the weight comes closer to your centre of mass and therefore the moment arm is reduced, making the work required to lift the weight less. See I did listen in physics class 🙂
Are preacher curls ‘better’ than other variations?
A preacher curl is a way to isolate your bicep by preventing your elbow form moving backwards. This makes the movement an elbow pivot ONLY, no shoulder movement making them better for bicep isolation. When your elbow drifts backwards the lift becomes easier and the work done by the bicep is less. It gets its name from the typical 45 degree preacher bench that you can find in most commercial gyms – this looks a little like a traditional preacher podium where they rest their books – only we use it for resting our elbows!
Does this make them BETTER than other curl variants? No – but it does make them different. I’ve personally loved preacher curls as a way to build shape and width to the inside of my bicep (the bit you see if you flex, remember!), but I am sure I could have achieved the same results with various other movements. What I enjoy about the preacher is that it completely removes the option to cheat – something I would probably do at the end of a workout when I typically hit arms – so it works for me, and that’s why I like to find alternatives that are reasonably close to it!
What a preacher curl has in common with a regular bicep curl is that is the muscles worked. Pretty much ANY curl variations will work the long and short head of you bicep brachii muscle as well as the various supporting actors such as wrist and forearm muscles and your front deltoids to an extent. The preacher aspect simply allows us to isolate and therefore drive MORE focus towards the brachii muscles which – shamelessly – are what many of us are trying to grow! With the elbow isolated the preacher curl is awesome at hitting the short head of the bicep – this is what gives the arm thickness so is pretty important when looking for those pythons of steel!
Can you do preacher curls without a machine?
You can do preacher curls without a machine or station by using an adjustable weight bench. Simply incline the bench to your desired angle then lean down from the top and rest your elbows on the back pad. Voila!
Can you do preacher curls without a bench?
OK – this is harder… Without a bench you will need an alternative way to prevent your elbows from going backwards. The easiest way is to pick up a cheap and effective ‘arm blaster’. Alternatively you can start to get… creative! Here are a couple of ideas:
- Go STRICT – simply isolate your elbows as part of the movement. You will need to lighten the load to do this. Pushing your arms in to your side is a tip to try and help.
- Use something else in your household – grab a chair, lean on your banister, kitchen door (maybe not…) but anything you can use to help hold that elbow in place COULD be a substitute. This is far easier with dumbbells of course!
What’s an ‘arm blaster’?
I am glad you asked! An arm blaster loops over your neck and hangs a bit of metal or plastic over your chest. Simply nestle your elbows in to this bit of metal and they will be held in place achieving the same result as a vertical preacher bench.
So, can I do preacher curls at home?
Absolutely… If you have a bench or an arm blaster and are able to do the movement then you absolutely CAN do preacher curls at home.
When looking for a preacher curl alternative you need to decide just WHAT your limiting factor is. If its equipment then a wall or arm blaster can offer a pretty quick and simple way to work around this, but if it’s pain induced then trying a different grip style (such as a neutral grip ‘hammer’ curl or EZ curl) can alleviate the pain almost immediately. Note that the grip angle will adjust the focus between the upper arm muscles so if you can tolerate it a mix of different curl styles will help you grow your arms most evenly, with the added bonus of being able to super or drop set the variations quite effectively due to their slightly different emphasis.