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The EZ curl bar gets a hard wrap – while it MAY be a ‘bro’ favourite it does bring to the table a pretty solid use-case for arm training.
But what if you CAN’T do an EZ curl and need an alternative? Well there are a TON of curl variations out there – but which one is right for you will depend on WHY you can’t do EZ bar curls. Lets run through the most common situations with a few alternatives to try for each.
At a glance…
- Below are 16 epic EZ Bar curl alternatives to suit almost anyone
- If you don’t have an EZ curl bar: Try standing barbell curls
- Experiencing elbow discomfort: I’d start with standing dumbbell curls
- Bored of curling: Try preacher or spider curls for some variety
- Wanting some hypertrophy (or a sick pump): Bicep 21’s are hard to beat!
Why do you want an alternative to EZ bar curls?
The most important thing is to understand WHY you have landed on this page – what has made you want or need to avoid an EZ bar curl? That will shape your decision on which substitute is best for your circumstances:
No equipment: I don’t have an EZ Curl bar
This one is pretty straight forward – if you don’t have an EZ curl bar then that is a legitimate reason to need an alternative! Before committing it may be worth considering a cheap bar from Amazon or similar – they can be had for sensible money and given their relatively low use the quality is not too big a concern.
A few alternatives that don’t need an EZ bar to do would be:
- Standing barbell curls – sometimes simple is best! Grab a straight barbell and get those reps in. Moving from an EZ curl angled bar to a straight bar will put more emphasis on the short head of the bicep which, when trained, is more likely to make your arm look full and thick (vs the more ‘peak’ focused long head). The downside of this exercise is it harder on wrists and elbows.
- Incline dumbbell curls – stick your adjustable bench in the 45 or 60 degree position, grab a set of dumbbells then hang your arms down so they are perpendicular to the ground. I like to do each arm separately alternating the lift. Try a conscious squeeze at the top of the ROM to get ‘the burn’!
- Incline dumbbell hammer curls – similar to the above dumbbell curl but with a neutral grip (palms facing your body). These focus on a different area of the arm – the brachialis – which gives a thicker base to the arm when trained. It’s also easier on elbows and a great exercise to superset or drop set with other curls due to the slightly different focus.
- Chin ups – chin ups are a great compound lift, but they are GREAT for biceps as well. Take a slightly narrower grip to alleviate some pressure on your elbows and hit those reps. It’s better to do fewer higher quality reps when chinning with an eye on bicep development as the stretch at the bottom AND top both ensure we are hitting the FULL range of motion. It’s easy to cheap these – try not to! These work best for trainees who are already reasonably accomplished at chin ups as we really need sets of 8+ as a minimum to get any meaningful volume in the bicep.
Pain or discomfort: Tennis elbows, general elbow pain or similar niggles
Elbow pain is REALLY common when lifting weights and the inflexible nature of a barbell can really agitate some peoples joints when curling. An EZ bar is actually much easier for most people than a straight bar – so if you’ve still got pain when using the EZ grip then tread carefully with the volume of sets you’re hitting! Here are a few alternatives to the EZ bar which will help you work around any pain:
- Standing dumbbell curls – if you’re getting discomfort with an EZ curl bar then dumbbells are the best place to start experimenting. The freedom of being able to move each one independently lets you find an angle that doesn’t agitate you. Stand with a dumbbell in each hand and rep them up to your shoulders with a deliberate squeeze at the top. I like to alternative my heavier dumbbell curls (so left arm, right arm, etc.) – but at lighter weights doing both arms at the same time is quite good to cut set time down.
- Standing dumbbell hammer curls – this is performed the same way as the above dumbbell curl but with a neutral grip (that is palms facing towards your body). This has a bit less focus on the bicep as the neutral angle hits the deeper brachialis muscle more, but this is still important for big arms (albeit leading to a ‘swollen’ rather than ‘peaked’ look). The huge advantage of these is that the angle is really elbow friendly.
- Dumbbell concentration curls – sit yourself on a flat bench with a dumbbell, nestle your elbow in to your inner thigh and let your arms stretch towards the ground before repping straight back up again. Your thigh acts like a preacher bench by stopping your elbow moving backwards and forwards and therefore isolates the bicep more than any alternatives looked at so far. This is excellent as it means your elbow is ONLY opening and contracting so the unwanted fore/aft is not coming in to the movement hopefully reducing the opportunity for injury or niggles. By doing this with a dumbbell – similar to above – you end up with more flexibility in the grip angle which is easier on your elbows and wrist.
- Reverse EZ-bar curls – instead of gripping the EZ bar ‘palms up’ try grab it ‘palms down’ and perform bicep curls. The movement will feel WAY less stressful and FAR easier on your body! These are great to work around injuries or superset with other more traditional bicep curls The downside is this focused more heavily on the deeper brachialis than even the hammer curl, so leads to more ‘swole’ than ‘peaked’ looking biceps.
Boredom: Just want to try something different!
Personally I find bicep curls a bit… boring! If you’re sick of hitting set after set of curls then throwing in variations is a great way to keep it interesting. I also like to alternate sets – so one set of EZ curls followed by hammer curls for example – as it feels a little fresher than knocking out one move at a time. Here are some more interesting variations to try:
- Preacher curls – a preacher curl is great to bust boredom as you can drop the weight (and therefore systematic fatigue) and REALLY isolate that bicep when curling. The preacher element locks your elbow in place meaning ALL the work is done by the biceps – no hiding! Simply load up a bar or dumbbell and use the preacher pad to hold your elbow in place. Curl through the full range of motion with a nice squeeze at the top.
- Wall curls – if you use a commercial gym you will likely have a dedicated preacher bench at your disposal. For the rest of us home-gym users we may need to use a few work arounds – one of which is a wall curl. While not perfect, it is a reasonable substitute for a preacher bench when in a pinch. Put your back flat against a wall and lock your elbows by your side. Pivot the curl from the elbow WITHOUT letting it drift off the wall.
- Spider curls – it’s nice to mix up workouts and spider curls definitely do that! Stick your bench at around a 45 degree incline and lie face down on it with a dumbbell hanging down from each hand, palms facing forwards. Curl the weight up towards the chin area. This is a great move if you have an adjustable bench and certainly mixes up training. From time to time I find it a bit frustrating to get in and out of position so I tend to use it in pivot weeks more often than in regular training.
- Tempo curls – take your regular curl variation and mix it up – by slowing it down! Try different tempos like 3-0-3 (3 count up, hold for 0 count, down for 3 count) to REALLY feel the bicep working. It’s great to break up a monotonous routine by dropping the weight back and then focusing on TEMPO rather than SURVIVAL by any means necessary!
Hypertrophy: How do I make my biceps GROW?
Personally I have found my arms respond best to REGULAR training. I hit biceps 3 – 4 times a week for 4-6 sets. This is nothing crazy and doesn’t add a ton of time to my workouts, but yet it still packs enough of a punch to send my muscles in to growth-mode. I’ve had similar results training other smaller muscles such as forearms and calves where hitting them ‘little and often’ seems to work. Here are a few ways to really drive arm hypertrophy without a dedicated curl bar:
- Bicep 21’s – a ‘21’ is done by grabbing a barbell and doing 7 half reps from the bottom to mid point, then 7 more half reps from the mid point to the top followed by 7 FULL reps. o this cycle as many times as you can and you WILL feel the burn! This creates some serious DOMs in the bicep and I often cycle it in as a fun way to get extra volume when chasing arm size / hypertrophy.
- Resistance band barbell bicep curls – using a resistance band when curling adds resistance as the rep goes on. This is great for hypertrophy as the resistance is matching the natural drop off of difficulty – this means as you get towards the top of a curl it is EASIER, so by using a resistance band it EQUALISES the difficulty across the rep hitting all the muscle fibres at similar intensity.
- Weighted chin ups – when I was trying to grow my arms out I had great success mixing WEIGHTED chin ups with regular barbell curls. The weighted chins were done with fairly strict form using a weight belt. These days I love to hit them with a weight vest that feels FAR more stable.
- Supinated grip inverted row – put your barbell in your power rack reasonably low (sitting on your safeties might work best) and – using a supinated grip, that is with hands facing towards your head – grab the barbell a little wider than shoulder width. Keeping your body rigid PULL your torso to the bar. This will work the bicep as well as hit your core. Similar to chins this is a great move to cycle in with regular barbell work to hit the muscle at all angles and intensities when chasing hypertrophy.
What muscles do EZ bar curls target?
An EZ-bar sometimes get criticised or dismissed as 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, 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 are of bicep targeted changes depending on the angle of your bar – unfortunately there is no ‘standard’ for an EZ curl bar the same way there is for Olympic barbells. As a rule of thumb the LESS kinked the bar then the MORE short head bicep focused the movement is while the more aggressive the kink (or closer to neutral grip) the more this moves towards the brachialis which is part of the ‘base’ of the bicep.
Can you curl more with an EZ bar?
It will really depend on your particular body shape but in general EZ curls feel a little easier for me than straight bar curls and therefore I can typically lift more weight this way.
Is an EZ bar better for curls?
No – there is nothing special about an EZ curl bar, it is simply an OPTION. You can grow big arms with barbells and dumbbells if you so wish – but having an EZ curl bar around does open up a few extra exercises to try (it’s also great for tricep work!)
The most important thing when looking for an EZ bar curl is to know WHY you want to do something different – more hypertrophy? Lack of equipment? Injuries? Once you know that then the choice narrows down nicely. Just pick the one you like the look of the most and try it out – the great thing with biceps is they respond to regular and varied training so why not try a few alternatives out over the coming months?