If you only do traditional bicep barbell curls, see why you should add hammer barbell curls to the mix.
The bicep is reputed to be just a mirror. But far more than just a vanity muscle, your biceps support the health of your shoulders and elbows.
“Each time you bend your elbow or use your shoulders, your biceps muscles play a supporting role,” says Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach Mia Nikolajev C.S.C.S. who competes in weight lifting.
Unfortunately, she says, many people skip bicep work because they’re afraid to look like Popeye. (Spoiler alert: Popeye’s arms don’t happen by accident!) Or, if they train their bicep muscles, they’ll skimp on one of the best bicep strengthening exercises out there: the hammer curl.
Need more reasons to add hammer curls to your workout routine? Below, learn everything there is to know about exercise.
What are Hammer Curls?
Also known as a neutral grip biceps curl, the hammer curl is a variation on the biceps curl. Unlike traditional bicep curls that involve curling a weight with a supine grip (palm up), the “hammer curls” assume a neutral grip, with the palms facing each other.
Can’t see it? Think about how you would hold a hammer if you were to decimate a nail. Palm perpendicular to the ground, right? This is exactly how your hands should be positioned during a hammer curl.
As this prescribed hand position cannot be achieved with a barbell or kettlebell, barbell curls should be performed with dumbbells.
Hammer Curl vs. bicep curl
The tiny adjustment of hand position between the traditional bicep curl and the hammer curl may sound like NBD, but that’s why the two variations of the bicep curl target different parts of the bicep, according to Emily Hutchins, RSP Nutrition Certified Personal Trainer .
There are three main muscles in the biceps:
- The short head of the biceps brachii: Located on the front of the biceps, the short head of the biceps brachii contributes to the size of the peak of the biceps.
2. The long head of the biceps brachii: Located along the outside of the biceps, the long head of the biceps brachii contributes to the strength of the outside of the arm.
3. The biceps brachii: Located under the biceps brachii, the biceps brachii contributes to the overall thickness of the arm.
The traditional bicep curl works primarily on the short head of the biceps brachii, while the hammer curl works the long head of the biceps brachii and the biceps brachii. So while the traditional bicep curl builds that baseball-like bunch of muscle, the hammer curl develops your entire arm.
What other muscles does Hammer Curl work?
While the main benefit of a hammer curl is for the biceps, says Hutchins, it also works:
- Deltoids (also known as shoulders)
- Trapezius (upper back)
If you’re doing the standing movement, hammer curls also work your core, glutes, and legs to some extent.
Benefits of Hammer Curl
The first benefit is obvious: Hammer curls build strong, sculpted biceps. Why does it matter? Well, again, in addition to filling out the arms of your shirt, strong biceps support your elbow and shoulder joint — especially during pulling movements, says Nikolajev. So whenever you’re carrying groceries to the kitchen, carrying a suitcase upstairs, playing on monkey bars with your kids, or pulling a cart, your biceps are involved at least a little bit, she says.
Due to the weight’s angle against gravity, “many people are able to roll more weight with a neutral grip during a hammer barbell than during a traditional biceps curl,” she says. As heavier weight generally translates into greater muscle growth, hammer curls can actually result in faster arm gains.
Hammer curls are also especially great for working your forearm and grip strength, says Nikolajev. These muscles are useful for all the everyday movements mentioned, she says. “Having strong forearms and grips is also helpful in increasing the weight that you can use during other movements, such as grabbing or lifting ground,” she says. “And it’s important to protect the forearm against the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Oh, and a 2018 study published in PLoS One found a relationship between physical activities like bicep curls and cognitive performance in older adults. Basically, big biceps = big brains.
Hammer Curl Form Tips
You can hammer curls while sitting, standing or even kneeling. But doing them standing still further challenges your core and the lower half, which is why Nikolajev recommends doing them standing.
You also have the option to curl both arms at the same time or alternate them. The risk of hampering movement is greatest when switching arms, according to Nikolajev. That’s why she recommends starting with the double-arm hammer thread.
A. Start in an athletic position, feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand with your arms straight in a neutral grip, palms facing each other. Bend the ribs to secure the center and squeeze the glutes to start.
B. Keeping your elbows against your sides and your shoulders back, engage your biceps muscles to simultaneously pull both dumbbells toward your corresponding shoulder until your thumbs almost touch your shoulders.
D. Pause and then lower the dumbbells back to the sides with control. This is a representative.
Once you’ve mastered traditional double-arm hammer barbell curls, you can move to alternate hammer barbell curls – by winding one arm at a time. One important tip: If you’re doing an alternate standing barbell, “when you’re just moving a dumbbell, your body will want to lean to the side where the weight is,” says Nikolajev. This can put your back in a not-so-good position. “You’re going to have to really activate and engage your core to prevent that from happening,” she says. If you notice that your body is making a “C” shape as you do this, stop. Decrease the amount of weight you are using and try again. Or go back to the double-arm hammer curls.
How to incorporate hammer curls into your training
Keep these tips in mind as you include hammer curls in your exercise routine.
1. Start with light.
Hutchins recommends starting conservatively. “Start with a weight you can easily use for 10 to 12 reps per side with relative ease, and then progress from there.”
2. Play with time under stress.
Using medium weight dumbbells and moving slowly through one repetition to increase time under tension (also known as the amount of time the muscle is being challenged) is incredibly effective in increasing muscle breakdown and therefore muscle strength. post-repair, says Nikolajev. But it goes as fast as possible for as long as possible with a very light weight. That’s why she recommends varying the time under stress.
3. Don’t just do hammer curls.
When it comes to muscle health and integrity, symmetry is the name of the game. “It’s important to incorporate hammer barbell curls and traditional bicep curls into your routine to keep the [biceps] symmetrical and functional,” says Hutchins. And, of course, be sure to work the other important muscles in the arms (like the triceps and deltoids) to keep your overall strength balanced as well.
4. Eventually try using alternating hammer waves.
Whether sitting or standing, once you’ve got core strength, go ahead and give the hammer screw an alternate twist!