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11 Dumbbell Bicep Exercises – Small Tweaks, Big Gains

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Since the very early days of exercise for pleasure, gym goers (especially male) have sought bigger biceps.

Rather than repeat a lot of the nonsense written about bicep training, I’m going to give you an evidence-based guide to dumbbell bicep exercises.

These exercises are the ones I use with my personal training clients. They’re tried and tested, they’re considered and easy to execute. 

Across these 11 dumbbell exercises, you’ll build bicep strength, and increase muscle size and functionality.

Toward the end of the article, I have included two dumbbell bicep workouts that you can use.

A wide choice of dumbbells on display

Dumbbell Bicep Exercises: Benefits to training your arms this way

Dumbbell bicep exercises general infographic

There’s a bunch of ways to train your biceps, but we’re focusing on dumbbells here. Here’s a few benefits of using dumbbells to hit your biceps…

Benefit 1: Unilateral exercises

One of the greatest benefits of dumbbell training is the fact that both arms work independently.

This means that there’s no hiding place for a weaker side and it is forced to do an equivalent amount of work to the stronger side.

With a barbell, the stronger side can dominate the movement. 

The benefit of unilateral exercises extends beyond just pure strength. It’s also an effective way to reduce the amount of muscle imbalance that exists in our limbs.

This is important because it helps to reduce the injury risks that muscle imbalances help to create. Equal strength distribution is important for both form and function. 

Benefit 2: Movement freedom

With a barbell, a bicep curl machine or something similar, your movement is governed by the equipment you’re using.

This is not the case with dumbbells, where your movement freedom is almost limitless.

Free weights generally are accepted as more preferential in lifting, but they do require additional technique to be learned.

Once you’ve gotten to grips with the nuance of movement though, you’ll have access to a range of different techniques, angles and grips that you just can’t replicate with a barbell.

You can even perform exercises where you rotate as you lift (we’ll go into more detail on this later).

Overall, the movement options that dumbbells allow supersede anything you can do any other way.

Benefit 3: Different exercise options

The freedom afforded by dumbbells lends itself to using standing exercises, seated, lying etc. This then opens up different positions and ranges of movement.

Take a seated incline curl for example – you aren’t restricted by the barbell hitting your body, so you can make the exercise more effective by increasing the range of movement. 

I’m not arguing that dumbbells are better than anything else for training biceps, but they afford us a few unique benefits that we should take advantage of in training.

This is why exercises such as the ones listed below should form a significant part of your biceps training routine.

Dumbbell Bicep Exercises Benefits

5 Steps to use these 11 Dumbbell Bicep Exercises to get bigger arms

Here’s a few additional pointers to get the most from the exercises. Apply these tips and you’ll see your arms grow in a very short period of time!

Step 1: Use different grips

The only ways you can adjust your grip with a barbell is overhand, underhand or grip width. Of course you can use different types of barbells, but that means you need several items of equipment just to access variety. 

Evidence from Coratella et al in their 2023 paper titled ‘Biceps Brachii and Brachioradialis Excitation in Biceps Curl Exercise: Different Handgrips, Different Synergy’ showed that…

‘Changing the hand grips when performing biceps curl induces specific variations in biceps brachii and brachioradialis excitation and requires different anterior deltoid interventions for stabilizing the humeral head. Practitioners should consider including different hand grips in the biceps curl routine to vary the neural and mechanical stimuli.’
How to build bigger biceps infographic

Simply put, mixing up your grip positions helps to stimulate different areas of the upper arm.

This gives you a more complete bicep workout. It’s also really achievable with dumbbells – we can use a pronated, supinated, or neutral without changing equipment.

Step 2: Don’t chase weight

There’s a bit of an obsession when it comes to resistance training around increasing the weight you lift.

Steve Hoyles performing hammer curls

I understand it in strength sports, but in bodybuilding (or even general physique improvement training) the goal is physique, not numbers.

I’ve long been a believer that in many cases, a reduced load can be used to increased muscle mass. This is especially true when a reduced load leads to improved form.

In full transparency, this belief was purely anecdotal and I had no evidence to back it up… until now!

I found a study by Serbest from 2022 titled ‘A Biomechanical Analysis of Dumbbell Curl and Investigation of the Effects of Increasing Loads on Biceps Brachii Using A Finite Element Model’ (snappy title, I know).

The study concluded with…

It is understood that there is no linear correlation between dumbbell load and the mechanical response of the muscle considering the results of muscle force, strain and stress. Therefore, it could be said that increasing load in strength exercise does not have a significant impact on muscle growth.’

So rather than chase weight, you should be looking to train with a weight that challenges you (a lot) but still allows you to lift with great form.

That will be more effective for muscle growth than simply adding weight, but lifting it poorly. 

Step 3: Adjust shoulder position

This point is a bit geeky, but go with me – it’ll make sense.

If you look at the video below, you’ll see that the bicep actually attaches to the shoulder and the shoulder blade (scapular) and NOT the upper arms.

Many people think the bicep attaches to the top of the humerus (upper arm bone).

This means that in order to hit all elements of the bicep muscle, you need to adjust your shoulder position and grip.

Shoulder position in particular can impact the head of the biceps used during the exercise. 

The long head is responsible for inward rotation and is activated more when the shoulders are up with the arms high (such as in a preacher curl).

If you perform curls with a close grip, you’ll hit the long head more. If you perform curls with a wide grip, you’ll hit the short head more. 

Research by Oliveira et al from 2009 showed the impact that different elbow positions have on biceps activation. The research highlights how important variety is for effective bicep training. 

Step 4: Mix rep ranges

Further on from the earlier point about not chasing weight, research shows that it’s entirely possible to build muscle with lighter weights. You just need to hit failure with the lighter weights.

This conclusion was drawn from research by Schoenfeld in 2015. In his paper titled ‘Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men’, he stated…

‘…findings indicate that both high load and low load training to failure can elicit significant increases in muscle hypertrophy among well-trained young men’.

In order to get the most from your dumbbell bicep exercises, mix up the rep ranges.

Throw some heavier, shorter sets in there, some lighter, longer sets in, and a few sets somewhere in the middle. The idea is to challenge the body.

Step 5: Train them at least twice per week

If maximizing bicep size is the aim, then you need to be training them at least twice per week.

I know that this might come as a surprise to those that follow a split routine (something I’m not a huge fan of), but it’s in the evidence…

Schoenfeld et al performed a meta analysis of 24 research papers on the subject. They collated the evidence and published it in their 2016 paper titled ‘Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’. They concluded…

‘…the current body of evidence indicates that frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week. It can therefore be inferred that the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth.’

Of course, arms are trained indirectly with any upper body exercise, but I’d still suggest at least twice per week doing these dumbbell bicep exercises to maximize muscle growth.


Bicep anatomy – why different exercises are needed

The bicep brachii (bicep to you and I) is a double-headed muscle. This means it has two origin points (at the shoulder) and one insertion point (at the elbow).

These are stimulated differently depending on the direction of the movement, and the position of the arm relative to the shoulder joint.

Biceps Anatomy

The bicep has two primary functions – it bends the arm at the elbow (a movement known as flexion), and it rotates the forearm (movements known as pronation and supination). 

For this reason, we must use a variety of different exercises, grips and shoulder positions to maximize the effectiveness of the dumbbell bicep workout.

It’s this variety that will help to build and strengthen the whole muscle, rather than just bias the one area over and over again. 


The Dumbbell Bicep Exercises

In this section, we’re going to look at the 11 dumbbell bicep exercises I recommend you use in your training.

To give you an idea of the area of the bicep they emphasize, I’ll separate the exercises into long head, short head and ‘whole muscle’ sections.

It’s important to understand that each of these exercises trains the whole muscle. They just emphasize a particular area, that’s all.

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Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.


Dumbbell bicep exercises infographic part 1

Dumbbell bicep exercises that emphasize the long head…


1. Concentration curls

The concentration curl is one of the classic dumbbell bicep exercises. Anyone who has seen the documentary ‘Pumping Iron’ will remember Arnold performing them in Gold’s Gym.

That scene alone must be responsible for the concentration curl finding its way into workout programs all over the world!

Use a full range of movement, feel the stretch at the bottom of the exercise and control the weight the whole way up and down. 

Equipment needed for concentration curls:

How to do concentration curls:

  • Sit on the end of a bench. Feet apart, dumbbell placed in the middle
  • Rest the back of your lifting arm on the inside of the same leg (lifting with right arm, rest it on your right leg)
  • Hold the dumbbell at a full arm extension, and curl it up under control
  • At the top of the movement, lower it back down until you reach full arm extension
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

2. Hammer curls

Hammer curls are probably the bicep exercise I programme the most – they tend to be the most elbow-joint friendly and they train the long head of the bicep, as well as the brachialis and the brachioradialis.

This more general training of the bicep muscle group is an effective change from the other exercises, plus it gives your arms a new challenge.

It’s a simple exercise to learn and offers a nice compliment to incline dumbbell curls in the sense that it trains the brachialis and the brachioradialis effectively as well. 

Equipment needed for hammer curls:

How to do hammer curls:

  • Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, hands by your sides, palms facing inwards
  • Perform a standard curl, but keep your arms in a neutral grip (palms facing one another) throughout the entire movement
  • Curl the dumbbells up slowly and smoothly until they reach full contraction
  • At the top of the movement, slowly lower them back down until the your arm reaches full extension
  • Repeat as many times as required

3. Pinwheel curls

The pinwheel curl is an exercise that isn’t as popular as other dumbbell bicep exercises, but it’s very effective.

There’s an element of control that you have to master in order to make the exercise as effective as possible, but it’s a way of adding variety to your bicep training. 

As you lift the dumbbell across your body, be careful to not over-rotate or swing the dumbbells, which will make the exercise less effective.

Focus on only lifting the dumbbell from the elbow, bringing it across the torso with a full range of motion. 

Equipment needed for pinwheel curls:

How to do pinwheel curls:

  • Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand
  • Perform a single arm curl, bringing the dumbbell across your body
  • The palms should face inwards towards the body the entire time
  • When the dumbbell reaches the chest on the opposite side of the body, lower it back to the start position and repeat on the other side
  • Don’t rotate as you perform the lift
  • Keep the shoulder pinned in position as you lift

4. Preacher curls

Preacher curls are a true isolation exercise in the sense that you focus entirely on the single muscle being trained.

They’re most commonly performed with a barbell, but you can do them just as effectively with dumbbells. 

Most people perform dumbbell preacher curls as a single arm movement, focussing on one side at a time.

It’s no better or worse a movement, but if you move your arm wider and away from your body (abduct it) to lift, you emphasize the short head of the bicep with the lift. 

Equipment needed for preacher curls:

How to do preacher curls:

  • Rest the back of the lifting arm on a preacher bench or a normal bench set to a steep incline
  • Hold onto a dumbbell with your arm fully flexed (bent)
  • Slowly straighten the arm, lowering the dumbbell to the bottom of the movement
  • When the arm is straight, pause and curl it back up into position
  • Repeat as many times as required

These four exercises will train the entire bicep, but they’ll place more strain and emphasis on the long head (outside) of the muscle.

Dumbbell bicep exercises that emphasize the short head


5. Rotating bicep curls

The rotating bicep curl is an exercise that trains the muscle through an extended range of motion.

Not only does it force the muscles through the normal curl movement pattern, but it also engages them with a rotation. 

Thanks to the movement involving both a curl and a rotation, there is a lot of additional muscle engagement in the arm.

This means that the forearm muscles (in particular the brachioradialis) are involved in the exercise as well. This makes it a complete bicep exercise.

Equipment needed for rotating curls:

  • Pair of dumbbells

How to do rotating curls:

  • Hold onto the dumbbells at arms length with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards)
  • Lift the dumbbells to a full curl by bending the arms at the elbow
  • As the dumbbells raise, rotate your thumbs outwards, so at the top of the curl your palms are facing upwards
  • Return the dumbbells to the start position by reversing the rotation on the way down
  • Repeat as necessary

6. Hammer grip preacher curls

The hammer grip preacher curl is the same exercise as earlier, but with the palms facing inwards, with a neutral grip. They can be done either with a dumbbell or a tricep bar (confusing, I know!)

Most people perform hammer grip dumbbell preacher curls as a single arm movement, focussing on one side at a time.

The video example shows a guy doing exactly this. To gain the most from the exercise, lift with full control throughout the entire range of movement. 

Equipment needed for hammer grip preacher curls:

  • Dumbbell(s)
  • Bench (either normal or preacher)

How to do hammer grip preacher curls:

  • Rest the back of the lifting arm on a preacher bench or a normal bench set to a steep incline
  • Hold onto a dumbbell with your arm fully flexed (bent), and the palm facing inwards towards the middle
  • Slowly straighten the arm, lowering the dumbbell to the bottom of the movement
  • When the arm is straight, pause and curl it back up into position
  • Repeat as many times as required

Dumbbell bicep exercises infographic part 2

7. Chest supported dumbbell curls

In my opinion, this exercise doesn’t get the love it deserves.

I think it’s an excellent way to really maximize bicep contraction, because you don’t really need to think about body position or technique.

The fact that your body position is taken care of with the bench allows you to work through a long range of movement.

The biceps work incredibly hard through the lift, so it’s a way harder exercise than you think. Start with a lighter dumbbell and increase it as you go. 

Equipment needed for chest supported dumbbell curls:

  • Dumbbell(s)
  • Bench

How to do chest supported dumbbell curls

  • Position a bench with a steep incline, and lie frontways on it so your chest is supported and your arms are free to move on both sides
  • With a dumbbell in each hand and your arms at full extension, perform a full curl
  • The range of movement should be from full extension to the point where the dumbbells nearly touch the shoulders at the top
  • At the top of the movement, squeeze the biceps to maximize contraction

These exercises hit the short head of the bicep more, so paired with the original 4 dumbbells bicep exercises, you’re hitting the main elements of the muscle consistently. 


Dumbbell bicep exercises that emphasize the brachialis


8. Reverse dumbbell curls

The reverse dumbbell curl is a great way to target both the biceps and the brachialis.

It’s not a movement that feels especially natural, but it’s an effective one and a great way to mix up your dumbbell bicep training. 

It’s a simple movement to execute, there’s no real technique involved and it does what it needs to.

It’s a new stimulus to the muscle and don’t be surprised if you can’t lift as much with this exercise. The forearms also play a large role in the exercise as well.

Equipment needed for reverse dumbbell curls:

  • Pair of dumbbells

How to do reverse dumbbell curls:

  • Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, hands by your sides, palms facing downwards (overhand grip)
  • Perform a standard curl, but keep your arms in an overhand grip (palms facing downwards) throughout the entire movement
  • Curl the dumbbells up slowly and smoothly until they reach full contraction
  • At the top of the movement, slowly lower them back down until the your arm reaches full extension
  • Repeat as many times as required

This is the most effective way to target the brachialis with dumbbells. Add this exercise into your bicep workout for a more complete stimulation of the muscle. 


Dumbbell bicep exercises that train the whole muscle


9. Dumbbell 21s

When I started lifting (if you can call it that – I was playing about in the gym) as a teenager, 21s were really popular and everyone was doing them.

We laugh at some of the concepts now (it was believed they’d train different sections – not heads – of the muscle), but as an exercise they maximize time under tension and they provide a tough challenge!

They certainly warrant a place in a list of dumbbell bicep exercises, that’s for sure! Here’s the low down on dumbbell 21s…

Equipment needed for dumbbell 21s:

  • Pair of dumbbells

How to do dumbbell 21’s:

  • Hold the dumbbells with a straight arm and a supinated (palms out) grip. The dumbbells should start by your sides
  • Perform 7 curls from the starting position to half way up (so the arms are bent to 90 degrees)
  • After 7 bottom-half curls, perform 7 curls from the top of the curl (arms fully bent) down to half way (arms bent to 90 degrees)
  • Finally, perform 7 curl length curls, from a full extension of the arm to a full bend of the arm
  • At the end of the set you’ll have completed 7 bottom half curls, 7 top half curls and 7 full curls 

10. Negatives

Negatives are less of an exercise, and more of an ‘approach to exercise’. They’re a tempo solution to a dumbbell curl problem, taking a good exercise and increasing its effectiveness.

By slowing the movement down, you increase the time under tension of the lift, recruiting more muscle fibers and increasing muscle growth.

You can perform negatives with any type of curl, because the value in the exercise is the tempo of the lift.

A research study by Burd et al titled ‘Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men’ from 2012  concluded…

‘These results suggest that the time the muscle is under tension during exercise may be important in optimizing muscle growth.’

By adding negatives into your training, you’ll help to boost bicep muscle growth.

How to do negatives:

  • Take any form of curl, and lift with a 1-3 second temp to curl the weight up
  • On the negative (lowering) portion of the lift, take 5+ seconds to lower the weight back to the starting position
  • Think of it as ‘fast up, slow down’

11. Incline dumbbell curl

If I had to pick a single dumbbell bicep exercise, this would be the one.

It’s often known as the best bicep exercise to target the long head of your biceps, but the range of movement means the whole muscle is hit well. 

It’s the one that will add the most volume to your biceps and make them look bigger quicker than any other exercise here.

But there are many mistakes people make with this one so be sure to follow the steps below carefully. 

Equipment needed for incline dumbbell curls:

  • Incline bench
  • Pair of dumbbells

How to do incline dumbbell curls:

  • Raise the bench to 45-60 degree angle
  • Push your back, shoulders and head against the bench the whole time
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arm fall vertically to the floor
  • Lift the dumbbells keeping your elbows fixed
  • Squeeze your biceps at the top for a second or two
  • Lower all the way to the bottom
  • Repeat for 15 reps

These exercises are great for hitting the whole bicep muscle, and they help to round off a comprehensive bicep training program. 


Putting the exercises into a workout

It’s all well and good me giving you a list of great exercises, but how should you program them?

Should you just put all of them into one single bicep session?

Should you split them up into several different sessions?

Let’s start by looking at certain bicep training facts you’ve learned in this post…

  1. You get the most out of bicep training by mixing the joint angles
  2. Biceps are primarily impacted by form and function, not weight
  3. You need different grips and grip widths
  4. Frequency is important 

And then I’ll add to that a few of my own anecdotal observations based on my coaching career…

  1. Biceps are a small muscle, so they fatigue quickly and don’t have a huge work capacity
  2. They’re hit regularly with the other work you should be doing (pull ups, rows etc), so you don’t need to go crazy with volume
  3. There’s a vulnerability at the elbows and shoulders if you do too much
  4. Biceps are always going to be strength-limited, so I don’t program heavy lifting with them

With those in mind, here’s how I’d think about programming these dumbbell bicep exercises…

Workout 1 – High rep, low weight, mixed grips

This workout would be designed to hit the biceps with different grips, shoulder heights and high repetitions. Perform these exercises with both narrow and wide hand positions.

ExerciseSetsReps
Concentration Curls315 (per side)
Hammer Curls312
21’s421
Rotating curls312
Preacher curls310
Reverse curls215

Workout 2 – Extended ranges of movement, moderate weights, moderate volume

In this workout the idea is to increase the weight to a moderate level, but reduce the rep ranges. Here we’re looking to maximize range of movement, tempo and time under tension. 

ExerciseSetsReps
Incline curls410
Chest supported curls310
Hammer preacher curls412
Pinwheel curls310 (per side)
Incline curl negatives38

These workouts could be split into two per week, with around 3 days between workouts. This would allow sufficient time for you to get the other parts of your training schedule in.

It would also give your biceps time to recover ahead of the next session. 


Dumbbell bicep training – additional tips

Here are a few additional pearls of wisdom when it comes to training your biceps…

Dumbbell Bicep Exercises Bonus Tips

Expect them to fatigue, and load accordingly

Your biceps are small muscles, and they won’t have the work capacity of your legs for example.

That means you should lift a lighter weight than your ego might think, because when you do sufficient volume, your biceps won’t cope for long.

Stick to moderate weight and make each exercise count.

Don’t impact your other exercises because of bicep training

Your biceps will contribute to your back training, and to a lesser extent your shoulder and chest training.

If you absolutely destroy your biceps when you train them, you’ll impact your ability to perform other exercises, which will have a large knock-on effect on other aspects of your workout.

So, train accordingly. 

Stretch them! 

Your biceps can become tight, so make sure you lift through a full range of motion and you stretch them after your workouts.

This will help to make sure you stay injury free and don’t restrict shoulder function. 

Give them time to rest

This is a classic ‘less is more’ situation. No, you don’t need to be training your biceps every day in order to grow them.

Two or three times per week is perfectly sufficient. Think quality, not quantity when it comes to bicep work.

They’re being hit on other training days too, remember that. 


Dumbbell Bicep Exercises: The Bottom line

In this article, we’ve discussed bicep anatomy and bicep training, and I’ve given you a list of exercises that will help you hit your biceps well.

You’ve even got a couple of dumbbell bicep workouts to use.

Read the full article, digest the important information, print out the workouts and get busy in the gym.

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Steve Hoyles is a certified personal trainer and gym owner. Since graduating with his Sports Science degree in 2004 he's worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. His writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries as he inspires to help as many people as possible live a healthy lifestyle.

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