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Updated July 2, 2023
November 8, 2022

Hammer Curls vs Bicep Curls: Which is Better for Building Bicep Strength?

by JayDee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

Woman doing a bicep curl
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In order to build muscle, you must participate in some type of strength or resistance training program that stresses your muscles and causes them to create more of it.

One muscle group that is often targeted in an upper body routine is the biceps. But which specific exercise is the best for building bicep strength?

In this blog post, we will compare hammer curls with bicep curls to determine which is better for achieving your fitness goals, whether that's a toned arm or more functional strength.

A bulky bicep muscle is a traditional symbol of strength. While a bulging bicep can indicate a strong muscle, what's more important is the neuromuscular control and coordination it can provide with essential daily activities, like feeding yourself, lifting a glass of water, and turning a doorknob.

Table of Contents

Why Bicep Strength is Important

Bicep strength is important for many reasons. First, strong biceps help to stabilize the shoulder joint and prevent injuries with daily shoulder use. Additionally, biceps with adequate endurance are necessary for many everyday activities such as carrying groceries or lifting a child.

Lastly, some people want larger and firmer biceps to improve their appearance and give them a more muscular look. In other words, they are looking for that extra confidence boost.

Bicep Anatomy and Physiology Basics

Biceps literally translates to "two-headed muscle." This branching muscle is made of two distinct area in the upper arm: the long head and the short head.

Bicep anatomy
  • The long head originates from the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (an area just above the socket of the joint)
  • The short head originates from the coracoid process (the bony spot you can feel on the inside of your shoulder)

The biceps function to flex (bend) the elbow and supinate the forearm. Supination is the act of turning the hand so that the palm faces upward. This action is necessary for activities such as picking items up, opening a door or unscrewing a jar.

What is a Bicep Curl?

Woman demonstrating a bicep curl exercise
Demonstration of a bicep curl exercise

A bicep curl is a weightlifting exercise that targets the biceps muscles. It can also be used to describe the motion of flexing or bending the elbow. This exercise can be done with dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands or without weight.

What Muscles Are Used with a Bicep Curl?

A traditional bicep curl involves bending the elbow with the palms facing up. This position targets more of the muscle fibers of the short head of the bicep. The short head fibers are what tend to make the entire bicep muscle appear bulkier when toned and flexed.

Since the palms are facing upward, the flexors of the wrist and brachialis muscle in the lower half of the humerus (your arm bone) are also engaged in this exercise.

How to Perform a Bicep Curl

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing forward.
  2. Keeping your upper arms stationary, exhale as you flex your elbows and curl the weights toward your shoulders.
  3. Squeeze your biceps at the top of the curl and hold for an extra beat.
  4. Inhale as you slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for 12-15 reps. (Try fewer reps and a heavier weight for bulky strength or more reps for endurance)

What is a Hammer Curl?

Woman demonstrating a hammer curl exercise
Demonstration of a hammer curl exercise

A hammer curl is a weightlifting exercise that targets the biceps and brachialis muscles. This exercise can be done with dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands, or without weight.

What Muscles Are Used with a Hammer Curl?

The primary focus with a hammer curl is still the bicep. This time, the muscle fibers of the long head are primarily targeted. Additionally, the muscles in the outside of the forearm, such as the brachioradialis, are engaged. For this reason, some weight lifters also enjoy the benefit of the bulking effect hammer curls have on their outer forearm.

How to Perform a Hammer Curl

  • Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent.
  • Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing each other inward.
  • Keeping your upper arms stationary, exhale as you flex your elbows and curl the weights toward your shoulders.
  • Bend your elbows as far as is comfortable and hold for an extra moment
  • Inhale as you slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 12-15 reps. (Try fewer for bulk or more repetitions for building endurance)

Hammer Curls vs Bicep Curls: Which is Better?

So, which exercise is better for building bicep strength? Hammer curls or bicep curls? It depends on your weight-lifting goals.

Does one exercise truly bulk (or hypertrophy) your biceps more than the other? While there are a lot of opinions in the weightlifting space, it's hard to tell. What's more important is keeping up with a regular upper body strength routine that helps you feel prepared for whatever life throws at you.

Overall, both exercises are effective for building bicep strength. If you want to build overall bicep strength, we recommend doing both exercises — plus mix in some others.

Why You Need to Lift Weights Every Week

Bicep workout calendar

It is recommended to lift weights at least two to three times per week. This will help you build muscle and strength, and it can also help to improve your bone density.

If you are new to weightlifting, we recommend starting slowly and building over time. Where you start depends on your overall goals for training.

What About Functional Bicep Strength?

While both bicep exercises discussed above are great for building bicep strength, they don’t necessarily do much to improve the function of the biceps. To build functional bicep strength, it is important to complete exercises that mimic everyday activities. These types of exercises will help you to better use your biceps in everyday life and prevent injuries, which is more important than how much weight you can curl.

After all, a bulging bicep isn't going to help you carry a baby on your hip, pick up a bag of groceries, or open a jar of pickles. But having strong, functional biceps will!

Alternatives to Bicep Curls and Hammer Curls

If you’re looking for alternatives to bicep curls and hammer curls, try doing exercises that target the entire upper body — or maybe even the full body. These types of exercises will help to build strength in the arms, shoulders, and back, since we don't typically use our muscles in isolation with daily activities.

Some of our favorite upper body exercises that target the biceps, and beyond, include:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups (with palms facing up)
  • Rows
  • Planks
  • Side planks
  • Plank rows
  • Ball throwing
  • Downward dog
  • Straight arms lifts (to the front or side with thumbs up)
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Pushing heavy objects
  • Boxing
  • Gripping activities
  • And beyond...

If you'd like personalized recommendations to maximize your workout potential, talk to a movement expert at CityPT.

How a Physical Therapist Can Help You Maximize Your Bicep Function

If you have any pain in your arms or shoulders, or if you are unsure of how to properly complete any of the exercises listed above, it is important to seek out the help of a CityPT physical therapist. We can provide you with guidance on how to properly complete exercises, and help you determine which ones are right for you based on your personal goals and current fitness level.

Schedule your initial evaluation to get started on your journey to better arm & bicep function, and living your best life.

Overall, both exercises are effective for building bicep strength. So the next time you're wondering if you should be doing hammer curls or biceps curls, remember that it's more important to consider how it'll impact your personal goals. Choose a mix of exercises that promote upper body flexibility, strength, endurance, and coordination.

Before you go, please read our disclaimer. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. We are not providing legal or medical advice and this blog does not create a provider-patient relationship. Do not rely on our blog (or any blog) for medical information. Always seek the help of a qualified medical professional who has assessed you and understands your condition.

Headshot of Dr. JayDee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
About the Author
JayDee Vykoukal 
Physical Therapist
JayDee Vykoukal is an author, holistic health coach, mom blogger, and passionate Doctor of Physical Therapy. She loves teaching healthy living, writing about motherhood, traveling and spending quality time with her family.