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In this preacher curl vs bicep curl showdown, we look at both exercises. There’s more to the function of the biceps than you might think. Are you looking for bicep peak, thickness, or both? Is strength your priority, or is it general fitness and toning? Let’s jump in and clear it up.
What is the difference between preacher curl and bicep curl?
The main difference between a preacher curl and bicep curl is that a preacher curl aims to isolate the bicep more than a regular bicep curl by bringing the upper arms up and away from the body in varying degrees, depending on the type of preacher curl being performed.
A regular bicep curl is performed with the elbows in line with the sides of the body and shoulders pushed backward.
Preacher curl vs bicep curl comparison
When looking for the right type of curl for your workout, and you are confronted with the bicep curls vs preacher curls decision, it’s a good start to understand what each exercise is designed to do.
There are many ways to perform bicep curls, they can be done with barbells, dumbbells, standing or seated, and there is certainly more than one preacher curl alternative out there. But for the purpose of this post, and to highlight the differences, when we refer to “regular bicep curls” we mean:
- Using a straight bar
- Standing in an upright position
- Shoulders are retracted
- Elbows are in line with the sides of the torso
As it is with bicep curls, it is with preacher curls, there are many different ways to perform a preacher curl, and with a variety of equipment, but to keep this a fair comparison and for clarity, when we refer to a preacher curl in this post, we mean:
- Using an EZ bar
- Seated with elbows on knees
- Upper arms angled away from the torso
What do these bicep exercises do? The basic movement of both exercises is used to activate the biceps, both heads of the upper arm muscles. But there are differences in the positioning that make these exercises useful for different training effects.
Preacher curl vs bicep curl movements
The movement for the barbell bicep curl focuses on hinging at the elbows to contract the biceps. As the elbows are in line with the sides and not anchored to a single position, there is also an opportunity to bring in a slight shoulder rotation at the top of the movement whilst also moving the elbows forward slightly.
Some trainers will use this added mobility, but others will avoid it as it can take tension off the biceps. A full range of movement at the start and mid-position of these exercises is essential, but remember not to lock out your joints if you don’t have control of the resistance.
The preacher curl movement is the same as the bicep curl, but as the elbows and upper arm are locked in place in front of the body, the exercise can be focused on the working muscles a lot more and the option for bringing in other muscles such as the shoulders are significantly reduced.
Both exercises should have a grip width of about shoulder width apart on the barbell, but this can be widened if the trainer has longer arms and shortened for trainers with shorter arms. It may be worth experimenting with this if you can’t feel the work on the bicep.
As these exercises can be utilized in a training session to maximize different training effects, this is a draw.
Bicep curl vs preacher curl muscle activation
Preacher curls and bicep curls use the same hinge movements, but the big difference is that with a preacher curl, the elbows are in front of the body and in most cases, use an anchor point to keep the upper arm in position. This results in a much more concentrated muscle contraction and is the reason that trainers choose to use this exercise for isolated muscle activation.
If the bicep curl is performed with strict exercise form, the muscle activation will be similar to that of the preacher curl, but as there is no anchor point for the elbows and upper arms it has the potential to bring in other muscle groups if form is lost through muscle exhaustion.
As we are using barbells to compare these exercises, the palms will always be facing up. This is known as supination, so muscle activation is equal over both heads of the biceps on both exercises and there is an element of forearm muscle activation also.
By supinating the hands, we will automatically activate our biceps and this is why a full range of motion is important, if we are training “half reps” or “three-quarter reps” we are losing out on full contraction and full extension. This can not only lead to low-quality exercise but can also flexibility issues.
The above images show a supinated hand and arm, along with the position of the long and short head of the biceps, marked in green. As the hand is supinated (palm rotated to face forwards), activation of both the long head and short head is present.
Whether you are performing a preacher curl or barbell curl, your exercise form, including range of movement should be constantly scrutinized to make the most of these bicep exercises.
Assuming the exercise form and range of movement is good with both exercises, as we are using a straight bar, the muscles activated with both exercises are the same, so this is a draw
Bicep curl or preacher curl for mass building?
If the main training goal of any workout is to build mass, the best exercises to do are compound exercises working with heavy resistance levels and often lower rep ranges. Exercise form still has to be on point, however.
Mass building for biceps is slightly different as we have very few synergist muscles that aid with the lift, without taking too much focus from the biceps to dilute the exercise. Intensity is key for bicep mass building so, if we are using other muscle groups throughout the set, we are not getting the best bang for our buck.
With this in mind, EZ preacher curl sounds like the go-to choice for intensity as we are forced into a position where we can’t do “cheat reps” easily. But this also limits the amount of resistance we can add to the bar.
Another issue is the hand position on an EZ bar when compared to a straight bar. On the EZ bar, our hands are semi pronated and locked into this position throughout the movement. This means that there is more focus on the short head of the bicep which means the long head is being neglected slightly.
“Cheat reps” are reps performed towards the end of a set to increase overload on a muscle group. I never advise beginners to use cheat reps as it takes a certain level of experience and mind-muscle connection to make them valuable, but cheat reps are more viable with a straight barbell curl than a preacher curl using an EZ bar.
With a straight barbell bicep curl, our hands are supinated (palms facing forward at the start position). This means that even at the start of the movement, the biceps are technically, fully working more than they would be with an EZ bar performing a preacher. Because of this, a shoulder-width grip on a straight barbell for bicep curls is a good choice to target both heads of the bicep.
Winner: Bicep curl
Performing both preacher curl and bicep curls with good form can give good results for mass, but if you were to pick a single exercise for mass building, it should be the straight barbell curl.
It’s easier to target both heads or even set the grip width up to favor one part of the bicep over another by adjusting the grip (Long head – narrow grip, short head – wide grip). But for mass, I would suggest a shoulder width, or just past shoulder width grip, as this will hit both.
With the barbell bicep curl, more advanced trainers also have the opportunity to perform cheat reps at the end of the set to increase overload and potentially add more resistance to the bar.
Bicep curls vs preacher curls for strength gains
For strength gains, there is a clear winner, and if you’ve understood this post so far, you’ll know which that is. The best exercises for strength gains are exercises that allow you to perform them with a bigger resistance and utilize the most muscle to do it.
Strength and mass training work in good synergy. If you build strength, you can build mass. EZ preacher curls fall short when compared to bicep curls for all the reasons mentioned in the previous section. Building strength requires a heavier resistance and preacher curls are not designed for this. To be clear, I would not advise preacher curls for strength training.
Winner: Bicep curl
If strength is your goal, bicep curl with a straight bar is far superior to EZ preacher curl. There is also a big risk of tearing biceps when trying to load a preacher curl bar for strength training, as the amount of stress put onto the insertions can be too much. Nobody wants to tear their bicep like this and unfortunately it’s a very common occurrence.
Preacher curls vs bicep curls for shaping and toning
Toning and shaping the biceps is best done by targeting each head as needed. Some trainers will have weaker parts and will have to prioritize these in their training to attain a full, rounded bicep.
With a toning and shaping mindset, the first thing to do is to figure this out. As a trainer wishing to tone and shape their biceps, what is lacking? Do I need more peak to the biceps, or do I need more thickness? Are the biceps well proportioned, but need to be fuller? Etc.
If you have a good bicep peak, meaning when you hit a double bicep pose, you see the biceps enough from the back, but when you are at rest, your biceps look “thin” from the top, you should probably prioritize the short head.
We know an EZ bar preacher curl favors the short head more, so this is a good choice of exercise for this condition.
If you have no peak to the biceps from the back view of the double bicep pose, but your arms still look thick enough when at rest, you should probably prioritize the long head.
We know that Barbell bicep curls are better at bringing in the long head than preacher curls, and we also know that a narrower grip barbell will favor the long head, so this would be a good choice for this condition.
If toning and shaping is your training goal for biceps, this is the type of mindset you should adopt.
We’ve called a draw on this, as it really depends on what the individual wants to achieve from an aesthetic point of view. It is also very viable to use both preacher curls and barbell curls in conjunction with each other for toning and shaping
Should you use the preacher curl or bicep curl (or both)?
Both bicep curls and preacher curls as outlined in this post have their place. Depending on what your fitness goals are, you should select the exercise that will be most beneficial, you should also make smart decisions when it comes to safety.
If you have mobility issues in your wrists and struggle to pronate, making it uncomfortable to hold a straight bar for instance, but your training goals are for bicep strength, I would not advise sticking to preacher curl with the EZ bar. I would suggest working on flexibility as a priority. If this mobility is not from an injury, it’s possible that the biceps and forearm muscles just need to work in their full range of motion to increase mobility.
If you have no issues with mobility, and bicep strength training is your goal, then the bicep curl is hands down, your best choice of the two exercises.
You can use preacher curls to hit the short heads of your biceps if you would like bicep thickness and are happy with the peak, but it’s still important to maintain the peak of the bicep by training it. Preacher curls are also good for trainers that struggle to feel the bicep contraction when performing regular bicep curls. Jumping on a preacher curl machine and getting the mind-muscle connection with the bicep can be very valuable for some trainers that struggle to feel the muscles working when performing bicep curls.
Are preacher curls better than bicep curls? Our conclusion
Preacher curls are not better than bicep curls. If I had to pick one of these two exercises to use and delete the other from my training completely, I would choose to keep the variation of bicep curls outlined in this post. Luckily for us, we don’t have to make that choice, of course.
Overall, Bicep curls are far more versatile and fit with most fitness goals. When performed correctly, they can be used to target both heads of the biceps, or variations on grip width can be used to favor the peak of the bicep or thickness, and in my opinion, these are one of the best bicep exercises for most trainers.
To sum up, whether you should use the preacher curl or bicep curl depends on your goals and your circumstance. Here’s a summary to help you answer the question:
- For mobility: Bicep curl
- For mind-muscle connection: Preacher curl
- For strength: Bicep curl
- For mass building: Bicep curl
- For shaping and toning: Preacher curl and bicep curl
- For short head targeting: Preacher curl
- For long head targeting: Narrow grip bicep curl
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