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Dumbbell high curl: Good for the biceps?

Are you wasting your time with dumbbell high curls?
Written By  James Jackson
Last Updated on 12th June 2021
A man performing a dumbbell high curl for his biceps

By understanding the anatomy of the biceps, we immediately learn that in addition to forearm supination (turning your palms up) and elbow flexion (moving your forearm toward your bicep), the biceps also perform shoulder flexion (think front raises).

Knowing this, the dumbbell high curl seems like the optimal bicep builder because it trains all three of these functions simultaneously. However, as you'll soon learn, doing high curls with free weights is a recipe for sore shoulders and understimulated biceps.

You're much better off doing a proper bicep curl with your arms by your sides if you want to build muscle while keeping the strain off your rotator cuffs.

Dumbbell high curl exercise details

  • Also Known As: Lateral curls
  • Main Muscles: Biceps brachii, deltoids
  • Secondary Muscles: Forearm flexors, brachialis, brachioradialis
  • Exercise Type: Strength
  • Exercise Mechanics: Isolation
  • Difficulty Level: Intermediate
  • Equipment Needed: Dumbbells

How to do dumbbell high curls

  1. Grab two light dumbbells and hold them by your sides.
  2. Stand up straight and lift the dumbbells up so that you're holding them in a front double bicep pose.
  3. While keeping your shoulders raised, allow your elbows to extend so that your biceps get stretched under the load of the dumbbells.
  4. Once you reach full elbow extension, curl the weights back toward the sides of your head and contract your biceps.
  5. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

Related: Forehead curls

Dumbbell high curl pros and cons

A man performing dumbbell high curls

As you probably guessed from the intro, we're not overly fond of dumbbell high curls because they don't train the biceps very well. If anything, they're an isometric exercise for the deltoids (and not a particularly good one either).

Pro: It's hard

Holding your shoulders in a flexed position while you do bicep curls is no easy task. It's so hard, in fact, that your deltoids might actually give out before your biceps (if you haven't already realized that the exercise sucks by that point). What muscle group does this exercise work again?

Pro: It's good for bodybuilders

Since the dumbbell high curl is essentially a weighted front double bicep pose, it actually has some merit for bodybuilders. Not for building muscle, of course, but for getting you used to holding your arms in a flexed position.

Con: There's not much bicep tension

Gravity is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it keeps our feet on the ground, but on the other, it makes exercises like dumbbell high curls completely ineffective—for the biceps, at least. And that's because your shoulders are supporting the majority of the weight. In fact, the only reason why you feel your biceps working at all is that they assist your shoulders in stabilizing the weight.

Con: It smokes your shoulders

If you want to test the muscular endurance of your shoulders, do the dumbbell high curl. Your biceps might not get much stimulation, but at least your deltoids will be on fire. Is that what the gym bros meant by muscle confusion?

The verdict: Is the dumbbell high curl worth doing?

In all seriousness, you should probably avoid the dumbbell high curl if you want to build your biceps. Despite the large elbow flexion component of the exercise, high curls mainly work your shoulders, and even then, only in an isometric fashion.

On the other hand, if you merely want to practice your front double bicep pose with some weight, then dumbbell high curls may have some merit. But for actually building muscle, you should steer well clear.

James Jackson
James Jackson is a personal trainer who uses his expertise in strength and conditioning to create helpful workout tutorials that show fitness enthusiasts how to build muscle while staying safe in the gym. He draws on the latest sports science data as well as tried and tested training techniques to get the best results for his clients without them having to live in the gym.
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