Whether you train for strength, for looks, or for function, you should be training your biceps. Specifically, you should be doing the incline dumbbell curl. True, the incline dumbbell curl is an old-school bodybuilding exercise that builds thick, eye-catching arms. It also promotes positional tolerance and tendon capacity — two key traits for long-term joint health.
Shoulder injuries and biceps tendon ruptures are the boogeymen of weight training that can put you out of action for a long time. The good news? The incline dumbbell curl trains the shoulder to gradually tolerate hyperextension and may make the biceps brachii tendon larger and better able to transmit load. (1)(2)
Adding the incline dumbbell curl to your routine will result in bigger, fuller muscles. (3)(4) But the immediate result is a unique combination of stretch, burn, and pump you won’t soon forget. Read on to learn why and how this classic muscle-building exercise delivers more than just arm size.
- How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl Mistakes to Avoid
- Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Muscles Worked by the Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Who Should Do the Incline Dumbbell Curl
- How to Program the Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl Variations
- Incline Dumbbell Curl Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
Incline Dumbbell Curl Video Guide
The incline dumbbell curl is often done with loose, ineffective technique, but Dr. Merrick Lincoln demonstrates textbook form for this important exercise. See it in action and then read the details to learn more.
The incline dumbbell curl places more stretch on the biceps than other curl variations and virtually eliminates the use of momentum to cheat the weights up. Start with dumbbells approximately 50% of what you’d typically use for a standing dumbbell biceps curl.
Step 1 — Set Your Bench and Get Into Position
Sit on an adjustable bench set to approximately 45-degrees while holding a pair of dumbbells. Retract and depress your shoulder blades (pull them together and down) as you lay back on the bench.
Keep your feet flat and allow your arms to hang straight towards the ground. Keep your shoulder blades pinned to the bench throughout the exercise. Locking your shoulder blades into place will improve your form and boost your strength.(5)
Form tip: If your head comes off the bench, your upper back and shoulder blades will follow. Keep your head pressed into the bench during the entire set and resist the urge to look straight ahead.
Step 2 — Curl with Your Elbows Pointing Down
Supinate your hands (turn your palms up) and begin to curl both weights up. Keep your upper arms vertical, Your elbows should point straight down, not forward towards your feet.
Bringing your elbows forward takes tension off the biceps and introduces momentum, which makes the exercise less effective. Curl the dumbbells as high as possible without losing the vertical upper arm position.
Form tip: For increased stability, “over-supinate” throughout the repetition — think about keeping your pinky higher than your thumb — and “over-grip” the dumbbell like you’re trying to crush the handle into dust. Supination and gripping have been shown to enhance rotator cuff activity which results in a stronger, more stable shoulder position. (6)(7)
Step 3 — Lower Without Releasing Tension
Keep your upper arms locked vertically as you lower the dumbbells slowly. Don’t allow your thumbs to point up as you lower the weight. Don’t bounce into or out of the bottom position. Bouncing or quickly rebounding engages the stretch-shortening cycle, which makes this exercise less effective.
Maintain control as your arm straightens and never lose tension on the target muscles and tendons. Feel and visualize your muscle fibers being stretched.
Form tip: Savor the negative. Because the exercise requires relatively lighter weights, you need a longer time under tension to achieve an effective training stimulus.(8) Prolonging the eccentric (lowering) phase is a favored strategy. A four-second eccentric is a good place to start. (9)
The incline dumbbell curl can be a powerful biceps-building and tendon-toughening exercise, but suboptimal execution results in suboptimal results. Common mistakes include: allowing the shoulder to drift out of position, underemphasizing the eccentric, and a lack of focus on the working muscles. Avoid these pitfalls with the following strategies.
Loss of Shoulder Position
It’s easy to cheat the incline dumbbell curl by flexing your shoulders and swinging your elbows. Allowing your arms to travel forward diminishes muscular tension, which means less muscle-building stimulus.
Dialed-up tension is one defining feature of the incline dumbbell curl. Without it, you’re just doing a lazy version of a seated curl.
Avoid it: Keep your shoulder blades pulled together and down. That will keep your shoulder joint in an optimal position. A small arch in your spine can improve retraction. Aim your elbows toward the floor beneath your shoulder joints. Lock into this position by engaging your lats and pinning your arm into your armpit.
Poor Eccentric Control
Because the eccentric stretch often feels more difficult, and because some lifters believe “lifting the weight is what builds muscle,” many lifters instinctively rush through the lowering portion of the rep and miss a significant part of the training stimulus.
Rushing through the negative phase will shortchange your training. Research supports using a prolonged eccentric to maximize the strength and size-building benefits. (9)
Avoid it: If you are consistently rushing your negatives, take a break from music for a few sets and consider using a metronome app, or search for “60 bpm audio” on YouTube. At the second beep, your hands should be roughly parallel to the ground. By the fourth beep, your arms should be extended in the bottom position.
Lack of Mind-Muscle Connection
Aesthetics-focused lifters work to develop a mind-muscle connection, or a conscious focus on the target muscles, during hypertrophy training.
Lifting the weight too quickly, failing to feel a muscle contraction, or utilizing momentum instead of muscular force can all contribute to a decreased mind-muscle connection. “Performing a curl” is different than “feeling your biceps activate while performing a curl.”
Avoid it: Focus on squeezing your muscles throughout each repetition. Pause briefly at the top while flexing your biceps as hard as possible. Some research has reported those who focus on “squeezing” their biceps during curls experienced nearly twice the gains in muscle thickness than those who simply focus on lifting the weight. (10)
The benefits of the incline dumbbell curl include muscle growth, position tolerance, and tendon adaptations. These benefits are directly related to the tension placed on biceps brachii and the unique shoulder position maintained throughout the exercise.
Because the incline dumbbell curl stretches the long head of the biceps, the muscle experiences greater tension, resulting in improved growth.
Exercise variety is shown to improve muscle growth. (3)(4) Select exercise variations that bias or increase tension in different areas of the target muscle or at different joint angles. (3)(4)(11)(12)
Research has shown that training the biceps from multiple angles leads to significantly greater increases in biceps thickness compared to training without variety, so incline dumbbell curls complement standard curl variations. (4)
Position Tolerance and Mobility
For some lifters, certain body positions are simply difficult to achieve. A position of stable shoulder hyperextension is one of them. Shoulder hyperextension and mobility are required for full range of motion bench pressing, barbell rows, dips, and to simply hold the barbell for back squats. The incline dumbbell curl helps to build a strong, foundational shoulder position.
If you struggle to achieve stable, pain-free shoulder hyperextension, the incline dumbbell curl can be a good corrective exercise. It brings awareness to appropriate shoulder blade orientation, provides support and tactile feedback from the bench, and is easily adapted to your current ability by changing the weight or bench angle.
Biceps Tendon Health and Durability
The specter of a biceps tendon tear sends chills down the spine of any serious lifter faster than a fumbled shaker bottle. Tendons connect muscle to bone and transmit tension generated by muscle contraction and stretch.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could “bulletproof” our tendons against these tragic injuries? It’s not to say that injuries can be entirely prevented, but research supports that direct loading can increase tendon thickness and improve material qualities, making them tougher over time. (1)(2)
Training with a tendon lengthened across a joint increases the tendon load and may stimulate adaptation with the use of relatively light weights (e.g. 55% of one’s one-rep max). (2)(13) Because the load is placed through a stretch across the hyperextended shoulder, the incline dumbbell curl is an ideal exercise to target the tendon of the long head of biceps brachii.
Like the majority of curl variations, the incline dumbbell curl primarily targets the biceps brachii. The brachialis and brachioradialis also experience training effects.
The biceps brachii is the most visible muscle on the front of the upper arm. It’s “the biceps” muscle and it controls elbow flexion (bending your arm), supination (turning your palm up), and plays a small role in shoulder flexion (raising your upper arm).
The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle. The long head is located on the outer portion. Its tendon runs in front of the shoulder and attaches to the shoulder blade. When well-hypertrophied and fully contracted, the long head may have a summit-like appearance, hence the term “biceps peak” in bodybuilding circles.
The short head sits on the inner part of the arm. Its tendon attaches to a bony projection on the front of the shoulder blade. A well-developed short head enhances the thickness of the biceps brachii.
The incline dumbbell curl places massive tension across the entire biceps due to the hyperextended shoulder and supinated forearm positions. Due to the hyperextended shoulder position, it particularly emphasizes the long head. (1)(2)
The brachialis is a deep muscle in the front of the upper arm. It crosses the elbow joint and contributes substantially to elbow flexion. Physique-focused lifters should take note of this unassuming muscle. Because the brachialis sits beneath the biceps, brachialis growth makes your arm look bigger by “pushing” the biceps up.
Of interest to strength-focused lifters, building the brachialis also promotes greater mechanical advantage by slightly altering leverage, resulting in greater pulling strength. (14)
The brachioradialis assists with elbow flexion during the incline dumbbell curl. The brachioradialis runs along the thumb-side of the forearm and contributes to upper and lower arm size.
The brachioradialis is the primary elbow flexor when the forearm is neutral, as during the hammer curl. Electromyography data also suggests high activity of the brachioradialis during elbow flexion with a supinated forearm, as in the incline dumbbell curl. (15)(16)
Those who scoff at the incline dumbbell curl because it “isn’t functional” are sorely mistaken. Individuals with a wide variety of training goals can benefit from this movement. Consider a throwing athlete, for example, or simply someone who enjoys playing catch with their children. Training the biceps directly may protect your shoulder and tendon health.
Bodybuilders and Physique Athletes
The hyperextended shoulder position and forearm supination during the incline dumbbell curl create muscle-building mechanical tension. These positions can also enhance the physical “pump” in the biceps. (17) The pump is a result of metabolic stress (e.g. metabolite accumulation and cell swelling).
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The exercise also creates muscle damage, particularly during the negative or eccentric phase. (18) Altogether, the incline dumbbell curl creates the perfect storm for muscle-building.
For powerlifters and other strength athletes, holding the barbell in place during back squats requires shoulder hyperextension. Loaded shoulder extension also occurs in the bottom position of the close-grip bench press and dip exercises. Other movements, such as mixed-grip deadlifts and strongman-style carries, place large tension loads on the biceps.
Strength athletes need to be able to access a stable position of shoulder hyperextension and tolerate biceps loading at high intensities and volumes. Incorporating the incline dumbbell curl can enhance these capacities.
Athletes of All Types
For athletes who grapple, throw, tackle, or climb, the biceps brachii and other elbow flexors experience massive demands. For example, the biceps brachii is important for decelerating the throwing arm. (19) If you’re throwing 80+ mile per hour fastballs, decelerating the arm is no small feat. Throwing athletes can benefit from adding incline dumbbell curls to their arm care (if not arm-building) programs.
Finally, consider “industrial athletes” or manual laborers. These are individuals who work with their hands for a living and require strong muscles and tendons. An industrial athlete might not program the incline dumbbell curl for aesthetics, but rather to safeguard their livelihood.
The incline dumbbell curl is most appropriately programmed in a moderate repetition range with a moderate-to-light load.
Although lower load, higher repetition sets may stimulate hypertrophy, they are unlikely to stimulate optimal tendon adaptations. (2) Those high-rep sets also burn like hell. Using a four-second eccentric facilitates greater hypertrophy and greater tendon adaptations. (8)(9)
Keep in mind, the prolonged eccentric necessitates slightly lighter loads than you’d typically sling. Here’s a more detailed look at setting up a program for your goals.
For optimal biceps growth, shoot for 10 to 20 total sets per week in the eight to 12 rep range directly training elbow flexion. (20) You should approach failure on the final repetitions of each set. Although a wide range of loads can be used to elicit muscle growth, using a moderate load is most efficient. (20)
For best results, incorporate the incline dumbbell curl along with other elbow flexor exercises that bias different muscle lengths and upper arm positions. (4) To achieve the desired set volume, you will likely need to train biceps multiple times per week on non-consecutive days.
Keep in mind, exercises like chin-ups and supinated-grip lat pulldowns also hit the biceps brachii. If you’re performing these consistently, you can avoid exercises like preacher curls or EZ-bar curls.
Tendon Loading Program
When training for tendon adaptation, lower loads have been shown to be effective for exercises which apply a large tension load on the target tendon. (13) The incline dumbbell curl is an exercise that places high tension load biceps brachii, therefore moderate loads are appropriate.
Train the incline dumbbell curl with four to five sets in the 8-12 repetition range using a four-second eccentric phase and a two-second pause at the bottom. Note: this program is not designed to treat any specific injury or medical condition. See your sports medicine provider.
By changing the bench angle, the incline dumbbell curl can accommodate lifters with varying amounts of shoulder extension mobility while manipulating tension on the long head of the biceps.
High Incline Dumbbell Curl
The traditional incline dumbbell curl uses a 45-degree bench angle. Lifters with stiff shoulders or shoulder discomfort may adjust the bench to a more steep angle, roughly 60 or 70-degrees.
Technical performance of the exercise remains the same. However, less shoulder hyperextension is required to maintain vertical upper arms throughout.
Low Incline Dumbbell Curl
Lifters with more shoulder mobility who wish to amp up biceps tension even further may consider the low incline dumbbell curl. By placing the bench at approximately 30-degrees, the shoulder is put into more hyperextension which puts the long head of the biceps under a greater passive stretch.
Keep your form dialed in. If you feel your shoulder or upper arm pushing forward during the exercise, go back to a higher bench angle.
Maybe all the adjustable benches in the gym are taken. Maybe you’ve programmed the incline dumbbell curl for a couple of training cycles and it’s time for a change. Maybe you miss standing in front of the mirror while doing curls. The good news is that you can still achieve some benefits of the incline dumbbell curl with these alternatives.
Bridge Position Dumbbell Curl
Those unable to stabilize their upper arm during the incline dumbbell curl, or those who cannot resist training glutes every chance they get, might try the bridge position dumbbell curl. Peak resistance is shifted to end-range, so use light dumbbells.
Lie on your back with your hips and knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor. Your arms should be on the floor at your sides, holding the dumbbells in a palms-up position. Bridge your hips off the floor while keeping your triceps touching the floor. Curl while holding the bridge position to work the buns and guns.
Popularized by legendary bodybuilding coach Vince Gironda, the drag curl trains the biceps in shoulder extension. The lifter stands and “drags” a barbell along the front of their body. The drag curl builds shoulder stability along with biceps size. The scapula retractors (middle traps, rhomboids) and shoulder extensors must work to keep the shoulders and elbows back during the curl.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width and hold a barbell with an underhand grip. Pull your shoulders and elbows back as you curl the weight up. The barbell should travel as close as possible to your body. Raise the weight as high as you can without allowing shoulders to shrug or your elbows to drift forward. Lower the bar along the same path with control.
I saw ‘so-and-so’ tear his biceps on TikTok. Is the incline dumbbell curl going to tear my biceps?
When loaded appropriately and performed with control, resistance training is extremely unlikely to injure healthy lifters. (21) Knowledge of the risk factors and mechanisms of biceps tendon injuries will help lifters make informed training decisions.
Biceps tendon injuries are more common among middle-aged males, those who smoke or have a history of smoking, and those who are obese. (22) Interestingly, there appears to be a link between rotator cuff disease and long head of biceps tendon rupture. (23)
While very rare, biceps tendon injuries can occur during lifting, typically during the eccentric phase of heavy curls, rows, or pulldowns. (21) Intelligent programming, gradual progression, and controlled lifting technique may reduce risk.
For example, “maxing out” on a single-joint exercise like the incline dumbbell curl can increase risk. For best results, leave your ego behind, introduce the exercise using a light-to-moderate weight, control the eccentric, and progress the weight gradually.
I’m getting pain during the incline dumbbell curl. What should I do?
You should probably consult a doctor. And if you’re cleared to continue performing this movement, try lowering the weight and tweaking your form. For discomfort at the front of the shoulder, remember the technique tips to “over-supinate” and “over-grip” the dumbbell to enhance rotator cuff activity.
If shoulder extension mobility is lacking, the incline dumbbell curl may irritate anterior shoulder structures such as the long head of biceps tendon, the joint capsule, or subscapularis tendon. Setting the bench to a higher angle may be appropriate because it requires less shoulder extension. If these “fixes” do not resolve the issue, it’s best to get checked out by a physical therapist or other qualified sports medicine specialist.
Will the incline dumbbell curl build my biceps peaks?
Yes. The incline dumbbell curl emphasizes the long head of biceps brachii. The peak-like appearance of well-developed biceps brachii is attributed to the long head (and genetics). Train incline dumbbell curl consistently to build enough muscle to develop a killer front double biceps pose.
Get Ready for the Stretch, Burn, and Pump
Biceps tendon injuries are disruptive to lifters, athletes, and tradespeople, alike. Fortunately, mechanical tension can promote tendon adaptation, with a side effect of arm size. By adding incline dumbbell curls into your routine, some of these potential injuries may be avoided. Everyone can benefit from bigger biceps and more robust tendons, so the time-tested incline dumbbell curl will never go out of style.
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Featured Image: Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS / YouTube