(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: Do you think it’s better to do biceps curls using the EZ curl bar or the regular straight bar? I’ve heard people say the straight bar hits your biceps a lot better but the EZ curl bar is safer for your wrists and elbows. Which do you recommend and why?
ANSWER: Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let me start this answer off with what I like to call a quick “misunderstanding-preventer.”
As I mentioned in my triceps guide a couple of weeks ago, the majority of your biceps/triceps growth will come as a result of getting stronger at compound exercises like various chest presses, shoulder presses, rows and pull-ups/lat pull-downs, which is why this type of stuff should always get your primary focus.
However, as I also mentioned in that same triceps guide, compounds alone will not produce the best results possible in terms of building muscular arms. For this reason, I highly recommend that everyone trying to build muscle (with the possible exception of beginners) put a smaller, secondary focus on direct arm isolation work like triceps extensions and biceps curls.
We’re all clear on that? Potential misunderstandings prevented? Cool. Now let’s answer the question…
EZ Curl Bar vs Straight Barbell: PROS And CONS
The person who asked this question kinda has it right:
- Doing barbell curls with a straight bar will likely provide better biceps activation to some extent since you’re curling in full supination (palms facing up). Bonus: you can do it in the squat rack!!
- With the EZ curl bar, you’re in more of a semi-supinated position between supinated (palms up) and neutral (palms facing each other) which likely brings the brachioradialis into the movement a tiny bit more (and thus the biceps a tiny bit less).
On the other hand…
- That slight angle of the EZ curl bar will put your wrists, forearms and elbows in a more comfortable, natural and safe position, thus reducing the risk of common injuries that many people develop over time from curling with a straight bar (most commonly medial epicondylitis aka golfer’s elbow aka pain at the inner part of your elbow aka a super annoying injury I’ve personally dealt with in the past aka a nice way for me to overuse ‘aka’).
So basically, one exercise might hit your biceps slightly more but increase your risk of injury, and the other might hit your biceps slightly less but decrease your risk of injury.
And that brings us to the next question that needs answering…
Which Difference Is More Significant?
Meaning, is the difference in biceps activation more significant than the difference in safety and injury prevention?
I would lean towards no.
So let’s say we magically created 100 people who are the same height, weight and age with the same genetics and body type, and put them on the same intelligently designed diet and workout program with the sole difference being that 50 of them only did biceps curls with a straight bar, and the other 50 only did biceps curls with an EZ curl bar.
If we then monitored everything over some long period of time (years) and compared their results afterwards, I really don’t think you’d see much in the way of a noticeable difference in terms of biceps growth and overall size. In fact, I truly doubt you’d see any meaningful difference whatsoever.
But What About The Other Way Around?
Meaning, is the difference in safety and injury prevention more significant than the difference in biceps activation?
I would lean towards yes.
So using that same imaginary group of 100 people from a minute ago, I DO think you’ll see that more of the group who did straight bar curls would end up developing some form of wrist, forearm and/or elbow injury at some point than the group who did all of their curls with an EZ curl bar.
In which case it’s more likely that the straight bar group would have had to make some “oh-no-I-have-an-injury” style changes to their workout over this period of time (like reducing the amount of weight being lifted, completely avoiding affected exercises like curls, rows, pull-ups/pull-downs in the short term or long term, taking time off to let things heal, etc.).
Which means indirectly, the healthy people from the EZ curl bar group could potentially end up with better biceps results than the injured people from the straight bar group.
They might even potentially end up with better overall results in general, since more than just biceps training could be affected. This is one of the many things that suck about being injured and why you should do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Yes, even if it means a very minor reduction in the amount of activation of the muscle you’re trying to train (which is likely to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things anyway). Safety and injury prevention will always play a bigger role in your success or lack thereof.
So Then, Which Is Better?
I actually have a good perspective on this one, as I exclusively did all of my barbell curling with an EZ curl bar during my first few years of training, but then switched exclusively to the straight bar (after hearing it was “better” for the biceps than the EZ bar) during the next bunch of years after that.
And at some point during those straight bar years, I developed an injury (that darn medial epicondylitis I mentioned before).
Now granted, it’s impossible to say that straight bar curls were the one and only cause of this injury. It was most likely a combination of factors, with another being heavy chin-ups which also happen to involve that same supinated grip a straight barbell curl involves (this is not a coincidence… this fully supinated/underhand grip is a well known cause of wrist, forearm and elbow pain).
However, if I had to make a list of those factors ranked in terms of which I think played the largest role in causing this injury, years of curling with a straight bar would probably be #1 on that list.
Now granted again, a lot of people will read this and think “it took years for straight bar curls to become a problem for you, so why should I care about that now? I’ll worry about it then, assuming it ever ends up being a problem for me which it might not ever be.”
This is 100% true.
But, as someone who has been there and done that with straight bar curling, and as someone who has heard from a lot of other people who have been there and done that with straight bar curling, all I can tell you is that my recommendation would be to completely avoid it.
Instead, stick with the EZ curl bar and/or various dumbbell curls (in terms of injury prevention, dumbbells are probably the best option of all).
Simply put, the potential CONS of straight bar curls (injury) easily outweigh any potential PROS (the “better” biceps activation it provides, which is likely to be so insignificant it won’t actually matter in the first place).