In search of big, strong arms, most consider the bicep curl to be king.
So it’s annoying when you go to do dumbbell curls and find someone else is using the weight you need.
But don’t panic — you can still work those biceps with just curls. Variety is a good thing! Cables even offer some benefits that dumbbells don’t.
How to curl a wire
A cable curl is basically a standing dumbbell curl performed using a cable machine instead of dumbbells.
And cable bicep curls are super effective.
In a 2014 American Council on Exercise study, researchers compared cable curls, barbell curls, concentration curls, chinups, and EZ-bar curls and found that cable curls activated 80 percent of the maximum voluntary contraction of the biceps brachii — only concentration curls outperformed cable curls.
This makes the cable curl more of a fallback move while using your favorite dumbbell. This is a step that is legitimately worth your time.
So the next time it’s arms day, grab some free weights and familiarize yourself with the cable machine and cable bicep curls:
- Hook a straight bar attachment to a cable machine, and set the pulley to the low position. Grasp the bar with your arms extended and hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from you.
- Keeping your elbows tucked and your upper arms locked in place, curl the bar as close to your shoulders as you can.
- Pause, squeeze the biceps as hard as possible, and then slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.
How to ease wire curls
You can use a lighter resistance, move the height of the wire rack up, or move closer to the machine to make the wire curl easier. Or if you need more stability for the exercise, perform it sitting on a bench, making sure you maintain good posture.
How to tighten cable curls
Add more resistance or move the wire further away from the machine to tighten the wire curl. (The angle forces the biceps to work harder in the contracted position.)
As you get stronger, you’ll also want to play around with your reps and sets — for example, once three sets of eight reps feels too easy, go for three sets of nine reps, then ten.
When ten becomes too easy, you can increase the weight and go back to a lower rep count, then start increasing the reps with higher weights.
What are the advantages of cable curl?
“Cable curls require you to use more stabilizer muscles in your body and hit your biceps from all angles,” says Dimitrios Triantafilopoulos, fitness manager at Crunch 23rd Street in New York City.
The cable machine also provides constant resistance throughout the movement — unlike free weights, which are heaviest when the arms are parallel to the floor — and requires maximum contraction when you reach the top of the movement.
What muscles do cable curls work?
Cable curls target the biceps brachii. This muscle bends your elbow and rotates your arm, and it fills out your sleeve.
Standing cable curls work your brachialis (which flexes the elbow), arm muscles, and even your core, since you need to stabilize during the movement.
What are some good cable curl variations?
Not only is a cable machine a useful alternative to bicep curls with free weights, it allows you to vary the exercise and use different attachments, heights, positions and grips to target the muscles from different angles.
Here are some variations to consider:
1. Rope Wire Curl: Hold one end of the rope in each hand with your palms facing each other. Curl standard wire, as explained above, but with rope attachment.
2. High Wire Curl: Set the pulleys at the highest point on a dual-cable machine and stand between the two stacks. Grasp the handles so that your arms are at your sides and parallel to the floor, palms facing up. Bend both arms toward your head at the same time, keeping the upper arms parallel to the floor or alternate arms. Also called overhead cable curls.
3. Back Wire Curl: Set a crane at a low height. Hold the handle with one hand and stand away from the machine until your arm is straight and slightly behind your body. Dangle your leg for stability and do all your reps with that one arm. Then switch weapons to complete the set.
4. Reverse Wire Curl: Perform the cable curl using the bar with an overhand grip (Your palms face your body in the starting position.) As a bonus, reverse curls are one of the arm exercises.
5. Cable curls at home: Chances are, you don’t have a cable machine in your apartment or home. Don’t worry. You can use resistance bands instead, says Triantafylopoulos. Secure one end to a high point and curl one arm at a time, or stand in the middle of the band and curl both arms at once.