The Kettlebell Cure for Small Biceps
Kettlebells provide exclusive benefits and unique kinds of biceps stimulation that are difficult to replicate with dumbbells and barbells. Here are six variations of biceps curls for new arm growth.
1 – Standing Kettlebell Biceps Curl
Standing curls are a great mass-builder simply because standing up allows maximal overload. However, standing kettlebell curls are even more effective. Due to the design of kettlebells, there's significantly more tension throughout the movement, including the top contracted position. As a result you'll get greater muscle fiber innervation and motor unit recruitment.
Aside from the kettlebell hanging below the wrists, which creates a constant pulling sensation on the biceps, it's almost impossible to lose tension at the top by cheating and curling the weights too high. Over-curling at the top of a biceps curl is a surefire way to take stress off the biceps and instead overtax the anterior delts.
In this variation, however, the kettlebells press against the forearms and stop this common cheating technique. In addition, any swinging or excessive use of momentum will result in the kettlebells banging against the forearms, which is extremely unpleasant.
Although execution is similar to other curl variations, one notable difference is hand positioning. For all kettlebell curls, it's best to have the handles resting in the mid-upper palms of your hands, rather than the lower palms and fingers. This locks the kettlebells in and keeps them from rotating and slipping.
Finally, you'll want to resist fully straightening your arms at the bottom of the movement. This will release tension from the biceps and cause the handles to slip out of your palms.
Due to the high levels of continuous tension and biceps innervation, use slightly fewer reps. This will greatly tax the fast-twitch muscle fibers and keep your form from degrading. Several sets of 5-8 reps is perfect.
2 – Incline Kettlebell Curl
Incline curls are a bodybuilding staple. The simultaneous stretch and overload they provide has been scientifically shown to maximize micro-trauma and muscle damage, causing significant levels of hypertrophy.
Unfortunately, when doing this exercise with dumbbells, there's very little tension above the bottom half of the movement. The biceps relax at the top of the curl.
Due to their unique loading mechanism created from the hanging weight, kettlebells provide adequate tension and stimulation not only in the bottom and mid-range positions, but also in the top contracted position. In fact, this incline kettlebell curl variation exploits all three major mechanisms of muscle growth:
- They emphasize the elongated eccentric and stretched position, which produces muscle damage and micro-trauma that's critical for growth.
- Their semi-awkward nature and hanging position requires high levels of muscle activation, which produces significant amounts of mechanical tension and muscle fiber recruitment.
- Because of the constant tension throughout the movement with little relaxation of the biceps, this exercise creates an occlusion-effect to the surrounding musculature. There's an incredible amount of blood flow, muscular pump, intramuscular volumization, cellular swelling, and metabolic stress, all of which are linked to muscle growth.
Do incline kettlebell curls at a 45-degree bench angle using a variety of loads and rep ranges including heavy weights (4-6 reps), moderate loads (8-10 reps), and lighter loads (12-15 reps). One to two sets in each rep range will lead to incredible gains in biceps size.
3 – Kettlebell Hammer Curl
This is a great biceps and biceps-brachialis exercise. It provides plenty of work for the forearms, as well as smaller muscles around the hands and wrists. It finishes with the kettlebells in an extended lever-arm position, allowing you to place constant tension on the arms throughout the movement.
You'll need to drop the weight by about half of what you'd typically use for hammer curls. But the combination of lighter loads and constant tension will leave your biceps screaming at the end of each set, producing muscular pumps and cellular swelling that's hard to get with other exercises.
Because of the lighter loads, kettlebell hammer curls work well with moderate and higher rep ranges of 8-15 reps for 2-3 sets. Just remember to keep your wrists locked in neutral position throughout.
4 – Kneeling Kettlebell Curl, Contracted Position
This is one of the most challenging and growth-promoting movements you'll ever perform. This is due to the strict form it requires, the reduced momentum you're forced to maintain so you can stay balanced, and the resultant continuous tension on the biceps.
While kneeling on a bench, curl both of the kettlebells to the top contracted position, about mid-chest height. That's the starting position. Lower one arm and do a curl. Repeat with the other arm.
The key is to hold the non-moving arm in the top contracted position throughout the set while alternating from side to side. Doing this same exercise with dumbbells isn't nearly as effective because the top of the curl involves little tension – you're getting a semi-rest period during the isometric phase.
But because of the unique loading features of the kettlebell, the top position provides constant tension throughout. Also, the kneeling position keeps you from twisting your body to relieve the tension. Any squirming, shifting, or cheating will cause you to lose your balance.
Because of the longer time under tension (TUT) and extended time between reps, 2-3 sets of 5-7 reps per arm will be more than enough. As you get to the end of each set, the pain will be almost unbearable, but the results are worth it.
5 – Isolateral Kettlebell Squat and Curl
Performing kettlebells curls while holding an eccentric isometric squat produces incredible levels of tension in the biceps, particularly in the top position.
Rather than leaning back at the top of the movement (a common tendency to subconsciously release tension from the biceps), the squat forces you to stay slightly leaned over. This slightly angled position, combined with the hanging nature of the kettlebells, provides continuous levels of significant tension, creating occlusion and cellular swelling.
The rigid squat position leaves little room for using momentum to help lift the weight. You have to rely solely on smooth yet forceful contractions to complete the movement. As an added bonus, this exercise improves lower body mobility, hip mechanics, and squatting technique. You'll have to spread the knees and unlock the hips to fit the kettlebells between your legs.
Two to three sets of 6-10 controlled reps will nail the biceps without unnecessarily fatiguing the lower body.
6 – Reverse Bottoms-Up Biceps Curl
This variation keeps you from fully straightening the arms at the bottom or curling excessively high at the top. This creates enormous tension on the biceps because you're locked into the sweet spot of the movement where there's maximal activation and no relaxation.
It also promotes optimal shoulder positioning and postural alignment, which is something most lifters struggle with when training biceps. Because the load is unstable and vulnerable to falling, you have to keep the shoulders retracted and depressed throughout. Besides improving spinal mechanics, this eliminates the possibility of the shoulders becoming overly involved in the movement.
Another noteworthy feature of this exercise is the way it optimizes wrist mechanics. Many people lack the ability to keep the wrists locked during curls, which can produce strain on the surrounding connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments. This variation requires you to lock the wrists in order to create a solid platform for the weight to rest on.
When these mechanics are transferred to heavy free-weight curls, they'll produce stronger and more efficient curling mechanics, leading to greater overload and size gains. Lastly, this is one of the most unstable biceps curl variations you'll ever perform. Any cheating or swinging will cause you to dump the weight.
Use this either as a technique enhancer at the beginning of your arm workouts (2 sets of 5-8 reps) to help groove proper curling mechanics, or as a finisher (1-2 sets of 10-12 reps) to annihilate the arms with continuous levels of growth-inducing tension.