The incline hammer curl, also known as the incline dumbbell hammer curl, is a strength-training exercise that targets your biceps and forearms. Unlike the common biceps curl, which is performed with a supinated grip (palms up), the hammer curl places a larger emphasis on the brachialis and brachioradialis, muscles that sit underneath the biceps show muscles. Developing these will give your arms size and thickness that regular biceps curls alone can’t provide.
By the end of this article, you will understand how to perform incline hammer curls, how they are different than traditional biceps curls, how to avoid common mistakes, and how to make these a regular part of your strength-training program.
I will cover:
- How to perform incline hammer curls
- What muscles incline hammer curls target
- Common errors
- How hammer curls are different than traditional biceps curls
- How to program hammer curls
- Hammer curl variations
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Video: Incline Dumbbell Hammer Curl Demonstration
How to Perform
For this exercise, you will need a pair of dumbbells.
Step 1: Sit on an incline bench set at 45-60 degrees, with a dumbbell held vertically in each hand. You can grasp the dumbbell in the middle of the handle, or with your thumb and index finger pressed to the upper head of the dumbbell.
Form Tip: You should be pressed firmly against the backrest with your feet flat on the floor.
Step 2: Allow the dumbbells to hang straight down at your sides, holding them with a neutral grip (plans facing each other). Rotate your shoulders outward and retract your scapula to engage your lats (think pinching your shoulder blades together). Your upper back should remain tight and stable throughout each and every repetition.
This is the starting position for the exercise.
Step 3: Initiate the movement by flexing at the elbow, contracting your biceps as hard as you can. Maintain wrist rigidity! You only want movement at your elbow.
Movement Tip: Try to keep the upper arms stationary. Your elbow should remain mostly pointed straight down at the floor, not rising to a point in front of you as the weight rises.
Step 4: Continue raising the dumbbell under control until you reach maximum flexion of your elbow. The dumbbells should finish close to your shoulders without actually making contact. Pause and flex your biceps forcefully.
Step 5: Slowly return the dumbbells to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Accentuate the eccentric! Lower the weight under control, to a count of 4-6 seconds. Think of pulling the weight down with your triceps and trying to resist the downward pull with your biceps. Don’t just slow the fall, actively resists the pull! This will increase mechanical tension, muscle damage, and mTOR production. All great things for hypertrophy!
Step 6: Continue until you reach your desired number of reps.
Coach’s Tip: Lift both dumbbells at the same time for most goals. This allows you to keep constant tension on both arms, instead of allowing each to rest while the other arm works.
What Are Incline Hammer Curls?
Incline dumbbell hammer curls are a biceps targeting exercise that is performed with a neutral grip instead of the more common supinated grip. They are designed to target the brachialis and brachioradialis, as well as the biceps brachii. They can be performed one arm at a time, alternating rep-by-rep between arms, or with both arms curling at the same time.
Muscles Worked by Incline Hammer Curls
Incline dumbbell hammer curls activate and target both heads of the biceps brachii, the brachialis, and the brachioradialis.
The biceps brachii, commonly known as the biceps, is made up of two separate heads: the short head, and the long head. It originates on the scapula and runs towards the elbow. It is responsible for flexing your elbow and supinating your hand (turning your palm from facing down to up).
Long Head of the Biceps Brachii
The long head of the biceps brachii is the more distal of the two heads. It stretches from just above the shoulder joint down to the elbow and helps flex the elbow and stabilize the shoulder. Hammer curls are particularly effective at activating this head.
Short Head of the Biceps Brachii
The short head of the biceps brachii is the more proximal of the two heads. It originates at the top of the scapula and extends to the elbow. Hammer curls are less effective at targeting this head, but it will still receive some work.
This brachialis is primarily responsible for elbow flexion and is the strongest flexor of the elbow when the wrist is in a neutral position (palms facing each other).
The brachioradialis is a forearm muscle and is responsible for assisting the brachialis in elbow flexion, as well as supination and pronation of the forearm.
Benefits of Incline Hammer Curls
Incline hammer curls are a must in any strength training or hypertrophy program. Here are several reasons why.
The Work Multiple Biceps Muscles
Incline hammer curls target the biceps brachii, as well as other muscles such as the brachialis and brachioradialis.
The traditional biceps curl targets the short head of the biceps brachii (the biceps show muscle we all know and love). The incline hammer curl activates these muscles as well but primarily targets the long head of the biceps (outside of the arm), the brachialis muscle, which sits under the biceps brachii, and the brachioradialis, which extends all the way down onto the top of your forearms.
These three muscles run from the upper to lower arms, acting as powerful elbow flexors. Strengthening and building all of these muscles together will help you thicken your forearms and add inches to your biceps.
They Provide a Full Range of Motion
By performing your hammer curls on an incline bench you get a better stretch on your biceps than by doing them standing or sitting upright. The incline hammer curl position stretches your biceps muscle as you extend your arms further than in a regular hammer curl.
They Are Versatile
You can perform incline hammer curls in a variety of ways, including one arm at a time, alternating reps between arms, or both arms curling at the same time. This makes incline hammer curls perfect for incline dumbbell workouts or circuit training routines.
They Build Upper Arm Strength and Size
Incline dumbbell hammer curls are great for building strength and size in your upper arms. By incorporating these into your regular workout routine, you can build bigger biceps and stronger forearms to help you perform better at lifting heavy weight!
They Develop Grip Strength
Incline hammer curls can improve your grip strength by activating the brachioradialis in your forearm. Grip strength is essential for athletic, compound exercises like pull-ups and deadlifts, and everyday tasks like opening jars or bringing in your groceries.
They are Safe for Your Elbows
The hammer curl is performed with your wrist in a neutral position, which aligns with your elbow more naturally. This makes it a sturdier position and a great alternative to regular dumbbell curls for people with elbow pain.
They Strengthen Your Wrists
The hammer curl is performed with a neutral wrist (palms facing each other), rather than them being supinated (palms out) or pronated (palms backward). Neutral grip exercises can improve the stability and strength of the forearm flexors and extensors, decreasing the chance of injury to the wrist joint and surrounding tissues.
Common Errors With Incline Hammer Curls
Recognize and avoid these common incline DB hammer curl errors.
Avoid using momentum. One of the benefits of using an incline bench for this movement is that it places your body in a position that will minimize the use of momentum, which is a common error with any biceps exercise. And is usually ego-driven.
It’s not how much weight you lift, it’s how you lift the weight.
Lift the weight under control, forcing the target muscles to do the work.
Avoid this common error by choosing the appropriate weight. Lighten the weight if you need to, and work your way up to a heavier weight through normal progressive overload programming.
Resting at the Top
Flex your arms hard as you curl the weight up toward your shoulders. When you reach the fully flexed position, squeeze your biceps as hard as you can, and then slowly lower the weight.
Too often people will take tension off their biceps at the top of the movement, almost letting the dumbbells rest against their upper arms. Don’t take tension off the muscle! You’re robbing yourself of gains.
Hammer Curls vs Traditional Biceps Curls
How are these exercises different, and which one is better? I hear that a lot, and it’s a great question!
Let’s get the easy one out of the way…which is better? Both! You need both! If you only train with one or the other you are missing out on essential functions of the muscles that make up the biceps. This not only robs you of gains, it creates imbalances. Do both!
How Are They Different?
The traditional biceps curl (yes there is always an ‘s’ at the end of the word!) is performed using a supinated grip (palms forward). It primarily targets both the long and short heads of the biceps brachii. But it does not involve the brachialis and the brachioradialis to any real measurable degree.
The biceps brachii is a strong forearm supinator, but a weak elbow flexor! (1) During elbow flexion, the long head’s primary role is actually to stabilize the humeral head in the glenoid (keeping your upper arm bone in position in the socket). (2)
The incline hammer curl is performed using a neutral grip (palms facing each other). It primarily targets the long head of the biceps brachii, as well as the brachialis and the brachioradialis to a much greater degree than the supinated biceps curl.
The brachialis is the prime elbow flexor! But it doesn’t provide supination or pronation of the wrist, which is why hammer curls work so well. (3)
The brachioradialis’ primary role is as a stabilizer for the forearm during elbow flexion, and it sees more activation toward pronation rather than supination. (4) This is why it is more active during hammer curls than traditional, supinated curls.
The bottom line is that you need both exercises in your arsenal to build strong, muscular arms!
Who Should Do Incline Hammer Curls
Strength, power, and fitness athletes, as well as regular gym-goers, can all benefit from performing incline hammer curls.
Strength and Power Athletes
Powerlifters and Strongman Athletes require a strong grip to perform the various feats of strength they are tested in. And the bigger and stronger their forearms and upper arms, the better they can stand up to the strain caused by heavy deadlifts, carries, and odd-object events. Incline hammer curls target both of these goals.
Functional Fitness Athlete
Let’s be honest, functional fitness athletes don’t spend much time, if any, on curls. If you go to a CrossFit gym, when was the last time you were programmed some good ol’ straight bar curls?
But they should!
Incline hammer curls can be used to improve pulling power, grip strength, and wrist and elbow stability. Sounds pretty functional to me! If you’re struggling with upper-body strength or with grip-intensive activities, consider adding some hammer curls into your supplementary training.
Bodybuilders need peaks on their biceps, it’s true. But they need thick arms as well. The hammer curl will help you grow your biceps and forearm muscles, and give your arms thickness and dimension from the sides.
The General Population
The general population could benefit from incline hammer curls to improve their strength, power, and fitness performance. But they can also benefit from working the targeted muscles (biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis) for more aesthetic purposes. Who doesn’t want bigger arms anyway?
And the more balanced your muscles, the less injury-prone they are. Sticking solely with supinated grip versions neglects the primary functions of the brachialis and brachioradialis, leading to imbalances.
How you program incline dumbbell hammer curls depend on your goals. If you’re training for strength, your sets, reps, and rest periods are going to be different than someone with endurance goals.
Below we’ve broken programming into training for strength, hypertrophy , and endurance. These are general guidelines that will work well for each goal but are by no means the only way to program this movement.
For Strength Gains
4-5 sets, 4-6 reps, 90-120 seconds of rest
A general guideline when training for strength is to choose heavy loads, performed for lower reps with longer rest periods. With any strength-specific program, the goal is to generate as much contractile force as possible, as well as to train your nervous system to recruit and fire more motor units efficiently and powerfully.
When incline hammer curls, you want to choose a weight that allows you to perform 4-5 sets of 4-6 reps per set. This is the Limit Strength Zone. Anything higher than 6 and you move out of the strength training zone.
Your rest periods should be relatively long; long enough to allow for full recovery. For a heavy compound movement, that is usually in the 2-5 minute range. However, because this exercise will take place later in your workout, and is an isolation movement, use rests of 90-120 seconds between sets.
If you have great recovery capacity, perform straight sets. Use the same weight for all sets. If you can complete 5 sets of 6 reps, increase the load at your next session.
If your recovery capacity is limited by stress, age, or lifestyle, work up to one maximum set of 4-6 reps. If you get 6 reps, increase the weight at the next session.
For Hypertrophy – Build Some Muscle!
3-4 sets, 8-12 reps, 60-75 seconds of rest
To build muscle, you need to fatigue the muscle for 40 to 70 seconds. That places you in the 8 to 12 reps range, depending on how slow you move the weight.
Perform 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps with 60 to 75 seconds of rest between efforts.
Control the concentric (lifting portion) and lower the weight slowly (4-6 seconds).
Do not cheat the weight and do not bring the weight down to a full stretch. Both of these will take momentary tension off the muscles. Don’t let them rest! Even for a fraction of a second!
2-3 sets, 15-20 reps, 45-60 seconds of rest
Endurance training, also known as muscular endurance, focuses on using lighter loads with shorter rest intervals to challenge local muscular endurance while also enhancing overall work capacity.
You can perform reps in the Strength-Endurance (12-15 reps) or Endurance-Strength (15-20 reps) zone.
Because incline hammer curls are an isolation exercise, I recommend 15 to 20 reps for 2 to 3 sets when training for endurance.
Incline Hammer Curl Variations
Never get bored with these variations!
Standing Hammer Curl
Instead of performing hammer curls while sitting on an incline bench, stand up. You will be stronger with this variation, but you get less of a stretch at the bottom and there is more chance of cheating reps and using momentum.
Seated Hammer Curl
This hammer curl variation is in between standing hammer curls and incline hammer curls. You will get less of a stretch in the bottom position than with the incline version but will have less tendency to use momentum than when you’re standing.
But, with this version, you can press your body into the backrest hard and create an oppositional force.
If you have a backrest. If not, it’s a great way to prevent cheating and minimize the involvement of your legs. In the first demonstration video above, you’ll notice that I’m leaning back to create an inclined position, but I don’t have an incline bench. This makes it a great core exercise as well, but definitely decreases the amount of weight you can use.
Alternating Hammer Curl
I generally recommend performing your curls with both arms at the same time, or a single arm hammer curl, performing all of your reps with your weak arm, followed by a short rest, and then completing a set with your dominant arm.
Alternating hammer curls allow each arm to rest while the other works, but the additional rest between reps allows you to handle more weight.
But only if you allow the non-working to hang!
You can also perform these by having your non-working arm hold the dumbbell in the fully contracted position, or isometrically held in a half or 3/4 position.
Rope Hammer Curl
This is my favorite cable hammer curl variation.
You can perform these in a kneeling or half-kneeling position, standing, seated, inclined, or with the attachment set low or high. Each of these variations has its plusses and minuses. Experiment and find a version you like.
Kettlebell Hammer Curls
The kettlebell hammer curl is challenging! The key is to keep your wrist neutral and not allow the bell to angle toward the ground as you perform the lift. The bottom of the bell should start pointing at the floor, should point toward the wall in front of you at the mid-point, and then angled toward the ceiling at the top of the movement.
Not only will these biceps, forearm, and grip strength, but It’s also a great variation for improving shoulder stability.
Facing In/Facing Away Cable Hammer Curls
Cables provide a different resistance profile than free weights, and consistent resistance throughout a larger range of motion. Whether you choose to face the machine or away from it will help determine which portion of the rep is getting the highest amount of resistance.
Facing away from the cable machine allow you to get a longer stretch in the lengthened or stretched position. This is great for increasing the range of motion and increasing muscle damage and mTOR activation.
Facing the machine will place more emphasis on the mid-shortened range of the muscle. Better for 3/4 reps and isometrics at the peak contraction. For this variation I usually use the rope attachment, but sometimes I’ll hold on the cable itself and perform a single-arm cable hammer curl.
Preacher Hammer Curls
The preacher hammer curl helps minimize shoulder involvement in the curl and prevents any chance of using excess momentum. Great for isolating the biceps muscles!
Resting your triceps against a preacher bench pad can also be used to create oppositional force. This can increase muscular strain during the execution of the exercise. To take advantage of this tactic, focus on pressing your arms as hard as you can into the pad while you curl.
Hammer Curl 21s
You can’t have a biceps training article and not mention 21s!
21s are a rep scheme that divides the full range of motion into top and bottom halves. These can increase muscle damage, isolate sticking points, and train weak areas.
Bring your dumbbells to the fully contracted position and perform seven partial repetitions of the hammer curl, from the top down to halfway (elbow bent at 90-degrees). Then complete 7 partial repetitions from the fully stretched position up to halfway. Finally, complete 7 full range of motion reps.
Titan Fitness Hex DBs – these are inexpensive as far as dumbbells go, but they’re good quality. I have a pair of 50s and they’ve lasted.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can beginners perform incline hammer curls?
Yes! In fact, you should! Don’t spend all of your time with supinated variations. Hammer curls will target additional muscles and help you build bigger, more balanced arms.
What muscles does the incline hammer curl work?
The incline hammer curl works multiple muscle groups in the upper arms and forearms. These muscle groups include:
What is the difference between normal biceps curls and hammer curls?
The main difference between a regular biceps curl and an incline hammer curl is the grip. Hammer curls are performed with a neutral grip, while regular curls are performed with a supinated (underhand) grip. This subtle change targets different muscles in the arms, namely the brachialis and brachioradialis.
Are dumbbells better than using cables for hammer curls?
No, not necessarily. Cables offer a constant tension that dumbbells don’t, but free weights use gravity and create a very natural form of tension. To optimize your training, you should use a variety of training methods, including free weights, cables, and machines.
Conclusion: Incline Hammer Curls
So there you have it – a plethora of incline hammer curl variations to try! Which one is your favorite? Do you have a go-to version that you always use? Let us know in the comments below. And be sure to share this article with your friends and training partners so they can add these great exercises to their own workout routine.
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- Kumar, V P et al. “The role of the long head of biceps brachii in the stabilization of the head of the humerus.” Clinical orthopaedics and related research ,244 (1989): 172-5.
- Plantz MA, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Brachialis Muscle. [Updated 2022 Feb 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551630/
- Boland, Michael R et al. “The function of brachioradialis.” The Journal of hand surgery vol. 33,10 (2008): 1853-9. doi:10.1016/j.jhsa.2008.07.019