Should you stop doing bicep curls? Maybe, but here are four safe bicep strengthening exercises that won’t create wear and tear damage from overtraining.
Hey, it’s Coach E here today with Dr. B. We’re going to talk about who, if, and when someone should stop doing bicep curls. Then we’ll cover four exercises to allow you to keep doing bicep curls without damaging your shoulder.
This article came about because Dr. B and I were talking about how people with shoulder pain should definitely stop doing bicep curls.
So that’s one hint of who should stop. When she talked about why, I thought it was really important information to share because a lot of people who have shoulder pain want to keep exercising. They want to stay fit.
Because bicep curls are not necessarily a shoulder exercise, and it might not aggravate an already painful shoulder, they’ll keep doing that exercise. But when Dr. B talked about why they should stop, I thought it was really important for people to know.
Why Should People with Shoulder Pains Stop Doing Bicep Curls?
Dr. B says:
The answer is it worsens impingement. What’s impingement? First, impingement is when the soft tissues (the bursa and the rotator cuff tendon) that sit between the humeral head and the acromion get pinched. If that space decreases as you raise your arm up, the tendons and/or bursa get pinched. If you do this repetitively, eventually, that tissue can tear. Now, what does the biceps have to do with that? Well, the long head of the biceps actually goes through the shoulder joint. It inserts on the top of the glenoid, travels through the joint, and sits in a groove at the top of the humerus. It’s called the intertubercular groove. Then, the long head of the biceps attaches to the biceps muscle. Now, if the biceps muscle gets really tight, it will want to pull the tendon out of the groove. That’s not a good thing because there are ligaments and the subscapularis tendon, which will be stressed by the mechanical pressure of the tendon wanting to come out of the groove. Not only does the tendon tear the ligament and the subscapularis tendon when this happens, but the tendon itself can fray. You can imagine if this tendon keeps rubbing against the bone, eventually, the tendon is going to tear. When the subscapularis is stressed, and starts to tear, it becomes tight and, we lose external rotation. That is the rotation of our arm away from our body. This is important because if we cannot externally rotate, we cannot clear the greater tuberosity from the joint, and that accentuates impingement. If I were to raise my arm without externally rotating, you can see the space gets very small. Impingement is accentuated. If I can externally rotate, the tuberosity is at the back, and there’s no impingement.
The answer is it worsens impingement.
First, impingement is when the soft tissues (the bursa and the rotator cuff tendon) that sit between the humeral head and the acromion get pinched.
If that space decreases as you raise your arm up, the tendons and/or bursa get pinched. If you do this repetitively, eventually, that tissue can tear.
Now, what does the biceps have to do with that?
Well, the long head of the biceps actually goes through the shoulder joint. It inserts on the top of the glenoid, travels through the joint, and sits in a groove at the top of the humerus. It’s called the intertubercular groove.
Then, the long head of the biceps attaches to the biceps muscle. Now, if the biceps muscle gets really tight, it will want to pull the tendon out of the groove. That’s not a good thing because there are ligaments and the subscapularis tendon, which will be stressed by the mechanical pressure of the tendon wanting to come out of the groove. Not only does the tendon tear the ligament and the subscapularis tendon when this happens, but the tendon itself can fray.
You can imagine if this tendon keeps rubbing against the bone, eventually, the tendon is going to tear. When the subscapularis is stressed, and starts to tear, it becomes tight and, we lose external rotation. That is the rotation of our arm away from our body. This is important because if we cannot externally rotate, we cannot clear the greater tuberosity from the joint, and that accentuates impingement.
If I were to raise my arm without externally rotating, you can see the space gets very small. Impingement is accentuated. If I can externally rotate, the tuberosity is at the back, and there’s no impingement.
Most people who have shoulder pain have either rotator cuff tendonitis or a tear. Both of these conditions can cause an impingement syndrome pain that occurs at around 90 degrees as you raise your arm overhead.
We did a survey, and about 65-70% of people who have shoulder pain have one of these two things.
If you don’t know what your shoulder pain is, then it’s important that you assume that potentially rotator cuff, impingement, or related to one of those. Either way, avoid doing bicep curls because that is just going to worsen those conditions.
What If You’re an Overhead Athlete?
Doc, you’re an overhead-throwing athlete. You’re a tennis player. Why don’t you tell us why people like you should stop doing bicep curls?
Dr. B says:
Well, first of all, I don’t think you need big, bulky biceps if you’re an overhead athlete. It can slow you down. But certainly, if you get an imbalance around your shoulder, it will accentuate impingement.
Very often, overhead athletes have a tight posterior capsule. When you have a tight posterior capsule, the humeral head actually has to move upwards and forward, which will cause impingement when you go to lift your arm overhead.
So if you have that combination of a tighter posterior capsule and then the long head of the biceps isn’t doing its job, you can really end up with double impingement.
There are a lot of overhead-throwing athletes who are often prescribed bicep curls in their strength conditioning programs, especially baseball players.
I think there’s a little bit of a bodybuilding mentality still associated with baseball in terms of getting bigger and stronger to hit the ball. But you don’t only have to hit the ball. You’ve got to throw the ball too. So, avoid bicep curls for overhead-throwing athletes.
The last group are the guys who are going to be maybe a little bit more upset about this.
Bodybuilders. The guys whose goal is to get big muscles and big biceps. What do bodybuilders need to know about bicep curls?
Dr. B says:
Well, first of all, it is okay to be trying to get big biceps. But you have to be smart about it. Because if you overdo it, you can get compensations and imbalances that will create lots of problems in your shoulder. I often see long-head bicep tendon ruptures or osteoarthritis of the shoulder because the tight, tight biceps muscle interferes with shoulder function.
It’s important that bodybuilders make sure that they’re doing mobility work, and some of the exercises that we’re going to share in a moment lengthen the biceps to counteract what you’re doing. Especially if you’re in the hypertrophy phase of your routine.
Don’t fret. You can still do your bicep curls. You just need to make sure you’re not doing them so much that you’re creating an imbalance that’s going to lead to shoulder pain or some other issue, such as a rupture of the biceps.
4 Bicep Strengthening Exercises
We’re going to cover some bicep strengthening exercises to make sure that if you’ve got shoulder pain, you’ve got the right muscles working. These will:
- Prevent tight biceps
- Lengthen the biceps muscle
- Stabilize the shoulder
- Improve alignment
- Improve posture
We’re going to go through some other exercises that will work the biceps but not necessarily result in the problems that you would get from overdoing bicep curls.
If you want to follow along with the video, watch Should You STOP Doing Bicep Curls? on YouTube.
Exercise 1: Extended Elbow Wrist Fl-Ex
The first exercise we’re going to start with today is called the Extended Elbow Wrist Fl-Ex. This exercise is going to help you restore full extension range of motion when your elbow is fully straight.
If you’ve done a lot of bicep curls in your day, these muscles tighten up, and you might walk around with your elbow slightly bent. We want to restore that full range of motion.
This is really important to keep the joint structures healthy in the elbow. If you lose that full range of motion, you get into the old “use it or lose it” phenomenon. When we’re not using and stressing certain tissues, they’ll just atrophy.
This exercise is really important to focus on the little cues and techniques. Don’t rush through it. We’re going to do one arm at a time.
Start off with your shoulder in good alignment – pulled back a little bit, standing nice and tall. Then just lift your arm in front of you a little bit. I always look at what I’m doing. It helps me to control the movement better.
Then, you’re going to activate the biceps and slowly ramp up the contraction. Starting from zero, ramp up 10%, 20%, 30% at a time until you’re at max contraction. Once you’re at max contraction, you’re holding that contraction the whole time. Your biceps and your triceps will be on.
From there, slowly straighten your elbow out to full extension, keeping that contraction. Then, with your fingers flared, you’re going to extend your wrist fully, keeping the contraction of the biceps. Hold that position for about 10 seconds, working those extensors of the forearm and the wrist. Activate those muscles as strong as you can, keeping that flared hand position. Elbow straight.
Change to wrist flexion. Palm is spread out, fingers flared, biceps and triceps are on. Now, we’re working the wrist flexors. We’re fighting ourselves here, and that’s going to build strength in this range of motion.
After about 10 seconds there, go to your neutral wrist position; biceps and triceps are still on. Then you return to the start, slightly bent elbow position, and you gradually relax. Ramp it down. Shake it out.
- Start in good alignment with your arm slightly raised in front of you, supinated
- Ramp up bicep contraction
- Holding contraction, straighten your elbow, flare your fingers, and extend your wrist
- Hold for 10 seconds
- Keeping your fingers flared, change to wrist flexion
- Hold for 10 seconds
- Return to neutral wrist, slightly bend your elbow, ramp down biceps contraction
You could repeat on one side, complete all reps on one side, and then switch. Or, you can go back and forth. Either way works well.
Do 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps per arm. And hold those activations for 5-10 seconds each.
The other thing to remember when you’re doing this is the shoulder positioning. People start to creep forward, rounding their shoulders, as they go through the technique. And as they develop fatigue. So keep that shoulder position back. Stay nice and tall and work from there.
This exercise is really helpful again for the elbow range of motion, but also for the wrist range of motion and restoring balance to these joints from the elbow to the shoulder to the wrist.
We’ve got a lot of muscles working, and it’s also beneficial for shoulder range of motion. This exercise I’ve done in isolation for people and tested their shoulder flexion range of motion, and it’s contributed to improving that range. It looks like an elbow exercise, but because the biceps and the triceps cross the shoulder joint as well, you’ll get some benefits there.
Exercise 2: Shoulder Rotation Robot
Next up, we’re going to do one of my favorite scapular stabilization exercises called the Shoulder Rotation Robot.
You’ll need your back against a wall for this exercise. Your feet should be about one foot away from the wall. To start, get your head back against the wall, good posture, making yourself nice and tall like there’s a string pulling your head up towards the ceiling.
Then, the key here is posterior scapular tilt and a little bit of reversing so that your shoulders are back towards the wall. They’re supposed to stay there the whole time. So when you’re doing this exercise, your shoulders are not rounded off the wall. They’re pulled back. Posterior tilt and reversed back towards the wall.
From here, bring your elbows just away from your body a little bit, maybe 30 degrees. One arm up, one arm down, making fists. You’re trying to get your fist closer to the wall. It doesn’t matter if you touch the wall or not. If you do touch the wall, press into the wall. But if not, you’re just trying to get closer to the wall as you’re holding in this position with the shoulders back.
After about 5-10 seconds, you slowly rotate, keep your tension through the shoulders, and keep the shoulders back towards the wall. The key here is the shoulder back to the wall, and the scapular stabilizer muscles, like the lower traps and radialis anterior, are activated. Hold there, breathing naturally. Avoid hyper-extending your lower back, but keep a neutral, relaxed lower back.
It’s on the lower arm down here in the internal rotation where the shoulder will most want to be pulled off the wall.
- Get into position against the wall
- Bring your elbows up, away from your body, about 30 degrees, one arm up & one down
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
- Slowly switch your forearms to the opposite positions
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
Do this for 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps, holding for 5-10 seconds in each arm position.
Exercise 3: Pull Movements (e.g., Chin-ups)
The next exercise or group of exercises is chin-ups, pull-ups, and rows. These pull movement exercises are great for developing the biceps, and they’ll not only develop the biceps, but they’ll work your upper body in a more balanced way.
You’ve got to work the shoulder muscles, and you’ve got to work the biceps and scapular stabilizers as you do these exercises. You’re going to avoid the over-development of certain movements and muscles that you would get if you’re just doing bicep curls.
Adding some chin-ups and rows, especially if you’re just an athlete and or if you just like to exercise for general health and fitness. Do more chin-ups, rows, pull-ups, or any of the pull movement patterns, and just sprinkle in a little bit of bicep curling at the end of the workout.
That’s your best bet to maintain good balance throughout your body.
I want to talk a little bit about technique when it comes to chin-ups because people tend to do a couple of things wrong.
First, people tend to flex their wrists. They’re already in a flexed wrist position when they grab the bar. What’s happening is they’re just going to over-develop the flexors of the forearm. This is more common in the pull-up grip or overhand grip.
That’s tip number one. Keep the wrists in neutral or even slightly extended when you grab the bar and when you’re hanging. So start off hanging, go on that wrist extension position, and then start the pull-up or chin-up from there.
The second tip is pulling the shoulders back. At the top, it’s really easy to focus just on getting your chin over the bar.
It could look like getting your chin over the bar, but then you might start rounding your shoulders, flexing your spine, and then curling yourself up to the bar using a lot of biceps and not using a lot of the back muscles.
When you get to the top, you’re pulling, and you’re squeezing the shoulders back – that reversing motion that we talked about earlier. Then you’re not so much focusing on the chin over the bar, but the chest out, reversing shoulders back, and getting as far as you up to the top with good shoulder movement and mechanics.
- Keep wrists in neutral or slightly extended – DON’T FLEX
- Keep your shoulders pulled back – Don’t curl yourself over the bar
Do at least 2 sets, up to 6 sets. It will depend on your training program. Reps will depend on how much weight you’re using and what your goal is, whether it’s strength or hypertrophy. Rest appropriately according to the number of reps you’re doing and your goals.
Those are just a couple of points for chin-ups, rows, or any of those pulling-type movements. But it’s even more important to develop your body in a balanced fashion.
Exercise 4: Bicep Curls
The final exercise I’d like to cover is bicep curls themselves.
I’m just going to use some dumbbells to demonstrate, but this applies to any bicep curl variation – dumbbells, barbells, easy curl bar, whatever it is you’re doing, you can apply this.
The key thing here is the shoulder girdle position. From a side view, I’m not doing my bicep curls with rounded shoulders, flexed thoracic spine, or curling using momentum. I’m pulling those shoulders back, so a little bit of reversing. Get a little bit of posterior tilt, staying nice and tall and relaxed through the spine, and curling from there.
Whether I’m doing alternating curls or I have both palms up, keeping the shoulders back and curling just like that, keeping those shoulders back as I’m curling and going through that full range of motion. Come up and then not just using momentum, where you’re not working this full range at the bottom here. Make sure the elbow goes straight in between reps. Then curl up, keeping the shoulders back.
Bicep Curl form tip summary:
- Pull your shoulders back
- Posterior scapular tilt
- Avoid momentum so you get full elbow range of motion
Do 2-3 sets. Don’t go too crazy with bicep curls. Work anywhere from 6 – 12 repetitions. That’s good enough for general strength and hypertrophy. Rest for a minute or two in between sets, and you’re good to go.
Those are just a couple of the tips for the bicep curls themselves.
It’s not a bad exercise. It just could be done too much, or it could be done with poor form.
Dr. B and I hope you enjoyed this article and you got something out of it. You can apply the principles and information on bicep strengthening exercises to continue to move freely and without pain. We also hope it helps to fix any issues that you may be dealing with right now.
We’ve also got other articles that you may find interesting.
The 5 Fundamental Movements to Prevent Shoulder Pain – learn how to prevent shoulder pain by mastering these five moves. They will give you strong, stable shoulders and a foundation for everyday movements.
Rotator Cuff Injury Tests: Plus Symptoms & Treatments – learn how to test yourself for rotator cuff injury at home and determine what kind of tear you have.
The Fastest Way to Rehab a Strained Rotator Cuff – discover the most common root causes and three keys to help you rehab your rotator cuff injury and prevent future wear and tear,
If you do have shoulder pain, we’ve got a program that can really help you out. It walks you through all of the exercises you need to stabilize your shoulders, restore good range of motion, and strengthen your body in good movement patterns. That’s called the Shoulder Pain Solution.
Start with our free Shoulder Pain Assessment. It’ll tell you what type of pain or mobility issue you’re suffering from. Then, you’ll get the next steps to moving freely and without pain for life.
See you there.
I am so pleased. I had a 40-year shoulder injury from volleyball and now I can do whatever I want. Thanks for all that you do. – Alissha
I am so pleased. I had a 40-year shoulder injury from volleyball and now I can do whatever I want.
Thanks for all that you do.