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Smith machine bicep curls are one of the most underrated arm Exercises

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

I'm not one of those fellas who pretends that he knows everything about lifting. And I certainly don't believe in one magic muscle-gaining program. In fact, there are countless Smith machine workout routines that you can follow, all of which produce an equally excellent result with enough effort (and with enough protein, of course).

However, if you want to build bigger arms quickly (who doesn't?), then I recommend giving the Smith machine bicep curl a good, honest try for a few weeks.

Now, I've already got fairly decent biceps to say I'm not on gear or owt like that (I've been lifting for 10+ years). But, what I found truly thought-provoking about Smith machine biceps curls is that they basically force you to use perfect form!

Obviously, proper form is crucial for building bigger biceps because it's so easy to let other, stronger muscle groups take over. And, no, I didn't grow my arms by an inch or anything crazy. But a very important lesson was cemented in my head...

Smith machine bicep curl exercise details

  • Main muscles: Biceps
  • Supporting muscles: Brachialis, Brachioradialis, forearm flexors
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting gloves, Fat Gripz, occlusion bands
  • Exercise purpose: Increase bicep circumference and improve the appearance of your upper arms

How to do Smith machine bicep curls

  1. Set the Smith bar to mid-thigh level.
  2. Add your desired weight to the bar—start light.
  3. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip and rotate your wrists to lift it off the hooks.
  4. Keeping your shoulders as still as possible, curl your palms towards your shoulders until you feel an intense bicep contraction.
  5. Hold the contraction for a second, and then lower the bar under control for a full stretch. Repeat for 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

Smith machine bicep curl mistakes

Swinging the weight up

man performing barbell curls in front of a gym rack

Swinging the weight up is admittedly a bit harder to do on Smith machines. But I'm sure that you've seen people do it a thousand times on barbell curls. And it's just cringeworthy, isn't it?

Well, not only does bending your knees, hips and shoulders turn the exercise into some ridiculous dance move—it also robs your biceps of tension (and thereby muscle growth).

Thankfully—and I don't say this often—there's a quick fix: initiate every rep with your biceps.

If you begin each curl by squeezing your biceps, then you're forcing them to lift the weight.

Don't ruin this by bringing your knees and hips into the movement (still possible on a Smith machine). But, by following this tip, you at least won't swing the weight up with your shoulders.

"You can easily tell if your front delts are taking over if your elbows move forward as you curl — although a few degrees of movement is normal and expected during a curl since the biceps also weakly assist in shoulder flexion."
Jeremy Ethier
Kinesiologist

Not squeezing like your life depends on it

man training his biceps

Ask anyone with lagging biceps to hold a curl in the contracted position, and their arms will cave in like a poorly-constructed childhood den.

You see, a muscle is weakest when it's at its most contracted, and when it's at its most stretched.

So, if you want attention-demanding arms, then you need to get strong where you're naturally (meant to be) weak. And the best way to do this is to squeeze your biceps as if your life depends on it.

Smith machine biceps curls are great for doing just this.

Shortcutting the range of motion

sporty man doing barbell curls in front of the gym mirror

Shortcutting the range of motion on curls by not lowering the bar for a full stretch is like drinking half a protein shake and expecting to gain muscle. It's like doing quarter squats and expecting to get quads like Ronnie Coleman. It's like taking a fat burner pill and expecting to get shredded.

In other words, it's a complete waste of time.

Plus, is it any coincidence that virtually everyone with lagging arms does half rep curls?

I highly doubt it.

So, train your biceps, not your ego. Your wrists and arms will thank you for it.

Coming up too high

close up of a woman doing dumbbell curls

Coming up too high goes hand in hand with swinging the weight up.

It's where you essentially swing the bar up with your shoulders and then catch it at the top of the rep—it tricks you into thinking that you're getting a full range of motion.

But really, your biceps aren't doing any of the lifting. In fact, it's basically like doing a front raise with a weight that's too heavy (hence why people always lean back on curls).

Instead, only curl the bar up until your biceps are fully contracted. Going higher takes the tension off your arms and puts it onto your front delts—and that's not what we want when we're trying to build bigger arms.

If there's one piece of advice that I can give you it's this: think of range of motion in terms of muscle and joint positions—not bar position.

The bar position is simply a convenient way to assess a range of motion. But the only true way to tell if your muscles are getting full stimulation is to look at your joint angle. Is just your arm flexed? Or are your elbows creeping forwards, too?

Recommended training gear for Smith machine bicep curls

1. Fat Gripz

"They're portable. They're pretty much indestructible."
Steve Cook
On Fat Gripz

I've been eyeing up Fat Gripz for years, secretly hoping that someone would buy me them for Christmas. Anyway, I finally bit the bullet and ordered a pair of the 2.25" Fat Gripz when they came back in stock. After all, with a 30-day money-back guarantee, I figured why not?

man doing cable curls with fat gripz

Now, these things are popular. So like I say, I had to wait for a while to order them. But once they arrived and I started using them in my arm workouts, I soon learned why the lifting world is talking about Fat Gripz.

EVERY set of biceps curls with Fat Gripz feels like three regular sets of curls—and that's with lighter weight. These things pump my up biceps so much that I've had to start training my arms less to let the rest of my body catch up!

And my forearms? The best way I can describe them since using Fat Gripz is this: swollen AF. They must've grown by at least half an inch. And I've not even been doing wrist curls.

man showing how to put fat gripz on a barbell

I have a sneaky suspicion that the forearms grow more from gripping thick bars than they do from performing wrist curls. It just makes sense. Humans have such big hands compared to other mammals because we need to grip stuff.

Anyhow. Fat Gripz have truly transformed my arm training (more than any supplement). I thought that I'd reached my genetic potential, but it turns out that I'd been leaving tons of muscle growth on the table by not using Fat Gripz!

2. Lifting gloves

When I'm not using Fat Gripz, I always wear lifting gloves to protect my hands from calluses and stop my sweat from making the bar slippery.

grebarley gym gloves

Anyway, I've tried quite a few pairs of workout gloves and what I've found is this: the cheap ones are just as good as the expensive ones.

I personally use these Grebarley Gym Gloves.

And I have no complaints. They come with integrated wrist support to limit joint strain and increase your pressing strength.

Also, they're made from really breathable microfiber material. This was actually the deal-maker for me because the padded material makes my hands sweat less (which in turn prevents my gloves from smelling rotten!).

3. Blood flow restriction cuffs

occlusion cuffs from bear grip

I'll be honest with you. I thought that blood flow restriction training sounded a bit dangerous at first. However, after reading into the science and consulting with some experts in the field, I quickly realised that I was missing out on tons of potential muscle growth by neglecting to include BFR training in my workout.

So I decided to invest in a pair of Bear Grip Occlusion training bands.

I use them alongside my Fat Gripz, and the pump I get from lifting just 30% of my one-rep is borderline crazy!

I can honestly say that a drop set pump feels timid compared to an occlusion training pump. I use my Bear Grips for both bicep and tricep exercises, and it blows my arms up without irritating my elbows one bit.

man wearing occlusion cuffs while training his arms

Since the wraps are 5.5cm wide, they restrict just the right amount of blood flow to set your arms on fire, but no so much that you actually start to feel dizzy. Plus, the elastic makes it really easy to adjust the tension.

The bottom line is, for about the price of a Nandos meal and drink, these wraps will give you the best arm pump of your life—especially if you also use Fat Gripz. Occlusion cuffs are a must-have if your arms aren't growing as fast as you want them to.

"The cool thing is, you only gotta use 30-40% of your one-rep max."
John Meadows
On BFR Training

Smith machine bicep curl muscles worked

Biceps

Illustration of the biceps anatomy

The biceps perform 2 main functions: elbow flexion (as in curling) and forearm supination (as in turning your palms up). So, since Smith machine curls satisfy both of these functions, they're a brilliant bicep builder. And not one that I see many people taking advantage of, sadly.

Brachialis

Illustration of the forearm anatomy

The brachialis is a small muscle that helps to flex the elbow joint. It's not visible to the human eye unless you happen to be really lean.

Yet, when well-developed, it pushes the biceps out and gives them more of a peak.

Forearms

Illustration of the forearm muscles

Most lifters don't actually need to do direct forearm training because they're used during every back and bicep exercise. However, I still like to use Fat Gripz on a few sets of curls each week to add some extra size to my forearms (big forearms really add a third-dimension to the arms as a whole, in my opinion).

Smith machine bicep curl benefits

Bulkier biceps

bodybuilder flexing his big biceps

When you perform a bicep curl on Smith machine systems, it's hard to cheat the weight up because you can't move the barbell backwards or forwards.

Naturally, this forces your arms to do more of the lifting.

But, because you don't have to waste energy stabilising the bar, you can also lift heavier weights when you do the bicep curl Smith machine style.

Ultimately, these heavier poundages add up to bigger biceps because you're overloading the muscle with more tension. Which is the number one driver behind muscle growth.

Faster arm growth

close up of a Speedometer

The biceps can take a beating. In my experience, they respond particularly well to intensity techniques like failure training, drop sets and supersets.

However, drop sets and the like quickly become impractical when you're curling with a regular barbell. By the time you've actually removed the collars or tracked down another fixed barbell, you've already let your biceps off the hook!

With Smith machine curls, on the other hand, putting the weight down and changing the plates is ridiculously easy. And it takes a few seconds at most. As a result, you naturally keep your biceps closer to the point of fatigue.  Why's this important?

Because in the end, fatigue is what causes your muscles to adapt and grow bigger. Nobody ever built great biceps by doing a few sets of comfortable curls 5 reps from failure and then going home.

You need to give your biceps a reason to gain size. And performing the biceps curl Smith machine style is one of the easiest ways to do this.

Smith machine bicep curl alternatives

Smith machine drag curl

If you want the biggest bicep pump possible, then there's no better exercise for the job than the Smith machine drag curl. If you thought preacher curls and concentration curls gave you an intense contraction, just wait until you try this skin-splitting bicep exercise.

Combine a few sets of these drag curls with a citrulline-based pre-workout, and your arms will quite literally swell to epic proportions. And yes, you might have to buy new t-shirts. You have been warned.

Smith machine curl throw

If your biceps are toned but lack that raw power to lift heavy weights, then the Smith machine curl throw is a great, one-of-a-kind solution. After just a few weeks of including this bicep Smith machine exercise in my program, all of my regular exercises started to feel easier because I was so used to lifting explosively. No wonder it was invented by a fella with a PhD.

Barbell curl

The only negative about the Smith machine bicep curl is that it's hard to know exactly how much weight you're lifting. Some Smith machines make it obvious by specifying the bar weight, but many don't bother.

Yet, with barbell curls, this is never a problem. If you use a fixed curl bar, then you can see exactly how much you're lifting with a quick glance. And if you use an Olympic bar? Well, then just add 20kg to however much weight is on the barbell. Easy [1].

However, it's much easier to cheat with free weight curls. And since swinging the weight up and shortening the range of motion are two of the biggest bicep training pitfalls, machines are much more effective in many cases.

FAQ

What are the best Smith machine bicep exercises?

bodybuilder holding a protein shake

In my opinion, the best Smith machine bicep exercises are the drag curl, bicep curl and curl throw [2].

How can I do a Smith machine Biceps ladder?

thinking women with question mark on white background

The Smith machine bicep ladder is a bodyweight bicep training drill. But don't be fooled—because it's far from easy. After all, when was the last time you curled your bodyweight?

Grab the Smith bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip and place your feet out in front of you—your body should be as straight as a plank. At this point, your torso should almost be in contact with the ground when your arms are fully extended.

Curl your forehead towards the bar and then lower your body under control. Whether you actually touch your forehead to the bar or not is unimportant. This exercise is all about the eccentric stretch [3].

Repeat the curling motion until you reach muscular failure. Then, increase the height of the Smith machine bar by one hook, and once again curl until failure. Do this for as many sets as you dare!

What rep range is most optimal for Smith machine bicep curls?

ripped fitness model doing bicep curls

The 8-12 rep range is the most optimal rep range for Smith machine bicep curls because it allows you to accumulate plenty of time under tension [4].

How many sets of Smith machine biceps curls should I do?

bodybuilder doing cable curls

Perform 2-4 sets of the Smith machine bicep curl and make sure to do another bicep exercise (like incline curls) where the weight is behind you. This setup helps you to build arm size faster by hitting both heads of your biceps [5].

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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