Cable Drag Curl: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
December 16, 2022

Upper body workouts, especially bicep exercises, are one of the most famous workouts employed in the gym. Variations of bicep exercises often make use of resistance, such as free weights, resistance bands, or machines with cable attachments. Among these variations is the cable drag curl.

As its name suggests, the cable drag curl is a resistance exercise that makes use of a cable machine. It primarily targets the biceps brachii at the top of the movement and results in the maximization of muscular hypertrophy, improvement of elbow tissue health, and enhancement of performance in some athletic activities.

Although the cable drag curl is a straightforward and effective exercise for increasing muscle growth and definition in the arms, there are a few mistakes that must be avoided in order to decrease the risk of injury and maximize the workout. These errors include positioning too far from the machine, using weights that are too heavy, and flaring the elbows.

What is a Cable Drag Curl?

The cable drag curl is an isolation exercise for the biceps brachii commonly used by bodybuilders and athletes alike to develop biceps strength and, in turn, biceps size and appearance. The increase in biceps strength then aids in more functional situations like lifting, carrying, and pulling heavy loads.

cable drag curl

When broken down to its most granular components, the drag curl is a closed kinetic chain movement that targets the lateral and anterior biceps brachii and brachialis muscles of the upper arms via a barbell or dumbbell employed in a resistance exercise known as an isolation type focus.

Using a cable machine instead of free weights to perform a drag curl changes the mechanics of the exercise in the sense that the resistance remains constant through all phases of the activity. Furthermore, cable machines provide more stability than free weights, which may be beneficial for beginners.

How to Perform a Cable Drag Curl

To perform the cable drag curl, first, attach a straight bar or an EZ bar on a pulley machine. Stand in front of the machine with the feet shoulder-width apart, grab the bar, and bring it up, starting at the belly button.

Lift the weight by bending at the elbows and letting the elbows traverse backward, somehow pushing the bar or handle against the abdomen, as opposed to a typical bicep curl, where the elbows are positioned at the sides of the torso.

Then, bend the elbows further to pull the weights up to the sternum. At the top of the movement, slowly lower the handles back to the level of the belly button and repeat this motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set.

Take note that the concentration of the movement should all be on the biceps and not on the front delts, the traps, or any other muscles that surround it. 

Muscles Involved in the Performance of a Cable Drag Curl

As an isolation exercise, the main muscle engaged in the performance of cable drag curls, like other curl variations, is the biceps brachii muscle. There are two sections to the biceps muscle: the long head and the short head. When performing a pulling action, like a cable drag curl, the two heads function as one unit.

cable drag curl muscles

The brachialis, together with the brachioradialis, both synergists to the biceps, are also worked during cable drag curls. Furthermore, other muscles in the forearm, such as the wrist flexors, are also recruited, both in the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercise. The wrist flexors keep the wrists in a somewhat flexed position throughout the exercise, against the pull of the weights downward.

The back and core muscles are recruited through all phases of the activity to keep the posture upright. Keeping the core engaged at all times provides stability for the trunk and decreases the risk for injury.

Benefits of a Cable Drag Curl

The execution of any type of resistance exercise may result in different positive effects. However, the cable drag curl in particular, has certain benefits not present in most other variations due to its angle and training stimulus.

Marked Bicep Hypertrophy and Strengthening

Because the cable drag curl is an isolation exercise that predominantly activates the biceps brachii muscles in pulling the cable’s handle toward the sternum, this exercise is able to result in an increase in the size and strength of the said muscle.

This thought is supported by a recently published systematic review on advanced resistance training techniques, wherein it is stated that an increase in the cross-sectional area of a muscle is related to an increase in its strength.

Improved Elbow Tissue Health

The elbow joint, including its surrounding tissues, is one commonly injured body part, as seen in the golfer's elbow and tennis elbow. While the cable drag curl cannot be used to treat such existing injuries, performing this exercise in healthy individuals helps to strengthen the tissues in and around the elbow.

Apart from strengthening the muscles as discussed above, resistance exercises such as the cable drag curl are also able to strengthen bones and tendons in the area due to the mechanical stress applied to these structures.

Decreased Risk of Injury

As compared to other variations of the bicep curl, the cable drag curl has a decreased risk of injury due to the individual’s form during execution and the low range of motion applied in this exercise. This workout is considered to have a low range of motion because the elbows are not fully extended at the bottom of the movement.

However, a decreased risk of injury only applies when mistakes are avoided in the execution. Hence, one needs to take into consideration proper form and appropriate weight when doing the cable drag curl.

Enhanced Athletic Performance

Much like other resistance exercises, the cable drag curl is also beneficial for some athletic activities. These include sports such as football and boxing, where a great deal of bicep strength is required for throwing a ball and throwing an uppercut.

Mistakes to Avoid When Performing Cable Drag Curls

Positioned too Far Away from the Machine

The cable drag curl is an isolation exercise that solely targets the biceps. Most people do not notice this mistake, but standing too far away from the machine pulley forces the cores to engage to maintain the body in position. This activation of the core is an example of compensation, which takes away a part of the weight that should only be placed on the biceps.

Weights Too Heavy

When doing cable drag curls, it is important to know that building the biceps with this exercise is more efficiently done when a strong peak contraction with multiple repetitions and correct form is achieved rather than the use of weights that are too heavy, which results in multiple other muscle compensations. 

One of the most common signals that the weight is too heavy is when there is a sensation that the traps are taking over the lift compared to having it focused on the biceps. To remedy this, consider using a lighter weight and gradually moving up from there when comfort and proper form are attained at that weight. 

Flaring the Elbows

Flaring the elbow, which is primarily caused by the previous mistake mentioned, can be very detrimental to the exercise. This action results in the dispersion of the force on the biceps toward other muscles in the upper body, which primarily compromises the purpose of the exercise and its intended benefits. To fix this, simply decrease the weight until the movement can be done in a proper manner. 

Using Momentum 

When performing cable drag curls, it is expected that only the elbow joints should be moving; thus, using other parts of the body, like swinging the torso back and forth or bending and extending the knees and ankles to lift the weight with the use of momentum, should not be done. Again, this movement will only result in the use of other muscles, which decreases the pressure on the biceps and compromises the intended benefits.

Partial Range of Motion

The cable drag curl elbow movement should be done in a full range of motion instead of only bending the elbows halfway up. This is so that the individual is able to get the full benefit of the curl thus, the weight should be curled up to the shoulders and extended all the way down. Until this is possible, think about using a lighter weight.

Final Thoughts

Cable drag curls are widely regarded not only as one of the best bicep isolation workouts available, but also one of the safest, due to the combination of its infallible technique, which makes it fairly impossible to do badly, and the stability the cable machine provides.

Most people of varying experience levels can benefit from performing the cable drag curl to enhance biceps brachii size, look, or strength. However, when introducing the drag curl into any training program, one should make sure that proper form is applied and the appropriate weight is used to avoid injuries.

References

1. Marcolin G, Panizzolo FA, Petrone N, Moro T, Grigoletto D, Piccolo D, Paoli A. Differences in electromyographic activity of biceps brachii and brachioradialis while performing three variants of curl. PeerJ. 2018 Jul 13;6:e5165. doi: 10.7717/peerj.5165. PMID: 30013836; PMCID: PMC6047503.

2. Nakazawa K, Kawakami Y, Fukunaga T, Yano H, Miyashita M. Differences in activation patterns in elbow flexor muscles during isometric, concentric and eccentric contractions. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1993;66(3):214-20. doi: 10.1007/BF00235096. PMID: 8477676.

3. Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(24):4897. Published 2019 Dec 4. doi:10.3390/ijerph16244897

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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