In the field of resistance exercises aimed towards the biceps brachii muscle group, a hundred different variations of the standard bicep curl exercise exist – the majority of which all present some type of benefit that is not present in its brother variations.
Among these is the drag curl, a variation of the bicep curl with a particular focus on maximizing the progressive overload and mechanical tension placed on the biceps brachii muscles so as to also maximize the muscular hypertrophy and neurological adaptation that occurs as a direct result of the training.
The drag curl is a biceps brachii isolation exercise primarily performed by bodybuilders wishing to improve the size and appearance of their biceps or athletes aiming to increase such things like their throwing strength or climbing ability as a real world application of an improvement in their biceps strength.
In its most technical of definitions, the drag curl is a barbell or dumbbell utilizing resistance exercise of the isolation type focus – with a closed kinetic chain movement status and a particular focus on the biceps brachii and brachialis muscle groups located on the sides and anterior portions of the arms.
The exercise is performed with a supinated grip (palms facing upwards) and a stabilized torso either via the musculature of the exerciser’s torso or by being seated on a bench so as to prevent any kind of “cheating” of the exercise’s form via swinging of the upper body or thrusting in the hips.
Due to the relatively low chance of injury or strain when performing a drag curl, most intermediate to advanced level athletes and gym goers choose to perform the drag curl with a low volume of repetitions and a moderate amount of resistance.
By doing so, the drag curl can then be performed in the middle or end of a particularly taxing biceps workout session without affecting the performance of other exercises.
Being an isolation exercise with a particular focus on the arms, the drag curl – like all forms of the curl – activate the two heads of the biceps brachii, with a particular focus on the “peak” or inner head of the biceps due to the angle of which the resistance is placed on said inner biceps head.
However, the training stimuli presented by the drag curl is not only reserved for the biceps brachii, with some level of muscular activation being found in the various smaller muscles located throughout the forearms, especially in the concentric portion of the exercise wherein the wrists bend upwards slightly as the weight is brought to the sternum of the exerciser.
By an extension of this portion of the movement, the drag curl is also capable of activating the brachialis muscle located beneath the two heads of the biceps brachii, of which is among one of the many muscles with an attachment point located at the elbow and aids in the flexor of the arms towards the torso.
To begin performing a set of drag curls, the exerciser must first select an appropriate amount of weight in the form of a kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell or other free weight resistance equipment with a suitably shaped handle.
They will then hold the weighted exercise equipment in their hands while standing erect with their feet placed at a stable enough distance apart and their spine maintained in a braced yet neutral position.
The purpose of this is to ensure that no cheating of the form or untoward injuries may occur via the use of proper form.
Beginning the repetition, the exerciser will contract their biceps and trapezius muscles, thereby drawing their forearms in an upward motion as the elbows of the exerciser is drawn back somewhat, pressing the barbell against their abdomen and raising it at or beneath their sternum.
This completes the concentric portion of the exercise.
The exerciser should feel a marked level of tension in their biceps and forearms if the exercise was performed with proper form and an appropriate level of resistance.
After squeezing at the apex of the repetition, the negative or eccentric portion of the exercise will begin with the exerciser slowly relaxing their elbows and lowering the bar in a controlled manner while still retaining some level of tension in the biceps brachii muscles, only releasing the muscular activation once the bar has been lowered back into its original resting position.
This completes a single repletion of the drag curl, with subsequent repetitions simply repeating the previously mentioned steps until the set has been completed.
As is common knowledge throughout most of the fitness world, simply performing any type of resistance exercise can result in markedly positive effects taking place in the exerciser’s body, of which the majority of said resistance exercises all share.
However, certain benefits seem to be constrained primarily to that of the drag curl due to the nature of its training stimuli and the angle of which the exercise is performed, with only a few other alternative variations of the curl being capable of inducing such benefits.
The entire purpose of the drag curl is that of highly targeted activation of the biceps brachii muscles, of which is a direct result of the fact that the drag curl is an isolation exercise that primarily utilizes the biceps themselves in order to move the source of resistance upwards.
This is due to the placement of the biceps brachii and the nature of which they contract by, resulting in a level of imparted training stimuli that is rarely found in other exercises that involve the biceps,
A large subset of injuries normally treated via the use of physical therapy directly involve the elbow joint and the soft tissues that surround it, such as ulnar nerve impingement or tennis elbow.
Though it is unlikely that the drag curl will directly cure these conditions and may in fact even worsen them if performed improperly, healthy individuals wishing to reinforce the tissue located in or around their elbow so as to prevent the risk of such injuries and disorders may use the drag curl for such a purpose.
This is due to the fact that – aside from muscular tissue itself – resistance exercises that place tension on parts of the body can often induce a strengthening effect in that particular area, with bones and tendons placed under mechanical stress growing thicker and heavier over time.
While not necessarily a benefit, the relatively low range of motion involved in drag curls may make it rather suitable for certain situations such as athletes wishing to strengthen a movement pattern involving the form of the drag curl, or bodybuilders wishing to fully isolate their biceps without activating other muscle groups in the upper body.
As a consequence of drag curls low range of motion, the exerciser will find that they are capable of moving larger amounts of weight than what they normally would be able to with other forms of the bicep curl that utilize a fuller and larger range of motion.
Though the risk of wrist and elbow injuries is unavoidable in practically every form of the bicep curl, the relative chance of such an occurrence is rather lower in the drag curl due to the nature of its form and the low range of motion that it utilizes.
This, of course, does not account for mistakes performed by the exerciser, such as the usage of improper form, too heavy an amount of weight or overloading and overtraining of their connective tissues by performing too much volume of the same exercise or similar movements involving the same area of the body.
The biceps brachii are involved in a large number of movements directly used in athletic endeavors and sports, such as in the throw of a football or the upper cut of a boxer, all of which take part of the force behind such a movement directly from the biceps themselves.
As such, training the biceps in an isolation type capacity through the use of the drag curl or similar biceps isolation exercises can directly result in an improvement in such movements involved in athletic endeavors, translating to a general improvement in the athlete’s function while at play.
Apart from being considered among one of the best possible free weight bicep isolation exercises one can perform, the drag curl is also considered quite safe both due to the relatively moderate amount of weight that is usually used while the exercise is being performed as well as its fool-proof form that is quite difficult to do improperly.
The supinated grip used by the drag curl exercise aids in ensuring that the wrist is in its most secure position, reducing the chance of tendon damage or impingements in that part of the arm, while the fact that the elbows are brought behind the torso to an extent also equates to the deltoids shifting in such a manner that helps prevent the elbow from becoming injured or overly strained as well.
The drag curl is suitable for the majority of gym goers and beginner to advanced level exercisers that wish to improve upon the size, appearance or strength of their biceps brachii muscles.
This is especially applicable for bodybuilders or high level athletes seeking a specific form of training stimuli targeted towards their biceps for the purposes of direct stimulation in combination with compound exercises that also activate other muscle groups involved in the pulling-type of movement pattern.
However, individuals with a history of wrist or elbow injuries, conditions or disorders involving said areas, a history of bicep tears or members of the population at an elderly or rather young age should first consult a physician or physical therapist prior to incorporating the drag curl into their exercise routine.
Being a light to moderate intensity isolation exercise targeting a pull muscle (the biceps), the drag curl is best incorporated into a workout routine after more intense compound exercises involving the biceps have already been completed, such as the deadlift, weighted pull-up or any variation of the row exercise.
The drag curl may also be used alongside other finishing auxiliary isolation exercises that do not directly involve the biceps – such as dumbbell flyes or tricep extensions wherein little to no mechanical tension is placed on the biceps, eliminating the chance of overtraining and allowing the muscles to recover entirely between sets or workout sessions.
Though the particular resistance utilized depends entirely on the exerciser and their own individual level of physical strength, a good starting point is approximately 50% of the exerciser’s one repetition maximum of the standard barbell row, split in half if one is using two separate dumbbells or kettlebells.
In terms of volume, the drag curl can present significant benefits when performed between the repetition ranges of six to twenty, with as many as six sets being possible without burning excess muscular endurance needlessly.
This, of course, will depend on the exerciser, their relative experience with resistance exercises as well as the level of bodily conditioning they have achieved, with individuals of rather high muscular endurance finding six sets to barely scratch the surface of what they are capable of.
In order to remedy this, said individuals of high endurance capability may instead increase the resistance of the exercise by adding more weight in an incremental fashion, so long as they are careful to keep it at a reasonable level.
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. Naito A. Electrophysiological studies of muscles in the human upper limb: the biceps brachii. Anat Sci Int. 2004 Mar;79(1):11-20. doi: 10.1111/j.1447-073x.2004.00064.x. PMID: 15088788.
3. 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.