Hammer Curl Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
April 18, 2022

The hammer curl is an extremely common exercise that makes use of a low to moderate level of resistance in order to induce muscular hypertrophy in the biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscle groups, all of which are activated throughout the repetition as the exerciser performs a reverse “hammering” motion, hence the name.

Despite the low impact, neutral grip and simplicity of the hammer curl - exercisers may find themselves requiring an alternative exercise to replace it, either because of a need for more specific training stimulus, or the desire for a more intense brachial muscle group exercise.

As such, it is quite fortunate that a large number of alternative exercises with a similar muscular activation pattern and kinetic chain exist, allowing the exerciser to simply pick one that they find most comfortable and suitable for their particular situation.

What to Look For In a Hammer Curl Alternative

With a low to moderate intensity and a rather small group of muscles activated throughout the exercise, it is these characteristics that one should seek out when choosing a potential hammer curl substitute exercise.

dumbbell hammer curl

This is due to the fact deviating too far from the hammer curl as an alternative exercise will defeat the original purpose of the hammer curl in the workout program, shifting the training stimulus and altering the end result of the workout session.

Apart from a similarity in intensity and muscle groups worked, any alternative to the hammer curl should also conform to whatever circumstance or reason that lead to its alternating out in the first place, with issues like a history of tennis elbow requiring that the kinetics of the alternative exercise do not aggravate such an issue.

How to Program for Alternating Out the Hammer Curl

The hammer curl generally takes the place of a secondary exercise performed after all the more intense compound exercises have already been completed, meant to activate the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles in a direct manner that is not as often found in other exercises.

It is an intermediate impact exercise usually grouped alongside isolation type movements such as the bicep curl or lateral raise, being placed around the end of a workout session in order to maximize the training stimulus possible during said workout session.

With this in mind, any alternative to the hammer curl may also be programmed into the training routine in a similar manner, save for the instance wherein the exerciser is substituting the hammer curl with a more intense exercise, or one that activates a wider number of muscle groups - both of which will require that the order of exercises and the volume involved therein are changed.

Should the Hammer Curl be Alternated Out?

Though the hammer curl is considered to be a relatively safe and simplistic exercise that makes use of very little equipment, it may require substitution due to certain health related reasons, or the exerciser’s training goals surpassing what the hammer curl is capable of inducing.

As such, though the majority of workout programs with the hammer curl included in their exercise list have no need for such a substitution to occur, though niche circumstances or high level athletic training will often find that it could be of great benefit to the exerciser in terms of achieving their training goals.

Equipment Variants of the Hammer Curl

The dumbbell hammer curl is not the sole form of the hammer curl exercise, as certain machines and free weight resistance implements can also recreate the same form mechanics and training stimulus that is found in the more common dumbbell hammer curl.

If the primary reason for the exerciser choosing to substitute out the hammer curl in their workout routine is because of a lack of proper equipment, the following exercises may instead be used so as to preserve the hammer curl’s place in their training session.

Tricep Bar Hammer Curl

A modified barbell shaped like an oval with two straight handles welded within the center, a tricep bar hammer curl is the unilateral version of the standard hammer curl, making use of a specialized barbell that recreates the motion of a close grip hammer curl with the added benefit of utilizing both sides of the body at once.

tricep bar hammer curl

This will allow the exerciser to move a larger maximal volume of weight than what would be possible with two independent dumbbells instead - thereby inducing a somewhat higher level of intensity, and thus a more intense training stimulus.

Hammer Curl Machine

A somewhat uncommon machine in most gyms, the hammer curl machine is nonetheless an excellent alternative to the standard free weight hammer curl if one has access to it - providing the reduced incidence of injury that is a characteristic of machine based exercises in combination with a constant time under tension as well.

Due to the fact that the hammer curl machine takes a large amount of stress off the stabilizer muscle groups normally activated during the free weight hammer curl exercise, the exerciser will find that they are capable of performing a larger volume of repetitions per set, allowing for an altered training stimulus when used in such a manner.

In the event that an exercise machine specifically built for the hammer curl is not available, certain types of curl machines feature neutral grip handles that allow for practically the same movement to be performed with no difference in training stimulus or mechanics.

Rope Cable Machine Hammer Curls

Set up by the exerciser adjusting the pulley machine’s rope in a position below their knees, the usage of a sufficiently long rope attachment or similar apparatus will allow the exerciser to perform a hammer curl with a constant time under tension being applied to the activated muscle groups.

rope hammer curl machine

This has the added benefit of applying significantly more training stimulus to the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles due to the angle of the cable in relation to the exerciser’s own center of mass - thereby intensifying the exercise in regards to forearm muscular hypertrophy.

The Zottman Curl

The zottman curl is an intermediate level variation of the standard bicep curl wherein the exerciser begins the repetition with a supinated grip prior to rotating into a pronated grip at the apex of the curl, fully activating the entirety of the forearm muscles alongside the biceps brachii and the brachioradialis muscle groups.

dumbbell seated zottman curl

Substituting with the zottman curl is most suitable for exercisers wishing to induce a significantly more intense level of training stimulus to their forearms and biceps, or those seeking a longer range of motion in order to extend the time under tension of the exercise.

Benefits of Substituting Hammer Curls with Zottman Curls

The largest benefit to substituting hammer curls with zottman curls lies in the muscle group activation and the intensity found therein, with zottman curls resulting in significantly more forearm muscle group training stimulus during the concentric portion of the repetition, and similar levels of biceps brachii training stimulus during the eccentric portion.

This, combined with a somewhat improved level of safety in regards to the connective tissues being loaded with less total weight equates to an exercise that presents an equal if not more intense level of brachial muscle group training stimulus with a reduced risk of injury.

Drawbacks of Substituting Hammer Curls with Zottman Curls

In terms of drawbacks, the fact that the zottman curl places a larger amount of rotational shear force on the wrist joint is a rather significant one - as individuals with inflexible wrists, or those performing the zottman curl with otherwise uncomfortable equipment will find that such a movement often results in pain and even injury if performed repetitively over time.

In addition to this, exercisers seeking to increase the total amount of resistance used during their arm workout are better off utilizing a different hammer curl alternative, as the positioning and form mechanics of the zottman curl will often result in the exerciser being unable to move as much total weight as they originally would with the hammer curl itself.

Drag Curls

The drag curl is yet another variation on the standard bicep curl wherein instead of the apex of the repetition being approximately at clavicle height for the exerciser, they will only raise the barbell up to sternum height, thereby maximizing biceps brachii long head activation while ignoring the brachioradialis entirely.

drag curl movement

This change in muscle group activation and form mechanics makes the drag curl a better suited exercise for individuals seeking to substitute out the hammer curl with an exercise of similar biceps and brachialis muscle group activation without directly involving the brachioradialis.

Benefits of Substituting Hammer Curls with Drag Curls

The most noticeable change (and also the most significant benefit) between hammer curls and drag curls is the particular range of motion that the exerciser must utilize, taking the majority of the forearm muscles out of the equation in exchange for the biceps brachii undergoing longer time under tension and a higher level of resistance.

As a consequence of this reduced range of motion, the exerciser will be able to move a higher maximal load of weight, as well as in greater volumes of repetition, allowing for significantly more training stimulus to occur as opposed to that of the hammer curl.

Due to the angle and positioning of the resistance throughout a repetition of drag curls, there is also a distinct lack of risk involving the shoulder joint during the exercise, as the connective tissues therein are ignored entirely by the drag curl, shifting the majority of the pressure to the wrists and elbows.

Drawbacks of Substituting Hammer Curls with Drag Curls

Though the drag curl eliminates many of the normal drawbacks associated with the hammer curl, it also takes the brachioradialis muscle out of the equation, thereby providing no training stimulus to that particular muscle group.

In addition to this, the total time under tension the biceps brachii and brachialis muscles go through during the exercise is significantly reduced due to the reduced range of motion associated with drag curls, thereby reducing caloric burn per repetition and any muscular endurance training that may be incurred from hammer curls instead.

And lastly, though no risk of shoulder injury is present if performing drag curls with proper form and an appropriate amount of weight, a chance of elbow and wrist injuries is still present, especially if the exerciser utilizes momentum during the repetition, or if they have not yet mastered the drag curl’s form mechanics.

EZ Bar Spider Curls

The EZ Bar spider curl is perhaps the most equipment demanding exercise on this list, but for good reason - as the EZ bar spider curl offers unparalleled biceps and brachialis muscle group activation, rivaled only by that of the concentration curl and the preacher curl in intensity levels.

ez barbell spider curl

However, this comes at a cost, as the EZ bar spider curl has a somewhat higher level of complexity than certain other alternatives to the hammer curl, and as such is best reserved for intermediate level exercisers that understand basic bicep curl form cues and have access to the required equipment.

Benefits of Substituting Hammer Curls with EZ Bar Spider Curls

Due to the usage of an EZ bar as opposed to a pair of dumbbells or a standard straight barbell, the exerciser will find that their wrists rest in a far more natural and comfortable position throughout the repetition, reducing the risk of any sort of injury and allowing for the individual’s own biomechanics to function to their fullest capacity.

This, in combination with the extremely high level of biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis muscle group activation from the large range of motion and angle of resistance can result in greatly intensified training stimulus - and therefore greatly intensified training results.

Drawbacks of Substituting Hammer Curls with EZ Bar Spider Curls

The clearest drawback of the EZ bar spider curl as a hammer curl substitute is the large step-up in complexity, requiring the exerciser to lean chest-first against an incline bench as they grip a loaded EZ barbell with both hands - something that may require a spotter to set up properly.

Apart from this, the EZ bar spider curl also requires specific equipment such as an EZ barbell and an adjustable bench or similar apparatus on which they may lean against during the exercise; two things that not many exercisers or gyms have available.

As such, though the EZ bar spider curl is doubtless an excellent alternative to the hammer curl for individuals seeking a better mass building and strength building arm exercise, choosing another alternative instead is advisable unless the specific requirements for the exercise itself are met.

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. Kostek, Mark T.; Knortz, Karen Kinesiology Corner, National Strength Coaches Association Journal: December 1980 - Volume 2 - Issue 6 - p 55-55

3. Melrose, Don PhD, CSCS*D Exercise Technique, Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 92-93 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318297a092

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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