When you think of biceps, do you think bulging like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or maybe that signature double flex pose comes to mind?

Whatever image you conjure up, biceps are more than just for looks. The biceps muscle — yes, it’s singular — is on the front of your arm and plays a big functional and aesthetic role in upper body movement.

If it’s time to give your biceps muscles a bit more attention, listen up: Cable curls are one of the best ways to train them, whether your goals are related to size or strength.

Read on to find out how to perform a cable curl and its benefits, plus tips to get the most out of the exercise.

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You’ll need a cable machine to perform this move. When you’re ready, follow these steps:

  1. Attach a straight bar attachment to the pulley and position it on the lowest rung, closest to the floor.
  2. Grab the bar with an underhand grip and extend your arms, stepping back slightly from the pulley. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and the bar down by your thighs.
  3. Engage your core and pull the bar up toward your shoulders using your biceps muscles, bending your arms at the elbow as you go. Keep your elbows tucked into your body throughout the movement.
  4. Pause at the top, then release the bar back to start in a slow and controlled motion.

According to research by ACE, the cable curl is one of the most effective exercises you can do to activate the biceps muscles, coming in only behind the concentration curl (1).

Strong biceps are important for several reasons. The major job of the biceps muscles is to help bend your elbows and rotate your forearms. Biceps also assist in lifting your arms forward, opening them to the side, and folding them across the body (2).

Without strong biceps, you won’t be able to lift heavy objects, pull them down from overhead, or push them away.

Beyond these functional benefits, this exercise can also help you grow your biceps muscles. So, if you’re looking to fill out your shirt sleeves a bit, the cable curl may be your go-to.

The cable curl primarily works the biceps brachii, which is the two-headed muscle on the front of your arm that merges into one muscle belly near the elbow.

The exercise also engages the brachialis, which lies beneath the biceps muscle, plus the forearms and the deltoids in the shoulders. Your core will also be working, too, since you’ll need to stabilize your upper body throughout the movement.

There are a few common mistakes to watch out for while completing a cable curl:

  • Flaring the elbows. If your elbows leave your sides, you’ll disperse the force on your biceps to other muscles in your upper body, defeating the purpose of the exercise. Decrease the weight until you can perform the movement properly.
  • Using momentum. If your weight is too heavy, you’ll be tempted to recruit your entire upper body to assist in curling the dumbbell up. Ensure that your upper body stays stationary — the only thing moving during the movement should be your elbow joint.
  • Only using partial range of motion. To get the full benefit of a biceps curl, you should curl the weight all the way up to your shoulders and extend your elbow all the way at the bottom. Consider a lighter weight until you can achieve this.

Other things to keep in mind while performing a cable curl:

  • A good place to start is 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
  • Choose a weight that’s challenging enough that your last rep is hard to complete.
  • Complete cable curls 1-2 times per week to see noticeable results in a few months. Be sure to use progressive overload in order to continue seeing gains.

Once you have the cable curl form down, you can consider switching things up.

To start, though, if the traditional cable curl is a bit too challenging, make it easier by decreasing the weight or by sitting on a bench or a box to perform the exercise. This will provide more stability.

To make a cable curl harder, consider unilateral movement or performing curls one arm at a time. You’ll need a different handle attachment for this, but targeting one side on its own will force your core to work in overdrive and will suss out any discrepancies in strength.

You can also try biceps curls with different cable attachments, like the rope, which will challenge your grip strength.

Or, if you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can perform a biceps curl with free weights or resistance bands. All these options will work the biceps in slightly different ways.

Cable curls strengthen your biceps almost better than any other biceps exercise. If you’re looking to increase the size or strength of your biceps muscles, consider adding cable curls to your routine.