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Is Barbell Curl A Compound Exercise? (Or Isolation?)

Let’s take a look at the mechanics behind the barbell curl, and what other exercises one can use to complement your biceps training.

What is a compound exercise?

You know, I had to do a little digging on this. There are multiple definitions out there and not all of them make sense.

Depending on who you read, you will find a compound exercise defined as:

  • An exercise that works multiple muscle groups at the same time
  • An exercise that works by moving/crossing multiple joints
  • A combination of both descriptions

Just off the top of my head, I can think of exercises that work by only moving a single joint that are considered compound exercises.

So, for the purpose of this article we’ll go with compound meaning to heavily involve multiple muscle groups at the same time.

Is barbell curl a compound exercise?

Barbell curls are considered an isolation exercise – primarily working one muscle group. While there are other muscles involved, the primary muscle benefitting from the work is the biceps.

Woman doing a barbell curl in a gym

Which muscles do barbell curls activate?


But when we zoom out and recognise that no exercise truly operates in isolation, we see that barbell curls work your forearms and shoulders too.

The entire musculature of the trunk is involved too. When the weight is heavy, your midsection is doing a lot of work to resist being pulled forwards.

Are there any compound biceps exercises?

Chin-up variations

Chin-ups are compound movements, primarily used for back development.

With the palms facing towards you (supinated) and neutral grip chin-ups, you also place strong demand on the biceps for closing the elbow joint down.

There are plenty of people who have built big biceps using chin-ups without bicep curls. I wouldn’t say this is optimal, though. You can do both.


Similar to the chin-up, any row variation involves the biceps to some extent. If I were going for an all rounder, I would say dumbbell rows would be a great choice for additional bicep work.

Inverted rows and ring rows are good too!

Ring/TRX curl

Any kind of curl where you are using rings or a suspension trainer to open and close at the elbow joint.

Come to think of it, are these even compound exercises? I mean, you’re planking your whole body throughout.

Whatever. Isolation or no isolation, these can trash the biceps when pushed hard enough.

Rope pulling

A heavy sled tethered to a rope is a ruinous way to work your biceps whilst also burning your lungs.

Rope climbing

Another classic full body movement.

In CrossFit the done thing is to climb the rope without using your legs at all.

Power curls

Okay, we’re into “You’re reaching again” territory here.

The power curl is a power clean variation with a curl grip. You start from the floor and use your whole body to curl the weight up.

If you want to really put some demand on the biceps, you can combine this overloaded curl with a slow negative eccentric from the top. If you want to do this, progress very carefully over time.

Power curls are primarily popular with throwing athletes – discus, hammer throwers and shot putters. They’re like the strange cousins of barbell sport athletes.


Compound Exercises

Barbell Curls Muscles Worked