Barbell curls have been long-established as one of the most popular bicep-building exercises out there.
Cable curls are also extremely popular with beginner and highly experienced gym-goers alike, so both exercises have earned their spot in workouts all over the world.
But, are barbell curls better than cable curls?
Are cable curls better than barbell curls?
Are they both equally deserving of a place in your arm workouts?
In this article, we compare barbell curls and cable curls in terms of their difficulty, ease of access, variability, and muscles worked to help you decide which one is better for you.
What’s The Difference Between Barbell Curls And Cable Curls?
The biggest difference between barbell curls and cable curls is that cable curls are performed exclusively on a cable machine whereas barbell curls use a barbell and weight plates.
When performing either exercise, your body position will be very similar as will the actual movement involved.
The addition of a cable station for cable curls is what makes the two exercises different.
Which Is Better For Building Biceps?
You could be forgiven for thinking that cable curls are better for building biceps.
As they keep constant tension on your biceps during the exercise, it would seem to make sense that your biceps get worked harder as a result.
This isn’t the case though.
Building biceps is all about overloading them with an increasing amount of weight.
You can actually lift more with barbell curls than you can with cable curls (due to the constant tension on the cable) so you can overload your biceps more with barbell curls.
Which Is Better For Building Forearms?
Although your forearms work during barbell curls and cable curls, neither are particularly good at building them on their own.
Gripping a barbell or cable bar with a supinated grip (palms-up) brings your forearms into play, but only as secondary muscles.
As barbell curls and cable curls use very similar grips and movements, your forearms are worked fairly equally in both.
Barbell curls have a low difficulty level in terms of the movement required and the technique used.
Although the technique can cause some issues if you use too much weight (by swinging and bringing your shoulders into the exercise), it doesn’t normally cause too much of a challenge to master.
Flexion of the elbow is a basic movement and is the main movement required for barbell curls.
As cable curls aren’t a free weights movement, as the weight you are lifting is fixed to a cable station, less stabilization is required and safety is increased.
This gives cable curls a low level of difficulty and makes them suitable for beginners all the way up to highly experienced gym-goers.
Both exercises have a low level of difficulty.
Despite placing your biceps under constant tension, cable curls tend to be a little bit easier due to the lower need for stabilization from additional muscle groups.
Ease of Access
Barbell curls only require a barbell and some weight plates to perform.
These are very basic gym equipment so barbell curls have great ease of access.
The main issue cable curls have is the need for a cable station in order to perform them.
While this might not be much of an issue if you train at a well-equipped gym, it can be much more of a problem if you prefer training at home.
Cable stations are big, bulky, and expensive, so adding one to your home gym can be extremely difficult.
Unless you have access to a cable station and all the relevant attachments, ease of access could be a problem for cable curls.
Barbell curls have greater ease of access than cable curls.
This is because of the need for a cable station for cable curls.
In a gym environment, this might not be too much of an issue but it can be a much bigger problem if you prefer training at home.
Barbell curls are usually performed with a supinated grip (palms-up).
However, you can switch to a pronated grip (palms down) which can bring your forearm muscles into play a bit more.
Changing from a close grip to a wide grip can also work different heads of your biceps depending on whether you want to build up your bicep peak or the thickness of your biceps.
As well as simply changing your grip on the barbell, you can also use an EZ bar instead of a standard barbell giving barbell curls lots of variability.
As they can only be performed on a cable station, cable curls are somewhat limited when it comes to variability.
However, if you have access to a cable station and a variety of attachments, you can actually perform quite a few variations.
You can use a straight bar, a rope, single-arm attachments, and other similar ways of varying standard cable curls.
Barbell curls offer greater levels of variability simply because they’re not limited to a cable station.
Changing your grip, hand position, or type of bar used in barbell curls are great ways of challenging your working muscles.
While you can use different attachments for cable curls, the fact that you’re restricted to a cable station lowers the number of variations you can perform.
Barbell Curls vs Cable Curls: Which Is Better?
Depending on what you are trying to achieve in your training, personal preferences will likely play a big part in whether barbell curls or cable curls are better for you.
Barbell curls offer a better opportunity to overload your biceps helping them grow, and have better ease of access and more variability.
Cable curls are slightly easier to do and can offer pretty good variability providing you have access to a cable station and suitable attachments.
Both of these exercises are great additions to your training program.
While the movements involved in both are quite similar, it could be beneficial to include variations of both barbell curls and cable curls in your arm workouts.
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.