Buckle up, we’re heading into broscience land!
If you’re looking for a doctor’s opinion on the deleterious effects of barbell curls on your joints, you’ve come to the wrong place!
If you’re after some empirical broscience from a coach who’s done a bunch of curls in his time, read on!
Are Barbell Curls Bad For Your Wrists?
There’s no good or bad exercises, only good or bad exercises for your current situation.
If wrist pain begins, or existing wrist pain worsens during or after a set, this is a red flag. Consider swapping the exercise out for a variation with a different grip.
If using a different curl variation doesn’t work, drop the exercise and move on, then seek medical advice.
Why Some People Get Wrist Pain During Barbell Curls
Broscience answer number one – *shrug*
Look, some people’s wrists just don’t like barbell curls, full stop.
I’ve had huge-armed friends try to cycle them into their training, annoy their wrists immediately, then go back to another variation.
Partial broscience answer number two – informed by something a physiotherapist once told me!
There was a period in my weightlifting career (I say career, but it was more of a non-profit) where I briefly lost the ability to do chin ups.
I don’t mean I couldn’t do them, I mean I could not physically hang from a bar with my palms facing towards me.
My joints were so beat up that the pain prevented me from getting into position. I could still do pull ups pain free!
The cause was something to do with beating myself into a pulp with overtraining. I was preparing for the national championships and my body was perma-wrecked. My shoulders and bicep tendons were a mess.
This would have been a really bad time to curl a straight bar.
If you’re having issues immediately on attempting bicep curls, go ahead and check if you can hang from a bar, palms facing towards you, pain free. If not, you probably should steer clear of barbell curls.
Broscience answer number three – are you curling asymmetrically?
If you’re favouring one arm more than the other, you might introduce a slight twist that could annoy the wrist joints.
No guarantee here, but do try to pay attention to giving equal effort in both arms. This is the same whether it’s a barbell or dumbbell.
Broscience answer number four – you are articulating your wrists at the top of the curl
Top bodybuilder Mike van Wyck recommends you cut that **** out.
The wrists are small joints, and while you can train wrist curls with light weights, the weight you can curl with both arms may outstrip the wrists’ capacity.
Partial broscience answer number five – your rotator cuff is messed up
The state of your rotator cuff can play into the state of your bicep tendon, which can lead into issues through the elbow, forearm and wrist. It’s all connected.
Broscience answer number six – you overloaded the tissue with one training variable or another
After a three month pause in training post surgery, I made a triumphant return to bicep training with… 3 sets of 20 with 5kg per hand.
My reward for this unparalleled display of strength and dominance? Ten painful days of messed up bicep tendons, unable to straighten my arms fully.
Ordinarily there would be zero impact waving these small dumbbells around. But, if the body is unprepared for a new stimulus, you can expect pain.
Like any movement, too big a jump in load, volume or frequency can wreak havoc on your joints, and the wrist is a small structure that’s at risk when you ramp up the curls too quickly.
Maybe not a broscience answer number seven – you have a pre-existing joint problem
If you are suffering from repetitive strain injury or carpal tunnel syndrome caused by desk based work, this can factor into wrist pain in the gym.
Final broscience answer number eight – your forearms are tight
All that heavy curling, benching, deadlifting – anything with an implement in your hands, basically – requires your forearms to contract isometrically.
Over time, these forearm muscles can become chronically tight and tug on various joints, including the wrists.
Why Some People Get Wrist Pain After Barbell Curls
You just pissed off a joint
It only takes a single rep where something funny happens, and you can be left with a dull ache in the joint. Listen to your body when this happens. If it worsens on the next set, cut the exercise.
Joint was already pissed
As discussed above, a pre-existing wrist problem can leave you with pain that lingers long after the set is over.
Sometimes the pain won’t display immediately, but will creep up on you as the volume accumulates throughout the sets.
How To Reduce Wrist Pain When Doing Barbell Curls
Self massage of the forearms
Eight years ago today, I had a manicure for the first time. It was the day before my wedding. I have not had a manicure since. I’m not a big self-care, grooming type person.
I was pleased with the outcome of the manicure, and I committed to filing my nails from that day forth. Only because it helped my lifting, of course.
I found that filed nails are less likely to get caught on the bar, which results in those little bits of skin peeling off and going red and sore.
Enough about nails, the highlight of the manicure was the accompanying forearm massage! I’ve been told these are pretty standard.
Oh, the bliss! All that tension from lifting, melting away.
In the absence of a manicurist between sets of curls, you can rub your own forearm, I suppose. I recommend digging into those gristly spots up by the elbow.
Use less weight
The straight bar curl is the variation that allows you to use the most weight. Unfortunately, some people get carried away with that, and try to progress the movement like they might a squat or a deadlift.
I have been guilty of this in the past and many body parts did not thank me for it, including my wrists.
Because of the displacement of the bar from the body in the curl, there comes a point of diminishing returns. It’s very easy to swing and lay back when the weight is heavy relative to your body weight, which shifts the emphasis away from the biceps.
You don’t need to use massive weights for biceps growth. You can drive adaptation in other ways.
Squeeze the pinkie finger on the bar really hard
You’ll see cues like this for the bench as well, but anecdotally I’ve found squeezing the pinkie really hard on the bar helps my wrists a little with the curl. Try it and see if it helps. If it doesn’t… *shrug*
Swap for another variation
Try anything where the grip is less straight:
- EZ bar curls (these are hard and sucky but they sure do nail the biceps)
- Dumbbell curls
- Hammer curls
- Any kind of bent bar or rope attachment for a cable column
Are Reverse Barbell Curls Bad For Your Wrists?
I like the reverse curl for its rehabilitative effects on the elbows and tricep tendons. But if the wrist is pissed, the wrist is pissed. Let pain be your guide.
Like any movement, if the pain gets worse during or after the set, try another variation, move on to the next exercise, or seek medical attention.
The same rule applies for this and every other exercise.
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.