What Muscles Do Reverse Curls Work? + Curl Variations


Most people would love to have impressive biceps muscles that pop when they flex their arms or even that look well-defined and sculpted when they are walking around relaxed and sporting a sleeveless shirt.

Although almost everyone is familiar with regular biceps curls with dumbbells, reverse curls are a little more esoteric and often unfamiliar to beginners.

So, what are reverse curls? What muscles do reverse curls work? Are the “reverse curls muscles worked” different from the muscles worked by regular biceps curls or other types of biceps curls such as concentration curls or hammer curls?

In this guide, we will discuss the benefits of reverse curls, how to perform them, different variations to help target different muscle fibers and add variety to the reverse curl arm exercise, and ultimately answer your question: what muscles do reverse curls work?

We will look at: 

  • What Are Reverse Curls?
  • How Do You Perform Reverse Curls?
  • What Muscles Do Reverse Curls Work?
  • How to Vary Reverse Curls

Let’s get started!

Reverse bicep curl.

What Are Reverse Curls?

Before discussing the muscles worked with reverse curls or the differences in the reverse curls muscles worked versus regular biceps curls, it is helpful to describe what the reverse curl exercise entails and how it is different from regular barbell or dumbbell biceps curls.

Reverse curls are essentially a variation of standard biceps curls, except that your palms are facing down towards the floor instead of up.

In other words, with standard biceps curls, you use a supinated forearm and wrist position.

This means that the inner portion of your forearm and your wrists start by facing away from your body, and then as you bend your elbows to bring the weights towards your shoulders, your palms, inner wrists, and inner forearms are facing the ceiling and then your biceps.

In contrast, when you do reverse curls, you begin the motion with the weights down at your sides as with normal biceps curls, but you use a pronated grip or pronate your forearm instead of supinating your wrist. 

A pronate hand grip.

This means that your palms will be facing the wall behind you if you are holding dumbbells down at your side before beginning reverse curls rather than facing the wall in front of you.

Then, you will still bend your elbows and bring the dumbbells or a barbell up towards your shoulders in front of your chest, but you will maintain the pronated grip so that your palms are facing the floor or away from your body and the back of your hand will come up to meet your shoulders at the top of the reverse curl movement.

Therefore, the main difference between regular curls and reverse curls is that the forearm is pronated with reversed curls, and your hands are facing down as you lift the weight up while you supinate the forearms and palms face up with regular biceps curls.

As we will see when we discuss the muscles worked by reverse curls, this variation of the biceps curls ends up increasing the workload on your wrist flexors, wrist extensors, and forearm muscles, which are key muscles that contribute to grip strength.

You will likely not be able to use as much weight as you usually curl but build up over time as you add grip strength exercises to your workout routine.

How Do You Perform Reverse Curls?

Here are the steps to perform reverse curls with dumbbells:

  1. Grip a dumbbell in each hand with your arms down at your side and your palms facing behind your body rather than forward.
  2. Keeping your core tight and your elbows tucked in against your rib cage, curl the weight up towards your shoulders by bending your elbows. Make sure that your upper arms stay stationary and fixed throughout the movement. Keep your wrists firm as well; do not extend them backward as you curl the weights up.
  3. You might not be able to curl the weight up as high as you normally would with regular biceps curls because you want to stop the curl once your elbows start to migrate away from the sides of your body. With that said, be as mindful as possible to keep them tucked in and glued to your side throughout the exercise.
  4. Make sure that you are squeezing the handle of the dumbbells as tightly as possible to engage your fingers and wrist muscles and keep your wrists straight.
  5. Slowly lower the weights back down, keeping your forearms pronated so that your palms are facing the floor as you lower the weights.
A bicep curl.

What Muscles Do Reverse Curls Work?

So, what are the key reverse curls muscles worked?

As with any type of biceps curls, reverse curls work the biceps brachii, which is the two-headed muscle on the front of your upper arm that runs from the shoulder joint down to just below the elbow.

The primary function of the biceps brachii is flexion of the elbow, which refers to bending your elbow.

Another key muscle worked by reverse curls is the brachialis muscle, which is a smaller muscle that lies laterally and underneath the biceps in the upper arm. This muscle assists the biceps in flexing the elbow.

The main difference between the muscles used for reverse curls versus regular biceps curls is that because your forearm is pronated rather than supinated, the reverse curls muscles worked list is much more heavily weighted towards the forearm muscles and grip muscles.

Gripping a barbell.

Ultimately, it can be said that the reverse curl exercise primarily or equally targets the brachioradialis, which is the main muscle in the forearms, as much as this move targets the biceps and brachialis muscles.

While we all want to have big, popping biceps, lack of grip strength, which is primarily a matter of the strength of your forearm muscles, is actually the limiting factor for big lifts like maxing out on your deadlift or doing heavy carries or long sets of pull-ups and chin-ups. 

Plus, it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in older adults.

This is definitely a significant benefit of adding reverse curls to your upper-body routine.

In sum, reverse curls muscles include the forearm extensors such as the brachioradialis and pronator teres, the finger flexors involved in holding up the weight against the force of gravity, as well as the brachialis on the lateral side of your biceps brachii, and the biceps.

Cable machine.

How to Vary Reverse Curls

As with most types of biceps curls and strength training exercises in general, you can use different forms of resistance when performing reverse curls, including a barbell, EZ bar (EZ-curl bar), dumbbells, a cable machine, resistance bands, etc.

Any form of resistance you use to perform reverse curls will target the same primary reverse curls muscle groups, but the emphasis on particular muscle groups or muscle fibers can vary depending on the type of resistance that you use.

Similarly, you can also do standing biceps reverse curls or seated biceps reverse curls.

There are pros and cons to both of these reverse curls variations, but the general movement pattern is the same.

That said, any standing biceps exercise will require you to engage your core muscles, glutes, pelvic floor muscles, and postural muscles to maintain a strong, stable, upright trunk while you curl the weight.

The trade-off is that while standing reverse curls activate more muscle groups when performed correctly, it’s also easier to “cheat” when doing standing biceps curls by swinging the weights, using momentum, or rocking your hips slightly to help hoist the weights.

The goal should be to keep the trunk as still as possible and lift and lower the weights slowly so that you genuinely isolate the reverse curls muscles.

Here are the steps for how to do reverse curls with a barbell:

  1. Set up a barbell with a weight that is about 10 pounds lighter than you would normally curl for a barbell biceps curl.
  2. Stand upright with good posture, feet hip-width apart, holding the barbell down in front of your body with your arms extended and palms facing into your body rather than away as you usually would (overhand grip instead of underhand).
  3. Bend your elbows to curl the barbell up until your elbows are bent slightly more acutely than 90 degrees (so the barbell should be coming up closer towards your shoulders than it would be if you kept your elbows just at 90 degrees). Make sure your elbows stay tucked by your side.
  4. As slowly as possible, curl the barbell back down to the starting position. Try to lengthen the time it takes to lower the weight as much as possible.

Learn more about how to build muscle fast in our guide here.

A bicep curl.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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