Last updated on October 29th, 2022 at 11:32 am
The debate about whether cables or dumbbells are better for biceps has been raging on for years.
In truth, there is no single perfect answer.
That being said, there are certain things that cables can do for your biceps that dumbbells can’t, and vice versa.
So, I’ll explain these to you now.
Cables and Dumbbells are BOTH Great For Biceps
Realistically, if you wish to train your biceps effectively then you should use both cables and dumbbells. That being said, cables provide constant tension for the biceps, which will be better for hypertrophy. However, dumbbells require your biceps to stabilize the weight (the weight is stabilized by the machine when using cables), so dumbbells will be better for building strength.
Cable Curls vs. Dumbbell Curls
Cables Provide Constant Tension
I would hazard a guess that many people believe that cables are better than dumbbells for training biceps.
The reason I say this is that it typically feels as though your biceps are working much harder during cable curls.
However, in truth, this simply comes down to the fact that cables provide constant tension on the biceps.
If you think about it, when performing curls with dumbbells you come to a dead-stop at the bottom of the movement.
Essentially, you are releasing tension and allowing the biceps to “rest”.
So, the simple fact that you keep constant tension with cables will provide the biceps with a fantastic pump.
Additionally, cables will fatigue the biceps faster due to the constant tension that is applied to them.
And this will explain why many trainees favour cables.
Nevertheless, just because you can’t “feel” a muscle working doesn’t mean that it isn’t being activated.
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And this is also why you’ll often hear that one exercise isn’t better than the other.
Therefore, if you want to specialize in bicep training then there is nothing wrong with using both exercises.
That being said, when I have specialized biceps I prefer to perform weighted chin ups, barbell bicep curls, and then follow this up with a burn-out set.
For me personally, a burn-out set of bicep curls always feels better when I use cables.
Dumbbells Are Better For Strength
Now firstly, I will say that it is perfectly feasible to build strength with cables.
Basically, if you’re placing stress on a muscle then it has the ability to get stronger.
That being said, if you’re looking for strength gains then dumbbells will win over cables.
The main reason for this comes down to how the load you are curling is stabilized.
When it comes to cables, the cable machine will provide assistance to stabilize the weight.
However, when using dumbbells, it is your biceps that needs to provide this stabilization.
Essentially, we’re back to the free weights vs. machines argument once more.
Nevertheless, the simple fact that your body has to provide stabilization with dumbbells means that your body (biceps) are required to produce more force.
And it is this that leads to greater strength gains.
But, in reality, as we’re talking about strength training then barbell bicep curls will be the best option.
Most of us are able to lift slightly more weight on barbell bicep curls than dumbbell curls.
In effect, barbell curls are a bilateral movement, which means that you expend less time and energy to perform a set.
So, this means that you should be able to curl a heavier load with a barbell, which of course is ideal for strength training.
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However, I will say that you’ll often find that your stronger arm takes over when you barbell curl with heavy loads.
But, whether you choose to use a barbell or dumbbell for curls, both options will lead to greater strength increases than cables.
Cables Are Better For Hypertrophy
I’ve already provided a clue as to why cables are better than dumbbells for hypertrophy.
Realistically, hypertrophy training and building muscle basically comes down to time-under-tension and total training volume.
And, of course, using cables provides constant tension throughout each rep.
Therefore, you automatically increase time-under-tension.
Plus, as I’ve mentioned, this constant tension helps to fatigue the biceps quicker, which in turn also provides a fantastic pump.
Remember that you almost get to “rest” at the bottom of the movement with dumbbell curls, as the tension is momentarily released.
Another point to note is that as the cable machine provides stabilization you can better isolate the biceps.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t build muscle with dumbbell curls, or even barbell curls for that matter, of course you can.
However, cable curls will provide the perfect stimulus to help your biceps grow.
Finally, once more, going back to “stabilization”, as this is provided by the cable machine, cable curls will generally be far easier on your joints.
Curling heavy loads with dumbbells and barbells can certainly place a great deal of stress on your shoulders, and especially your elbows.
So, from a potential for injury perspective, cables could be viewed as being the better option.
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When all is said and done, I can’t realistically turn round and say that overall cables are better than dumbbells for biceps.
In the same way, I can’t say that overall dumbbells are better than cables.
Basically, both pieces of equipment can provide a fantastic workout for the biceps.
The same can be said for barbells.
Essentially, for a great all-round bicep workout you should be using all three.
However, if you’re looking for a great pump, to build bicep size, and to take it easy on your joints, then cables will be better.
Then again, if you wish to get stronger, essentially by lifting more weight, then dumbbells (and barbells) would be the superior option.
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Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.