How to Do the Drag Curl: Form, Benefits & Alternatives

The drag curl is an “old-school” bodybuilding exercise famed for its ability to build your biceps “peak.”

While it may not be as popular as regular barbell and dumbbell curls, it’s a fantastic exercise for gaining upper arm size and strength.

In this article, you’ll learn what drag curls are, how to do proper drag curl form, the benefits of the exercise, which muscles it works, common mistakes and how to avoid them, the best barbell drag curl alternatives and variations, and more. 

What Are Drag Curls?

Drag curls are a variation of the standard biceps curl that emphasize the biceps long head. 

The biceps long head is the portion of the biceps on the outside of the upper arm that gives the appearance of a “peak” when flexed.

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Drag Curl Form: How to Do Drag Curls Correctly

To master drag curl form, split the exercise into three parts: set up, drag, and descend.

1. Set up

While standing up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you. Allow your arms to hang straight down so the bar rests on your thighs.

2. Drag 

Drag the bar up your body by bending your elbows and allowing them to move backward. Continue moving your elbows back until the bar reaches nipple height or slightly below.

3. Descend

Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. 

Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:

The Benefits of the Drag Curl

Maximum Biceps Development

Research shows that combining compound pulling exercises involving the biceps with targeted biceps exercises like the drag curl maximizes biceps growth. 

Doing so allows you to train your biceps at different angles and through varying ranges of motion, which produces more balanced and complete growth than only using compound exercises.

It also ensures you train your “bis” with enough volume (sets) to stimulate growth without other muscles becoming a limiting factor.

Biceps Peak Emphasis

The long head of the biceps “crosses” the shoulder joint, so it’s most stretched and able to generate maximum force when your arm is behind your body. 

Thus, exercises that position your arms behind your body, like the drag biceps curl, tend to be the best exercises for developing your biceps long heads, which is the portion of the biceps that contributes most to your biceps peak.

Shoulder Stability

The biceps, especially its long head, plays a role in stabilizing the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) within the glenoid cavity (a shallow socket in your shoulder blade that holds the humerus).

Therefore, strengthening the biceps may help stabilize the shoulder and keep it healthy.

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Drag Curl: Muscles Worked

The main muscles worked by the drag curl are the biceps brachii, or “biceps.” It also works your brachialis and forearms to a lesser extent.

Here’s how the main muscle group worked by the drag curl looks on your body:

Alternating Dumbbell Curl Muscles Worked

Sets and Reps for the Drag Curl

Because you use a barbell (or EZ bar) for the drag biceps curl, it’s inherently more stable and balanced than most other biceps isolation exercises, thus allowing you to lift heavier weights.

For men looking to build muscle and gain strength, doing 3 sets of 4-to-6 or 6-to-8 reps works well, whereas 3 sets of 6-to-8 or 8-to-10 reps is more fitting for women.

Who Should Do the Drag Curl?

The drag curl is an excellent exercise for anyone looking to maximize biceps size and strength. It’s well-suited to those who have access to limited equipment (if you train at home, for example) since it allows you to train your arms in a novel way without requiring any specialist equipment.

Common Drag Curl Mistakes

Using too much weight

Trying to lift too much weight on the drag curl can cause your form to break down, reducing the effectiveness of the exercise and increasing the risk of injury.

Avoid this by choosing a weight that allows you to complete each rep with proper form and focus on performing “clean” reps rather than how much weight you lift.

Letting the weight fall back to the starting position

Research shows that controlling the eccentric portion (“lowering” phase) of any biceps curl is a highly effective way to boost muscle growth. As a general rule, you should take the same time to lift the weight as you do to lower it to the starting position—around one or two seconds for each is a good target.

Using momentum

Relying on momentum to “hump” the weight up reduces the work your biceps do and, thus, how much muscle you gain. To prevent yourself from using momentum in the drag curl, keep your torso, hips, and knees still during each rep.

Letting your elbows drift forward

Letting your elbows drift forward turns the exercise into a traditional curl. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it lessens the emphasis on the biceps long head, undermining the primary benefit of the drag curl.

The Best Barbell Drag Curl Alternatives and Variations

1. Dumbbell Drag Curl

The main benefit of the dumbbell drag curl is it trains each side of your body independently, which can help you find and fix muscle imbalances

2. Cable Drag Curl

The cable drag curl keeps more constant tension on the biceps than the barbell drag curl, which may aid muscle growth. That said, some people find the cable variation tricky to perform because the cable pulls you backward, which can make it challenging to balance. 

3. Smith Machine Drag Curl

The Smith machine drag curl is almost exactly the same as the barbell drag curl; the only difference is that you use a Smith machine rather than a barbell. The Smith machine drag curl is a perfectly viable drag curl alternative. However, bear in mind that it forces you to train through a slightly unnatural range of motion, which some people dislike.  

4. Bayesian Cable Curl

The Bayesian cable curl mimics drag curl form but allows you to use cables instead of a barbell. The benefits of the Bayesian curl are that it trains your biceps in a stretched position and keeps constant tension on your biceps throughout each rep, both of which benefit growth.

5. Incline Dumbbell Curl

The incline dumbbell curl trains your biceps when they’re behind your torso, which emphasizes the long head, similar to the drag curl. The incline curl also creates intense biceps tension throughout the entire range of motion, which is important for developing balanced size and strength.

Drag Curl Tips

1. End every set 1-to-3 reps shy of muscle failure.

As I explain in my fitness books for men and women, to maximize your results, you must take most sets to within a rep or two of failure.

Ask yourself at the end of each set of drag biceps curls, “If I had to, how many more reps could I have gotten with good form?” If the answer is more than two, increase the weight or reps to make your next set more challenging.

2. Once you hit the top of your rep range for a set, move up in weight. 

If your workout calls for 6-to-8 reps of the barbell drag curl and you get 8 reps for a set, add 10 pounds to your next set.

If you manage 3 or fewer reps with the new weight, reduce the weight by 5 pounds to ensure you stay in the 6-to-8 rep range. 

Follow this pattern of trying to add reps or weight to every exercise in every workout.

3. Contract your biceps hard on every rep.

Research shows that using “internal cues” (mental mantras that draw your attention toward what you’re doing with your body) may boost biceps growth.

For instance, in a study conducted by scientists at Lehman College, participants increased biceps activation when the researchers reminded them to “squeeze the muscle” during sets of biceps curls. 

What’s more, participants who used this cue experienced twice as much biceps growth over the 8-week study as participants who used a cue like “get the weight up.”

Drag Curl FAQs

FAQ #1: What does a drag curl do?

Drag curls strengthen your biceps muscles. Additionally, performing drag curls with the bar close to your body emphasizes your biceps long heads, which are the portions of your biceps that contribute most to your biceps peak. 

FAQ #2: Are drag curls good for the long head?

Yes, drag curls are beneficial for the long head of the biceps because they place your upper arms behind your body, which helps to emphasize the long head over the short head. 

FAQ #3: What do drag curls work?

Drag curls primarily work the biceps brachii. While they train both the long and short heads of the biceps, they’re particularly well-suited to targeting the long head, helping to enhance overall biceps size and height.

+ Scientific References

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