Zottman curl: What is it, and the benefits for bulking up your bicep muscles

Cropped shot of a fitness woman holding a dumbbell and performing a bicep curl
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Just like the Arnold press variation of the overhead press for shoulders, Zottman curls are the bicep curl variation we all need. It takes the upper and lower arms, including the three bicep muscles and forearms, using flexion, extension and a simple rotational hand movement. 

To do the Zottman curl, perform a bicep curl, then turn your palms outwards at the top of the curl and lower the weights again to change the emphasis on your arms. If you’re looking to add one biceps exercise to your arm workouts, make it this one. You’ll just need a set of dumbbells — we recommend the best adjustable dumbbells — to do the move. 

Below, we cover how to do Zottman curls with proper form and some common mistakes we’ve seen people make when doing them. We also reveal the benefits of Zottman curls and why the arm exercise is so effective at strengthening your biceps, wrists and forearms. 

Zottman curls: Benefits

The bicep curl variation is a solid addition to any dumbbell arm workout for strengthening your biceps, wrists and forearms and features on some of the best upper body strength programs.

Any exercise that requires you to hold weights will activate your forearms and develop hand and grip strength, and your forearms support upper limb movement and complex arm, wrist and finger movements. Strong forearms could help you lift heavier and hold weights for longer. 

Grip strength declines as you age, so regularly training these muscle groups will ultimately improve upper-body strength and help you hold on for longer. And because your biceps assist with pulling exercises like deadlifts, bentover barbell rows, pull-ups, or dead hangs, you’ll want to strengthen them to maximize your ability during weight lifting.

Zottman curls target all three biceps muscles — the biceps brachii during the concentric phase (lifting) and the brachioradialis and brachialis during the eccentric phase, giving your biceps a serious workout with just a set of dumbbells and creativity. But it’s not just in the gym that your arms matter. Arm strength translates to simply daily tasks like carrying groceries or moving furniture. 

How to do Zottman curls

Here’s how to do this curl variation properly.

How:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding both dumbbells
  • Hold both dumbbells by your sides with palms facing up and arms extended
  • Set your shoulders back and down and engage your core. Your spine should be neutral
  • Perform a bicep curl by bending your elbows and drawing the weights toward your shoulders. Squeeze your biceps at the top
  • Pause, then rotate your palms forward facing and slowly lower both dumbbells toward your sides
  • Pause, then turn palms to face up and repeat.

Zottman curls: Common mistakes

These are the most common mistakes we see. 

Flaring elbows

To keep the focus on your biceps and take pressure off your joints, keep your elbows locked in towards your sides and track the dumbbells directly toward your shoulders without traveling wide and away from the body; this is especially true when your palms face forward during the lowering phase. 

Swinging your arms

You might see fellow gym-goers swinging their arms in a bid to pump iron — resist the urge to follow suit. Not only does this signal ego lifting, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything. To feel this exercise properly move with control, lifting and lowering for several counts with a soft pause at the top of the curl. The swinger arms have no place here.

Hunching shoulders

Before starting your reps, pull your shoulder blades away from your ears and set them down; this should help improve posture and prevent hunching. 

Arching the back

Under heavier loads, many people push their hips forward and arch the spine to help them lift the weight. Instead, practice keeping a tall spine (we recommend clients perform the curl against a wall at first) and squeeze your abdominal muscles to engage your core. 

Lifting too heavy

You can get a huge amount of feedback from your biceps without lifting heavy weights. These are smaller muscles than your glutes or lats and they fatigue quickly with isolation exercises. If your form is compromised, you’re lifting too heavy. Only lift a weight that allows you to maintain proper technique, and drop by 1-2kg if necessary.

Zottman curls: Variations

Alternating Zottman curls

If you’d like to work unilaterally, try alternating Zottman curls, which train both sides of your body to work independently. Doing so could strengthen your underdeveloped, weaker muscles and improve coordination, balance and mind-muscle connection. 

Time under tension curls

You could also practice time under tension, which means slowing the exercise down. We like using a 4-1-4-1 tempo, which means raising the weight for 4 seconds, pausing, lowering the weight for 4 seconds, then pausing at the bottom. 

Preacher Zottman curls

The preacher bench isolates the arm and prevents the body from using any momentum to lift the weight. Here, you can focus on maximizing the activation of your biceps and isolate the movement, but you’ll have a little bit less range of motion to play with. 

Incline Zottman curls

Using a workout bench, stack your seat height to lean back slightly. From this supported position, you can maximize your range of motion and squeeze the juice out of the muscles.

Seated Zottman curls

Sit with your back against a workout bench stacked vertically. The variation prevents using any swinging momentum to lift the weights and could help you engage your core. 

Aim for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per arm, then gradually increase weight over time.

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.