An Overhead Cable Curl (also called a High Cable Curl) is a biceps exercise that uses a high cable attachment (generally at shoulder height or higher) to really isolate the biceps muscle for a full peak contraction.
The biggest benefits to using the Overhead Cable Curl is that it removes the front deltoid muscle from helping curl the weight up while also allowing the biceps muscle to get a full peak contraction because of the position the arm is in.
Since the biceps muscle actually attaches across the shoulder joint, one minor function of the biceps muscle is to help pull the arm/elbow up in front and to the side of the body to get a full muscle contraction.
You can’t get a full biceps muscle contraction unless the arm/elbow extends to shoulder height and above.
BUT, the front deltoid muscle is also needed to raise the arm out in front of the body as would happen in a front lateral raise.
This means if you allow the elbow to move forward during a standard cable biceps curl to get a better biceps muscle contraction, the front deltoid muscle will be helping to support and move the weight since the elbow joint is also moving out in front of the body.
By raising the arm up to shoulder height during the Overhead Cable Curl, the front deltoid muscle is now forced to keep the arm in that position using an isometric (static) contraction and cannot help actually curl the weight with a concentric (moving) contraction.
This fully isolates the biceps muscle for a peak contraction.
But the biggest downfall of the Overhead Cable Curl is that the range of motion is limited. While you can get a full biceps muscle contraction, you cannot get a full stretch in the biceps muscle at the start of each rep.
To get a full stretch in the biceps muscle the arm actually needs to be placed behind the body like with incline curls.
This would of course involve lowering the arm and losing the peak contraction/isolation. So, there’s a trade off.
How to Do An Overhead Cable Curl
The most common way to do an Overhead Cable Curl is by using the high cable attachment with handles and your arms out to the side (sometimes called the crucifix position).
Since you’re fully isolating the biceps you will probably have to use less weight than during a normal cable curl. It is an isolation exercise so a higher rep range like 8-15 reps works well.
When curling, concentrate on getting a full strong contraction and pause there as that is the benefit you’re looking to get using this exercise.
Isometrics could also be used by holding the contracted position for time periods instead of doing full motion reps.
You can also change the angle you curl by using a bar with your hands in front of you instead. This setup can be used to duplicate Spider Curls if you don’t have a steep preacher curl bench.
You can do this Spider Curl variation either standing or lying on a bench. Lying down can help reduce the cheating you can do since you can move your body easier while standing.
There is debate, but some say that the elbows in front of the body with the hands close helps put more stress on the long head (outside) of the biceps muscle which gives it its peak. Arms out to the side supposedly stresses the short head (inside of arm) more which gives the biceps muscle its width or thickness.
One Arm High Cable Curl
This is just a one handed version of the normal Overhead Cable Curl using a single handle attachment with the hand either out to the side or in front.
The benefit of using one arm high cable curls is that you can isolate one arm at a time.
Overhead Cable Curl Behind the Neck
This variation puts the arms above the head with the bar then curled down towards the back of the neck.
IN THEORY this variation should allow for the best contraction since the arms are as high as possible. BUT not everyone feels a stronger contraction over a normal (arms to the side or front) Overhead Cable Curl.
Be careful though as there is a tendency to cheat by letting the arms/elbows move forward slightly and then back on each rep (like a rocking motion) to help move the weight.
You want to curl straight up and down without moving the elbow forward or back.
Overhead Cable Curl Alternative (Dumbbell High Curls)
If you don’t have a cable machine to do the Overhead Cable Curl, one alternative you may see suggested is Dumbbell High Curls instead. But this really isn’t a good replacement.
Using dumbbells completely changes the direction of force on the biceps muscle.
Dumbbells are free weights so gravity always has the force pulling downwards to the ground.
On the other hand, the force applied in cable exercises is always in the direction of the cable itself which can vary depending on where your body is located compared to the cable pulley.
When you use dumbbells, a lot of hyperextension strain can be on the elbows when you have your arms straight (either to the side or out in front of the body).
Gravity will always pull the weights downward whereas for an Overhead Cable Curl the force is in line with the arm itself which puts no hyperextension type strain on the elbows.
You will not be able to get a full contraction with dumbbells either since again gravity will pull the weights downward instead of away from the body as with an Overhead Cable Curl.
In fact, you could even hold the arms in the normally full contracted position without actually contracting the biceps muscle. The dumbbells themselves will hold the arms in that position because of gravity pulling them downwards.