Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bicep Curls: Useless, Essential, or What?

Curls.  No other word in the exercise lexicon engenders such a range of different reactions.  To many gym goers "lifting weights" is essentially synonymous with curls.  To others, they're a complete waste of time and effort that could be better spent on more important lifts.  To settle that debate today, I will be offering my own opinion, which of course, settles ALL important debates in the strength and conditioning world.

I (humbly?) submit that, while the curl is not an absolutely essential element of any strength program, it can have its uses in the proper place and time.  While I don't do them as a regular part of a program myself, they can have value in certain contexts.  Let's explore those contexts a bit.

We must first differentiate between useless curls and possibly useful curls.  Useless curls come in many flavors, and an exhaustive list of examples would be very difficult to make.  However, a few general categories will probably include almost every variation of the useless variety.

The first category is "Pink Dumbbell Curls."  Epitomized by this: 
She looks good...but not because of those Pink Dumbbell Curls.
The dumbbells don't absolutely HAVE to be pink; in fact, they can come in a plethora or colors and materials, even iron!  You see people doing them at the gym all the time.  Usually, but not exclusively women (because they think they'll bulk up or get too big if they lift more than 3lb dumbbells).  Also usually, but not exclusively, in a group fitness format where the teacher either thinks the same way, or cannot give each participant enough attention to ensure they use enough weight, OR because they have to be nice because the gym will cut them off the schedule if their numbers are low, and they're worried about losing women if they demand they lift heavy, because they know many women are fooled by reason #1 above (more than 3lb weights make you bulky etc...).

What these scenarios all have in common is that they suffer from the problem of Pink Dumbbell Curls.  Namely, that the weight is so submaximal, that it essentially elicits no training effect whatsoever.  As discussed several times on this blog, you get better by subjecting your body to an appropriate stress, then recovering from that stress.  Upon recovery, called adaptation, your body is now better suited to handle the demands of the stress you previously put on it.  

The problem with Pink Dumbbell Curls is that they are insufficient to provide any stress to your body whatsoever.  They are already so far below the threshold of what you can do, that these curls are more "activity" than exercise.  They can make you better in the same way carrying your purse, or gardening can - they burn calories and provide some basic activity that might help reduce the risk of heart disease by 0.000000412% if you do them "most days of the week for 20 minutes," but are basically a waste of time.

The next category of useless curls is the "Back and Hip Extension Curl."   You can see some dunderhead doing this at the gym pretty much every time you go.  It's usually a man, and he looks like this:

The problem with this type of curl is that it completely misses the point.  Your program should consist mainly of total body exercises that require systemic coordination and thus produce a systemic response.  The main reason you do curls is either vanity or to work on a weak point in your upper body pulling movements.  Doing the Back and Hip Extension Curl accomplishes neither of these two things.  You use your whole body, which is normally good, but for a bicep curl is stupid.  Because you neither work the weak point enough to get a training effect on the biceps directly (because you use your hips and back) nor get the vanity work (also, because of the distribution of stress across so many muscle and joints).  (Power Curls are a different story altogether; I like them for certain people and programs).

Following that, we have the "Curls in the Squat Rack."  This one is self-explanatory.  You can curl anywhere.  You can take a bar anywhere in the gym you want, pick it up off the floor, and curl it.  Even someone with overdeveloped biceps and no deadlift can still deadlift more than they can curl.  But you can't squat just anywhere.  To do a proper back squat, you need a rack (or squat stands) to take the bar out of.  In the absence of a rack, you're limited by what you can clean, get over your head (press/push press/jerk), then safely lower onto your back.  You squat it and THEN still have to re-lift the weight back over your head and safely lower it off your shoulders to the floor when done.  Needless to say, this significantly reduces what you can squat.  Thus, you need a rack.  So when some douchebag is using a rack to do his all important Curls in the Squat Rack, he should be strung up by his fruits and left there overnight.  Just sayin'.
This is also an appropriate response to someone doing curls
in the squat rack.

This is good, too.
Getting close to the end, is the "Excessive Obsession Curl."  This refers not so much to the type of curl being performed as the emphasis on it in the program (or lack of program).  This Excessive Obsession Curler believes he or she must do 4 sets of Barbell Curls, followed by 3 sets of alternating dumbbell curls for mass.  Then 4 sets of EZ-Curl bar preacher curls for definition, and 3 sets of hammer curls for length.  Ending with 5 sets of concentration curls to develop the all-important "peak," like Arnold says.  This person is, frankly, an idiot.  Or under 22, in which case their idiocy is acceptable as part of the growing pains process.

Seriously though, muscles don't recognize the difference between these different exercices.  All they recognize is how hard they have to contract (how many motor units to activate, based on the all-or-nothing principle of muscle contraction - read these links if you don't already know what I'm talking about!).  If more force is required, more motor units are activated and the muscle contracts hard; if less, less.  Concentration curls no more work on peak than barbell curls or fork-to-mouth curls, for that matter.  The shape of your biceps is determined by genetics: the length of the muscle belly and the length and placement of origin and insertion tendons.  The shape of all your other muscles are determined by the same manner, as well.  Thinking otherwise is a myth; a common myth, especially in bodybuilding circles, but a myth nonetheless.

Bottom line: the biggest issue with Excessive Obsession Curls is it ignores a basic truth: Small muscle = small place in the program.  Simple as that.

The final useless curl category is "Unstable Surface Curls."

These are dumb because they force you to fight once again with the Pink Dumbbell Curls problem - you can't use a significant enough load to cause an adaptation that will make you better in any appreciable way.  And as Eric Cressey and others have written about, doing stuff on an unstable surface during performance training, actually reduces performance!  Unstable surfaces have a valuable place in the toolbox of rehab professionals, but the assumption that they should therefore also be part of a performance enhancement program for an uninjured person is incorrect.

This post has already gotten rather long, but we have uncovered important material.  And all, or almost all, of the useless curl variations can be categorized as one of the types listed above.   I will continue in Part 2 about when bicep curls can be a useful addition to a program.

Stay tuned!


  1. You can stop there. Curls are useless.

    Or rather, the very few people they are useful for are not reading fitness blogs. I'm not sure Ronnie Coleman is even literate.

  2. Any idea where I can buy that shirt? Apparently I was incorrect in thinking these rules were common sense as many in my gym can't figure it out.