Friday, January 13, 2012

Bicep Curls: Useless, Essential, or What? Part 2

In case you missed it, my previous post was dedicated to a review of the major useless forms of bicep curls.  I promised to continue the topic in Part 2, and see if there's any place for bicep curls in a useful strength and conditioning program.

I believe the answer is "Yes, but..." and I'll elaborate in the following post.
Sorry Chic Thompson, I'm totally "Yes, But"-ting today!

First, I will reiterate what I wrote in Part 1: "The curl is not an essential element of any strength program."  I stand by this.  No program needs curls, really, except that of physique competitors.

However, that doesn't mean they can't be useful for certain populations under certain circumstances.  As I alluded to in Part 1, I see two main purposes to curls:

1. Pure aesthetic vanity aka working the "beach muscles" aka sun's out guns out!
2. Working on a weak point in upper body pulling movements (Chins/Pullups or Rows).  The biceps are sometimes a weak/sticking point in some people's improvement of chins and rows, and working them a little extra can help solve the problem.
This is not as valid a reason to do curls as...
...improving this is.  But it's still OK, if you must.
Neither of these is really essential: #1 can be accomplished on its own with enough chinups, pullups, and rows, anyway.  They contain enough volume of bicep work to take care of Da Gunz.
#2 Can, essentially, also be accomplished by doing more chins, pullups, and rows - if your biceps are the weak point in those movements, then they are what will fatigue first.  So if you add more into your program, the biceps will get the extra work while the rest of the muscles involved in the movement don't really get fatigued, thus bringing the biceps along in development, further away from being a weak point.

However, both #1 and #2 may be accomplished a bit faster with dedicated bicep work.

Now that we've established the potentially useful place for curls, non-essential though they are, we can talk about which curls do the job.

Based on the 2 reasons above, there's no good reason to do anything exotic here.  Basic standing barbell curls or dumbbell curls will both do everything you need to fulfill reasons 1 and 2.  No need to do seated incline bench curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, preacher curls, zottman curls, hero curls, and all the others.   Why?  Because they don't let you lift as much weight, thus the muscle receives less stimulus. The success of bodybuilders who use all these variations regularly has more to do with steroids and total bicep workload/volume than the efficacy of any of these specific variations.  And since you read Part 1  you remember that the idea that concentration curls work on "peak" whereas barbell curls work on mass is a myth.  So - CAN you do these variations?  Sure.  Will they help?  Not as much as the basic versions.

But wait, I can already hear you protesting: "But hammer and zottman curls work my forearms!  Surely there's some utility there!"  If you're doing all your big movements, especially deadlifts and chins, you're getting enough forearm work to be getting on with.  Unless you're using straps for these lifts, in which case stop.  Seriously, stop now.
If you're using these to deadlift, no wonder you think you need
to do hammer curls for forearm development.

Another important point is WHEN in the workout to do your curls.  The answer is always always always at the end, after the main lifts have already been performed.  The purpose of any accessory/assistance lift is to improve or drive the main lifts - which are what cause the main adaptation in your body to occur.  So you never want to tire out on assistance lifts, or have them affect your main lifts.  So if you have a day where you're doing Squats, Push Presses, Power Cleans, and Chins, do the curls AFTER all of those.
Another option is to do them on their own, pre or post conditioning work on the day ater the last day of your weekly program, i.e. if you lift on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, then do them on Saturday.

As to how much to do, 3 sets should suffice for almost all trainees.  Rep range is medium - it's a single joint exercise, so you're not going to do heavy singles, or even fives, probably.  3 sets of 8-10 work well.  I know, I know, this sounds very "ACSM-ey," but that's how I like to program bicep curls, if I ever do at all.

The truth is, I very rarely do - neither for myself, nor my clients.  I don't find those two reasons pop up often enough or with enough urgency to spend the limited amount of time we have to train on something so small like bicep curls.  So, for most trainees, they are indeed a waste of time.  For the few who can use them, they are like the cherry on top of the frosting on top of the cake.  Makes for a nice decoration, but hardly worth fussing about if the cake sucks and the frosting looks like it was applied by rabid squirrels.
When not busy wielding his ax with deadly effect, this
little guy might just be messing around with your cake.

Also, it should be noted that this isn't just a matter of "well if I have the time, why shouldn't I just do all the biceps I want, anyway?"  Because if you're doing your other lifting properly, you're taxing your body significantly with your main lifts.  You have only so much recovery capacity, especially if you're not getting 8hrs sleep a night.  And be honest, you're not.  Also if you're not eating properly.  And that's not very likely either, is it?   So doing 9 sets of Bis after your workout 2 or 3 times per week is gonna take a valuable chunk of your recovery capacity away, thus stalling progress in your IMPORTANT LIFTS.  So don't do it, unless you don't like getting better.  In which case, you can go back to eating 6-11 servings of grain with your 60g of daily protein, too.  Just don't complain when, after 6 months of a steady diet of curls and those food intakes, you look like this guy


  1. Awesome post, people need to see more articles like this.

  2. The only time I do biceps and triceps isolated is when I feel they haven't gotten enough work. This happens more often with the triceps than with the biceps. I agree with everything you said above.