For those of us who need an excuse to do curls for the gurls.
written by by Doug Daniels
source: Powerlifting USA Magazine, May 2010 – Vol. 33 No. 7
This will not be a ‘Curls for Girls’ article on biceps training—I promise—but when biceps training is mentioned, the average powerlifter pictures bodybuilders posing down under the lights. However, bicep power is very important to success in powerlifting. One of my favorite old articles was by Dr. Terry Todd and Paul Anderson in Bob Hoffman’s Muscular Development magazine. These powerlifting legends were firm believers in the role of bicep power for the bench press. Look at the top benchers from the last 30 years and you’ll see biceps that would make Governor Arnold take notice. Biceps are not directly involved in powerlifting, but they serve as stabilizers for the lift and lend indirect benefits to the squat and deadlift as well. Powerful biceps also balance out arm strength with powerlifters’ tricep power which can reduce the chance of injury. Let’s start off with an explanation of the function of the biceps and then explore tips on how to get best results.
The biceps (bi means two) consist of two heads—one head’s function is to bend the elbow and other is to supinate or rotate the hand from a palms-down position to a palms-up position. The bicep makes up approximately one-third of the muscle mass of the upper arm. To best strengthen your biceps, you will need to work each aspect, or head. To do this, you must use two different types of biceps exercises.
To work the elbow-bending bicep head, the best choice is the basic curl. Unfortunately, out of all the weight exercises ever invented, curls are the most incorrectly performed. Where do I start? First, most lifters do not fully extend and contract the muscle while performing curls. They are in essence performing a cheating partial curl, and are getting at best, partial results. Not fully extending and contracting shortens the distance the weight must travel, enabling them to use more weight. Again I will sound like a nagging spouse, but the judges do not care how much you can curl. What should matter to you are the gains to your powerlifts you can accrue through effective bicep training. Other cheating methods are swinging, essentially power cleaning the bar up and dropping the weight to the starting position. Swinging the bar results in more work being done by your lower back and legs than biceps. Combine swinging with shortening the range of movement and your results will not be what you have hoped. This kind of training not only adds up to a big waste of time and energy, but the ballistic movement of the bar increases your chance of injury.
The supination or rotating function of the biceps is worked best with dumbbells or pulley machines as these allow each arm to curl on its own. The best supinating exercise is the alternate dumbbell or pulley curl. Begin with arms at your sides with palms facing back. Curl one weight upwards while simultaneously rotating your hand to the palms up position. It’s key to gradually rotate the hand; don’t complete the rotation at the bottom part of the curl. At the top, twist the pinkie side of your hand inwards to further contract the bicep. On the way down, reverse the movement, but take about twice as long to lower as it did to curl the weight up. While one arm is going up, the other arm should be going down. The other option is to do a full rep with one arm and then do the other. Don’t swing or drop the weight. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of lowering the weight slowly and under control. This adds negative resistance; making each rep more effective. Allowing the weight to free-fall uses one half of the exercise; make each full rep count.
The hammer curl is an old standard with many powerlifters. A hammer curl is performed with dumbbells with the hands positioned with the palms inward, just like you were striking a nail with a hammer. The logic behind the hammer curl is because the biceps are in this position during the bench you should curl in this position for power. This is flawed logic as the hammer style limits the effectiveness of the curl due to restricting the motion of the exercise. I strongly suggest the aforementioned supinating curl instead. This style works all aspects of the biceps. Leave hammers to Bob Villa, MC and The Mighty Thor.
Using dumbbells for curls offers a great advantage. Each arm must curl half the weight, thus getting an equal share of the load. When using a barbell, the stronger arm may lift more than its share, which can further compound limb strength imbalances. If you have such a limb strength imbalance, I suggest stopping the set when the weaker arm fails. Eventually—unless you have a nervous system problem—both sides will even up. If this continues to be a problem, see a good sports doctor.
The effectiveness of curls can be easily enhanced by altering a few simple, but critical, aspects of its execution. First, decrease the weight you use if you are using a sloppy exercise style. Keep your elbows locked to your sides while curling. If your elbows drift out and/or back, this will shorten the range of motion and add other muscles in moving the weight like the delts and traps. Your goal is to limit the involvement of other muscle groups to a minimum. Machines, like Eagle and Hammer (not the curl), have an advantage over free weights because they provide resistance throughout the entire range of movement, which is very difficult to do with a barbell or dumbbell. The fixed motion of machines also limits cheating. But the effectiveness of machines can be reduced by not lowering all the way down or curling fully to the top. Remember full extension and contraction—no matter what exercise or apparatus you choose.
My suggestion is to work your biceps three to eight sets, once or twice per week. Keep the reps in 6–12 range. Always remember, bicep exercises are like other assistance work; on meet day no one cares how much you can cheat curl. The purpose of assistance work is to register higher competitive lifts. In addition to lifting more, no one ever minded a more impressive looking set of arms. Curls can be for girls too.