“Wait…….you wanna do WHAT??!?!”
“Biceps curls. Let’s get a few sets in.”
This was the brief conversation during a workout in Toronto where a friend and I were going back and forth with different exercises, and I suggested some good biceps curls after already doing deadlifts and some bench press. The look on his face was one like “what the hell are those,” “I’m probably going to blow out my rotator cuff/lumbar-disc/man-card/sphincter if I do even a single non-functional rep,” and a smattering of “aren’t you kind of a cutting edge guy? Why are you doing a basic antiquated exercise like that?”
I know what everyone else would probably be thinking” “Oh those are sooooo not functional! You should do some chinups or row something like that.”
I’ve always been a big believer in biceps curls. They are a great way to get people to feel a muscle working, relatively easy to perform with a very low level of learning required, and produce noticable results in a short period of time. On top of that, you can’t really say “Suns out, guns out” if you’re packing 10 inch pipe cleaners under your half-empty t-shirt sleeves.
Another big benefit of biceps curls is that the biceps tendons attach to the shoulder capsule directly and also to the coracoid process of the shoulder blade, meaning it’s almost an extension of the rotator cuff for how it can help to create stability through the anterior shoulder. If the rotator cuff anchors the humerus into the glenoid fossa, the biceps anchor the glenoid fossa onto the humerus. Getting compression from both ends can only benefit stability.
There’s a crazy amount of scapular stability required to do them as the load positioned anterior to the shoulder tends to cause the shoulder blade to tip and the humerus to roll forward if the stabilizers aren’t firing properly, which means they’re also very effective when working with shoulder rehab people. The pic below is an unintentional example of what can happen when biceps curls are done without good stability through the scapular stabilizers, as evident by the upper part of the humerus diving forward and the scapula following along.
Now what are the muscles that would resist this diving forward of the shoulder? The lats, lower traps, rhomboids, and posterior rotator cuff muscles. And what are the muscles constantly preached that need to be strengthened with shoulder issues like rotator cuff tears, subacromial impingement, other fun things? Lats, lower traps, rhomboids, and posterior rotator cuff muscles. Coincidence? Most likely, but let’s go with it.
So they’re awesome for shoulder rehab when done focusing on shoulder positioning and scapular stability. What about performance?
Anyone who has to grip something should have some decent strength through their biceps. For deadlifting, they’re incredibly important, as they prevent the distraction of the elbow and keep the arms glued to the bar. The evidence of their importance is shown in the fact that the biceps tendon rupture is one of the more common injuries to deadlifters and olympic lifters, behind low back and neck injuries.
So who else would need strong biceps? Well off the top of my head, wrestlers, MMA fighters, boxers, basketball players (forwards and centers), football players (wider recievers fighting for a jump ball, running backs, tackles), rugby players (scrum), rock climbers, olympic weight lifters, kayakers, Megatron, Strongmen competitors, judo, Bane (but not Joker), and defencemen in hockey.
From an aesthetic perespective, they’re the first non-facial feature a lot of people look at (side from the obvious chesticles and badonkadonk). If you have a good set of pythons draping out of your shirt sleeve, little girls will weep and grown women will have stirrings they haven’t had since Swayze lifted Baby over his luciously flowing mullet back in the 80′s.
I get misty every time I see that.
Women also need some biceps, as evident by the infatuation everyone has over Michelle Obama’s pipes and Madonna’s best Skeletor impersonation.
Now to build quality biceps, you could spend a few cycles of training focusing on getting some girth to your pythons, or simply follow a concept known as the minimal effective dose. Let’s say you just did a bunch of deadlifts or chinups. As a follow-up to that, throw in a few biceps curls with either dumbbells or barbells. You’ve already worked them, so throwing a few extra sets in at the end of those will help to create a bit of growth that wouldn’t have happened if you were to just pack it in. Since you may or may not have been doing biceps curls for a few weeks, months or years, it won’t take much to leave you unable to brush your teeth tomorrow and have to resort to laying the toothbrush on your bathroom counter and running your face back and forth over it.
If you’re used to training body parts each day, it may take more of a shock set to get the kind of gains you’re thinking of. Throw in some drop sets, where you do as many reps as possible at a given weight, then drop the weight down by 5 or 10 pounds and keep going to fatigue there, continuing to strip weight off the bar or use lighter dumbbells until you can’t feel feelings any more. Fair warning: these workouts are fun with a capital F.U., so be prepared to hate life for a while if doing these.
Another method you could use are involves increasing the time under tension. Instead of simply rocking out reps while listening to Def Leopard on your Walkman, slow those bad boys down and try to make the concentric (shortening) phase last 3-5 seconds per rep, and the eccentric (lengthening) phase last 3-5 seconds again. This increased time under tension will help break down the muscle fibers and lead to a bigger hypertrophy reaction than just banging through the reps like you have somewhere better to be.
One thing to consider when doing any kind of biceps exercise is the weight being chosen. Use a weight you can manage without rocking back and forth to get some body english on the bar to get it through the range of motion (unless you’re a pro bodybuilder, then do whatever the hell you want). Also, choose a weight that you can keep your scapular stabilizers engaged with and not let the shoulders roll forward or shrug up. Watch what starts happening to his shoulder at around the 50 second mark (but kudos to getting that many reps out in a fatigued state!):
Well, hopefully I’ve been able to convincingly show how training biceps can be an important part of any training program. For me, when I’ve done heavy deadlifts I like to follow up with some moderate but not fatiguing dumbbell curls or EZ-curl barbell curls, just to ensure the biceps are moving well and to help reduce the chances of a biceps tendon issue. I’ve seen too many guys go down with those and want to make sure I stay fresh and clean to death for many years to come.
If you want a ready-made program to get better arms, John Romaniello put out The SuperHero Workout last year, and I have to say it was one of the most fun, interesting and unique programs I’ve ever seen, and can definitely do the job of packing a few more inches of density on your arms. It’s pretty cheap too, so it would make a great training option for the start of 2013. Get a copy by clicking HERE.
What about you? Do you do any kind of dedicated arm training? What do you do? Drop a comment below and let me know.