Breathing Life Into The Bicep Curl

What are the benefits of a Bicep curl? Bicep Curls; The one exercise that has been loved and disliked by everyone thoughout their lifting careers. When you're young and just starting to lift, you do them mulitple times a week. From middle school PE classes to serious lifters in the gym, most people have included lots of traditional ab work and sets of 21's. (In case you didn't do 21's its a set of 7 reps at the bottom half of the range of motion, 7 at the top half, and 7 full reps). As you get older, you start to think that they are pointless and you get enough bicep activity when you train back. If you cringe when you see guys at the gym spending a large chunk or their time curling, then you know you fall into this category.

Then, you actually mature in your journey and realize no matter how much you dislike them, they will always be a part of your life. So you change your thinking and start seeing that a bicep curl is more then just a way to train your arms, it is a way to train rotary stabiity, train your rotator cuff, and after all, plays a bigger role in strength and conditioning then you once thought. 

bodybuilder bicep curls

OK, so maybe I'm just projecting my thoughts on the bicep curl on to you. But, if you are the kind that loves the bicep curl, or your the one who thinks all athletes who do it waste their time, read on, there might be some nuggets of knowledge for you to throw in your tool box.

The Bicep Curl

You have preacher curls, hammer curls, concentration curls, reverse curls, curls till failure, curls with a kettlebell, barbell curls, and endless other variations that will all train elbow flexion. Each exercise obviously trains the biceps, which are composed of the biceps brachii and brachialis. A neutral grip, like in a hammer curl will increase muscle activity of the brachioradialis, aka the drinking muscle. At the forearm your training your flexor and extensor carpi radialis, flexor and extensor carpi ulnaris, and for those of you out there who havent had tommy john surgery, your pulmaris longus. 

bicep curl anatomy

If you want to get fancy with your bicep curl, you would flex your should at the top of each rep. The biceps tendon insert into your scapula, and has a secondary function of shoulder flexion. Believe it or not, the last little bit of shoulder flexion could really change how each rep feels.

What You Didn't Know About a Bicep Curl

A standing bicep curl does more then just train your biceps. As mentioned above, it has the potential to train rotary stability, aka improve your ability to resist rotation, and also has the ability to train your rotator cuff.

Rotary Stability

Go to any local gym and check out the dumbbell section from 50lb and lower. I bet you see a bunch of guys and girls standing or sitting in front of the mirror, swinging away with some bicep curl. When things get heavy, the normal person looks outside of there body to generate momentum, often resulting in a swing. Swinging while sitting or standing will most often result in flexion of the spine, poor scapula stability. Swinging while standing will also include internal rotation at the hip, leading to internal rotation at the dumbest joint in the body, the knee. 

bicep curl affects core anatomy 

Now imagine there was someone next to the swingers (i'm talking about those who swing their bodies here) at the gym, doing his bicep curl, standing up, with their core really turned on. Instead of rotating and swinging, his or her core, specifically internal and external obliques, will fire, enhancing the ability resisting rotation with each and every rep. 

BAM! Bicep curls are a core exercise!

Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Stability

We need our rotator cuff to be strong, and maintain the position of our scapula/head of our humerus in multiple positions, while managing loads with our arms in many different positions. Packing your scapula, as described in previous posts, provides you with a platform to do just that. A quick trip into an anatomy text book will show you that your biceps tendon inserts into your scapula. Do you think positioning of your scapula and bicep work won't effect what is going on within your shoulder?  

 bicep curl affects rotator cuff and shoulder anatomy


Next time you grab your dumbbells for a set of curls, whether sitting or standing, (preferably standing) pack your scaps, keep them packed, and then crush a few sets. I can guarantee you will feel stronger, and have way more control during each rep. Not to mention you will be "functionally" training your rotator cuff.

 BAM! Biceps are now a rotator cuff exercise!

Recommended Reps and Sets

Personally I don't like the engorged or swollen feeling in my arms following a workout. Feeling "swole" doesn't necessarily guarantee muscle growth. In the(real role of anabolic) we talked about what it takes to see muscle hypertrophy. Based on recent literature, you dont need to do multiple sets of multiple exercises, as long as that last set is to failure.

The once or twice a month that I'll do a couple sets of hammer curls, i'll crank out 3 or 4 heavy sets of 5.

In my opinion its more fun to lift heavy dumbbells for a couple sets, then it is to grab moderate dumbbells, and do 3 sets of 8 or 10 reps of every bicep exercise I can think of, for 25 minutes. 

How I Would Teach a Bicep Curl

As long as we continue to live in a society where people care about their appearance, we will live in a society cares about the size of their arms. Instead of trying to rid society of the exercise, try and teach it in the safest, most useful way possible. 

Here is how I would teach the bicep curl.

1. With a dumbbell in each hand, grab the ground with your feet and crush a walnut between your glutes.

2. crush the grip on the dumbbells, squeezing harder then you think you need to.

3. Pack your scapula and your neck.

4. Get to work! Bring the dumbells to your shoulders and right back down. Making sure to focus on the eccentric as much as the concentric. People tend to forget exercises are meant to train a movement, not so much a specific muscle. Training the triceps eccentrically while the biceps are firing concentrically, and vice versa, during elbow flexion, is just as important. 

The Fastest Way To Big Arms

bodybuilder with huge arms

People, mostly marines,  ask how to get big arms. My answer is always the same, less is more. Most people train their arms with multiple sets of multiple exercises till failure. All this is doing is increasing the amount of muscle damage and increasing the time it takes to recover. Most people don't realize that the next day your are in the gym your arms will be working again, slowing the process of growth. Instead, take some time between days at the gym. Remember when you rest, you grow, recover, and adapt. 

Let's not forget, in order to truly put on size, you have to put on weight. This means you have to eat more food! This tends to be a key component that people forget when they are trying to put on size. In order to truly be in a state of positive protein synthesis, your body can't be depending on protein to maintain its normal body weight.

 It's a very simple concept. Eat more, put on more size. 

 Take Home Message

Bicep curls have the potential to be more then just an exercise to train elbow flexion, and get bigger arms. They have the potential to improve rotator cuff strength, and improve rotary stability. 

Bicep work doesn't need to take 30 minutes. Spend 6 to 10 minutes with 3 or 4 heavy sets of 4 to 6 reps. 

If your whole goal in life to to have big arms, EAT.

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