On Bicep Curls

On Bicep Curls

October 14, 2014
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Dear Coach Ray,
How am I suppose to work on my “gun show” when you won’t let me do curls?

Bicep curls are arguably the quintessential exercise of the fitness industry. A mainstream fitness magazine or mainstream fitness marketing campaign bereft of an image or sequence highlighting the bicep curl would be strange indeed. It just doesn’t happen.

Walk into a globo gym and you’d be hard pressed to not see a slew of men and women standing in front of the mirror working on their pump. When we do trade shows or have a booth at a local event, guaranteed, if we have a barbell or even a toy barbell out, the first thing a non-CrossFitter will do is pick it up and do a bicep curl. At our gym, we share space with a kids Brazilian Jiu Jitsu program, and occasionally one of the parents will wander into our space, pick up a barbell or a kettlebell (gasp) and do a bicep curl. It really matters not the context. Most people associate the bicep curl with strength and fitness.

Why then do we neglect, and often mock, the bicep curl? If it’s such a ubiquitous piece of fitness culture why don’t we do them? Why won’t I, as a coach, let you do them?

The easy answer is that CrossFit emphasizes “functional” movements. Bicep curls are not “functional”. That term “functional” takes on all sorts of meanings to all sorts of people. I’ll explain what it means to us: the CrossFit methodology defines a movement as functional if it is natural, essential, and safe. But more than that, a functional movement moves large loads long distances in a short amount of time.

Is the bicep curl natural? Sure it is. I bicep curl food to my mouth all the time.

Is it essential? Well duh… see above.

Is it safe? Sure, why not.

Does it move large loads long distances in a short amount of time? Ehhh… there are more efficient ways to do that.

The bicep curl is a GREAT exercise. I will not dispute that. Especially if you are a body builder and your paycheck depends on your biceps being as enormous and defined as possible. But for the average human being, I can’t imagine you needing to lift anything larger than 5 lbs to your mouth to feed yourself. The only other reason I could see you needing to strengthen your biceps would be to hold a baby. But for parents, the nice thing is that the weight starts off nice and light and grows at a steady progression. No accessory work required.

The bicep curl done correctly is an isolation exercise. In CrossFit we favor movements that recruit entire systems of musculature vs isolating one area. From an everyday standpoint this is important because when you train muscles together, they work well together. Having strong individual muscles doesn’t guarantee that they will know how to work together as a team. But muscles that train in symphony as a system can work well by themselves when needed.

I could go on and on, but I’m not really answering your question. You were asking about building your guns. I don’t mean to brag, but I get comments on the immenseness of my biceps all the time. I NEVER do bicep curls. I DO perform a whole lot of other pulling exercises including pull ups, chin ups, muscle ups. If I ever did want to do bicep curls, I imagine I could do a decent amount of weight, but there’s a whole lot more value in working my muscles in groups than in solitary pieces. My goal isn’t to have the biggest biceps around, but to be fit, in general.

Sidenote: many people who cannot perform strict pull ups, PROBABLY possess the strength in their individual muscles to do the work. But because they’ve never been asked to work together before, the muscles involved require some neurological education in order to make it happen. It’s all about team work. Teams don’t work well together overnight. They need time and practice to bring it together toward a common goal. Our muscles are like that. If you only train them separate from one another, how can you expect them to work in concert?

Anyway…in some rare cases, for instance athletes who are double jointed in the elbows, I may prescribe bicep curls so that an athlete can keep their elbows more neutral instead of hyper extended, but that is handled on a case by case basis.

The product that I’m purveying is general fitness. And our prescription for that is functional movements. These functional movements recruit as much musculature as possible (and in proper sequence) in order to allow you to move as much weight as possible in a safe and efficient manner. This translates into a better quality of life and allows people to stay more active and independent in their later years. While the bicep curl, and other isolation movements like it, do have their place, they are not essential to our goal of general physical preparedness. It is more time efficient to work muscles as systems and doing so translates better to practical use in everyday life.

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