As the ultimate showoff muscles, biceps have garnered their fair share of ridicule over the last few years. Since functional movement has charged back into the mainstream at full speed, many now taunt and tease those who perform arm curls. Underpinning this disdain are questions about the biceps’ role and importance in functional training. Many will shout from the rooftops about the uselessness of training such a body part, even as they wax poetic about the necessity of every single muscle group surrounding it.
Why such hatred? Why has this once-big man on campus been demoted to laughingstock in the lunchroom?
The fact is that the biceps are functional in every sense of the word. While they are secondary movers in the larger picture of multi-joint, compound lifts and movements, they still deserve love and attention from the functional-minded, when optimal performance is desired.
How the Heck Are Biceps Functional?
When it comes to most functional training programs, pulling is a significant factor throughout. From pull ups and deadlifts to carries and certain weightlifting phases, pulling is a necessity. Biceps serve as an integral part of that equation. Untrained biceps quickly reveal themselves as the weak link in myriad exercises. Imagine a strong back but weak biceps for an exercise like chin ups. Even if you don’t care at all about aesthetics, you aren’t getting your head over the bar without biceps.
Training biceps doesn’t have to be about sleeve-busting, highly-peaked mountains of showoff muscles. If you’re the kind of lifter who scoffs at anybody doing a curl, you need to shift your perspective and adopt a functional mindset about biceps training. Envision how they fit into the overall picture of whole-body movement, while keeping a close eye on shoring up weaknesses and taking full advantage of their development.
Key Concepts of Functional Biceps Training
It’s easy and unfair to think of biceps training as simply sitting on a bench and blasting out mindless dumbbell curls. While I would never advocate an “arm day” when it comes to focusing on performance, you will still want to dedicate some time to specific arm movements if you want to progress. Chasing the pump and flexing in the mirror have to go out the window. Think of strength, angles of pull and endurance.
If you’re the type who needs to shore up this weak link for bigger compound lifts, then the factor of strength should be the priority. The stronger your arms, the more you can get done. And it isn’t enough to be great at standing arm curls. A strong barbell curl is only one angle of performance. When your arms are in different positions (for example, overhead as in pull ups) you’ll need to develop those strengths as well. Another crucial example is when you hoist a sandbag or medicine ball to your shoulder. In that multi-phase movement, the biceps have to work in several planes of motion in order to be efficient.
You might already be strong, but what good is it to have arms that gas-out in 15 minutes? Muscular endurance is another important performance factor when movements like carries, holds and repetitive tasks are required.
Functional Bicep Strength Without the Curls
Now that I’ve convinced you to pay attention to your biceps, don’t make the mistake of paying too much attention all at once. You don’t want to go from ignoring them altogether to pummeling them into the ground with too much intensity, isolation, and volume. If you do, you may end up with them as an even weaker link than before. Take a calculated and practical approach to training them for effectiveness and efficiency.
This will be accomplished through a series of exercises that you may not be used to. Whereas many traditional programs will have you perform a series of biceps-specific moves, here you’ll be exposed to a new and different way to get the most out of your training without the threat of overtraining.
Below are four powerful, functional biceps moves that will provide carryover to other key lifts, and provide a practical progression in strength, pull angle, and muscular endurance.
Modified Pull Ups
Grasp a pull up bar with an underhand grip about shoulder-width apart. Normally, you’d start a pull up with an arched back, in order to fully engage your back. Here, you’ll actually round your back in order to focus more stress toward your biceps. Begin pulling up with an emphasis on elbow angle while using your arms to ascend to the bar. With your back roundness maintained, pull up to the bar for a squeeze and then slowly descend back down to the starting position.
Another big bicep blaster is the sled pull. This normally will have you pulling with every muscle you have, namely your back. Here again, you’ll focus on pulling with your arms to give them a wake-up call and develop some endurance along the way. To differentiate it from the traditional method, try pulling with your arms by curling the weight in toward your body while keeping your upper body relatively stationary.
Suspension Trainer Curl
The suspension trainer curl offers yet another angle of attack for your arms. Affix a trainer above and step out, grasping the handles and facing the origination point. Form a straight line from head to toe and hold the handles out in a neutral grip out in front of your torso. Begin the motion by curling the handles toward the top and sides of your head, and keeping your body rigid. Lower your body slowly after a contraction, and repeat for reps.
The rack curl is executed in similar fashion to the suspension trainer curl, with the exception that you’ll be working from a fixed bar versus suspension straps. Assume the same straight position and curl up to your forehead for a squeeze. For an even greater challenge, prop your feet on a bench to increase the resistance.
Sample Functional Biceps Program
Now let’s fit these moves into a weekly program. Perform the routines below once per week, combined with any other training. Workout 1 could be performed on Monday, and workout 2 could be done on a Thursday, for example.
- Modified pull ups: 3 sets of as many reps as possible
- Suspension trainer curls: 3 sets of as many reps as possible
- Rope pulls: 3 rounds of a specified length
- Rack curls: 3 sets of as many reps as possible
It’s Not Like You’ll Hate Having Bigger Biceps
I purposely left out talk of aesthetics in this article, but I will mention that over time and once you are reaping significant progress, you’ll notice bigger biceps are part of the bargain. Although it may never have been your initial goal, it will be nice to fill out that t-shirt and show off just a little of your hard work. Why not? You’ve earned it.