It’s Okay to Curl, Biceps Are Still Cool

Biceps don’t get much isolation time in functional fitness workouts but it’s cool to show them some love. Nothing wrong with well-developed arms and they do look good, there’s always that.

Contrary to popular belief, using curls for biceps development is not useless. Training the biceps in this way allows the biceps to be overloaded substantially whilst standing. The world record for biceps curls currently stands at 150kg, therefore, there must be some use aside from bragging rights. In this article, I will simplify the efficacy of biceps training and secondly, where the bicep curl can be utilized to maximize biceps strength.

The Biceps Brachii

Innervated by the musculocutaneous nerve and sitting along the humerus we have the short and long head brothers: the biceps brachii.

Both the short and long head are involved in supination or turning of the forearm upwards. (Think of the anatomical position). In addition, we know that they are primarily responsible for flexion of the elbow (muscles flex or extend joints) and consequently the arm. The biceps are not the primary supinators, the brachialis; however, is. I will explain this more in biceps development later.

The long lateral head (farthest away from the body) of the biceps is larger and thus produces the most force in a biceps curl. Outside of greater force generation, it has no further function. Its cousin the brachialis has more synergistic (or helping function) in supination of the arm and forearm. The long head is its assistant.

The short head (more medial or towards the body) however, aides the deltoid in raising the arm forward (anteriorly), bringing the arm towards the body (adduction) and stabilizing the shoulder.

Why Train Your Biceps?

Aside from the obvious double biceps pose, ability to impress others, bringing proportion to your physique and avoiding Synthol abuse (Yucky); the biceps despite being rather small are secondary and accessory muscles to a plethora of lifts. Namely: Barbell and dumbbell rows, chin-ups, bench press…just to name a few.

In these exercises, the biceps act as stabilizers. They’re often taken for granted until you tear a tendon or have a case of D.O.M.S. (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after an intense arm day.

How Often Should You Train Your Biceps?

As with any body part, the question of frequency boils down to a few key factors:

Are You Competing? If you’re a competitor, as in bodybuilding bringing out the maximum vascularity and definition is of the most importance. Judges would like to see maximum muscularity and definition obtained via conditioning, therefore, seeing the golf ball of the brachialis, separation between the triceps and the biceps brachii via the coracobrachialis details some important factors in your training modality.

Are You Experiencing Muscular Imbalances? Secondly, muscular imbalance plays a role in the functioning of movement and innervation. What I mean by this is the following: ever felt your biceps take over when doing lat pulldowns or pull-ups, or rows? Do you have larger triceps or deltoids than biceps? Proportioning yourself, by integrating a program in which you emphasize the biceps in the latter rather than the former would make sense. This can be accomplished in the following ways:

  • Increasing frequency of biceps-dominant exercises such as biceps curls i.e. twice a week instead of once.
  • Increasing the load on biceps-bearing exercises relative to shoulders or triceps i.e. using a heavier weight which increases innervation and protein synthesis to handle a greater load.
  • Decreasing the leverage on antagonistic muscles and synergistic muscles i.e. using a thumbless grip, emphasizing the hypothenar eminence, adding a twist on a curl to emphasize supination, one of the actions of the biceps brachii and removing assistance muscles such as leg drive by sitting or having your body against a wall and only pivoting from the elbow.

Natural Versus Unnatural Lifter? Third, are you an enhanced lifter or natural? For all intents and purposes, natural is on the spectrum from simply taking dietary supplements such as vitamins to taking performance supplements such as beta-alanine. The reason for this definition is since these supplements affect your biochemistry in such a way that does not provide unfair advantage they are accepted in athletics and natural bodybuilding.

Steroids and other banned substances for natural bodybuilding would be considered (in my humble opinion) unnatural. They act as a stronger catalyst and sustainer for anabolism and muscle retention as opposed to dietary supplements. Therefore, the need to train them more often to increase protein synthesis holds more importance as a natural lifter.

Genetics. Lastly, genetics plays a factor. Muscle belly dimensions and tendon length (usually, spoken about in bodybuilding) will affect the aesthetic you wish to achieve and provide a basis of how to train your biceps. Here the idea is no two persons will have the same look in their biceps and so to train the same expecting a different result is simply insanity.

Think Sergio Oliva versus Frank Zane, the former having a longer muscle belly, therefore, the tie-in to the forearms will be much better emphasized in the person that looks like this. So, training forearms in conjunction with biceps for a person like Sergio would be to their benefit wherein the latter (Zane) it might be to their detriment.

How to Train Using Bicep Curls

Typically, the response from most are as follows: a curl is a curl no matter which way you slice it. However, there is a law to bicep curling. Where the elbows go, the biceps follow. What this means is elbow placement. This provides a different angle of pull on the tendons that flow into the biceps.

For example:

  • Elbows beside the body (around the top of the external obliques)
  • Elbows in front of the body (think preacher curl, or arm blaster device assistance curl, or concentration curl)
  • Elbows behind the body (think the top portion of a barbell row or reverse hand placement push-ups)

Therefore, during a biceps workout, it makes sense to choose one of each type instead of doing two biceps exercises with the same angle of pull. However, it can be argued that if you’re increasing the frequency of biceps training to split the emphasis on a given day. This means stressing elbows behind the body on back day, while in front of the body on another day such as with forearms and perhaps beside the body on chest day.

Whatever method you choose, remember to use the curls as a tool in your biceps training. Even though summer is soon over, you can still show off your guns.

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