There are many exercises that people don’t want to do (squats), don’t like to do (good mornings), or can’t do (snatches). There is also one type of exercise that just about everyone wants to do, likes to do, and can do: Biceps Curls. It’s the dessert of the bodybuilding menu in the sense that, “There’s always room for curls!”
The biceps are considered flexor muscles because they bend the arm. Despite being a relatively simple movement, there are hundreds of types of arm curls. For example, you can perform curls with barbells, dumbbells, cables, and EZ bars; and you can perform curls standing, sitting, or using a special bench such as a Spider bench. This is good from a health perspective, because with single limb exercises it’s easy to get into a condition called “pattern overload” that increases the risk of developing overuse injuries.
Depending upon your lifting experience, you should change the type of curling exercise you perform every 2-4 weeks. One way to categorize curling exercise is by looking at which portion of the strength curve they focus on: low range, mid-range, or upper range. For example, a Scott Curl will be more difficult at the beginning of the movement and an incline dumbbell curl will be more difficult at the finish. Here are 15 curling exercises broken down by their resistance curve:
Scott Curl, 45 Degrees
Atlantis Biceps Curl Machine
Corbin-Gentry Curl Machine
Polaris Curl Machine
Standing Barbell or Dumbbell Curl
David Biceps Machine
Seated Dumbbell Curl
Standing Cable Curl
Cybex Eagle Curl
Incline Dumbbell Curl
In addition to variety in exercise selection, there are several general guidelines that will help you get the most out of curling exercises. Here are seven of them.
1. Use good posture. Performing curling exercises with poor posture, such as by rounding the shoulders, changes the stress of the exercise and can lead to injury. For example, lifting with your shoulders rounded to use more weight increases the stress on the shoulders. Focus on curling weights with good form, even if it means using lighters weights.
2. Exercise throughout a full range. To use more weight in curling exercises, often individuals will shorten the range of motion of the movement. For maximum development and to keep the joints healthy, you should always perform the exercises throughout their full range of motion.
3. Stay focused. To create maximum tension on the muscle, you have to focus. One way to maintain concentration is to count your reps backward (e.g., 10,9,8,5….).
4. Use supersets. Supersets pairs agonist and antagonist muscles. The muscle that causes the primary movement is the agonist, or prime mover. When the agonist muscle contracts, the opposing muscle, which is the antagonist, is relaxed. Thus, when you perform a biceps curl, the biceps are the agonists and the triceps are the antagonists; but when you perform a triceps pressdown, the triceps are the agonists and the biceps are the antagonists. Supersets with biceps and triceps exercises enable you to perform more work in less time without a significant decrease in strength.
5. Perform compound exercises before isolation movements. Isolation movements recruit more motor units than isolation movements. Thus, you should perform pulling movements that use multiple muscle groups, such as rows and chin-ups, before isolation pulling movements such as dumbbell curls. Using this guideline and organizing a workout into supersets, here is how such a workout could be organized:
Seated Row, Supinated Grip
Overhead Rope Extension
Seated Dumbbell Curl
Converting this workout in a more precise workout prescription, this is one way it could look:
A1. Bench Press, Close Grip, 4 x 6-8, 4010, rest 90 seconds
A2. Seated Row, Supinated Grip, 4 x 6-8, 3011, rest 120 seconds
B1. Overhead Rope Extension: 3 x 6-8, 3110, rest 30 seconds
B2: Seated Dumbbell Curl: 3 x 6-8, 4010, rest 90 seconds
6. Include exercises for the brachialis. A muscle that lies between the biceps and triceps, the brachialis is often relatively weak and this imbalance can reduce the amount of weight you use in other movements. To work the brachialis, perform curling movements that pronate the arms (i.e., turns the hands palm down). An example of such an exercise is the reverse curl, which can be performed with a variety of implements such as a barbell, dumbbells, or an EZ curl bars.
7. Favor seated exercises over standing. Because less neural effort is devoted to stabilizing the body when exercising in a seated position, the biceps can contract harder than when performing exercises from a standing position. Also, with seated exercises there is less likelihood of using poor technique.
There are seemingly countless articles and books about arm training, and there is no shortage of sample arm training workouts. But using the guidelines presented here will give you a good start on achieving your arm training goals.