Walk into any gym across America, and you’re likely to see some huge bro standing right in front of the dumbbell rack, glowering at himself in the mirror as he pumps out sets of bicep curls. Gotta get that pump, you know? And while bicep curls are a staple of body builders everywhere, I’ve only done them a handful of times over the past few years. Why’s that, you ask? There are a few reasons actually, not the least of which is that if training for general aesthetics or strength, there are much better ways to spend your gym time.
If you have two hours to spend in the gym every day, and you are training with a body builder split where you actually have a “bicep” day, than bicep curls probably fit in your plan. And if you do have a day dedicated specifically to biceps, than we can discuss your training plan another time. But if you’re like the rest of the world and have things to do outside of the gym, and only have anywhere from 2-4 days per week to lift, than taking any amount of time to focus on such a small muscle group is really just wasteful. If I have 3-4 hours total per week to lift and get stronger, you better believe that I’m not about to waste 20 minutes of that time isolating one of the smallest muscle groups, in a completely non-functional movement.
And that brings me to my next point: functional vs. non-functional. No, not every exercise I do translates exactly into the real world — I very rarely squat down with heavy objects across my back in real life, for example. However, the base of that movement, creating a proper squat pattern and training your body to complete it under stress (heavy loads) is in fact very functional in your real life. I’ve demonstrated that again and again when moving every few years, and those heavy boxes aren’t so bad. Squatting and dead lifting have helped in that regard immensely. Bending my elbow over and over again while I hold my upper arm very still? Not so helpful. Unless you walk around doing curls with your purse all day, my bet is that you very rarely isolate your biceps in real life. Even when doing something as benign as carrying heavy grocery bags — a farmers carry would translate much closer to that movement than a bicep curl ever will.
Now incorporating time and function into one much more important point — your biceps will be activated with much larger, more functional movements, giving you more bang for your buck and allowing you to get in and out of the gym in a shorter amount of time. Whether my goals are to have “big guns”, more defined arms, or just to get stronger, I will reach those goals with movements that include more muscles such as chin ups, and my biceps will still get a tough workout. There are many useful upper body lifts where you’re biceps will assist the larger muscles, such as chin ups, reverse grip lat pull downs, and the many variations of rows to name a few. By doing these larger, more compound lifts, your biceps are able to grow stronger throughout functional movement patterns, and you get stronger overall throughout each movement.
And the funny thing is, bicep curls used to be a regular part of my workouts. I’d do them a couple of times per week, faithfully doing 3 x 12 with 12 and 15 pound weights back in the day. But you know what? After doing that for a couple of years, I never actually got any stronger (or developed any resemblance of impressive biceps), surprise surprise. It wasn’t until I started lifting heavy and essentially took bicep curls out of my programming that I really started to see results in that area.
Think about it. What most people are after is more muscle definition and a better overall shape. In order to achieve said definition, your muscles must grow. In order for your muscles to grow, they must get stronger. What type of lifts give you the most in terms of strength gains? You guessed it — compound lifts. Not bicep curls.
I really feel that before spending time isolating smaller muscle groups, or any muscles really (the leg extension is pretty useless in my opinion as well, and the quadriceps are certainly not a small muscle group!), someone really needs to put in the time and effort to master the larger, compound lifts. Focusing on lifts that will move multiple joints (such as shoulders and elbows with chin ups in comparison to just the elbow with curls) and building strength in those will lead to the most progress for someone who is new to weight lifting. If you can’t do a body weight chin up yet, you probably shouldn’t be curling. Build a strength base first, then focus on definition later on.
But how do I expect you to be able to do chin ups without first strengthening your biceps with curls? There are many many ways to increase your chin ups and pull ups, bicep curls be damned. I wrote a post about this here, in case you’re interested.
You’ll build strength faster with compound movements, and although you won’t be directly targeting the biceps (they are a secondary mover in the chin up), they will still be getting stressed enough to cause strength gains.
Once you build that base of strength, however, and you still have some aesthetic goals related to your biceps, curl away, just don’t overdo it. My title above is a little bit misleading becuase it’s not that I never do them, they’re just not a regular lift for me. When ever I’m able to fit two upper body lifting days in a week, one of those tends to be heavy, and one moderate weight. On the lighter days, every once in a while I’ll add in a few isolation exercises at the end of a workout for something extra. But that’s all they’re good for for me — an extra, an add on. Bicep curls will never be a priority or focus for me, and unless I suddenly turn into a body builder, I’m not about to start scheduling “Back/Bicep” days into my program.