Biceps curls, and biceps exercises in general, are highly overrated and overused. But what the hell, we all love to flex and make that little baby pop out.
The function of the biceps is to flex (bend) the elbow, as well as to rotate the forearm and flex the shoulder (if only a minor role in the latter two). Heavy sets of rows, pulldowns and/or pullups are more demanding than this isolation exercise, but nevertheless it can be a decent part of a good workout.
Biceps curls, especially if done using a preacher bench, carry a risk of injury if done too often and too heavily. Typically this is just an inflammation of the tissues around medial epicondyle of the elbow, or involves an accidental hyperextension of the elbows. Women’s joints are usually more floppy than men’s, and the majority of women can hyperextend their elbows (i.e. bend the elbow backwards even more after the arm is straight). Avoid the temptation to do an ElastoGirl impression at the bottom of the curl.
Finally, if you make the mistake of bending your elbows during a heavy deadlift (or something like moving a heavy couch), you also risk a biceps tear. Luckily this type of injury is relatively rare. If you are at risk for elbow injury or are recovering from one, consider abstaining from biceps curls. Put biceps curls, and other isolation exercises, at the end of a workout, such as a pulling workout that involves rows and pulldowns.
Biceps curls have to be one of my favourite “moron in the gym” exercises.
We’ve all seen the guys who apparently train only chest and biceps, giant torsos perched unsteadily on scrawny chicken legs, heaving away on their umpteenth set of swinging biceps curls.
These are also likely to be the guys who yammer about this or that exercise giving them a “great peak on their biceps” or “massive pump”.
These people, dear readers, are an offense to the Goddess of Form.
In the pic to the right, I demonstrate the classic biceps curl heresy.
Using the laws of physics to get that bar up, I enlist a big swinging thrust at the bottom, hurl my back into it, push my knees forward, and generally throw my entire body into assisting the near-light-speed arc of the bar. I end up with the bar smashing into my collarbone, and my lower back distended.
I can lift a lot of weight this way, but it’s wrong.
The picture on the left shows the starting position for a correct standing barbell biceps curl. Take a deep breath, tighten the abs (don’t suck in, just keep the area tight, as if you know someone is about to punch you in the gut), look forward, and bend knees slightly. This helps you keep your balance, and a proper curve in the spine. Arms are straight, but elbows are not locked. Curl your palms inward towards your wrists just slightly.
The picture on the right shows the midpoint of the curl. My back is still in the right position, and only my arms are doing the work. My wrists are straight or curled slightly inwards, but never allowed to bend backwards.
The key to the success of this exercise, at least for beginners, is a slow and controlled tempo, both on the up (positive or concentric) and down (negative or eccentric) parts of the rep. This lets you concentrate on making sure the arms are the only parts providing the momentum. Also make sure you take the curl through a full range of motion. This means straightening (but not locking) the arms at the bottom. You might also want to pause for a second at the bottom of the rep, so that you are not tempted to bounce the weight up.
If using the classic palms-up position bothers your elbows, consider a variation known as the hammer curl. This can be done with dumbbells held with palms facing your sides, as you would hold a hammer. The curl movement is the same. You’ll also get a little more forearm involvement this way as the brachioradialis muscle kicks in to help out.