Short answer: Biceps curls are a very potent and mighty functional exercise. The 5×5 sycophants demonized it with an ulterior motive in mind – to dress their “revolutionary” barbell routines as superior for naturals. But curls are and will always be the go-to biceps builder. When implemented properly into a routine, curls are not a waste of time.
Biceps Curls Are Incredibly Functional
One of the biggest lies in the history of iron is that biceps curls have no inherent value other than the satisfaction of one’s vanity. That’s not true. Curls’ worth appears in day-to-day activities with the persistence of a demon. Carrying square objects up and down the stairs comes to mind right away.
I’ve transported many boxes full of tiles and books to high floors. Every time, my biceps get destroyed and report soreness the next day.
There are four main methods to carry rectangular objects up and down the stairs:
- On your shoulder
- In a 60-90-degree curl position
- Bear hug
- Under the armpit
The first option spares your biceps but overloads the back and increases the chances of dropping whatever you are moving and breaking it. Also, it’s uncomfortable to support really bulky items this way.
The other alternatives are biceps dominant, especially the second one.
At this point, some professors may suggest carrying the boxes with straight arms to reduce the strain on the biceps, but that’s not possible when ascending or descending because there won’t be enough room for your legs to move up and down.
Moreover, holding boxes with straights arms requires sick forearm endurance unless the box has a comfortable handle which is rarely the case. Most people’s wrist flexors will quickly fail after the first course.
Other Major Benefits of Biceps Curls
Direct biceps attack. Many compound exercises for the back (e.g., chin-ups, rows) activate the arm flexors, including the biceps. But since multi-joint movements involve a large muscular chain, other muscle groups, especially in torso-dominant people, can do more than their fair share of work and rob the arms of stress and consequently adaptation and growth. Conversely, curls give no room to the biceps to hide and work on the muscle directly.
Elbow health. Minimalist programs revolving around squats, bench presses and deadlifts could generate elbow issues by neglecting the arm flexors. For that reason, some bench press specialists add curls (e.g., dumbbell curls, hammer curls…etc.) to their routines.
The biceps may not be the primary movers during bench presses, but their involvement in the exercise is higher than most people think. This is particularly true when benching with a wide grip.
Furthermore, some Olympic weightlifters add curls to their programs as a form of elbow prehabilitation. The clean & jerk and the snatch aren’t biceps-dependent lifts, but the biceps play an important role as elbow stabilizers when the arms support heavy weights overhead.
I’ve also heard of athletes doing high-rep curls in combination with other arm exercises to flood the elbow with blood and promote active recuperation of the area. In an old video of the Bulgarian weightlifting team, an athlete is doing hammer curls with a barbell plate for that specific reason.
Aesthetics. One of the main motivations to lift is the acquisition of a physique that increases sexual attraction through the display of bodily aesthetics. For better or worse, bigger arms are part of the classic aesthetic physique. Therefore, if your goal is to maximize the size of your biceps, curls can help, although the end result is always subject to one’s natural limitations. If you don’t have great biceps genetics (long muscle bellies), direct arm work won’t do miracles.
Intimidation. Bigger biceps contribute to a man’s alpha status whether we want to admit it or not. The dynamic is superficial but also undeniable. Men look at you differently when you’re are the bro with the big arms.
Why do people hate on biceps curls?
I can give you two reasons.
Overuse. Many trainers are tired of seeing naive kids pump up 50 sets of curls while flexing for Instagram in-between sets. Similar training does not produce athleticism and showcases modern people’s shallow obsession with looks and social media. Moreover, arm training is fairly easy on the CNS and does not develop primal barbell bravery nearly as well as big compound exercises. Hence why men who focus on the big lifts ridicule the curl monkeys.
Marketing through superiority. The 5×5 professors have convinced a great population of noobs that squats and deadlifts will build up a man’s arms to epic proportions and help him grow a second pair. That’s not true.
The same experts ideologically demolished the mainstream bodybuilding blueprints while seemingly offering a powerful alternative to the masses eager to hypertrophy into glory. But the offer wasn’t nearly as honest as we thought.
Just like the magazines, the barbell scholars deployed images of bodybuilders and powerlifters with a questionable natural status to hype their programs. But instead of relying on bodybuilders from the 2000s, they went back to 70s and even 40s to dig out examples of natty brahs who had allegedly built their bodies with the magic of 5×5 or its ancestors and derivatives. Ironically, many of the poster boys for 5×5’s effectivity weren’t natural because steroids were already a thing in the late 1930s (read more).
The 5×5 followers quickly acquired a sense of superiority. We saw ourselves as different from the “losers” wasting their time with banal exercises like curls.
When we mutated into centaurs from all that squatting and bulking, a slow awakening emerged.
What are the most effective biceps curl variations?
The main priority during curl selection is joint safety rather than mystical anabolism. If someone is telling you that they have a special arm exercise that will give you sleeve-bursting biceps in no time, they are lying to you. If you like a curl variation, and it agrees with your joints, pick it. It’s as simple as that.
Should I use dumbbells or barbells for my curls?
Barbells are nice as they allow you to overload the biceps with very heavy weights. Unfortunately, they are not kind to the wrists and elbows. It’s not uncommon to experience sharp forearm and wrist pain during barbell curls even with the EZ curl bar.
This is where dumbbells come to save the day. They allow you to find a groove that doesn’t stretch the wrists and the forearm flexors to insane degrees. The downside of using dumbbells is that the jumps are often two high whereas barbells can be micro-loaded.
Micro-loading is a good thing when doing biceps isolation because the biceps are a small muscle group that gets strong slowly and even a 2.5kg jump may be too much at one point.
If you choose to rely on dumbbells, you will have to get to a really high number of reps per set before moving to heavier bells.
Is there a way to reduce the strain on the wrists during barbell curls?
You could try using a wider grip as it requires less wrist flexibility. If this doesn’t work you could switch to EZ-curl bars. Yes. It’s true that the EZ-bar increases the market share of the brachioradialis in the exercise, but the biceps still have to work really hard. Besides, no one is stopping you from performing dumbbell curls too.
Are biceps machines any good?
Cable curls are nice and save time because you can quickly reduce or increase the weight. However, biceps machines come with a major downside – if they don’t fit your body, the stress on the joints is fairly high.
What is the most overrated biceps curl variation?
Probably the Scott curl. Most people think that the exercise builds the lower biceps, but that’s just low IQ. The lifters who have great “lower biceps” are just individuals with long muscle bellies and short tendons – a combination that makes your biceps fuller. That look has nothing to do with exercises.
Should beginners add curls to their routine right away?
It depends. If a person is highly untrained and weak (e.g., can’t do a push-up), specialized exercises will be of little value. Specialization becomes beneficial after acquiring a certain base. You don’t have to become brutally strong to add curls, but it’s true that strongly deconditioned lifters are better off acquiring basic strength first. For most people, this period will be short, though.