The ‘c word’ can be taboo in the strength world. To bodybuilders, curls are a staple part of their training diet. To strength athletes and powerlifters, curls can seem to be something of a waste of time and often scornfully dismissed as vanity.
However, if you’re going to be moving any serious amount of weight in your lifting career, you will need all your muscles, tendons and ligaments playing their part – not least your biceps and forearms.
Not all curls are created equal and not all of them are appropriate for the discerning strength athlete. In this article we’ll be looking at three curl variations that you should be doing, how to do them and most importantly how to program them to achieve success.
Curl variation 1: dumbbell cheat curls
Dumbell cheat curls can get the powerlifting purist howling for two reasons. Number 1 – they’re curls, and “super serious” powerlifters don’t like curls. Number 2 – they’re cheating!
When we refer to ‘cheating’ in the gym, we mean using slightly less strict form to move a higher weight than we could manage if we did them ‘strict’. There are two main benefits to this; by putting more weight through a muscle we stimulate both strength and growth. This doesn’t mean however that we can abandon form and flail around like a gibbon. You should cheat in a very specific way. A slight bend of the back to gain momentum and then a hyperextension to drive the movement through. You can give the arms a bit of a drag when using dumbbells too, which is why I prefer the dumbbell cheat curl to the barbell equivalent.
Strength benefits to this lift are obvious. You will get bigger and stronger biceps. It really is that simple. Bigger, stronger biceps are going to help you with almost every lift apart from squats. Your bench will improve because stronger biceps will help create a better base, as biceps are the antagonist of that lift. If you deadlift with mixed grip, stronger biceps will help insure you against the dreaded deadlift bicep tear. If you compete at strongman, rugby, American football, hockey or indeed any sport where you use your arms, bicep strength is only going to help.
How to program:
Because DB cheat curls are a supramaximal movement you will need to keep them to the end of your workout. Your biceps will be fried afterwards, so use this as a full stop and then get out of the gym.
You should be looking at standard reps of 8-10. The difference will be in the loading. Let’s say you can normally curl 25lbs dumbbells for relatively easy sets of 10, you should look to cheat curl with 35 or perhaps even 40lbs. Keep it to three sets and remember progressive overload, when your three sets become too easy, crank up the weight.
Now for the second of our curl variations…
Curl variation 2: reverse-grip curls
A more unorthodox selection, the reverse grip curl is a real bang-for-your-buck lift and one that I recommend to anyone who will listen.
One of the main benefits of this variation is that it will toast your Brachialis and Brachioradialis muscles and give you forearms like a Victorian factory worker. This will have a huge impact on your grip strength (deadlift, pull ups) and your ability to press weight, both vertically (overhead press) and horizontally (bench press)
To perform the lift, take a barbell and stand as if you are going to perform a normal barbell curl. However instead of taking your usual underhand (supinated) grip, you will take an overhand (pronated) one instead. Keep hand width about the same. If you have access to an EZ bar it may feel slightly nicer to use one of those, as the straight barbell can put more force through the wrists.
How to program:
Just like you would with an ordinary barbell curl, do three sets of 10-12 at some point towards the back end of your workout. Don’t plan on doing anything forearm intensive afterwards – digging, pull ups or driving on roads with lots of sharp bends!
Bonus development idea – if you’re running short on time, you can get the best of both worlds by doing Zottman curls; using dumbbells, curl up to the top of the movement using a standard, orthodox curl movement but at the shoulder rotate your wrists to reverse grip and then lower in this style. The rotation of the forearms at the top and bottom of the lift will give your forearms an extra working and the time under tension will make them balloon up very quickly.
And finally, the third of our curl variations is…
Curl variation 3: dumbbell spider curls
The final variation is a little more unorthodox still. Spider curls are not as scary as they sound and have been around a very long time. The principle is simple, by supporting your chest on a 45-degree angled bench (or a preacher curl station), you allow your arms to dangle and therefore the lift becomes a battle against gravity. You will have to find what is comfortable for you – remember you will be kneeling or sitting ‘backwards’ on the bench, the part that usually supports your back will be supporting your chest instead.
Ensure that you perform it nice and slowly, really putting emphasis on the concentric and eccentric phases equally. This is not a lift to be rushed through. Lots of time under tension is the name of the game.
The reason I like this as an accessory to strength is that it isolates the short head of the bicep perhaps better than any other curl variation. This isn’t a direct strength benefit in itself but the short head, in my experience, is the area of the bicep most likely to get irritated by day-to-day strength work. By building up this area, you are ensuring that it is more robust and capable of handling loads being put through it. For those that do stone lifting / loading events, popped biceps are an occupational hazard, so spider curls can be used a rehab or even “pre-hab” if you feel the twinge coming.
How to program:
Three sets of 10 should be enough but keep it light and do them slower than slow. Your right arm should come to a complete stop before you begin the next rep with your left arm, and vice versa. By the third set they should be very difficult. Lots of lactic acid build up – this is good! Keep going.
So there we have it: three amazing curl variations for you to try.
Remember: curls are not your enemy. They are a perfectly valid part of any lifter’s arsenal and have lots of mobility and strength carryover too. If you’re not a bodybuilder you don’t need to dedicate a whole session to arms, just 15 minutes at the end of two sessions a week can make a big difference. What’s the worst that can happen? You get big arms? What a shame.
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