“I’ve never seen a biceps score a touchdown”.
It’s a common sentiment in the world of athlete training meant to convey the idea that the biceps simply don’t have a big impact on athletic performance. Thus, exercises that focus almost entirely on the biceps—such as Bicep Curls—are often seen as a waste of time. But another adage is, “opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one!”
So here’s my take on the topic. I’m not a big fan of the Bicep Curl or the sole strengthening of the biceps in most forms, but I think they’re often undersold. Before you go ballistic on me, hear me out.
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Sports performance training isn’t running around doing ladder drills with a tennis racket in your hand or doing Lunges with a hockey stick in your hands. Using a piece of equipment used in a specific sport doesn’t make it “sports specific.” In my humble opinion, anything that makes you better in your sport or enhances your performance is sports performance training. A Squat helps you generate force so you can jump higher and run faster, which means it’s sports performance training.
So, let’s go back to the Bicep Curl. Most, if not all, of my athletes love to Bicep Curl so they look good on the beach, but does it really carry over to performance? Let’s break that down a little more.
The Bicep Curl effectively targets two major muscles: the brachialis and the biceps brachii. The brachialis sits toward the lower half of your upper arm, under the biceps brachii. It attaches to your humerus (upper arm bone) and the ulna bone of your forearm, and it’s the most powerful flexor of the elbow. Put simply, it helps to bend your elbow. The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle that attaches the radius bone of the forearm to the scapula, or shoulder blade. It’s also a flexor of the elbow, and it helps turn the forearm so your palm can face outward (i.e., supination), plus it helps you bring your upper arm forward and upward as if giving an upper cut (i.e., forward flexion of the shoulder).
In this context, the Bicep Curl can impact several important movements. The same muscles worked via a Bicep Curl help flex the elbow joint we use when we Hang Clean to build explosiveness, or assist the latissimus dorsi when we do a Pull-Up to strengthen the lats, or improve downforce arm action when running, skating or jumping.
With my athletes, we often finish workouts during the Stability phase and Muscle development phase with some form of Bicep Curl—both for vanity and the reasons stated above. Chris Carlisle, the Seattle Seahawks’ head of strength and conditioning coach, believes it can be beneficial to end a workout with biceps work simply because the athletes enjoy it so much.
“My mom is a great cook. Everything she made was good, and I ate it all. But what I remember most is my mom’s great apple pie, because it was the last thing I ate. I couldn’t wait for her next dinner. That’s why I have my guys work arms last. They walk away with their arms all pumped up and bigger, and they want to get back in here and hit it again,” Carlisle told STACK.
Once we hit the Power phase of our workouts, we no longer do any Curls, mostly because there’s already so much torque on the biceps during our workout and there’s no need to make it worse.
As long as it’s used in the right sequence and at the right time in your programming, the Bicep Curl can have a place in sports performance training.
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