Both sides of the bodybuilding and functional training approach to fitness can become a bit dogmatic in their ways, or even miss the bigger picture. I remember being at the social for a big fitness conference and hearing two coaches talking. Overhearing the conversation I remember one coach berating the other for having bicep curls in their clients program. Since most of the coaches at the conference were into functional training, this one coach was beside herself at such an idea.
The justification by the one coach was her client just liked doing them. To be honest, I felt a bit for both of them. The coach scolding the other may have missed some perspective and the other coach should have a slightly better reason than “they like doing them”. Don’t get me wrong, having clients enjoy their training is important, but if you can’t build greater value than that to what they are doing, that is problematic. Remember, even smaller exercises still are stress and randomly adding greater stress to a training program can actually negative impact the results.
However, the conversation overall I thought asked a larger question, can we see bicep curls as a functional exercise? In order to answer this well, I think we need to make sure we are all on the same page. I prefer to work from the definition of functional training that Dr. Stuart McGill provides below.
At first glance at the above definition it may seem and an open and close case that bicep curls aren’t functional because they are about isolating the biceps. As Dr. McGill states, “isolating a muscle about a joint and training with progressive overload is purely a bodybuilding hypertrophy approach.” Nothing else to say right? Well, not quite.
If ALL you are focused on is the biceps on a bicep curl (why would you be focused on anything else) and deliberately perform exercises like a concentration curl or a preacher curl where the goal is to eliminate any contribution from the rest of the body, I’d say the bicep curl isn’t functional exercise. However, if we continue to think of Dr. McGill’s point being that functional training incorporates the goal of enhancing strength throughout the body segment linkage”, then I think we can re-think things a bit.
I would agree exercises like these aren’t very functional, but let’s take a different look at bicep curls.
However, if we were to take the standard bicep curl and look through a different lens we may be able to see something else. For example, if we are performing a standing bicep curl well, we would have to use our feet, legs, core, and even upper back to keep everything stable to just move the weight through the biceps. In fact, when you see a lot of people leaning in the gym doing bicep curls it is because they are NOT integrating the body properly.
Adding in the Ultimate Sandbag and other tools can also enhance these qualities while also building better bicep curls. For one, the Ultimate Sandbag solves the strength curve issue with a lot of bicep curl exercises. What is that? If you try to use a pair of 30 pound dumbbells for your bicep curls, for example, the more your elbow flexes after getting to about parallel to the ground, the less tension you have on the actual biceps. This is why bodybuilders go through great lengths to try to alter their lifting position to try to address the fact that on many bicep curls the biceps don’t get stimulated throughout the whole range of motion. Funny enough the solution can accomplished with the Ultimate Sandbag so much more effectively.
While doing bicep curls wasn’t something we were really focused upon when we created the Ultimate Sandbag back in 2004, the pleasant accident was that it made doing bicep curls better! By having the weight away from the handle on our snatch grip handles allowed us to actually stress the biceps through the whole range of motion without having to do crazy body positions or have additional equipment. We could really reinforce the importance of the whole body too because this was a far more challenging way to do bicep curls as well. It was a simple win-win.
However, that wasn’t the only benefit we found! As we started to play more with the Ultimate Sandbag in my gym we found ways to upgrade bicep curls as well as improve functional training. We came up with “grip curls” as an amazing way to accomplish several goals at once. Most people don’t know, but the more you engage your grip, the more your biceps become active (which why when people open their hands it makes me crazy). So if you get the grip REALLY involved you greatly increase the work on the biceps, but this also correlates with a healthier shoulder. Then if we actually manipulate where we grip the Ultimate Sandbag on our grip bicep curls we can make the exercise easier or more difficult.
The larger the Ultimate Sandbag the more challenging this exercise becomes as well. You can simply move to holding more towards the top of the Ultimate Sandbag to make the exercise even MORE difficult for the biceps.
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how we can train the arms with functional training more effectively, but hopefully the point is easy to see. That if we use the right intent and the right version of the exercise, even an exercise like a bicep curl can start to integrate the whole body. I’m not suggesting they become the cornerstone of your training, but doing a couple of sets at the end of your workout isn’t a big deal either. However, I would suggest you make sure they are making a positive difference in your training and not adding just more work. I don’t really do bicep curls and I think my arms okay (this pic was done to be funny) and we will explore more about how we can build muscle and functional strength in future posts!
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