After you’ve spent a few years running, playin sports, training in a gym you feel like you have formulated a few ideas and concepts that you hold true to. Sure there are fads and fashions in exercise that come and go and in ways of training and how to get the best out of your chosen social weekend sporting activity. One tends to build a vocabulary of knowledge that has some stalwarts of actions contained within them. Every now and then, something comes along and you are forced to re-examine these concepts and held beliefs in the face of glowing new evidence. And in these instances you must learn to put aside your well rounded ego and treat sometimes old fashioned or seemingly incongruous or frivolous thoughts with a new worthiness or even respect.
So it came to pass that I was having a conversation with a well respected therapist about the value of the Bicep Curl. Now being a ‘functional fitness’ man, I’ve always held my head high that perhaps whilst I might not be the buffest or largest body on the gym floor, there was always a certain amount of confidence I could exude in the fact that I could accomplish movements such as a rope climb even with my seemingly less endowed ‘guns’ than perhaps my other fitness counterparts. Bicep curls were a glamour exercise. The realm of ‘summer idols’ who wanted to pose well in their designer swimwear which incidentally once you click on one advert you become BOMBARDED with images of lean, nubile, impossibly groomed young adonis’ all over your social media. Try explaining that when you leave your facebook open on the work desktop underneath the booking system!!!
But to return to the point, bicep curls - the exercise one should never do. Standing in a CrossFit gym and doing a bicep curl is usually the best way to lose instant credibility and imbibe questioning and dismissive, wry glances. However this opinion may be displaced as I discovered. The Curl actually has a function. Sure it is an isolation exercise and trains a single muscle. However as I discovered, it can also be utilised when you are working with a complex movement or trying to achieve some supporting strength for the shoulders.
Isolation movements are not inherently bad for you. If we only train in compound movements then the risk here is that small imbalances can create minor adjustments that over time may come to cause maladaption or injury. Whilst working only in composite or complex movements across multi joint motions, you can more easily ‘hide’ or ‘adapt’ these movements with recruitment from other groups. For example, one shoulder may be slightly less strong than the other in a military press. Adaptions can occur in the lift and you may never fully appreciate that you are favouring one muscle over another in an effort to perform the movement. So sometimes a little bit of isolation work can be very beneficial in exposing potential weak spots or underperforming areas.
When working through an injury and looking at biomechanic chains, it can be helpful to assess the power of singular muscles and their ability to perform in an isolation. In shoulder stability, the ‘guns’ can play a vital role in helping to support elbow flexion (think chin up or any pressing motion) and the stability of the elbow. Where there is instability or weakness, the body will recruit from further along the biomechanic chain to enable movement.
Enter the bicep curl. Why would you include it? Well whilst it targets mainly brachialis and biceps brachii, there are a couple fo variations that you can do which expose other issues such as grip strength and supination/pronation. Grip strength in composite movements is paramount. To be able to hold onto a bar whilst you are performing a deadlift or doing a pull up on rings, adequate grip strength makes the platform against which you are pulling/pushing stable. If you don’t have adequate grip strength its like standing on a bad ankle… you will have to find that stability further up the chain. . So if someone is finding it difficiult to complete some deadlift sessions or chin sessions, developing some grip strength in the brachialis, brachioradialis and forearm supinators would be beneficial.
In a ballistic motion where you are swinging with weight and need isometric strength (think gymnast on the rings or high bar), the isometric contraction required in the bicep for straight arm strength is vital for shoulder stability and a stable platform. Eccentric strength in the bicep is needed on these motions where the muscle that helps to reinforce the elbow and indeed the shoulder (by way of biceps brachii being a synergist in shoulder adduction and flexion). This is even more vital for something such as a kipping motion which is a big part of the CrossFit world and style of training where the braking motion and rebound into the concentric motion at the bottom of the arm extensions places huge tensile stretch on the shoulder. Thus it stands to reason that developing isolated strength in the bicep helps with avoiding injury during these higher impactive movements.
Connective tissue strength is vital for avoiding injury and managing the impact of high volume training and movements such as power-lifts, throwing, or racquet sports. There is support that isolation exercises helps to not only strengthen the muscles themselves, but also helps with the all important connective tissue to assist with joint integrity. Isolation movements are a good way of training these connective tissues to be able to deal with the loads of excessive eccentric force that is placed on them in sports such as tennis and baseball where these wide arcs of movement are required with maximum strength.
Another factor in support for isolation work is to make us more aware of how to activate certain muscles. We may recall the coach instructing us in technique and telling us to ‘turn on your glutes’ or ‘activate your rhomboids’ when really you are struggling with a complex movement or heavy lift and you have no idea how to ‘switch on’ an individual muscle. There is nothing like feeling the muscle activate in a lift and to get that activation, isolation training can help with recruitment of smaller muscles because you can start to ‘feel’ it work when you know how to ‘switch it on’.
Now with all the above mentioned concepts and ideas on training isolations, there are many other ways to train isolated muscles rather than doing a bicep curl. However, if we look at the reasons behind the exercise and can apply this to our training and movement capability, then perhaps those of us who have dished the bicep curl should be re-evaluating our perspective and re-visiting our acceptance of isolation vs compound training. I guess it’s a case of being open to the idea that everything can contribute to an efficient body and help with keeping our bodies mobile and strong.
Now where did I put my dumbells…