If there’s one image that’s synonymous with what novices think of when they think of weight lifting, it’s the figure of a python-armed bodybuilder curling a dumbbell. The biceps are the premier glamour muscle of the entire body — an eye-popping pair of upper arms is usually one of the first things people notice when they take in the sight of an in-shape person (who has a shirt on, anyway).
Functionally speaking, though, your biceps really don’t do much on their own. Outside of the gym, when was the last time you used only your upper arms to move or lift something? If it was heavy, you were recruiting your back muscles and forearms; if it was lighter, you probably didn’t need to use a curling motion in any form whatsoever. People joke about “12 oz. curls,” but seriously: Name another day-to-day movement that involves simply bending at the elbow to lift an object about a foot?
You can still build big, strong upper arms without donating a bunch of time to curls. Do you have to? Of course not. If you really enjoy wrecking your biceps once or twice a week, don’t let us stop you. But if you’d like to be a little more efficient, consider these alternatives that will not only tax your biceps, but do so functionally.
Pull Your Weight. Literally — just do pull-ups. Your grip and hand placement determine how you’re hitting your biceps on this classic movement, and it’s one of the most functional there is. Trying to build up your biceps peak? Close, reverse grip pull-ups will do the trick.
Want to simulate a reverse curl, to hit the whole biceps area and recruit your forearms, too? Standard-width overhand chins are the ticket. Even Hammer curls are bested by a neutral-grip pull-up.
The top reason people tend to avoid back movements like chin-ups and pull-ups is that, they argue, the back is doing all the work. Wrong. The larger muscles in the body will always tire well after the smaller ones, and there is no comparison between the orange-sized biceps and massive slabs of muscle the back makes up — in other words, your grip, forearms and biceps will all fail before your back does. The weak link in any chain is the first to break down — meaning that in doing pulling exercises to build your arms, your lats, traps, rear deltoids and rhomboids are all working as “backup” (sorry, we had to say it) as your biceps do the work. Once they’re tired, your back takes over fully, up to the point that your grip simply won’t allow it.
Bottom line: Curls will get you bigger biceps. Real, functional pulling movements will get you bigger, stronger biceps.