GUNS, PYTHONS, SLEEVE SHREDDERS
Everyone has a different name for them, but everyone agrees the best way to grow a pair of bulging biceps is curls, curls and more curls.
Well, almost everyone.
If you ask champion Strongman Brian Alsruhe, curls are a complete waste of time - and if you look at his arms you know he’s got a thing or two up his XL sleeves.
"Blasphemy," you say, "he surely does some kind of arm curl?!".
He’s done a curl maybe 3 or 4 times in his life, so what is the Strongman’s secret to big arms? Is it time for the bro classico to be dethroned as King of the Arm exercises?
Let’s find out.
(You can see first hand what Brian thinks of curls in his collab video with Jujimufu -
WHAT MAKES A BICEP GROW?
To make our muscles grow, we need a few things - a reason to grow, the resources to build them, and recovery time to let them grow. The reason to grow is the stimulation and message we send our bodies through training, and the resources and recovery are nutrition and everything we’re not doing in the gym.
A lot of people don’t think about their training, doing reps for the sake of it with the same weight, week in and week out. This is getting us nowhere, as it tells our body we only need to adapt to “this much” - any more is a waste of resources.
Why waste resources paying for 100Gb of data when you only use 10Gb?
We need to tell them to grow, and to do this we need to do MORE.
More weight, more reps, more intensity - use effectively and your muscles will be growing at a healthy rate.
So where do curls and non curls come in? Surely stimulus is stimulus, one is as good as the other?
Compare the bicep curl to a chin up.
If we curl 10-20kg in each hand, that’s good going.
If we weigh 60kg, that’s a chin up with 30kg going through each arm. If we weigh 80kg, that’s 40kg per arm, 100kg is 50kg per arm etc etc.
Now the bicep isn’t doing all the work in the chin up, but it is EXPOSED to the weight as it moves through it’s range of motion. It WORKS alongside other muscles, and is a big part of the movement.
So compare the stimulus: 10-20kg vs 30-40kg.
See where Brian is coming from?
Compare a different strongman stimulus: carrying something in your hands.
While you’re not moving through a large range of motion, your arms are having to do some support work to keep the weight stable and from pulling you off balance. In a heavy farmer’s walk that could be anything from 30-100+kg in each hand - which blows a 10kg dumbbell curl out the water in terms of heavy stimulus.
Even isometric work, carrying heavy kegs or sandbags with have your biceps crying out for relief after a few feet of walking, pumped so full of blood they’re ready to pop. If we’ve learnt anything from Arnold, it’s that a pump is a good thing for bodybuilding.
So using a heavier weight definitely qualifies as stimulus that tells our body it needs to grow or adapt, so should we just bin the curls in favour of big heavy compound lifts? The heavier the better?
Maybe. Maybe not so fast.
GOD DAMMIT. MY KINGDOM FOR A STRAIGHT FITNESS ANSWER
WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS
While the heavy stimulus is great, we often can’t apply it through a full range of motion - even the best chin ups might not make it to full bicep contraction after a few reps, and carrying things is only going to work that small or isometric range, despite the epic pump.
But does the range of motion matter when we’ve got extra stimulus from the heavier load?
Luckily, scientists also wondered this, and did their research thang.
There have been a few studies to suggest that a movement with lighter weight and large range of movement produced greater hypertrophy than a heavier weight using a shorter range of movement (in particular, squats to parallel vs high squats). So should we now reverse our stance, ditching the super heavy load and go with the movement that lets us use a greater range of movement with a lighter weight? I.e. the bicep curl instead of the chin up?
In addition, it’s worth noting that studies have shown similar hypertrophy gains in a variety of rep ranges - as long as the exercise is done to failure. So whether you’re doing an exercise with 6 reps or 15 reps, do them until your reaching failure (through a good range of motion) and you’ll be making hypertrophy gainZ.
So theoretically speaking, we can create a similar amount of muscle mass from using light weights for many reps, as we can using heavy weights for few reps.
Combined with the greater range of motion we get from the curling exercises, does this mean they are more effective than the shorter range of motion, heavy multi joint lifts?
So should we now bin the big heavy compound lifts, and dig the curls out of the trash?
Maybe. Maybe not so fast.
GIVE ME AN ANSWER
MAKING A DECISION
Bet you didn’t think the bicep curl rabbit hole was this deep eh? Like most things, it goes deeper and deeper, but we’re now losing precious time that can be used for training - let’s get some more substantial answers, or at least a direction to go.
First, a few final bits of info for consideration:
compound lifts have a greater effect on hormone secretion (more testosterone and growth hormone than isolation exercises)
with the heavier weight and dynamic movement, compound lifts are much better at making your bones, connective tissue and core stronger.
As they work multiple muscle groups at once, one compound exercise can hit the same amount of muscles as 3 or more isolation exercises in one go, saving you time in the gym
With these final factors in mind - my vote is for heavy compound exercises over isolation. As long as you’re using a good (pain free) range of motion. If our mobility is on point, then we’ll be getting the best of both worlds - exposing our bodies to a heavy weight through a large range of motion.
Even if it’s later on in the session, just use a lighter weight and go for extra reps. Remember, we can still stimulate hypertrophy using lighter weights/more reps, as long as we’re doing the exercise to failure. Just take appropriate safety precautions so you don’t injure yourself or anyone around you.
That’s not to say the curls don’t have their place:
- if you’re injured and can’t do big compound exercises without aggravating the injury, and curls do it no harm, then do curls. Moving something is better than nothing.
- if the biceps are a lagging body part and your prepping for a show/the Instagram photobooth, isolation exercises will absolutely help to bring them up.
- if you’re new to the gym and don’t feel comfortable diving into compound exercises without some guidance, then curls and other machine/isolation exercises are fine to get you started. Just don’t spend all your time on them, or you’ll be missing out on the heavy compound benefits.
We can see that, as with any endeavour, there’s more than one way to achieve our goals. Brian and Jujimufu have proved with their training styles that both compounds and curls can build big arms - the main thing is finding what works best for your situation, training goals, and the equipment you have available.
At the end of the day, as long as you’re working hard and DOING SOMETHING, it’s going to get you much further than half assing or thinking too much while doing nothing. While we may be able to eke out a couple extra % of effectiveness by modifying our exercises or changing our exercise selection, it’s not the end of the world if we can only manage a few heavy compound or isolation exercises each workout - something is 100% better than nothing, and progress is progress no matter how small.
Focus on what you can do with the time you have, and DO IT.
Unless that thing is curling in the squat rack, then DO NOT DO IT.
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