Bigger, Better, Safer Biceps
written by sean hyson
It’s just biceps. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes, it seems like those little muscles on the front of your arms that you’ve been training since your first day in the gym couldn’t cause nearly as much trouble as a squat or deadlift—exercises with more moving parts, heavier weights, and considerably greater risk for injury. But the fact is you can set yourself up for injuries doing curls that may be even slower and harder to come back from than the ones you face doing the “big, compound lifts”.
To avoid problems and get more out of your training, first consider the way you’re built.
Stand in front of a mirror and look at your arms (like you weren’t doing that anyway). Let your arms hang by your sides. Now rotate your wrists outward as far as you can while keeping your arms by your sides. Your palms should be facing forward.
Notice the angle of your forearms in relation to your upper arms. If your hands veer way out from where your shoulders are, you have a pronounced “valgus”. If you can’t turn your thumb more than 90 degrees—as in, it doesn’t point behind your body a little when you supinate your palms—you’re probably also a “hyperpronator”.
Relax, these aren’t exactly birth defects, but they do mean that straight-bar curls are not for you. The way you’re built, your joints want to move your hands away from your sides when you bend your elbows. A straight bar won’t allow that. If you’ve ever found your grip slipping on straight-bar curls and you had to readjust mid-set, this is probably why. Continuing to curl with a straight bar is going to cause damage to the wrist and elbow joints, and because you use those areas so often, you won’t heal quickly.
Nothing makes training more miserable than chronic joint pain, especially when it hinders your ability to do your favorite exercises.
I have these problems, and switching to an EZ-bar and dumbbells has helped considerably.
Another thing that can help with accommodating your body type and make for safer training is experimenting with different exercises. The drag curl can be useful for those with long forearms. They put you at a leverage disadvantage with curls, so pulling your elbows back and dragging the bar up your body turns the curl into more of a row, yet isolates the biceps better. You don’t get the same range of motion that you do with a conventional dumbbell or barbell curl, so you should compensate by holding the contraction for a second or two and squeezing hard. Don’t try to lift the bar higher than you can with your biceps. Getting the delts and traps in on the move defeats the purpose.
I also like spider curls. These are way better than preacher curls done on a bench that’s 45 degrees. That version puts your biceps and elbows in a dangerous position in the bottom (you can easily hyperextend), and the top of the lift lets the tension off the muscles. With the spider curl, you flip around and use the vertical side of the bench to curl strictly.
A couple more biceps training tips: keep rest periods short. You don’t need more than 45 seconds between sets, as these are small muscles you’re training and you’re never using heavy weights with them. In fact, don’t go below six or seven reps per set. At the end of any session that works them, stretch the biceps. Grab the support beam of a power rack with your thumb down and turn away so you feel a stretch in the biceps and hold for 60 seconds.