Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Strict Curl - Tim Henriques

Note: This is an excerpt from "All About Powerlifting" by Tim Henriques.
Great Book! Well Worth the Purchase.

A traditional powerlifting competition consists of 3 exercises: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. When all three lifts are performed that is called a full meet.  Sometimes powerlifters will compete in only some of the exercises. Usually the squat is the one that is dropped. This is because the squat takes the longest to perform at a competition and requires the most equipment (and qualified spotters); the squat is the hardest exercise to do; previous injuries normally limit the squat more than any other exercise. If a lifter competes in both the bench press and the deadlift, that is called a push/pull competition or an Ironman competition, and the two lifts are added together to produce the lifter's score. Some lifters compete in just one exercise, called a single lift competition. The most popular version of this is to just perform the bench press, but single lift deadlift competitions are becoming more popular and occasionally you can find a single lift squat competition. 

While most powerlifting organizations stick with the Big Three (squat, bench, dead), some organizations have added a fourth lift: The Strict Curl. It is possible the curl can be added to the bench and the deadlift, where all three lifts are added together. This is usually called a Powersports competition or occasionally a Strongarm competition. The very first powerlifting competitions consisted of the Curl, the Squat, and the Bench Press. The strict curl can also be contested as a single lift, either at the end of a full meet or along with other single lift events.    

Types of Curls

There are two types of strict curls that can be performed at a meet. Only one will be used at a particular meet - if you are interest in competing in a curl competition, it would behoove you to find out which type of curl the lifters will be performing. The traditional strict curl is a standing bicep curl, using an EZ Bar, performed up against the wall. The butt and upper back must be placed against the wall, and they must remain against the wall throughout the entire lift. It is significantly harder to curl up against the wall as opposed to performing a freestanding curl. Generally lifters will lift 10-20% less performing a curl up against a wall as opposed to standing straight up; even when you are using strict form while standing up. The benefit of curling up against the wall is primarily for judging purposes. It is hard to judge a standing curl because the lifter may have just a little swing forward or backward; saying the body must remain against the wall makes the judging very easy - either you remained against the wall and you successfully curled the weight, or you didn't remain against the wall (curling the weight is then irrelevant), and you didn't curl the weight. 

A second type of curl is a standing strict curl, which is a bicep curl using an EZ Bar, performed in a standing position. The legs must be held straight and locked. The weight is curled up near the chin, and the upper body must remain basically upright during the lift. A significant swing either forward or backward is considered cheating and the lift will not count, although without the benefit of the wall this "swing" becomes reasonably subjective. It is okay on both types of curls for the elbows to move forward. It is this author's opinion that if curls are contested in competition, they should be performed up against the wall to facilitate fairness of judging for all competitors across all federations.

If one is not competing, other types of curls can be performed. These include dumbbell curls, preacher curls performed on a preacher curl bench, hammer curls performed with the hands held in a neutral grip, and reverse curls with the hands in a pronated (palms down) position. Lifters can train curls on machines, cables, dumbbells, and barbells; various other types of resistance can be used as well. 

Minimal equipment is necessary to complete a strict curl. Most curl competitions will involve the use of an EZ curl bar, which is the cambered bar used most often for curls. It is critical that an EZ Bar be used and not a straight barbell, as using a straight bar for biceps curl maximum attempts is extremely hard on the wrist joint. Regular use of a straight bar for curling will often lead to tendinitis in the wrist and elbow joint. The heavier the weight you use and the less flexible your wrist and arm are (bigger arms are generally less flexible), the harder the straight bar is on your wrist. Since you must train heavy on a regular basis to have a high 1-Rep max, this is a recipe for disaster. I would even suggest that if someone were to compete with a straight bar on the bicep curl (which in my opinion should not occur), they should still train with an EZ Bar on the majority of their sets to save their wrists and elbows.

Article on Training the Two Hands Curl by Jim Halliday Here:
One on The Two Hands Slow Curl by Charles Smith Here:

Most EZ Bars weight 15-20 pounds and, just like with a regular bar, you should count the weight of the bar. If you don't know how much your particular EZ Bar weighs, just weight it on a scale at the gym(EZ Bars are actually often 16.5 or 22 pounds because they're made to be 7.5 or 10 kg.).

The second thing you will need is a sturdy wall to lean up against (avoid leaning against a gym mirror and/or just plain drywall as you might damage both of those structures). If you want to save yourself some effort, you can bring a flat bench over and set the bar on the bench, reducing the need to deadlift the bar up each time you lift it. Lift up against a sturdy and reasonably broad wall at least 12". Curling up against a power rack, for example, will not give one the necessary support and is likely to result in lower weights being lifted. In a competition there should be either an official, sturdy curl platform or you can go up against the wall - once we had to curl up against the squat stands, and that was not at all appropriate.

Proper Technique

The curl requires the lowest skill of any of the contested lifts, but that does not mean that technique is unimportant. Indeed, it is reasonably common to see lifters make significant technique mistakes when performing a competition strict curl, which can be avoided by following these guidelines.

Hand Position

Hand position in a strict curl is crucial for maximum performance. When using an EZ Bar, lifters will have two main choices: a narrow grip or a wide grip. Lifters can choose either grip. Most lifters choose the wide grip. However, I have seen exceptional performances with both grips - select the one that allows you to lift the most weight.

You can use a narrow grip by gripping the first bend in the bar. A narrow grip is generally (but not always) better for people with narrower shoulders and/or with more flexible wrists. The narrow grip places more emphasis on the long head of the biceps brachii (the outer head), which may be useful for bodybuilding purposes but doesn't do that much for strength. A wider grip is used when gripping the second bend in the bar. This grip is normally (but not always) better for people with wider shoulders and/or less flexible wrists. I would say the wide grip is the grip most commonly used in bicep curl competitions, but there are enough exceptions that I would experiment with both to see which one you are stronger in. The wide grip places more emphasis on the short head of the bicep brachii (inner head). There is not a huge difference in strength between the two heads of the biceps: pick the grip that you feel the strongest on and use that one - don't worry too much about specific muscle recruitment of a part of the muscle.

It is imperative that one grab the EZ Bar in the correct position. When you grip the EZ Bar, the angle of the bar must match the angle of your hand. The angle of the hand when supinated is such that the hand (going from the pinky to the thumb) points out slightly. The part of the bar being held must match this angle. Lifters will occasionally grab the EZ Bar with the bar angled toward their body; this will feel awkward and will result in a poor performance. If it feels weird, it probably is.

Lifters should take a closed grip (thumbs opposite fingers) and should grip the bar reasonably tightly when curling.  

Foot Position

Foot position is also important in the curl. The rules generally state that when a lifter is up against the wall, the heels must be no more than 12" away from the wall. I would suggest you mark the floor where you train in order to know how far away your heels can be. The heels should be as far away as possible while staying within the rules. In addition, taking a wide stance, squat width or wider, will likely add support and will also decrease the chance of the hips coming off the wall. Pointing the toes out moderately will likely be the most natural, comfortable foot angle combined with the wide stance.

With a standing curl, there is a distinct advantage to staggering your feet by placing one foot in front of the other, thus I would suggest that you use that method. Put one foot in front of the other and lock your legs. Generally you lock the legs because it is required by the rules. The legs must start and stay locked during the exercise. Staggering your feet helps with your balance. The weight will want to tip you forward as you curl it, so you in turn will try to pull it backward with your back. Imagine if someone were going to push you either from the front or from the back and you had to resist the movement. Would you stand with your feet symmetrical, about shoulder width apart, or would you stagger them? Of course you would stagger them. It is quite easy to push someone over if their feet are in line with each other, even if they are spread out. Staggering the feet makes you less likely to lean back as you curl the weight.

Staggering the feet also gives another advantage. When you stagger the feet it breaks the line of the torso running to the legs. This makes it harder to judge if the body is staying completely upright or not. By staggering your feet, you can often start the curl by leaning forward 5-10 degrees. This lean forward can give you some crucial momentum which you can use to lift more weight. This is the main reason it is easier to curl standing up - even if you stay strict - than it is to curl against the wall. You can't lean backward at all, but if you start leaning forward and then move backward just a bit as you curl, you end in the correct position, but you used some momentum to lift the weight. A staggered foot position makes this harder to notice and judge. Having your feet spread but in line with each other makes any body lean to the front or the back very noticeable.

The negative of staggering your feet is that it causes you to twist your hips and spine. Twisting the spine at the bottom will cause it to twist back in the opposite direction to compensate for not being straight. Regular use of this method can promote an imbalance in the body and it might lead to injury. You can try switching the lead leg so one side does not become more dominant than the other. Personally, I recommend that on your regular sets when training for the curl you perform the curl with the feet spread but in line with each other - the same position you would take for the majority of your standing exercises. Only stagger the feet when the weight is very heavy for you. The staggered foot position is not normally a hard position to get used to; most people feel very comfortable with it right away or after a bit of practice. Remember, normally we want to by symmetrical when lifting weights to ensure the muscles develop evenly, but sometimes it is okay to be symmetrical in the effort to lift more weight. The pros and  cons of a staggered foot position apply to basically all lifts, not just the bicep curl. It should be noted that many athletic positions involve a staggered foot position due to the increased balance and stability in that position.

Head Position

Head position in the curl generally follows one of two trains of thought. The first is to keep the head in line with the body and reasonably stable throughout the lift. I would suggest you perform most of your training reps like that. The second school of thought is to use a bit of momentum from the head and neck to assist with the curl. It is minor but it might make a small difference. In this example, start the curl with your head looking down (most commonly lifters look straight ahead, which will signal the judge to give the "Curl" command, and then you can look down after receiving the command). AS you curl the weight up, look up at the same time. The logic is similar to deadlifting: by looking up, the chest and thorax will follow, putting one in a stronger position to finish the curl. Even if one is curling against the wall, there is generally not a rule that mandates that the head stay in contact with the well - the head can move if you wish to do so. Keep in mind that significant head motion - especially looking to one side or the other - is associated with decreased neural drive during most lifting motions (e.g. looking to the side while squatting or deadlifting is particularly unwise and can result in injury.).

Mike Casabona
155.4 at 165.

Raw Records: 

100% Raw Strict Curl Forum:

General Form for Performing the Strict Curl

To perform a wall strict curl in a competition, you will approach the EZ Bar and take a grip on it. The same guidelines apply in terms of wide or narrow grip to a wall curl as they do a standing curl, and generally lifters will use the same grip for maximum performance whether up against the wall or standing upright. Depending on the organization you lift in you may or may not get a command to pick up the weight. Once you pick up the weight, you will take a step backward and lean against the wall.

The rules generally state that your butt and upper back/shoulders must remain against the wall throughout the lift. As you lean up against the wall, place your feet out in front of you. You will need to keep your legs straight the entire time - do not bend the knee. There is no benefit to using a staggered step when lifting against the wall, so have a symmetrical stance. Do not keep your heels too close to the wall; they should be pretty far out in front of you. If the federation limits how far your heels can be from the wall (often it is 12 inches), generally you want to be as far out as possible. You should feel that if the wall was suddenly removed you would fall backward. In addition, have a fairly wide stance. Having a wider stance makes it a little less likely to pop your hips off the wall, which is the number on problem in a curl. When you are leaning against the wall make sure you straighten your arms because you have to start the curl with your arms straight.

Once you are in the proper starting position, the judge will tell you to "Lift" or "Curl" and you will curl the weight up. Take a deep breath and hold it, brace yourself, and then curl upward. Your upper arms will likely move forward some, and this is fine. Push yourself back into the wall and be sure your butt remains against the wall; it will likely have a tendency to come off the wall when you are lifting heavy. You may find that curling your wrist back to you (flexing the wrist) is desirable once the weight is a little higher than halfway up. You will be lifting the weight up to your throat, nose, or chin. Once you have successfully completed the lift, hold the weight in that position. The judge will say "Down" and then you can return the weight to your waist. You must keep your back against the wall on the descent; letting the weight drop rapidly can easily pull you off the wall. It is better to lower with control - if you have the strength to lift it up you have the strength to lower it with control. At that point you are finished, or the judge will say "Rack" and you can set the weight down on the ground or in the racks.

 - The lifter approaches the bar in the rack and takes his grip.
 - The lifter walks back against the platform.
 - Gets into the start position and waits for the "Start" command.
 - Begins to curl, keeping the elbows back and the bar close to the body initially.
 - Flexes the elbows and begins to bring the elbows forward.
 - Grips tightly and presses the upper back into the support at the sticking point.
 - Curls the wrist to reduce the moment arm of the resistance.
 - Pushes the elbows slightly forward.
 - Drives the bar toward the face.
 - Holds the end position and waits for the "Down" command.
 - Initiates a slow negative.
 - Maintains the angle of the elbow and brings the elbows close to the body.
 - Keeps the upper back against the wall during the negative.
 - Holds the finished position and waits for the "Rack" command.
 - Re-racks the bar.

Standing Strict Curl

As he name implies, you are standing straight during a standing strict curl. You will approach the bar just like the deadlift. Depending on the organization you lift with, they will either give you a command to pick the weight up, or you can just pick it up. Once you have your grip stand up with the bar and hold it at arms' length, as though you had just finished deadlifting the bar. Now you want to get your feet set.

Once you have gripped the bar, lifted it up, and set your feet, you will get the command to "Lift" or "Curl" the weight up. Take a deep breath in, hold it, lean forward just a little bit if you can, and then curl the weight up to your chin area. The end position of the curl will vary depending on your own biomechanics, but most people finish the curl near the throat, nose, or chin. The bar should not be any higher than the forehead, and it should be higher than the collarbone. It is okay to allow the upper arms to move forward as you curl; in fact, that is encouraged. If you try to pin your elbows by your sides so the upper arm doesn't move forward you will be very limited in the total weight you can curl. Most people finish with their upper arms having moved between 30 and 45 degrees. If the upper arm moves about 90 degrees forward, then you probably moved it too much, and you probably lost power as you did so. As you curl the bar up to your face, continue to hold your breath to keep the trunk very tight. Once your elbows are bent about 90 degrees, you may want to curl your wrist toward you (flex the wrist) as you lift the weight. This will help bring the weight closer to your elbow, thus decreasing the moment arm of the resistance force. I would do this only on very heavy sets with very low reps, as too much wrist movement will often aggravate the wrist. At no time should you let your wrist bend backward during the curl.

Hold the bar near your throat, nose, or chin and the judge will say "Down." Return the bar to its starting position at arms' length. This is not hard and should not be a problem for you. Once the bar is in the starting position again the judge will say "Rack" indicating you should place the bar on the ground, or you can just set it down, as the lift is over.

If you do move your body during the curl, you lean forward right as you begin the curl, and then, in the first half of the movement, you lean backward. This should be a relatively quick and explosive movement, but remember this is a strict curl, so it must be subtle. The purpose is to get some momentum to drive the weight past its sticking point, which is about halfway up during the curl or just beyond that point. Even if you do get some body movement involved, you can't lean backward; you must start forward a bit. If you start totally straight up, any lean backward will result in our whole body leaning backward, and you probably won't get the lift. If you wait to lean backward until the end of the lift, it will tend to be a slower, more noticeable extension of the trunk. I should point out that in suggesting that you lean forward, the lean is initiated from the hips so your trunk is straight (not rounded); it is just inclined forward a bit (as though you were getting ready to perform a triceps pressdown). Then when you lean back the lean comes from the hips again - the trunk remains completely straight; it just reclines backward a bit. Throughout the entire lift the trunk will remain locked in position with the chest up; it will just tilt forward and backward slightly to get some momentum.

Things to Do While Strict Curling:

 - Lock the legs straight to start the lift.
 - Take a wide stance.
 - Have heels far away from the wall but within the limits stated by the rules.
 - Take a proper grip on the bar.
 - Drive you upper back and butt into the wall.
 - Start with your arms straight to begin the lift.
 - Take in a big breath before you curl.
 - Squeeze the bar hard.
 - Keep the forearms locked or slightly flex/curl the wrist forward.
 - Get your elbows under the bar as soon as possible.
 - Hold the bar at the top position.
 - Lower the bar under control.

Things NOT to Do While Strict Curling:

 - Start with the knees bent or bend them during the lift.
 - Take a narrow stance.
 - Have your heels close to the wall.
 - Grip the bar at an awkward or improper angle.
 - Exhale before you have completed the curl.
 - Allow your wrists to bend backward (extend) while curling.
 - Pin your upper arms back against the wall.
 - Use too much momentum to drive your butt or shoulders off the wall.
 - Expect to lift the same weight against the wall as you do when standing upright.
 - Let the weight free fall on the negative.

Flexibility/Mobility Problems

The strict curl doesn't require the same flexibility of mobility as the Big 3. The joints stressed by the strict curl include the elbow, shoulder and the wrist. The wrist is the joint likely lacking the flexibility necessary for a good curl; many lifters lose the ability to fully supinate their wrist as their training career progresses. Forearm stretches can help with this, as can ART/massage performed at the elbow and wrist. Lifters can use a barbell for curls but treat this as a stretch and go light. In addition, performing back exercises with a supinated grip (chin-ups, 45-degree bentover rows, reverse grip lat pulldowns) all will force the wrist into that fully supinated position.

Common Problems

The most common problems that occur when people train the curl include: using too much weight, using a limited range of motion,j and using an improper grip on the bar.

Regular gym goers like the idea of big arms and strong biceps; if you grew up watching Arnold movies, it is hard not to equate muscular arms with strength. In an effort to attain those "big guns" people often go too heavy and use a cheat curl involving significant body momentum. A little cheat can be fine but when the lift looks like a clean or a mini-seizure, that is not ideal. Of course, lifting up against the wall (and keeping your butt there) immediately fixes this issue.

The second big issue is using a limited ROM. In this instance lifters will not extend their elbows on each rep. One doesn't necessarily need to fully extend the elbows on every training rep, but if one is curling and it really looks like the elbow is locked at a 90-degree angle and the movement is actually at the shoulder (and the trunk), again, that is not ideal. Chronic training like that can result in shortened muscles and tendons crossing the elbow, resulting in weakness when one does have to straighten the elbow (as in the beginning of a competition strict curl).

Finally, lifters often take an incorrect grip on the bar, and they will hold the bar in the opposite direction from what is ideal. This fact can be compounded because not all curl bars are the same - some have a very significant level of camber and others are near straight. Curlers should be aware that there is not a "standard" competition curl bar and that the angle of camber might vary from one competition to another; that is just the way it is currently.

Common Cues for the Strict Curl

Good Grip
Good Set-up
Wide Stance
Legs Straight
Arms Straight
Big Air
Curl Wrists
Head Up
Lower Slowly

Common Competition Mistakes in the Strict Curl

Lifters will make a few common mistakes in a competition. Luckily, with some preparation, these can be relatively easily fixed. These mistakes include:

Not understanding the difference between a standing curl and a wall strict curl. Many lifters will curl in the gym standing up, see the weights lifted in meet results, assume they will do well and then attempt those same weights up against the wall and be quite disappointed with the results. Even a super strict standing curl is noticeably easier than a curl up against the wall.

Not being aware of the weight of their curl bar. This isn't a mistake made in competition per se, but it affects what happens in competition. A lifter will curl in the gym and assume their bar has a certain weight, for example, assuming it is 25 or 35 pounds. Most curl bars are closer to 15 or 20 pounds; thus the lifter is overestimating what they can actually lift. In the curl, that amount of weight makes a big difference, and again the result is disappointing for that lifter. The solution is to actually weigh any curl bar you are going to train with on a reputable scale, then you will know for sure what the actual weight is.

Gripping the bar in the wrong spot. This has been covered at length, but don't let the excitement and nerves of a competition throw you off your game. Know exactly where and how you like to grip the bar, and make sure you take that grip on each rep. Proper grip position is just as important on the curl as it is on the bench, perhaps even more so.

Making too big of a jump in weight. A small increase in the strict curl can make a big difference. You have to remember part of it is the percentage of what you are lifting - if you curled 150 pounds and then jumped to 160 for the next attempt, that is the same percentage increase as someone benching 300 and going to 320, or squatting 450 and then going to 480 - not ridiculous but big enough to feel. The second part of that is, because the curl is an isolation exercise, the pounds-per-rep value of each rep isn't as significant. If you can squat 450 x 3, you know you have a decent amount of strength still left in you. You might be able to curl 150 x 3, but that isn't a promise that you will be able to get 160. My standard advice for those performing the strict curl is to go up 10 pounds after their first attempt and just 5 pounds on the subsequent attempt. Federations should (and usually do) allow lifters to increase the curl by just 2.5 pounds if they wish, and even that weight can make a big difference at maximal poundages.

Allowing the butt to come off the wall. This can be fixed by two things. One (and the only thing you can do in the moment of competition) is to take a wide stance and drive your hips into the wall. The second thing is to lower the weight, but once the attempt has been turned in this is not an option. Don't let your butt come off the wall in training or that motor pattern is likely to show up again come competition time.

Finally, lifters will receive red lights for lowering the weights too fast and letting their upper back or butt come off the wall on the way down. To correct this, simply perform a slow negative with the weight and don't celebrate (or relax) until that final command is given and the lights are up on the scoreboard.

technical Rules of Performance

Presented below are the official rules for the Strict Curl. Rules can vary from federation to federation; these particular rules apply to the 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation. These particular rules are focused on performing the strict curl up against the wall. A simple explanation follows if necessary.

Strict Curl:

1) The lifter will face the front of the platform. The bar shall be held horizontally across the thighs with the palms of the hands facing outward, and fingers gripping the bar. The feet shall be placed on the platform with the knees locked and arms fully extended. The lifter shall have their shoulders and buttocks firmly against a wall during the lift.

The lifter will face the platform, using a supinated grip. The feet are flat, the legs and arms locked to begin the lift. The upper back and butt must be against the wall.

2) After removing the bar from the racks, the lifter must move backwards to the wall to establish his starting position. The lifter shall wait in the starting position for the Head Referee's signal. The signal will be given once the lifter is motionless and the bar is properly position with your Head Up and Chin Up and arms extended fully down. The Head Referee's signal shall consist of an upward movement of the arm and the verbal command "Curl."

The lifter will grab the bar, move backward against the rack, and get into the proper position with head and chin up (looking straight ahead).

3) Once the curl command is given the lifter must bring the bar up to the fully curled position (the bar near chin or throat with palms facing backward). The knees must remain locked and the shoulders and buttocks against the wall throughout the entire lift.

The lifter will curl the bar up, knees stay straight and body stays against the wall.

4) When the lifter has reached the finished position, the Head Referee's signal shall consist of a downward movement of the hand and the verbal command "Down." The signal will not be given until the bar is held motionless and the lifter is in the apparent finished position.

Once the lifter is in the finished position, they will receive the Down command.

5) At the completion of the lift, the knees shall be locked and the shoulders and butt firm against the wall, and the lifter will need to wait for the signal to replace the bar. This will consist of a backward motion of the hand and the verbal command "Rack."

Lifter must keep legs locked and shoulders/butt against the wall on the way down. Lifter will then receive the Rack command to set the bar down.

6) The legs and hips may not be used in any way for momentum to complete the lift. Lifter may not lean back to assist in bringing the weight up. Any thrusting of the legs or hips for momentum is not allowed. The feet must remain flat and motionless throughout the lift.

You can't use your legs or trunk to help; feet must stay flat and can't slide during the lift.

7) Any raising of the bar or any deliberate attempt to do so will count as an attempt.

Once the lifter tries to lift the bar up it counts as an attempt.

8) The lifter may, at the Head Referee's discretion, be given an additional attempt at the same weight if failure in an attempt was due to an error by one or more of the loaders.

If the head judge agrees, the lifter can retry the weight if the bar was misloaded. 

9) This lift will be judged by 3 referees.

10) The back part of the heel cannot be more than 12" from the wall. There should be a line (tape) designated on the floor where the heels cannot cross over.

Heels must be 12" or closer to the wall; there should be a mark designating this spot on the curl platform.

Causes for Disqualification of the Strict Curl:

1) Any downward movement of the bar before it reaches the final position.
2) Leaning back to assist the lifter in raising the weight.
3) Shoulders or buttocks coming off the wall during the lift both while going up and down.
4) Failure to stand erect with the shoulders square and buttocks flat against the wall at the completion of the lift.
5) Failure to keep the knees locked and straight during the lift.
6) Failure to keep the feet flat during the lift.
7) Stepping backward or any foot movement such as rocking the feet.
8) Lowering or racking the bar before receiving the Head Referee's signal to do so.
9) Bouncing the bar off the thighs or bending the back to assist the lifter in starting the upward motion.

Does a Strict Curl Have any Value?

The question of the value of any exercise is relatively subjective. Does the bench press or the squat have any value? Of course, to a powerlifter, the answer is Yes. I think we can make the argument that a to a lot of people those exercise exercises have value because when you get good at the powerlifts you are also getting good at a very large number of exercises. If you are interested in health, physical fitness and aesthetics, the classic powerlifts do have a lot of value.

But what about a bicep curl?

There are two common knocks against bicep curls. the first one is that the curl is an isolation exercise, which means it involves just one main joint. It is true that a bicep curl is generally considered an isolation exercise (although technically there often movement at the shoulder and/or wrist as well as well as at the elbow), but to me that doesn't necessarily mean its value should be reduced. The only way to test the strength of a smaller muscle group without also involving a lot of other muscle groups is to perform an isolation exercise. You can't test the strength of the biceps without doing bicep curls. Things like rows and pull-ups would involve the biceps but would place more emphasis on the lats and other muscles.

The second knock against the bicep curl is that it is not a functional exercise. This comment is often applied to all isolation exercises with the observation that muscles don't work in isolation - they work together. The word "functional" has several definitions but to me the most applicable is, "Does the exercise mimic activities that we do in everyday life?" Using that definition, I would sat that bicep curls are perhaps one of the most functional exercises one can do. Bicep curls would clearly be more functional than a bench press and, as pointed out earlier, than a squat. Again, the definition of functional we are using is that the exercise as performed mimics the activities of daily living.

People perform bicep curls in real life all the time - using concentric, isometric, and eccentric actions. Lifting your grocery bags out of the cart of out of the trunk of your car is a bicep curl. Curling your book bag up to your shoulder is a bicep curl. Holding a tray of food or a baby in the crook of your arm is a bicep curl. We use our biceps in their basic function - elbow flexion - all the time, and we often use them while the rest of our body remains relatively stable. To me the idea that a bicep curl is not functional carries no weight whatsoever.

It is true that you generally get more bang for the buck performing compound exercises (2 joints or more) versus isolation exercises. But isolation exercises do have value, particularly for the muscles that are always going to be synergistic in the compound exercises. These muscles include the biceps, triceps, and hamstrings. Isolation exercises for the larger muscles like the pecs, lats, and glutes carry less value because the compound exercises for the same muscle groups generally hit that group better, but all exercises have their place.

Why a Bicep Curl?

It is a fair question to ask why a bicep curl should be included as the 4th contested lift and not another exercise such as a skull crusher or a calf raise. I am not sure there is just one concrete answer to that question. The bicep curl measures arguably the most important muscle not really measured in a powerlifting competition, which is the biceps. Remember, the big three hit almost every main muscle in the body with the two insignificant exceptions being the biceps and the calves. In an effort to measure true total body strength, the bicep curl does have some use by filling in a few gaps left from the big three. The bicep muscle is probably the most famous muscle there is; if you ask someone to flex a muscle without specifying which one they will almost always flex the biceps. Big arms (for better or worse) are symbolic of a person's strength. The bicep curl is a free weight exercise that can produce good aesthetic changes to one's physique, and it is a lift that is often practiced in gyms. You do not need much equipment to perform the lift in a competition, you don't really need any spotters for safety; and, as mentioned earlier, the lift is easy to judge, especially if done up against the wall.

Note: Placing a sheet of paper between the lifters back and the wall has been used to judge upper body movement in the past. If the paper falls, the lift is nil.

competing in something like a skull crusher would be much harder to judge, would require good spotters, and there would be a strong correlation between the good bench pressers and those lifters good at the skull crusher; thus, it would be somewhat redundant.

Apparel for the Strict Curl

You don't need much special apparel for a strict curl. Comfortable shoes with good grip are important - you don't want your shoes to slide on the platform as you are pressing into the wall. All lifters in a competition need a singlet. You can wear a belt is you wish while strict curling, but because one is up against the wall, a belt doesn't have much effect. If you are performing a standing curl, the belt is much more important in bracing the core.

Wrist wraps are likely the most important piece of useful equipment for the curl. The curl places a lot of stress on the forearms and often lifters will let their wrists bend backwards slightly, thus decreasing potential force production. The wrist wrap can help the lifter keep his wrist stable and thus aid in curling more weight. Chalk, of course, can help one keep their grip on the bar.

Starting Out

Many lifters have performed curls in their training, but not many of them are used to completing a strict curl against the wall. Many are curious as to what they can actually strict curl; to find a very quick estimation of the strict curl maximum, I suggest the following;

Strict Curl for the average trained male -
40 x 3-5 reps; then add 10-20 pounds and perform 1-3 reps. Repeat this until a challenging rep is completed or failure occurs. An example might look like this:
40x5, 60x3, 80x3, 100x1, 120x1, 130x1 (hard).

Strict Curl for the average trained female -
20 x 3-5 reps (empty bar); then add 5-10 pounds and perform 1-3 reps. Repeat this until a challenging rep is completed or failure occurs. An example might look like this:
20x5, 30x3, 40x1, 50x1 (hard).

The chapter continues on from here, with much more very interesting material. For example, have you ever heard of a Barbell Curl Throw? Plyometric, develops explosiveness. In this example the lifter will curl the weight, but at about the halfway point they will throw the weight up in the air and then catch it as it falls back to the ground. Much like a jump squat or an explosive bench press throw, the idea here is to turn on all of the motor units and muscle fibers to ensure that everything fires well when it comes time to max out. Start light with this exercise as it can be relatively jarring on the elbows.

Here's a great article by Tim Henriques on The Strict Curl for max weight:

A great book! 768 pages and well worth owning. 





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