In the world of fitness, it seems like there are two camps of people on opposite ends of a spectrum: those who do bicep curls, and those who don’t. Neither side is completely fond of the other.
While this may be a hilarious oversimplification of the fitness industry at large, it does represent a larger trend at work here. The majority of people who partake in physical activity are motivated by potential improvements in physique and influenced by fleeting trends, like bootcamps, spin, or yoga. They may not be particularly enthused by intangible qualities such as strength and performance. This is especially true if they don’t see how physique, strength, and performance are all connected.
As fitness professionals who often fall into the “don’t do bicep curls” camp, this is something that we often take for granted. We are in a small minority of people who appreciate and understand first and foremost how important exercise and training is to performance in sports and daily life. Then, we begin talking about physique changes.
I’m no exception here, as I initially started getting serious in the gym for the sport of baseball. Over time I developed an appreciation for powerlifting and weightlifting, because elements of both barbell sports form the basis of proper strength and performance training.
I’ve done my fair share of squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, pull-ups, and lunges. And I rarely saw a bicep curl or isolation movement in my programming, nor did I take it upon myself to do these on my own. When it comes to performance, there’s a general understanding that movement is a coordinated effort across multiple joints and muscles, rendering single-joint, bodybuilder-style exercises unnecessary, at least for those specific goals. So it seemed like almost an accident when I noticed desirable changes in my physique as well.
Of course, all this begs the question then: are bicep curls, isolation movements, and what have you, THAT essential?
First of, I’d like to preface by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with these movements or style of training. The fact remains that if you want biceps and triceps, forearms, abs, etc, you need to work them. If I had wanted bigger biceps in my earlier example, I would most definitely have supplemented with a regular regimen of bicep curls.
The fact is, being strong makes physique goals that much more attainable, regardless of gender and whether you want to get bigger or smaller. So the answer to the big question is neither yes nor no, but in between.
Unfortunately, this concept is hard to grasp for a lot of people. Especially in a commercial gym, it doesn’t help that treadmills and ellipticals take up more than half of the available space, that you’ll be lucky to find even one squat rack, and that deadlifts are prohibited because they’re “too loud.” Planet Fitness is the worst offender here; apparently some alarm will go off because you’re doing something right.
This just feeds into a vicious cycle of fear and aversion to anything that involves barbells or free weights, which leaves trainees with mindless options like endless cardio, cookie-cutter classes to #feeltheburn, and single-joint machine and bodybuilding circuits. It’s almost like we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that we don’t need to have an active role in our own fitness.
As forward-thinking fitness professionals, you and I know that this cannot be further from the truth. It’s hard to break conventional wisdom though, and having clients make a complete 180 from the status quo that they’re used to may not make them feel comfortable, even if we know in our hearts that it is 100% in their best interest.
Thus, we need to approach the problem differently. I’d liken this to a tree blocking our path, and rather than chop it down entirely in order to move forward, it would be better to shake and nudge the tree, letting leaf by leaf fall, until its deep roots are loose enough to be pried out.
So if someone wants to do bicep curls, go ahead and put them in the program. Curls to failure, hammer curls, seated curls, have at it. Super-set them with squats or deadlifts, or target them directly at the end of the workout. Along the same lines, if someone wants a hard metabolic conditioning circuit akin to that trendy class people are talking about, let them feel that burn.
Shake the tree leaf by leaf, and slowly begin to do more with barbells and free-weights. All the while though, let them do what they like. Training is a process that evolves over time, but it doesn’t start until the trainee feels comfortable enough to buy in.
Besides, if they want bigger arms, they’ll have to do those bi’s/tri’s/forearms eventually. Why not give them a headstart? At least they’re also doing much, much more of the right things under your guidance.
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.