Earlier in November I turned 39 years old. According to Stats Canada, in six short months I’ll officially become a middle-aged man, meaning soon I can pontificate upon whatever the hell I want and blame all of society’s ills upon “kids today”, my opinions protected by the thinnest veil of wisdom imaginable.
In preparation for this occasion, I thought I’d get in some practice by making the case for the most maligned exercise of them all — the bicep curl.
You see, kids, when I was young biceps were the shit. Hulk Hogan entranced us all with the majesty of his 24-inch pythons, but the real credit goes, as always, to Arnold. Would that scene in Predator when long-lost pals Dutch and Dillon greet each other be as awesome if they hugged it out while wearing baggy sweatshirts instead of air arm wrestling in tight short-sleeved office shirts?
Of course not.
The late 80s to early 90s was the golden age of larger-than-life action heroes. For dorky stringbeans of a certain disposition (that would be me…), possessing arms like the Austrian Oak (or even Carl Weathers. Let’s be real here, dude’s guns would have shamed any other actor in Predator, yet next to Arnold he’s a joke) was all that mattered. At the time my oldest brother had a set of vinyl-covered York dumbbells; whenever the mood would strike I’d sneak into his room and fire off a desperate set of curls, my heart full of longing and hope.
Then something happened. As the sun set on the 90s, society turned its back on vascular giants. Svelte stars like Jason Statham and Jet Li began to dominate the box office as the “functional training” trend took over gyms around the world. Fitness magazines now extolled the virtue of cheese grater abs and the value of so-called corrective exercises like box jumps and kettlebell swings. Arm-specific training was laughed out of the room.
I can’t remember who said it, or even the exact words, but one of my favourite training quotes goes something like this:
Anyone who thinks bicep curls aren’t functional has never wrestled before.
It’s a simple statement, but one that holds an ocean of wisdom. Since 2005 — the year I got serious about training — I’ve been a slave to the functional training ethos without every really thinking about what the term means. What makes an exercise “functional”? What benefit does performing a goblet squat on a BOSU ball deliver over a heavy set of barbell back squats? And why did the industry as a whole suddenly decide that having jacked arms was only for egotistical assholes?
I have no answers to these questions.
Here’s what I do know. The biceps are responsible for flexion at the elbow joint, meaning they’re involved whenever you pull something towards your body. Pulling things towards your body happens often. Using this logic, it stands to reason that bicep curls are indeed functional. If we’re using this ambiguous word as the measure of an exercise’s worth then perhaps it’s time to reconsider the value of bicep curls (and their many variations).