Fitness Post – Pull Ups versus Curls

For those years I conditioned elite Rugby League players, even though I didn’t consider it necessary for their needs for their game, the one group of muscles they wanted to develop was the Biceps …they wanted ‘big guns’. Psychologically it was conditioned out of my mind as an Olympic Weightlifter that it wasn’t important what you looked like, but what you could do with your body that was important…

Even though it wasn’t a specific muscle group that we exercised, there is still some development of the Biceps in the Pulling action in Olympic Weightlifting. Over the last 20 years or so the Pull Up exercise has become the favored exercise in developing the front of the upper arm as it works so many more muscles than the Biceps Curl and it is far safer to perform. Below I go through the specific reasons I choose to put this exercise into the programs ahead of the Biceps Curl – 

  • As I have stated before, you should favor exercises that are functionally closer to the natural movements you make everyday and in the recreational activities you do. So the pulling up action of the many different variations of the Pull Up is a far more functional exercise than the Biceps Curl. 
  • As far as safety is concerned the Biceps Curl and its variations places far more mechanical stress on the elbow joint in that it acts as a fulcrum where the Pull Up shares the loading between the three major joints of the arm: the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist. There is also far more chance of injury to the lower back in the Biceps Curl unless you stabilize your core and don’t swing the resistance up to the top position (the resistance you’re using is too heavy if you’re doing that!)
  • There are more true variations to the Pull Up exercise as compared with the Biceps Curl. Just a note here that I call the exercise a Pull Up instead of a Chin Up because the latter has the connotation that the movement is short where the Chin is pulled up to the bar where in the Pull Up you must squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your body  up until your upper chest touches the bar. The exercise is not complete until that happens – and that you fully extend your elbows at the bottom of the movement. With the Biceps Curl you have some variations in that you can use either a barbell or dumbbells and you can place more stress on your elbow joints in that you can use a Preacher Curl apparatus but beyond that you can only combine it with other movements to add to its variations. With the Pull Up you can use various Grip and combinations of Grip, you can increase the resistance you are using by placing a weight disc between your thighs (which increases the number of muscle groups that come into play) or you can use a weight belt and chain around your waist to increase the resistance you use even further.
  • The fourth reason I use the Pull Up as compared with the Biceps Curl is allied to the first two reasons but I want to emphasize the fuller movement of the Pull Up. If completed fully the Pull Up uses far more of the Kinetic Chain than the Biceps Curl. Not only does it use movement through the three arm joints but also uses the joints of the upper back – specifically the joints between the Collar Bones and the Shoulder Blades when you squeeze your Shoulder Blades together at the top of the movement. The Biceps Curl by comparison is a very short movement in that it only uses movement through one joint.

Most Body Builders suffer a lot of pain because the movements they do are very short and the whole body is held in static positions and the fulcrum loading is placed on one joint other than in exercises such as the Squat and the Bench Press. But even in the cases of these two exercises there is far more stress on the lower back (in the case of the Squat) and shoulder joints (in the case of the Bench Press). Ancient fighting regimes placed emphasis on whole body movements which had far more practical applications?

Your body, your life, your choice.

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