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What’s wrong with a Bicep Curl?

For years I have not done Bicep Curls. You know – the dumbbells in the hands as you bring them up to your shoulders, either alternating arms or both arms at the same time. They are not part of the Pilates repertoire and Crossfitters definitely make fun of them saying they are not functional movements and silly. And for years I said the same thing.

Not so any more. It started when I realized that in spite of my Pilates and Crossfit workouts, I was not building the kind of body I wanted. I admit it, I am shallow enough to say I wanted pecs and biceps. And it wasn’t happening. So I thought, “Screw it, I am going to go back to old school bicep curls to pump up my arms”. And so I started with 15#ers and worked my way up.

Naturally, I brought my Pilates brain to the exercise. So I made sure that I wasn’t swinging my body around to do the exercise. I kept my body in good alignment and didn’t let my elbows either brace against my rib cage nor move from their starting position. And what did I discover (to my chagrin)? The shoulder stabilization that takes place during a correct (in my opinion) bicep curl is amazing and incredibly valuable.

Most of us in our modern world are pulled forward too much in our shoulders so our rotator cuff muscles and the shoulder blade stabilizers are weak because they are in a too-lengthened position for them to work effectively. But if you stand up straight, pull your abs in and, without moving your at your elbows, do a bicep curl, your shoulder stabilizers will be the muscles that fail first. The rhomboids, traps, rear deltoids as well as rotator cuff muscles will get a terrific workout. Triceps will also work.

If I allow my body to swing around and use momentum to do the curls, I could probably use 45# dumbbells. But doing them correctly? I am back at 25# in order to do a set of 8 or so (per arm). They are hard! I can feel all of this terrific shoulder blade stabilization that is so important for good posture. Yes, my biceps fatigue and they are getting a workout but how amazing to feel my back working so well and so right. Yes! it feels right – like this is the way my upper body is supposed to function.

And so bicep curls are back. For me and for my clients. We work hard at shoulder stabilization in all planes of movement. And if you think this stabilization is not functional, think again. When my clients are lifting up their babies (or holding anything out in front of you for that matter), those exact shoulder stabilizers must ‘kick in’. When carrying a laundry basket full of laundry, those muscles need to work. If you’re carrying anything heavy out in front of you – whether a sofa or a load of lumber, the stabilizers must work.

Lesson learned. Try it. Feel it. Analyze those feelings. Question your previous assumptions and understandings. And then evaluate. I found that bicep curls are not nearly as silly as I thought. On the other hand, “there is no bad movement, there is only movement done badly.” (Ron Fletcher – original Pilates master teacher)

Putting your Brain in your Body

At Mind and Body, naturally, we continually strive to ‘put your brain in your body’. Joseph Pilates’ famous quote is of course – “It is the mind that builds the body.” This is more than an abstract concept. It really is at the very heart of a. getting the most out of every exercise, b. feeling and understanding what your body is doing and c. becoming your own teacher as you dialogue between body and mind to improve your body.

When I am taking a class or doing my own workout, I strive to see what I am doing by watching my alignment either for myself (why mirrors in a workout space are so valuable) or by what my teachers may observe. But I also ask myself. “What am I feeling? Am I feeling what the teacher is saying and if not why not?” and “How could I improve this exercise for me (and in turn, for my clients)?” I have had many experiences where what the teacher was saying was not what I was feeling. In many cases, it is because the teacher themselves had not asked that question of themselves when they were being taught.

And I have learned from it. Exercises that I had previously dismissed as being counter productive or even contra-indicated for many clients have come back into my repertoire because I found a new understanding of the exercise because of what I started feeling on my own body and not what any teacher had said about it (unfortunately). It is hard when you have been taught that an exercise is bad or dangerous to try the exercise with an open mind. And fitness trainers of all ilks are guilty of dismissing exercises out of hand.

One of my clients yesterday used the phrase ‘using a Zen/Yoga mind to do an exercise’:

  • What do I feel
  • Where do I feel it
  • Is my alignment correct
  • Does it make sense
  • Does it fit with my understanding of the body

Maybe this is too much to think about when all you want to do is get a good workout.

BUT THIS IS HOW YOU WILL GET A GOOD WORKOUT. If you can put your brain in your body, your workouts will be more efficient because you will get more out of every exercise. When you put your brain in your body, the movement pattern in the exercise can then translate more easily to your other activities athletic or just in daily living. When you put your brain in your body, you body will work harder, more efficiently and get injured less because you are bringing awareness to real, actual functional training. And putting your brain in your body is the only way to truly transform your body.