Within the functional fitness scene, few things attract more derision than benching and curling, emblamatic as they are of the bodybuilding scene. You don’t have to look far to find someone trashing either exercise.
Now, I’d be wrong to say that these movements should be the focus of your programming, but to dismiss both of these movements entirely just because some people do them too much is ridiculous.
The whole thing reminds me of this passsage from The Screwtape Letters. If you’ve not read it, do so.
An elder demon is advising a younger demon on whether or not to encourage his ‘patient’ to pacifism or patriotism, and states:
“Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the other outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and thought to be impersonal.”
It’s something I like to remind myself of when I see Captain Standing-Overhead-One-Handed-Dumbell-Tricep-Extension-Wears-Jeans-And-A-Baseball-Cap-In-The-Gym doing quarter squats for sets of 20 in the smith machine supersetted with whatever diarrhea T-Nation is currently spoonfeeding its readers.
Just because the curl bros do something, doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t.
Before we get in to it, some video, to try to show that maybe I’m not completely insane.
First off, here’s some video of the Chinese weightlifting team preparing for the 2009 worlds.
That looked suspiciously like high rep curls to me. Oh dear.
Next up, Klokov.
Pretty sure he’s benching.
And then this,
a stretch used by Chinese lifters to deal with anterior deltoid and infraspinatus tightness brought on by benching and push ups (Gregor Winter, Chinese Weightlifting Methods)
I think it is fair to surmise that some of the big names in weightlifting use these exercises, in one case so much so that they need a stretch designed to deal with the resulting inflexibility.
So what gives? Why the disconnect?
I’m honestly not sure. Benching is probably the most dangerous exercise in the gym, both in terms of joint health and risk management, so I can see a good argument to avoid it on those counts, but both of those factors are largely mitigated by technique, just as they are when doing any compound movement, especially the C&J and snatch. What I think is more likely is that the bench press is avoided for the same reason as curls are. Most of us feel that we’re too cool for it.
With this in mind, what follows is an analysis of every reason I can think of not to bench and curl, followed by every goal driven reason I can think of to bench and curl.
The case against benching.
- Benching is the most dangerous exercise performed in the gym. We’ve all shuddered when seeing Brohan Mcgee loading 3 wheels a side and doing suicide grip reps with his feet off the ground. An average of three people a year die on the bench in the US alone (Petition CP3-03, 7). Search youtube if you don’t believe me.
- The bench press can damage your shoulders if performed incorrectly. Since the scapula are anchored in place, they cannot move to accomadate the humerous as it approaches the acromion and coracoid processes. These bony processes can chew a hole through a rotator cuff (Rippetoe, 202). In bad cases, shoulder surgery can be the only solution.
- Neither the jerk nor the snatch involve pressing the weight through the transverse plane.
- Neither the jerk nor the snatch involve lying down (hopefully).
- Time spent benching, or recovering from benching, could be spent training jerks, or press variations.
I think that covers pretty much everything.
The case against curling:
- It is non functional.
- It is a vanity exercise.
- Isolation movements are silly, and Arthur Allen Jones was a hack.
- If you pull from your biceps, you’re doing it wrong.
- Why not just row or do chins?
- Large biceps may interfere with the rack position of the clean and front squat.
Again, I think that pretty much covers it.
So why include these exercises in a weightlifting program? The Chinese team provides us with a fairly good argument. “The Chinese believed that being Asian they started behind other nations in upper body strength, an essential quality for success in a strength sport, they properly reasoned. So they busted their asses at rows, presses, pullups, handstand pushups and even benching. Judging by the stunningly muscular specimens they put on the podium year after year, it’s paying off” (Bell, Bodybuilding in Weightlifting).
Though most of us associate Bulgarian style training as being composed of only six lifts (C&J, snatch, power C&J, power snatch, front squat, back squat) we forget that the Bulgarian weightlifters of the 80’s and 90’s did foundational bodybuilding as juniors (Bell).
Several reasons for this training exist.
Firstly, a strong upper body widens the groove for catching lifts. Yes, I know, you shouldn’t need a wide groove, but if you’re chasing a PB, it is nice to have some wiggle room. This might be a reason that crossfitters get away with such ugly technique. They’re strong enough to pull it off.
Which brings us to the second reason, namely, that weightlifting isn’t all technique. There’s a fair bit of strength at play here. Though power development is largely genetic, strength can be trained by anyone, and getting stronger allows one to be more explosive under lighter weights. If you aren’t a naturally explosive athlete, it behooves you to be as strong as possible, because maximum power output occurs at 50% of max load (Zatsiorsky, 6). Thus, the stronger you are, the more explosive you can be with lighter weights. If you are a naturally explosive athlete, the same logic applies to you.
Though benching isn’t as sport specific as pressing, it is a superior developer of upper body strength and size. Unless an athlete has shoulder flexibility problems, there is no reason for them not to bench (Pendlay, A Training System).
Lastly, benching with proper technique, and curling, are good prehab for athletes. Benching builds strength and mass around the shoulders and elbow, preventing injury to these joints (Pendlay). Klokov, who can bench 200kg for 5 reps (Winter, Dimitry Klokov Interview) hasn’t hurt his shoulders or elbows yet, so it seems to be working for him (Bell). Curling protects the body in a different way. The biceps brachii performs isometrically while the elbow is fully extended. Under a large weight, it stops the elbow from hyper extending, like it did to James Baranyai at the 2008 Olympics, or to Sa Jae-Hyouk at the 2012 Olympics. Zlaten Vanev recovered from just such an injury by using curls (Bell). Though rows or chin ups are a great way to work the biceps, the advantage of the curl is that it is so undemanding. At the end of a long session, do you really want to do 3 sets of chins to failure? Or three sets of rows at a high enough weight to actually accomplish something? Or would you rather just bang out some curls, an exercise that will not adversely affect your recovery?
As far as programming goes, I think all men would benefit from being able to bench bodyweight for at least a triple, for women 75% bodyweight. It isn’t that hard to get there. Three sets of five, once or twice a week, adding 2kg a session and you’re looking at five months at the most. So long as you stretch afterwards and use good form, it will do you nothing but good.
As for curls, just wing it. Tired out from a long session? Bang out some curls, it won’t hurt you. You could try a 3×5 model, or go for five sets of 10 with a light weight. You could even do cheat curls with heavy dumb bells to really beef up those tendons. Alternatively, doing them strict with a barbell will also work the delts, and make you stronger pressing out of the rack position.
At the end of the day, do whatever make you happy, but please, don’t close yourself off to a major source of assistance and strength.
Bell, Dan: Bodybuilding in Weightlifting, retrieved from (https://coachdanbell.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/bodybuilding-in-weightlifting) on 1/30/15
Briefing package, Petition CP 03-3: Petition Requesting Labeling of Weightlifting Bench-Press to Reduce or Prevent Deaths Due to Asphyxia/Anoxia, April 2004, retrieved from http://www.cpsc.gov/library/foia/foia04/brief/weightlt.pdf
Rippetoe, Mark: Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Ed., 2011. ISBN-13: 9780982522721
Pendlay, Glenn: A Training System for Beginning Olympic Weightlifters, retrieved from (http://www.pendlay.com/A-Training-System-for-Beginning-Olympic-Weightlifters_df_90.html) on 1/30/2015
Winer, Gregor: Chinese Weightlifting Training Methods. Retrieved from (http://www.allthingsgym.com/chinese-weightlifting-training-methods/) on 1/29/15
Winter, Gregor: Dimitry Klokov Interview September 2014. Retrieved from (http://www.allthingsgym.com/dmitry-klokov-interview-september-2014/) on 1/28/15
Zatsriorsky, Vladimir: Science and Practice of Strength Training 2nd Ed., 2006. ISBN-13: 9780736056281