After teaching a yoga class at a local gym I saw one of my students walk over to the dumbbell rack, pick a pair, and do a few sets of bicep curls before leaving. I didn’t know what she was trying to accomplish yet I couldn’t help but think of the handful of things she could do to get more out of weightlifting.

If her goal is to get stronger, training her biceps in isolation doesn’t accomplish that goal. Think of real life and the movements where you would be flexing the elbow (contracting your bicep). Almost anything you can think of requires some involvement of other body parts. When do you, either in sitting or standing, move your arm up and down from the elbow only? If we truly want to get stronger, we need to train the way we intend to use our body.

Think of reaching down to pick up a child or a bag of groceries. In that movement you need stability throughout your core and pelvis, strength in the legs, back AND biceps as well as a certain amount of coordination. You could have the strongest biceps around but if all those other body parts aren’t as strong, able or coordinated, you wouldn’t be able to do it. This is true for sport as well. You need to train the way you plan on using your body.

Hockey and football are both sports that require bicep strength but, again, simply doing bicep curls would be a waste of time. In a slap-shot, only part of the power comes from the bicep. The real key is a player’s ability to coil up his or her entire body and unleash a coordinated power swing (which includes bicep power). In football, think of the tug-of-war that can happen with the ball….lots of bicep, right? This movement requires stability in the rest of the body and coordination of the shoulder, back and chest. We don’t use our bodies in bits and pieces, so why would we train that way? The short answer might be aesthetics.

Body building and figure contests might be one place where bicep curls are worthwhile. Bodybuilders try to sculpt their bodies to specific proportions. New gym goers are usually looking to lose weight, recover from, or prevent injury as well as to look better. Often the “workout” that new gym goers choose is based on body builder program. The truth is, it won’t serve them well for a couple of reasons:

  •  Bicep curls don’t demand as much from the body as, say, chin-ups. Doing plain bicep curls won’t burn nearly as many calories nor do they create the same “after-burn” (the increased metabolic rate that burns more calories after your workout). One of the most common comments I hear is “I don’t have time for fitness.” So when you do make the effort, don’t you want to get the most out of the time you spend?; and
  • If you train body parts in isolation your chances of hurting yourself increases dramatically because of the potential to create imbalance in the body.

Training the way you use your body also makes day-to-day life easier; all body parts work together and in a balanced way. The really cool part is that the aesthetics you might be seeking will follow. A couple of years ago, the front page of the Calgary Herald carried a photo of Canadian heptathlete Jessica Zelinka competing in the Olympics. What a vision! Here was someone that trained to use her body for many sports, certainly nothing in isolation, but her biceps were strong and sculpted. She was a vision of physical grace and beauty. At the time, some gave her the title “Canada’s fittest woman.”

Not all of us are, or need to be, Olympians but we can certainly take a page from the training diary of athletes like Jessica. Use your full body in a multitude of ways to get strong, lean and coordinated. Often trainers will call this “functional” training. A basic no equipment program can be developed for any fitness level using variations of the exercises some of us might remember from school: push-ups; pull-ups or chin-ups; squats; and lunges. With 20-40 minutes, working up to 2-3 times a week, you can feel good, look good and make the most of your training time.