Is the Bicep Curl a Test of Strength?

Is the bicep curl a test of strength? Gym bros rejoice for I am about to fight your corner.

The bicep curl is one of the most basic exercises in the fitness industry. It’s so simple that when people refer to working out, they may even mimic doing a bicep curl. I am not one of those people, but I know and cherish them.

For trainers around the world, bicep curls are something done ad nauseum as a teenager, at the end of a workout for a powerlifter or with countless sets for bodybuilders. My point here is that bicep curls are a universal exercise, an exercise that is very easy to learn and one that has existed for quite a long time.

Don’t believe me?

I will spare you a lecture on halteres, the dumbbells used in Ancient Greece. What I will mention is that as early as the mid-nineteenth-century, men and women were being encouraged to use light dumbbells to build their arms. Eugen Sandow kicked it up a notch in the 1890s and 1900s when a remarkably number of his exercises revolved around the biceps.

In any case bicep training emerged before – long before – people began curling in the squat rack. This is important because

  • It shows people can train their arms without taking a squat rack at the gym’s busiest hour. YES I am directing this at you John.
  • It also shows that bicep curls have a long history in the Iron Game.

Who Cares?

Well I do. And, if you’re reading this article, I would hope you do too. If not, please feel free to check out this video of a happy kitten before leaving the website forever

Kittens right? Adorable before they scratch you.

But back on topic. The familiarity of bicep curls and curl movements among the lifting public of yesteryear is rather important BECAUSE it meant that lifters wanted to see who had the strongest biceps from a very early stage.

We’ve all done it and seen it. A friend of yours is curling at the dumbbell rack. You go beside them and immediately try to outlift them. Yes it’s childish but it is always fun.

Fun aside, several early weightlifting and powerlifting federations from the first half of the twentieth-century actually included bicep curls as a competition lift. Now before we go into the specifics, we need a quick word about strength federations.

Prior to the creation of organized powerlifting in the 1960s and 1970s, strength contests operated in a rather strange space. The most obvious weightlifting contests were Olympic weightlifting meets (which began in the 1880s).

Outside of the Oly lifts (Clean/jerk/military press), contests would occasionally include other lifts like a bench, deadlift, two hands anyhow etc. This lead to the formalisation of ‘weightlifting’ rule books which were in fact a combination of powerlifting and weightlifting. Which brings us too…

The Competition Bicep Curl

In the 1920s and 1930s the British Amateur Weightlifting Association (BAWLA), created guidlelines for 42 separate lifts which could be judged in competition. Included in the BAWLA guidelines was the bicep curl which came in at lift no. 33.

As I have lost my original BAWLA handbook – which is simultaneously the weirdest and most upsetting sentence I have ever written – I am relaying this from Bill Pullum’s wonderful 1932 How to Use a Barbell.

A lift in which the performer raises a barbell from “the hang” position to the shoulders by bending the forearms on the upper arms, bar being held at the beginning with the palms of the hands to the front.

From start to finish the trunk must not be bent either backward or forward or sideways, the shoulders must be kept quite level, the knees braced and the heels together.

In the execution of this movement, it is not at all unusual for the performer to raise the shoulders. Against which there is nothing – providing they are kept level!

Use of ringweights is not permitted

Also included in Pullum’s notes was that this lift needed to be slow and controlled throughout. So, you know, unlike any bicep curl you are likely to see on the gym floor.

The Bicep Curl World Record

Obviously I was going to look up the record for this lift and I was pleasantly surprised at how popular the lift is becoming again. At the moment Denis Cyplenkov holds the record with a 249 pounds lift.

Rock on Dennis. You are the inspiration for sick pumps and pumping curls around the world.

As always … Happy Lifting!

2 thoughts on “Is the Bicep Curl a Test of Strength?

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  1. Wasn’t the inclusion of the curl as one of the powerlifts one of issues during the schism between BAWLA and SAWL? I have the vague notion the British pushed rather heavily for the inclusion of the curl as one of the powerlifts before assenting to the American system, but memory fades after 55-odd years.

    I knew a man who claimed to have been able to curl 330 pounds. I was very skeptical. I have also read that Bill Kazmeier could curl well over 400 pounds. Sounds incredible, even for the “Kaz.” My pal was big and brawny, but he was by no stretch comparable to Kazmeier.

    1. Hi Jan, that is a great question. Leave it with me as I’m slowly (!) delving more into BAWLA’s own history. I think you may be right however.

      I believe the British truly did push for this as a test of strength. Heck I’ve seen it still used over here in rudimentary contests! 400 lbs for Kaz wouldn’t shock me given his larger feats

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