First off, remember always that you upper arm is 2/3 triceps and about 1/3 biceps. Your overall arm girth is 66% determined by your triceps size. Flexing triceps really isn’t popular at the beach, or anywhere else short of a fitness or bodybuilding show. Most people are paying attention to the biceps. They just seem to be more aesthetically pleasing.
The biceps are probably one of the most worked muscles by guys that are looking to have big guns. Most women who do curls don’t seem to do enough weight to really make much of a difference, at least from what I’ve seen and the guys don’t have good enough form to keep tension on the bicep in the first place. Many people neglect the all-important pull up or chin up as part of their routine altogether because it can be difficult, (especially for women – no offense ladies, you just weren’t born with lots of upper body strength), for those who are beginners.
For any muscle to go into hypertrophy (get bigger) it must be place under load and stressed. If there is no signal or impetus for it to grow, it simply won’t grow. Try bench pressing the bar over and over for weeks and months and see what kind of strength and size increases you see in your chest, shoulders and arms.
Likewise, try improving your sprint in the 100 meter by running at 50% all the time. Your time will never improve, nor will your lung capacity, leg power, or anything else.
Muscles need a signal to grow which means stress, which usually means load of some kind.
So aside from big triceps, how do you get your arms big? Do you do curls or pull ups?
Compound exercises like pull ups are great because they work multiple muscle groups at once. Just like bench, squats, and deadlift, pull ups use shoulders, biceps, rhomboids, lats, and abs to get your head over the bar.
One problem with compound lifts is that since they use multiple muscle groups, a weakness in one group can be compensated with a different group.
For example: if you bench press with a weak chest, but strong triceps, you might end up using more triceps than chest and have a difficult time at higher weights because your triceps just can’t do all the work.
Same with glutes and squats or deadlift. If your glutes are weak, the rest of your body has to compensate and you’ll be stuck at a plateau because you’re doing nothing to engage your glutes to get them stronger.
What Does This All Have To Do With Pull ups vs Curls?
Pull ups are a great exercise for building the biceps, there is no doubt. Being able to do a pull up with body weight for reps is something many people can’t do. In fact, at a recent conference I attended in December in Boston, I learned that one of the things that made it hard for many to qualify for the marine corps on their physical assessment was pull ups. Many couldn’t even do 2.
Pull ups are a great measure of upper body strength and a great way to build the entire upper body, minus of course chest and triceps. The problem is that if part of the group of muscles involved in pull ups is weak, other groups can compensate. If biceps are weak, then lats may compensate and you will eventually stall out on pull ups and your bicep development will be completely hampered.
Enter the curl.
Curls, if done correctly, can really hit the biceps and make them grow in size and strength. Proper form is key though. I’ve seen lots of elbow swinging, crazy arched backs and other forms which make me cringe. When done correctly, not only will they build the strength and size that people are after, they will also help increase strength on the pull up, much like isolating triceps can increase total weight on bench.
Bottom line, do both. If you’re a beginner, I’d focus on doing the pull ups first. When I started getting back into the gym a couple of years ago, I had a hard time doing those 3 or 4 pull ups at a time. Every time I went into the gym, I tried to do 3 sets of 3. Once I got that, 3 sets of 4, then 3 sets of 5 and so on. Eventually I was doing sets of 10. I got to a point where I was doing sets of 10 in between doing bench press and incline bench and would hit 100-120 total pull up reps throughout the hour I was in the gym.
Then I started with the weighted pull ups. Right now I can do 55lbs around my waist for sets of 5. One thing I need to start reincorporating is some curls to help with my strength on the pull up. Have I built strength doing pull up? Absolutely! Will I build even more strength in the long run doing curls in addition? You bet.You can do the same too.
Ladies, don’t forget to do some pull ups too. They are a great way to strengthen your body and keep your back strong.
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