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#21: The Perfect Curl

  • Written by Denis Pedneault

Denis PedneaultThose who have followed my articles so far already know that I’m a big fan of Vince Gironda’s work. I learnt many things from the first true “guru” of bodybuilding, especially when it comes to exercise selection and execution.

Introduction

My goal as a bodybuilder has always been to constantly improve my physique, just as the artist relentlessly works on his sculpture, until he is satisfied with what he sees. My thinking was that if I kept doing that year after year, from contest to contest,  I would come to a point where I would present fewer flaws (if any) onstage than my competitors and would be able to win any show I entered. The fact that I won two national overall titles as an under-65kg competitor (both by unanimous decision from the judges) somewhat proves my point. That said, every time I competed, I always looked for objective and valuable feedback, either from the judges or the people who saw me perform, in order to assess what I could focus on more to improve. For example, after my first time at the IFBB World Championships, I was told I had the best set of legs in the lineup but lacked upper-body size to match, especially in the arms. It was then that I decided to take two years off from the stage to concentrate on that specific area.

As I was about to start focusing my workouts on arm development, Doug Schneider brought up the subject of the “perfect curl.” At that moment I wasn’t really using it and decided I would give it a try, as I knew that I had “short-headed” biceps (I never really had good arms) and was willing to see if an actual change was possible in that regard (I’ll explain this later).

The Vince Gironda connection

Vince in Vince's GymDoug was the one who literally made me “dive” into Vince’s world. He not only shared the way Vince practiced bodybuilding, but even had the amazing chance to spend some time with the master at his gym. The similarities Doug saw between myself and Vince, especially regarding exercise selection and execution, was in fact why he got me into writing articles for him on SeriousAboutMuscle.com.

I didn’t train under Vince’s eye so I can’t say for sure if he really did the perfect curl this way, but Doug confirmed that a lot of people out there aren’t doing it properly and that the way I teach it is closer to something Vince would have at least approved. What I will do here is explain in detail the main points of the exercise from the way I have it done. Even though I highly respect Vince’s knowledge and logic, there was still some information that they simply didn’t have back then, especially regarding functional anatomy. For that reason, if there are differences in my way of doing the perfect curl, they are simply the result of my extended knowledge on posture and biomechanics, which I applied in order to make the exercise as efficient as possible.

Purpose

There are two main advantages for choosing to do the perfect curl. First, according to Vince, you supposedly get to work the muscle through its full range of motion (ROM). That means you go from a fully stretched position to the most retracted one, something that is not accomplished in most biceps exercises that often are done in either contracted (e.g., spider or concentration curl) or stretched (e.g., incline hammer curl) positions. From an objective anatomical point of view, this is partly true, because to be in the fully stretched position of the biceps brachii you’d have to do the opposite of all three movements that the muscle does, which would not only include full extension at the shoulder and elbow joints but also pronation of the forearm (which can’t be accomplished with a bar). Nevertheless, this small detail is somewhat overcome by the force applied to the muscle while holding the weight far out in front with full elbow extension and the addition of wrist extension (which further stretches the anterior tissues of the arm).

Denis performing perfect curl

Secondly, Vince believed that the exercise helped to work the lower part of the biceps, allowing you to decrease the gap between the end of the muscle belly and the elbow joint (lengthening the biceps to get a fuller arm). At first I was quite dubious about this, but when you look at it, the upward motion of the elbow (the fourth point in the following description) combined with the extension of the wrist and fingers does increase the stretch and thus the tension applied to the anterior kinetic chain. And the fact that the arm is held unsupported in front turns the biceps into the principal agonist of the movement as it has to stabilize both joints (shoulder and elbow) while the elbow flexors are stretched even more. On another level, it also has been shown that eccentric force applied to the biceps in a stretched position does stimulate hypertrophy at the distal point of the muscle. I realized it the first time I tried the exercise, as I experienced (to my surprise) a real local pain (not a bad one though) right down my biceps (something I have never experienced before) – and, boy, was I sore for the next few days at this very specific point!

Execution

Again, I don’t know if this is exactly the way Vince did the perfect curl, but from my expertise in functional biomechanics and judging the purposes of the exercise explained above, this is how it should be done. I must also warn you that the exercise itself is a little tricky and requires some skills in terms of proprioceptive abilities, as it not only involves many joints but also makes you play with positioning of your center of mass.

Perfect curl figure 2

  1. First you curl the bar in standing position to start at the top of the movement.
  2. Then the motion is quite similar to a sissy squat, as you bend slightly backward while keeping the torso straight with the hips, only bending at the knee. Keep your center of gravity in line and steady over your feet by controlling and balancing the backward shift of the torso with the forward shift of the knees, all while extending at the elbow.
  3. You stop that motion, arms fully extended, just a few inches from the thighs. That’s where the biceps really gets stressed as it has to stop the eccentric force created by the weight and stabilize the arm in midair.
  4. As you carry on the movement to the wrist joint by bringing it to full extension, you try to bring the elbow into further extension with a small and barely noticeable upward motion (without any voluntary movement at the shoulder).
  5. You finish that part by bringing the bar as far as possible to the tip of your fingers to stretch the anterior chain even more. This is where you feel a very deep stretch at the elbow near the biceps distal attachment. Try to visualize the muscle fibers really getting stretched at the elbow joint. At this point, I have my clients hold for a count of one second before going back up in a controlled motion. That was the “stretch” part of the exercise.
  6. Now the “contracted” part begins. You reverse the whole movement by going progressively backward – flex the fingers first, then the wrist, then the elbow, all done in one smooth motion while returning to the standing position.
  7. You now have to start bending forward using your hips while keeping the torso straight, just like you would do in a Romanian deadlift. As you do so, you continue to curl the bar bending now at the shoulder joint.
  8. As you bring the bar up and move forward, your goal is to bring it to your collar bone (not up!) as you move the head forward, just as if you were trying to pass it under your chin.
  9. At this point, the goal is to get a really peak contraction of the biceps by bringing it to its fully contracted position and voluntarily squeezing it. Try to visualize that you are cracking a nut at the elbow joint (I know it may sound strange, but try it and you’ll see what I mean). That was one full repetition – you now have to do 10 to 15 of them!

Perfect curl figure 1

Sets and reps

This is a very technical movement in which you don’t want to use heavy weights or low reps. I like to put it at the end of my workouts, as a finishing move with light weights and higher reps (up to 15). I even used it for sets of 10 x 10 (10 sets of 10 reps, talk about a grueling workout!) and I swear I never got my arms pumped like this before in my whole life.

Conclusion

Since I first tried the exercise more than two years ago, I have always kept it in my workouts and even created and used variations of it to go further into developing efficient arm workouts. I’m convinced that it played a considerable role in the significant changes I noticed in shape and size of my arms over that period – and the proof of that is that I am now recognized for my arm development, which wasn’t the case back then.

If you are looking not just for more arm size but better shape as well, I really suggest you try a variety of exercises with moderate to light weights in order to really sculpt all the different muscles of the upper limb. Like many other aspects of bodybuilding, I believe it is better to aim for quality rather than quantity; and if you want to get noticeable guns, the perfect curl should definitely be part of your arm training routine.

Have a great workout!

. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011

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