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The Truth About Standing Curls

To achieve maximum arm growth, you should favor seated over standing biceps curls.


Q: Is it better to perform seated or standing barbell curls? I’ve heard that standing is better because the nervous system is activated more and you’re able to work the muscles harder. As Tom Cruise would say, “I can handle the truth!”

A: You understand that “A Few Good Men” is just a movie, right? And that Cruise is an actor? Seriously, to achieve maximum arm growth, you should favor seated over standing biceps curls.

Electromyography measures the electrical activity of muscles; a more powerful muscular contraction produces a higher measurement. The higher the EMG measurement, the more activation of the cross section of a muscle. The truth is, compared to standing barbell curls—which many consider the single best exercise for the biceps—Scott curls and seated incline curls produce higher EMG measurements.

Your body has to expend a considerable amount of neural energy to stabilize itself when standing to prevent you from, say, falling down. Seriously, when you perform a standing curl, the nervous system works hard to enable the glutes and erector spinae muscles to offset the weight as you curl. When you perform seated curling exercises, those muscles don’t have to work as hard, so more of the brain’s neural drive can be focused on the elbow flexors. The result, as the exercise scientists would say, is maximal activation of the cross section of the biceps muscle.

With standing arm exercises there’s increased likelihood of using poor technique. I’ve helped advanced bodybuilders bust through training plateaus in their arm development by having them use lighter weights but with perfect form.

I’m not suggesting that you never perform standing curls, as standing exercises offer valuable variety to your training, but the majority of your arm exercises should be done seated.

Q: I’m 40 years old and have been lifting weights for about 10 years. I’m not going to win any bodybuilding competitions, but I think I could take George Clooney in a posedown. My problem is that I recently had a physical, and my blood pressure is 141/93. My doctor says I have hypertension and wants to start me on a laundry list of drugs. Do you have any advice about what to do for my blood pressure? Both my parents have high blood pressure, but they haven’t taken care of themselves the way I have.

A: Hypertension attacks the vital organs, causing problems like kidney disease, and also damages the arteries in the brain, which can result in a stroke. Strokes are the third leading cause of death in the United States, and the number-one cause of stroke is hypertension.

Okay, let’s make this more personal. Normal blood pressure for a man of your age is about 120/80, and the life expectancy for someone with your blood pressure is about 62 1/2 years. Do I have your attention?

It’s imprecise to use the terms hypertension and high blood pressure interchangeably. When you lift weights, your blood pressure rises, but it’s only a temporary condition. It’s when your blood pressure stays abnormally elevated, thereby altering the structure and function of the blood vessels, that it’s classified as hypertension. You exercise and have low bodyfat, which are factors that help lower your blood pressure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. Because both your parents have high blood pressure, genetically you’re at risk for it as well: At birth you already had a 50 percent chance of developing hypertension.

I recently sponsored a seminar with Dr. Mark Houston at the Poliquin Strength Institute to discuss the latest discoveries in functional medicine on cardiovascular disease, particularly hypertension. Houston has conducted 75 research studies on hypertension and has written more than 120 peer-reviewed medical articles on the subject. Much of that research is summarized in his book What Your Doctor May NOT Tell You About Hypertension (available at major bookstores or at www.HachetteBook
GroupUSA.com).

Houston says there are many simple things you can do to lower blood pressure, such as reducing stress, eating more fruits and vegetables and avoiding tobacco and alcohol. Unfortunately, sometimes a healthful lifestyle is not enough, and for those cases, drugs prescribed by a physician may be indicated. Houston, however, says that you should know about natural methods of lowering blood pressure.

There is considerable scientific, peer-reviewed research showing that specific vitamins, minerals and other natural substances can lower blood pressure. These nutraceuticals, as they’re called, do not produce most of the side effects associated with drugs. For example, in his book Houston says that although beta blockers can slow the heart rate, which is one method of dealing with hypertension, such drugs can lead to many problems—depression, diarrhea, insomnia. They can even make you fart a lot! In contrast, says Houston, hawthorn berry is an herb that could be a safer, natural alternative to beta blockers.

Two of Houston’s favorite nutraceuticals for hypertension and also overall cardiovascular health are omega-3 fatty acids and resveratrol. Omega-3s offer many cardiovascular benefits, such as reducing inflammation, the tendency of platelets to stick together unnecessarily, blood fat and the risk of experiencing irregular heartbeat.

Resveratrol is an exciting supplement that came about from research studying the cardiovascular health of people in France, as they have a much lower rate of cardiovascular disease than people in the United States—and that’s despite a diet often high in saturated fat. One reason for the difference is that the French culture encourages the drinking of wine, which contains the plant compound resveratrol. Houston says that research suggests resveratrol may slow the aging of the vascular system, and the aging process in general, and may help reduce bodyfat and boost the gain of muscle mass.

It’s not my place, especially in the format of a Q&A column, to go against the advice of your doctor. I nevertheless encourage you to read Houston’s book and then discuss some of its ideas with your doctor. Also refer your doctor to Houston’s medical textbook Handbook of Hypertension (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009). Hypertension is a serious disease, but the sound research provided in these books will not only increase your life expectancy but also improve the quality of your life.

Q: What is your opinion of using partial-range exercises? I understand that many powerlifters often do board presses and partial deadlifts in the power rack to improve their strength, but is that type of training worth the effort?

A: If you’re interested in achieving the highest levels of strength development, you should try to incorporate some partial movements into your current training programs. Powerlifting guru Louie Simmons endorses the use of partial lifts. The movements can also be used to boost muscle growth.

I understand that Mr. Olympia Frank Zane performed one-quarter deadlifts to maximize the development of his erector spinae muscles. Those testimonials aside, here are five good reasons to use partial-range movements:

1) They enable you to use greater loads than you can when performing full-range movements. Partial-range training enables you to appropriately overload those areas of an exercise where you’re strongest. For example, if you train only with full squats, you’ll never maximally overload the top range of the movement.

2) They enable you to work on the sticking points in a lift. The sticking point is the weakest point of a lift, and how much you can lift in an exercise is limited by how much weight you can get past that sticking point. So powerlifters who have a problem at a specific point in the bench press can concentrate on that sticking point with partial-range training in a power rack.

3) They disinhibit the nervous system. Extremely heavy partials done in the top range of an exercise will help a trainer overcome the inhibition that comes from feeling an extremely heavy load on the spine in the case of a squat or at arm’s length in the case of a bench press.

4) They help peak an athlete in season. Partial-range training does not exhaust an athlete as much as full-range exercises and can be used just before major competitions. That’s why many high school football players do heavy box squats the day before a big game.

5) They can be used in rehabilitation. Partial-range-of-motion training is an excellent rehabilitation tool. Rather than avoiding all weight-training exercises, you can often perform an exercise through a partial range and gradually increase the range as the injury heals.

Although partial-range-of-motion training is not commonly used by most people who lift weights, there is no question that it’s a valuable method of increasing strength and muscle mass, improving athletic performance and keeping you strong as you rehabilitate an injury.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.net. IM

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