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Curl Your Body Weight

If you've been to any gym, you've no doubt seen people working out with curling bars that have 15 lbs on each side. The bar and collars on an Olympic bar set weigh 15 lbs, so that's a total load of 45 lbs. And, it seems like an impressive load. After all, they are leaning back, using momentum, and generally cheating to lift it!

Well, what's really impressive is when you can curl half or more of your total body weight with one arm--without using momentum or your lower back to make up for a lack of muscle strength. You can do that without taking steroids. This article explains what you need to know.

Given the structural upper body strength differences between men and women, the stated goal of this article is primarily for men. But women can vastly increase their upper body strength and improve their overall appearance by following the tips presented here. Women with the right genes may even be able to curl their own body weight. Some men, despite their best efforts, lack the genetic potential to ever curl their own body weight.

But most women will be able to do an impressive curl that the typical male gym rat cannot do. And most men will be able to curl their own body weight. Now, let's get to it.

You first need to know the elements of the task at hand. They are:

  • Your body weight. If you keep to the American delusion that bigger is better, your curl will have to be much more than your lean body weight. Many self-appointed experts have published exercise books that claim X or Y body fat percentage is ideal. Then, you find out that's how fat the author is. But, it's not ideal--it's too fat. We have other articles on how to get to the body fat level that is best for you. Be sure you understand that you do not get there by starving yourself. Lean and skinny are not even in the same universe.
  • The strength of your back. Most people are surprised to learn that your back has anything to do with how strong your arms are. But, your back serves two functions in this regard. First, the development of your back serves as a limiter to how developed your arms will be. If you have a weak back, your arms will resist any growth whatsoever. Second, your back and arms form a lifting system. Unless you are doing isolation curls (which are a bad idea), your back is part of the lifting process. That's basic biomechanics.
  • The strength of your tendons. It's possible to stimulate muscle growth that makes your muscles have more power than your tendons can handle. Isolation exercises can lead to this. So can steroid use. If you are going about your training properly, though, it isn't going to happen. Even if you do use isolation exercises, this isn't likely to happen--most people simply do not engage in enough intensity to stimulate much growth. Muscle growth is largely a function of testosterone release (in women, as well as in men).
  • Your geometry. This is determined by your genetics. If you were to look at the arm of a chimpanzee, you would see the biceps insertion point is very low on the forearm--giving the chimp massive leverage compared to a human. This is why chimps, though lacking huge arms, can do chinups and pullups all day long for fun while the average adult human can't even do one to save his or her life. If you have relatively low insertion points, you will have more strength than someone with the same muscle mass but higher insertion points. But that other person will have more of the "ball" biceps shape that most people associate with strength. Sorry, that's just the way it works.
  • The strength of your arms. This seems obvious, doesn't it?
  • Your curling technique. Part of being able to hoist half your body weight with one arm in a curling motion is understanding the way to start, carry, and complete the required motion. This motion is different from the ideal motion for actually training the arms. But, it works and it does not use momentum. If you needed to rescue another person by dropping your arm and curling up, this is the motion you would use. Please note that, while it recruits your upper back (part of the arm/back system), it does not recruit your lower back or your legs. It does require tension in your core, so you can stabilize your body.

Of all the above factors, you can affect only four:

  1. Your body weight.
  2. The strength of your upper back.
  3. The strength of your arms.
  4. Your curling technique.

Let's look at each of these.

Your body weight

This site has articles elsewhere on how to achieve your best body weight. If you look at climbers, they have very lean bodies--body fat levels of 5% are common. Elite climbers have specialized muscle development--small legs, for example. To curl your own body weight, you do not need specialized muscle development. You need only to get rid of the extra fat.

The strength of your upper back

Why people do not work their backs is a real mystery. Your arms will not develop past the limit set by the development of your back. If you aren't developing your back, then arm curls are a waste of time. Keep in mind that a well-developed back is what gives you presence and stature. It also gives you functional strength.

The strength of your arms

I work back and biceps on the same day. I'll provide you with my routine, below. Note that if you want strong arms, you need to raise your testosterone output. Doing front squats is my preferred way to do this. If you do nothing but squats, your arms will grow. If you do nothing but curls, your arms will not grow.


Your curling technique

You may develop enough power to curl half your body weight without this technique. If so, you have rare genetics. Don't expect this technique to be the easy way to reach your goal. When I first began using this technique, I was able to curl one-quarter of my body weight with one hand. It took me years of training to reach one-third. And, it took years after that to pass the one-half mark.

The technique is basically a matter of pulling the weight up and down across your body instead of up and down out to the side or out in front. This takes your lower back out of the motion, and also takes pressure off your shoulder joint. You can lift more because you don't have to stabilize the arm with opposing muscles, and you recruit the upper back to help complete the motion. Let's try to describe this for the left hand.

  1. Stand with your legs about hip's width apart.
  2. Lean forward from the waist, slightly, and turn your body so your left shoulder is directly above your left elbow and your left elbow is directly above your left knee. This isolates your lower back, by providing you with a stable stance. Alternatively, you can sit on the corner of a chair or bench.
  3. Holding the weight in your left hand, bring it up and across to your right shoulder. Allow your elbow to travel slightly--a few inches, if need be.

Notice, you are moving the weight across your body instead of out to the side. So, a curl with the left arm moves toward the right shoulder--not the left shoulder.

If you want to cheat, you simply rotate your upper body (preferably from the hips) as you complete the motion. But that's not really curling. It's more like golfing with weights instead of clubs. Personally, I think doing this makes a person look like an idiot.


My back and biceps workout

This workout is not for the faint of heart or the lazy. It is brutal. It gets results.

You will need the following equipment:

  • A chinning bar.
  • A variety of dumbbells. Don't use pansy weights like 2.5 lbs and so on. If you weigh 160 lbs, for example, have the following dumbbells: 50, 45, 40, 35, 30, 25, 20, 15. If you are limited as to what you can have, then choose the 35, 25, and 15. You have to move real weight if you want real results--and little Barbie weights just won't cut it. It's not how many reps you can crank out, it's the intensity of those reps that matters.
  • A timer. This is so you don't take too long between sets.

Because I want to maximize the development of my back (upper back) and biceps, I show them no mercy. I do three workouts for this muscle group on the same day--morning, afternoon, and evening. Another component to this is rest--more details on that, later in this article.


  • 1 set of chin-ups. I typically do 20 reps on the first set. A chin-up counts only when my nipples rise to the bar. Do as many as you can. If you can do only one, that's enough. if you can't do one, then use a chair to help you cheat or have a friend help you. Or if you are really desperate, use a lat pull down machine until you develop the strength for pull-ups (that's what I did). Chin-ups are palms facing in, and they develop width in the lats.
  • Rest 40 to 60 seconds.
  • 1 set of pull-ups. I typically do 12 reps on the first set. A pull-up counts only when my collarbone touches the bar. See my notes above if you can't do at least a few of these. Pull-ups are palms facing out, and they develop thickness in the lats.
  • Rest 40 to 60 seconds, then repeat the above (obviously, the reps will be fewer). Do at least 6 sets of each (I do at least 6 to 10 reps on each set--if your reps are low, do more sets).
  • After this bit of brutality, I grab dumbbells and work the rhomboids with bent-over rows. I focus on flexing and contracting those rhomboids so they burn throughout the movement. If I can't make them burn, I know I am using too much or too little weight. I always do one set with 40lbs dumbells, just to load them up. But I work best with a set of 25s. Don't focus on how much weigh you use--focus on the burn.
  • Rest 40 to 60 seconds, and then repeat for a total of four to six sets.
  • Curls are next. I start with 40 lb dumbells, and do as many reps as I can. Then, I immediately go to 30 lbs and do as many reps as I can with those. I do four to six sets. Again, I rest 40 to 60 seconds between sets.
  • Hammer curls are next. I do several sets of these.
  • I finish off with a couple sets of mixed curls--they start out as a hammer and I rotate my palms upward through the motion.

If you think my veins are standing out and my arms are pumped by the time I'm done, you are right!

Afternoon and evening

Depending on how well my arms have voided their lactic acid, I attack them twice more. Typically, this involves a set or two of each of the exercises I did in the AM. I eat immediately afterwards--again, with extra glutamine and creatine.  With these "follow-up" workouts, I will also do isometrics--just posing and pumping.

And there are some days when I do just the morning workout.

For the next few days, my arms feel blitzed. It takes at least three days to recover from such a workout. If you are one of those folks who "works out" MWF and hits all the muscle groups each of those three days, don't use this approach. First of all, your whole workout program is limiting you. Second, you will hit arms too frequently. I do three upper body workouts (back/biceps, chest/triceps, shoulders) on a four-day rotation. So if I do this arm workout on a Sunday, I will next do it the following Saturday. I will not do it on a Monday and then attempt to do it the next Wednesday--that is simply overtraining.

So, now you have all of the elements of developing an awesome curling ability. Most people have the genetics to do this. The big question for you is, do you have the moxie to make it happen? Don't forget, you need to do those squats, if you want truly impressive arms. And squats are tough. Are you?


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Article Authorship

The articles on this site are authoritative, because:

  • Every contributor is an expert in his or her field.
  • The articles comply with the accepted principles of the bodybuilder literature.
  • The articles comply with the teachings of such luminaries as 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

 Where an article is not bylined with a specific author's name, it was written by Mark Lamendola (see photos on home page and elsewhere on this site). Mark is a 4th degree blackbelt, has not been sick since 1971, and has not missed a workout since 1977. Just an example of how Mark knows what he's talking about: In his early 50s, Mark demonstrated a biceps curl using half his body weight. That's a Jack LaLanne level stunt. Few people can even come close. If you want to know how to build a strong, beautiful body, read the articles here.

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